What the Butler Saw: Eulogy for the Psychedelic Furs
It’s a shame that, if the Psychedelic Furs are remembered at all by the twentythirtysomething whose favourite bands ever are Nirvana and the Beatles, but who bought the new Razorlight because she likes to keep up, it’s as fluffy-mulleted MTV-friendly early eighties transatlantic pop-rock. It’s no injustice, because, m’lud, they were asking for it – they were arse high and gagging – but it’s definitely a shame, a quite substantial one if not an actual crying one.
Having said that, the song (“Pretty In Pink”, obv) that will be furnishing the nurseries of their children’s children long after the rest of their back catalogue has given up the ghost is the only “Sweet Jane” re-write I’ve heard to stand any kind of comparison with the original, particularly now that hindsight and natural selection have reinstated Steve Lilywhite’s album version as the standard. But although PiP does showcase many of the qualities – the dogged and conscious simplicity, the always melodic and resolutely unfunky bass, the twin guitars vacillating between organisation and mess and the tumbling rasp of Richard Butler’s words and voice – that are essential to the appeal of the early Furs, in many ways it points towards their latter, inferior work.
Their later work isn’t terrible. Well, not all of it is. Talk Talk Talk, the second album that gave us PiP, is an intermittently successful attempt to make more acceptable the “beautiful chaos” (their own phrase) of their debut. The third, Forever Now, recorded with Todd Rundgren following the sacking of the two members of the six-piece who had brought much of the chaos to the beautiful party, is an eighties curio well worthy of the attention of any aficionado of excessive backing vocal deployment. It never quite recaptures the glory of its first four tracks, but these more than justify its existence. Subsequent records have their moments, but none to detain anybody who isn’t already convinced, unless she happens to be a Billy Idol fan who is looking to diversify.
But that first album. The Psychedelic Furs. People who were present at the time will say it doesn’t come close to the experience of standing in front of their live barrage, but it still sounds pretty fucking intense to me, and not as a period piece but on its own terms, thirty years later. It seldom gets a mention in the endless lists of the canon-builders of the dadmags, but it shoehorns the insistency of Neu!, the knowing vaudeville of Roxy, the dissonance and melody of the VU and the dumb misanthropic fury of punk into a series of pieces (“songs” is arguably too strong a word) that stands alone as surely as does Metal Box or Unknown Pleasures. The abbreviated version for iSpan viewers runs thus: India, Sister Europe, Fall, We Love You, Blacks/Radio, Imitation of Christ. Get to it.