Psych 101 

For Richard Butler and the Psychedelic Furs, nostalgia tours are the first step to a new career.

The Psychedelic Furs: Getting their feet wet or all washed up?
  • The Psychedelic Furs: Getting their feet wet or all washed up?
A band that, at one time, kinda meant something to an edgier audience, the Psychedelic Furs have wound up as the opening act on the bill with dated, never-were-contemporaries such as the Go-Go's and the B-52's. How did the Psychedelic Furs arrive at such a trivial billing?

"It is something of a 'nostalgia' package, isn't it?" Furs singer Richard Butler admits. "I didn't get the Furs back together for nostalgic reasons. [But] it feels good. It's fun again, and we don't plan on being a nostalgia act. There's much more to it. We are a band that has come back together after quite a bit of time off, and we have done so to make good music. Trust me, we would never have put the band back together just for this package."

But after a 10-year hiatus, you have to wonder what exactly it is that brings the Psychedelic Furs out of hibernation. Formed in London, England, in the fallout of the late-'70s punk explosion, the Psychedelic Furs attacked the entire scene with a wider vision and no regard for punk's stylistic boundaries. Even the first half of their moniker was a jab at the tightly wound punk attitude that ruled rock's alleyways. Yet, the Psychedelic Furs were still born of that very movement.

"We were basically just a bunch of friends when we formed the Furs," Butler explains, speaking via cell phone from a rehearsal session in Los Angeles. "And we said to one another, 'Well, what do you want to play?' That sort of thing. I remember [ex-bandmate] Duncan [Kilburn] saying, 'I want to play sax,' even though he didn't know how to play the thing. But he got one, and the Furs wound up with a saxophone. That's how it came together when we started."

The Furs wasted no time in putting all other punk pretenses to sleep. On their 1980 self-titled debut, Butler's baritone growl comes across without a sneer of ostentation. The band sounds precise, and some songs clock in at epic lengths (in punk terms), stretching out beyond the five-minute mark. Dark and bordering on new romanticism, the music sounded arty and unusual for the times -- a new wave was being born.

The band followed up its debut with 1981's Talk Talk Talk. A touchstone in the earliest days of new wave music, Talk Talk Talk finds the Furs at a musical apex. The playing is rock-solid, and the songs themselves appear to have completely forgotten punk rock ever happened. Butler sings -- or rather, snarls -- his way through tunes about love, longing, lust, and the hypocrisies of romantic relations.

The advent of MTV gave the Furs the most exposure yet -- the single "Love My Way" captured the fancy of someone at the fledgling music television network and landed the band in heavy rotation. The song catapulted the band to Top 40 success, and Forever Now, the 1982 album that spawned it, lived up to the promise of psychedelia that the band's name had always implied, as it experimented with cellos, xylophone, horns, and a host of other noises that cleaned up to a truly eclectic and varied sound. Mirror Moves followed two years after -- and then director John Hughes came along.

"Pretty in Pink," the opening cut from the Talk Talk Talk record, was redone for a Hughes's film that bore the song's title as its own. Pretty in Pink was another in the Hughes teen geek coming-of-age films that had confounding popularity throughout the '80s and is perhaps the link most casual musical observers make when the Psychedelic Furs are mentioned.

"That's kind of funny, because that actually came along kind of late on for us," Butler recalls. "When actually, in 1983 we had our first 'hit' with 'Love My Way,' which is when we feel like things changed for us. But Pretty in Pink came along at a time that was pretty useful for us though, because we were in between records, and it kept up our public persona, so to speak, and also to some degree brought us to some people who had yet to hear us."

One more dabble in the Top 40 with the rollicking "Heartbreak Beat" from the 1987 record Midnight to Midnight marked the beginning of a slow end for the Psychedelic Furs. The band sounded flat over the next few releases, and Butler admits the Furs had stopped growing.

"It wasn't much fun anymore," he says. "I'd grown tired of the Furs, and it wasn't very interesting anymore."

Quietly, the Psychedelic Furs went away. But now, nearly a decade later and after pursuing various side projects (the Butlers moved to the States in the early '90s and played together in Love Spit Love, which hasn't released an album in three years), the Psychedelic Furs are back, and Butler says the band, which now includes original bassist Tim Butler (who's married to a woman from Youngstown, where he has spent a significant amount of time) and original guitarist John Ashton, has been working on new material and has new things to say.

"I'd been in the studio working on songs for a solo record, and my brother [and Furs co-founder] Tim [Butler] came around and asked, 'How many songs have you got?'" Butler explains. "I told him I had 25 or so, so he said, 'Wow, that's a lot of songs. Why don't we do a Furs record?' I hadn't really thought about it, but it seemed to make perfect sense to me. I'd quit the Furs because I was bored with it, but nearly 10 years down the road, I was no longer bored with it."

According to the band's management, neither was the public.

"The funny thing was that our agent called me a few days later and said, 'There's real interest in the Psychedelic Furs out there. What do you think about doing a tour?'" Butler says. "And I said, 'Yeah, sure, if you can put one together, why not?' And it all kind of came together like that."

But playing with the Go-Go's and the B-52's isn't likely to restore the band's credibility.

"It is strange," admits Butler. "But our agent, who booked us on the tour, said, 'It's neither here nor there whether you should be opening up this tour or not; it's a good way for you to get your feet wet again and to see if you actually like doing it.' Which he's right about. But having rehearsed for a couple of weeks, I'm already enjoying it, and my feet are getting wet, so to speak.

"People ask me if I think there's a place in the market for the Psychedelic Furs nowadays," Butler continues. "Well, I really don't know. I don't ever think about it. I mean, if I had, I'd probably [have] never started the band back when the scene was basically Journey, Billy Joel, and Foreigner. It really doesn't work that way for me. I'm not a businessman; I just love making music with this bunch of people."


More by Kurt Hernon


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