Punk rock band
For a generation of alternative music fans in the days when the genre barely existed commercially, the Psychedelic Furs defined a particular moment of the eighties with their distinctively arty, half-pop/half-punk sound. Fronted by singer/songwriter Richard Butler, whose unique voice delivered acerbic lyrics in a less-than-perfect yet still emotionally resonant pitch, the Furs were more a superb studio band than a great live act. They also possessed a talent for being able to mine the talents of several esteemed producers early in their careers and engineer great commercial appeal. Later they seemed to lose themselves in that prosperity, especially after becoming indelibly associated with Molly Ringwald. James Hannaham, writing about the Furs’ career in the Spin Alternative Record Guide, called them “the self-conscious post-punks who listened hardest to their marketing departments and paid for it.”
The Psychedelic Furs formed in England inside the Butler household, a family headed by an iconoclastic father who, although he was a British civil servant, was also a Communist and an atheist. His sons—Simon, Tim, and Richard—inherited some of that peevishness and, around 1976, when they were nearing or past the age of about 20, they grouped together around Richard Butler’s arty ideas about music. At art school he had cultivated a passion for sixties pop painter Andy Warhol, as well as for the surrealist art of the 1920s. Warhol’s attempt to create the most uncommercial, unlistenable band imaginable, evoking the ideas of the surrealists and dada artists, spawned the Velvet Underground. Butler loved the word “psychedelic” and all that it implied, and teamed the adjective with “furs,” from the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs.”
Yet in late-1970s England, anything recalling the sixties was extremely uncool and they suffered as a result when potential fans were scared off by their name. The rest of the band—most of whom were Simon Butler’s friends—were admittedly talentless, as were many “punk” bands of this era and the combination of these two factors usually resulted in jeers. Their first show at a London pub, the Duke of Lancaster, was a disaster; to distance themselves they had to call themselves “The Europeans” for a time but audiences derided them nevertheless. They also had problems keeping a drummer, but managed to find a good guitarist, John Ashton, to replace Simon Butler when he quit.
Richard Butler began to display a talent for writing songs with pithy, sharp lyrical content and the band slowly gained a minor following. They obtained a steady gig at a London venue called Windsor Castle, where producer Steve Lillywhite first saw them. Soon A&R people began to show an interest and they recorded a demo, for which their new drummer showed up four hours late. They did manage to put down the tracks “Sister Europe”—which Butler had written about his girlfriend away in Italy at the time—as well as “Pulse,” “We Love You,” and “Fall.” The demo got them a live session in June of 1979 on the famed BBC radio program hosted by John Peel. Again, their drummer was late and Peel helped them advertise for another. Once Vince Ely joined to fill that slot, things coalesced musically and they suddenly sounded much better. Ely contributed greatly to the Furs’ early sound, and during the first hour of their initial meeting they all wrote “India” together. It would be the first track on their first album.
By the fall of 1979, the Furs were the hot band in London to see and soon signed to CBS/Columbia. “I don’t think the record company signed us on musical abilities at all,” Richard Butler told J.D. Considine in a 1987 interview in Musician. “It was a good time to be a band and get signed. The business didn’t understand punk rock at any point, and all of a sudden they didn’t know what to sign. That was when they signed some of their most interesting things.” The first Furs single was “We Love You/Pulse.” Their self-title debut was released in 1980. Produced by Lillywhite, who helped them define their sound in the studio, The Psychedelic Furs was “an album that mixed a drone-laden wall of noise (two guitars, sax and/or keyboards) and an odd adaptation of the quieter Bowie Low-style sound over which Butler
Members include John Ashton, (born November 30, 1975), guitar; Richard Butler, (born June 5, 1956, in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Surrey, England), vocals; Tim Butler, (Richard’s brother; born December 7, 1958), bass; Vince Ely, drums; duncan Kilbourn, horns; Roger Morris, guitar.
Band formed in London, England, 1976; played first show in a London pub called the Duke of Lancaster; renamed band The Europeans for a time; signed to CBS/Columbia Records, October 1979; released self-titles debut, 19890; reached bigges chart success with “Heartbreak Beat” from 1987’s Midnight to Midnight; disbanded 1993.
Addresses: Record company-Columbia/Legacy, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, (212)833-8000.
rasped his lyrics in a bored, asthmatic drawl,” wrote Jim Green and Ira Robbins in the Trouser Press Record Guide.
Butler was criticized, however, for an inability to sing on key, but he later explained to Considine in the 1987 Musician interview that in addition to usually being drunk for studio sessions, “I refused to go in and do [the takes] more than once…. I felt like I meant it when I sang it and that’s what was important.” Lillywhite also produced the next Furs album, the acclaimed Talk Talk Talk released in 1981. It displayed deep Velvet Underground influences and critics praised them for finally hitting solid ground musically with tracks like “Dumb Waiters” and “All of This & Nothing.” The first track was “Pretty in Pink,” a song about a group of young men who deride their ex, Caroline, for her “promiscuity.” The melody and Butler’s ironic lyrics were so catchy that both title and track were borrowed for a 1986 teen film that starred Molly Ringwald.
Their third record, 1982’s Forever Now, was an even greater critical success, and made a heavy dent in the charts as well. Produced by Todd Rundgren, its biggest hit was “Love My Way.” In the Spin Alternative Record Guide, Hannaham remarked that Forever Now “made it shockingly apparent that Butler wished to emulate not Iggy Pop but David Bowie.” One fan of the record was Melody Maker writer Steve Sutherland, who lauded the album for the way “it secretes strange, melancholy melodies… [proving] once again, that the Furs are unique in their use of drastically damaged and reassembled past pop artillery-even their own!”
The title “Forever Now” also reflected a less astringent, perhaps even somewhat romantic Butler. He seemed to write less songs with the word “stupid” in them, and more with “love.” This about-face culminated in 1984’s Mirror Moves, for which the band enlisted the production talents of Keith Forsey, who had recently worked with Billy Idol but had great success in 1979 with the Donna Summer disco album Bad Girls. Tracks like “The Ghost in You” and “Heaven” did have somewhat of a disco sound, yet still sounded fresh in their day. The record was a commercial success in both the U.K. and North America, especially on some of its new “alternative” radio stations. Sutherland, reviewing it for Melody Maker, called Mirror Moves “sparkling,” and noted their new producer tapped into the band’s talent with a “dynamic production perfectly complementing the transparent, ozone purity of the songs.”
Around this time Butler and the rest of the band moved to New York City. It would be three years before their next studio release and one that came out after the 1986 Pretty in Pink film made them a huge hit among the teen set. Perhaps to capitalize on this, 1987’s Midnight to Midnightseemed to be, as Hannaham wrote in the Spin Alternative Record Guide, “a bid for higher sales so thinly disguised as an album that even Butler later admitted the error of his ways.” The song “Heartbreak Beat” would become the Furs’ biggest commercial hit, and a decade later was still a staple on alternative radio. Reviewing Midnight to Midnight for Musician, Jon Young called it “a treatise on the ever-popular anguish of amour, rendered in a suitably sophisticated Roxy-Bowie style,” but he faulted Butler for “keeping an emotional distance that leaves his music dead at the center.”
Perhaps the Furs’ last distinctive gasp was the mid-1988 single “All That Money Wants;” they rarely played live anymore and began to fulfill some contractual obligations by putting out compilations and B-side collections. After the 1988 compilation All of This and Nothing, they did another studio album, Book of Days, released in 1989 and quickly forgotten. Its production had severely toned down Butler’s voice, which had been the charm of their music in the first place. After Crucial Music: The Psychedelic Furs Collection in 1989, they recorded and released the studio LP World Outside in 1990, which had some nominal success with the single “Until She Comes.” But reviewers expressed disappointment that Butler and his bandmates had not grown musically. Rolling Stone’s Christian Wright noted the effort’s inadvertently retro appeal, and wrote of Butler’s “accent still strong like a memory of England when it was somehow exotic, a little dangerous and cool.” Parke Puterbaugh, critiquing World Outside for Stereo Review, echoed the sentiment, noting its reliance on evoking a black mood. “Once again, [Butler] declaims in an asthmatic, catatonic, monotone,” and the rest of the band put forth “the musical equivalent of an overcast sky.”
The Psychedelic Furs officially disbanded in 1993, and Richard and Tim Butler went on to form Love Spit Love shortly afterward. A 1997 retrospective, Should God Forget: A Retrospective, helped give the band some of their long-overdue credit as a seminal eighties presence that mixed guitars with synthesizers and emphatic, real percussion—a combination that, in its day, was practically revolutionary. Several other bands have covered their classics, including the Counting Crows (“The Ghost in You”) and Live (“Love My Way”).
The Psychedelic Furs, Columbia, 1980.
Talk Talk Talk, Columbia, 1981.
Forever Now, Columbia, 1982.
Mirror Moves, Columbia, 1984.
Midnight to Midnight, Columbia, 1987.
All of This and Nothing, Columbia, 1988.
Book of Days, Columbia, 1989.
Crucial Music: The Psychedelic Furs Collection, CBS Special Products/Relativity, 1989.
World Outside, Columbia, 1991.
Should God Forget: A Retrospective, Columbia/Legacy, 1997.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
Weisbard, Eric and Craig Marks, eds., Spin Alternative Record Guide, Vintage, 1995.
Melody Maker, September 25, 1982, p. 15;October9, 1982, pp. 24-25; May 5, 1984, pp. 20-21, 27; May 12, 1984, p. 22;
Musician, February 1987, p. 106; March 1987, pp. 62-66.
Rolling Stone, August 8, 1991, p. 87.
Stereo Review, November 1991, p. 95; December 1991, pp. 112-113.
http://www.talktalktalk.com (“A Shrine to Richard Butler, Love Spit Love & The Psychedelic Furs”)
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