Of all the great British post-punk groups, probably the most unfairly overlooked today and the band most long over-due for some sort of critical reappraisal—if you ask me, anyway—is the Psychedelic Furs.
The first Psychedelic Furs album came out (gulp) 32 years ago. I personally think it’s an incredible musical masterpiece—in my top five “desert island discs,” for sure—but ask a younger person if they’ve even heard of the group, and you’ll normally get a blank stare. You mention “Pretty in Pink” and they might mutter something in the affirmative, but that’s about it.
Don’t get me wrong, the Furs largely inflicted this on their own artistic reputation by trying to be all MTV-friendly with their shitty mid-80s “New Wave” music, clothes and hairstyles, and by re-recording “Pretty in Pink” for that Molly Ringwald film. Today they’re a well-oiled touring machine on the 80s nostalgia circuit, but the sad truth is that they were largely responsible for their own fall from grace with their original fan-base. They went from being one of the darkest, smartest, edgiest art-school bands of the era to a dull, radio-friendly bunch of teased-haired Billy Idol wannabes. From the real truly underground thing to the fake version of that in under five years.
This is the reason why Bauhaus will be eternally cool and the Furs never will be: They knew when to call it quits.
That much is undeniable, but based on the evidence of their first three albums, they were one of the most brilliant and awe-inspiring bands of that era. Truly I come here to praise the Psychedelic Furs, not to bury them. When I was a kid, they were one of the main groups I followed, along with Throbbing Gristle, Talking Heads, PiL and Kraftwerk. I wore a small badge of their first album cover (the British one, I’ll have you know) on my black trench coat and I have even gone to see them play live two nights in a row. Believe me when I tell you that I loved the Psychedelic Furs and that I want you to love them as much as I did back then…
Lead singer Richard Butler was one of the coolest fuckers around in the early 1980s. Employing blasphemous stream of consciousness free verse and sarcastic Dylanesque wordplay simply dripping with rancor, Butler’s venomous lyrics, especially on that astonishing first record, were probably the very best of the post-punk era. None of his contemporaries were in his league as a lyricist. Seriously, who else came even close? His lyrics were positively Joycean:
It took me years to figure that one out.
I idolized Richard Butler. I wanted to BE him. Even before David Bowie totally went crap with Let’s Dance, it was Butler (and John Lydon) to whom my teenage allegiance had shifted. That’s really saying a lot! (I told this to Richard Butler personally about ten years ago at a cook-out in upstate New York. I’m guessing that I’m not the first person to tell him such a thing).
And then there is the band. Their beautifully chaotic wall of sound, that dense, pounding, propulsive, barely-controlled evil energy the Furs were known for. Especially on their self-titled Martin Hannett and Steve Lillywhite-produced debut record, their apocalyptic racket, to my mind, was as titanic and as powerful as what was heard on PiL’s first album. The Furs’s junkyard thrash was anchored by Tim Butler’s booming, metronomic basslines and Vince Ely’s thundering drums, then layered by the twin guitar attack of Roger Morris and (criminally under-rated) John Ashton. These gentlemen gave the group’s music a blunt force and the sleazy, squealing saxophone of Duncan Kilburn positioned right on top of everything else lent a free jazz element to the proceedings, which, along with Butler’s raspy, cigarette-strained vocals, gave the group its signature sound.
No surprises, the music of the Psychedelic Furs sounded divine when you were tripping on LSD. Trust me, I’d know…
On the first album’s lead-off number, “India,” after a slow, dramatic build-up that sounds like hissing radiator pipes being manipulated by Brian Eno, a storm of shattered glass, car exhaust fumes, cigarette butts and used hypodermic syringes descends upon your head. Deny the hit-and-run power of this song!
My baby paints herself red
She paints her hair
Her hair is dead
She’s living in the city
with the bodies that scream
“We are all Jesus”
We all dream
See the dancer in there reeling
Paint the sky upon the ceiling
Four useless gods upon a day
so blinded by the filth on sunday
Saying the words what an idiot you are
There’s flowers all around his feet,
there’s flowers in his heart
If you take the needles out
his body falls apart
His body is upon the wall
His teeth are sharp and white
We cut his hands with razorblades
and out of him comes foul white light
Make a god of politics
Make a god of police
Worship it with automobiles
Worship it with screams
“We Love You”:
I’m in love with The Factory
I’m in love with the BBC
I’m in love with your T.V.
They’re so in love with you and me
“We Love You,” lip-synced here in front of an audience of American children!
Lip-sync of “Sister Europe” from that same program: