Forget about the Psychedelic Furs. The history of 1980s music has largely been written, and the Furs are minor characters, at best. They weren’t the “Terribly Stylish and Pretty Good-Looking, Too” Band (that was Duran Duran), the “Band that Rendered Upbeat Pop Classics from Devastating Post-Punk Tragedy” (that would be New Order), or “The Morose Band that Wasn’t Morose Enough for the Eventually Departing, Truly Morose Lead Singer” (if only Robert Smith had had a bona fide solo career, then the Cure might beat out the Smiths for this title). Show me a Psychedelic Furs cover band and I’ll show you a group that probably has a lot of trouble booking a gig.
But one thing’s for sure: no one had a voice like Richard Butler. One of the group’s founding members, Butler’s scratchy, cockneyed wheeze slunk around melodies and slid down the side of every single note he sang. No amount of melodrama could ever be too much accoutrement for that mechanical croak, whether hissing “President Gas” like an open valve seeping air, or breathlessly delivering “make it bleed and make it bleed” over and over again during “Imitation of Christ”, like his body’s been struck by lightning and is going into shock. Butler may not have had the best voice of new wave, but he sure sang like it.
Then there’s the “Pretty in Pink” issue. Though that song’s silver screen namesake was more cult favorite than cinematic classic, you don’t wind up on the soundtrack for a Molly Ringwald movie to be quickly forgotten. The song, first appearing on 1981’s Talk Talk Talk and later on the 1986 movie soundtrack, symbolized the alt-pop sound for which the group would be most readily remembered. The group’s most popular later hits, like “Love My Way” and “Ghost in You”, would follow in this more digestible tradition.
The Psychedelic Furs began in 1977 in London, England, fresh on the heels of the shifting punk scene that would spawn bands like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Starting as a four piece consisting of brothers Tim and Richard Butler, Duncan Kilburn, and Roger Morris, they became a sextet by 1980, when they released a self-titled record that enjoyed much success in the U.K. but less in the United States. Like the Clash, the Furs experimented with horns (in fact, their line up on this album included a saxophone player), while hinting at the dark sensibilities and dismal melancholia that would come to define Goth music. But the first release showcased that the band were still learning which sounds and visions they’d carry along; bleak, pensive songs like “Sister Europe” and “Imitation of Christ” sit side by side with punk firecrackers “Fall” and “Pulse”. Though the band mixed and merged styles and attitudes on future endeavors, they would never again be so undecided as to whether to ponder or to pogo.
Talk Talk Talk (1981) solidifies many of the Furs’ sonic tendencies from their eponymous debut, but harbors much internal conflict, oscillating wildly between sweet, popified numbers and tumultuous art rock. Richard Butler’s vocals got bigger and badder this time around, as the album opens with “Dumb Waiters”, a wash of psychotic sax chromatics that quickly fall into Richard’s insistent, paranoid singing. “She has got it in for me / Yeah, I mean it honestly,” he sings, the bass and drums staid as the guitars atop them go wild. The frenzy is dampened briefly by “Pretty in Pink” before launching into “I Just Want to Sleep With You”, a sinister, carnivalesque number. Talk Talk Talk also includes Furs classics “Mr. Jones” and “All of This and Nothing”.
Forever Now is the most coherent of the Furs early releases, remaining firmly planted in the minor tones and brooding imagery which marks the Furs sound but drifting even further into the realm of pop. (Though to some, this is the album that would mark the beginning of the end, as the Furs abandoned their creative license for commercial success.) The catchier sound may be partly attributed to the departure of saxophonist Kilburn (who, along with Roger Morris, left the band before recording Forever Now) and the addition of Todd Rundgren as producer. With Rundgren in tow, the slimmer Furs moved to the States, released “Love My Way”, and earned their first U.S. Top 50 hit. Beyond this hit, though, Forever Now is an incredibly well thought out album, including the dramatic “President Gas”, the triumphant “Danger” and the somber “No Easy Street”. This reissue, like the others, also includes a number of rare versions, B-sides and live tracks, in addition to extensive new liner notes and photographs.
They may not always be part of the ’80s canon, but the Furs, and the tremendous music they made, will not so easily be forgotten. And with new wave music making a serious comeback these days, perhaps now is the time to rethink their place in history.