The Psychedelic Furs

Pretty In Pink

Strongest album: Talk Talk Talk
Must to avoid: Midnight to Midnight

Trying to cross the Sex Pistols with Roxy Music seems like a wildly ambitious idea, but somehow the Psychedelic Furs managed to pull it off a great deal of the time. Post-punk and post-Bowie, the Furs threw overflanged guitars, honking sax, and Richard Butler's asthmatic Rotten-ripoff sneer atop the driving pulse of monolithic bass/drums. That's the early Furs. Over the course of their early albums, their music developed more melody and subtlety, and ever so slowly but surely softened into slick mid '80s blandness. Butler's asthmatic croon owed more to Frank Sinatra than Johnny Rotten by this point, and the Furs sounded more colorful than intense. They only had two or three good albums in them, but in their prime the Furs offered a more substantive and meatier alternative to the limp new-wave pretty vacant boys like Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins they were unfortunately lumped in with. The Psychedelic Furs were certainly a band of their time - one can't listen to their records without immediately feeling nostalgia for the early '80s (even if, like me, you were 8 at the time and barely remember them) - but not just for their time: their records, though dated, still hold up 15 years later. Neither groundbreakingly original nor facelessly derivative, the Furs didn't create anything particularly timeless but provided some great entertainment that hooks you in like a cod on a skipper and that you can dance, dance, dance to - some might overlook this, but the Furs were one of the best dance bands ever: it was always that relentlessly pounding beat that was the foundation of the Furs' approach. Like most bands, the Furs hung around a bit too long before wisely calling it quits, but those early records are a real gas. Furs mainman Richard Butler has recently formed a new band called Love Spit Love, and I'm not sure what happened to the other members, though I'm sure they're still in the music biz.

You like Psychedelic Furs, you say? Try The Room.

Psychedelic Furs (1980) ***

Driving and monolithic are the two adjectives from my introduction that best describe this album; the Furs only let up for a pair of spooky mid-tempo ballads, "Susan's Strange" and "Imitation Of Christ". "We Love You" beats the Stones', the album's only genuinely great song that I'd add to a personal tape of their greatest hits. Butler lists a bunch of things that he's in love with, and his sneer means it all to be ironic, but that's just a pose coming from a consummate poseur: he really does love Frank Sinatra, capitalism, Bridget Bardot, and the BBC - though I think he really is being ironic when he claims to love the factory. He uses the word stupid a lot, as he would throughout the first three Furs albums. So worshipful of their tribal "Pulse" that everything here works toward aiding the rythm - Butler even sings percussively, rather than melodically. And while that's the album's great strength - I'm sure this tore up Eurodiscoes back in '80 - it's also the album's big weakness: there's not much real melody, and the only hook's the beat, which makes the whole affair too monotonous for boredom not to creep in after a few songs. Luckily for us they'd sell out and go pop for their next move.

Talk Talk Talk (1981) ****1/2

The Furs' one undeniable album and neo-classic, if you don't like this you won't like the rest of their work; by good fortune this was the first Furs album I ever bought. A great leap forward, the Furs display a surprisingly good melodic sense and sculpt the elements of their heavily layered sound into sharp and compelling relief (in other words, the band actually interacts and the music has real dynamics instead of a monolithic roar). This is the best Furs album in no small part because it strikes a good balance between the heavy post-punk drive of the debut and their attempt at a more melodic and commercial sound. Later albums wouldn't as successfully maintain that precarious balance. Most of the songs are very good and a handful are flat-out great. It kicks off with the sort-of Dylanesque "Pretty In Pink", Butler cramming in more syllables than you'd think a reasonable person could handle and coming out with a coherent and touching narrative about the used and abused by her thoughtless boyfriends Caroline. It's the Furs' best song, and you probably know it from the Molly Ringwald movie that shares the title and for which the Furs re-recorded the song; but it's the hard rocking version here that's definitive. "Don't believe in anything", Butler sneers with particular insistence in "No Tears", and his nihilism and disillusionment with both the hippies and punks (he's old enough to have experienced both) shows through in not only that song, but in the savage "Dumb Waiters", which possesses a naggingly great stacatto repeating half-melody, and the brutally cold and blunt "I Wanna Sleep With You". But he grows tender and vulnerable on the affectingly cloying "She Is Mine", complete with an affectingly cloying sax solo. "Into You Like The Train" sounds like an outtake from the first album, and it works quite well alongside songs that don't sound too much like it. There are several compilations out there that are good, but this is probably the best place to start with the Psychedelic Furs.

Forever Now (1982) ****

Most important fact to know about this album: produced by Todd Rundgren. Rundgren clears up the Furs' clutter and unclogs their murk, turning them into a glossy brite ready-for-hits machine. Rundgren's production takes the band the proverbial two steps forward, three steps back. I don't miss the murk, but I do miss the intensity of the early Furs, which has dropped a notch or two, and I prefer leaving a few rough edges in my music - gives it a bit more personality, you know? Nevertheless, this all brings the Furs' pop side to the fore, resulting in the dance-floor smash "Love My Way", one of the '80s best hedonist anthems (and that's saying quite a bit, considering how many hedonist anthems the '80s produced). A couple of these things are kind of dull, but mainly this is a consistent and contagiously catchy collection - if on the debut the band all worked towards the beat, here the band all works towards the hooks. My faves are the moody fear-of-sex first-love reminescence "Only You And I"; the moody, bass-driving (kind of redundant, since most Furs songs are heavy on the bass), "Yes I Do"; and the jangly "Run And Run", which has one of the all-time great kiss-off lines, "I've been waiting all night for someone like you/But you'll have to do". I also dig the political "President Gas" and the title track, too. The Psychedelic Furs' second best album.

Mirror Moves (1984) ***1/2

Not produced by Todd Rundgren, so maybe he wasn't entirely at fault for the overly glossy production on Forever Now, because this one's even glossier and more bland. Having completely lost any connection to the edginess of their early days, the Furs here have streamlined themselves into just another competent MTV pop group, circa '84: synth textures dominate the way the beat did early on, and the whole thing sounds blow-dried in a pricey salon. So why do I give this album such a high rating? It's because the Furs, while too commercial and blandly mainstream for their own good, haven't lost the hooks - kind of like the Cars on the concurrent Heartbeat City, which I give the same rating to and have exactly the same problems and redeeming hookcraft with. "The Ghost In You" sets the pattern by beginning the album with a song that sounds blandly soft rock, Butler crooning "love is all we need" instead of "we are so stupid" like he did in the early days, but it possesses a great melody and once the chorus sets in you're hooked. "Here Come Cowboys" is even better, perhaps because it has real drive, as does my third favorite, "Alice's House". "Like A Stranger" continues the string of good Furs ballads. An album I enjoy in spite of itself, and their last good one.

Midnight To Midnight (1987) **1/2

This sounds a lot like Mirror Moves except that it really is all shallow surface with no substance. Highly listenable, and highly bland and forgettable, just like concurrent INXS: sounds pretty good if you're halfway listening to it on the car radio, but once you take it home you've got no use for it, and anyway you can't even remember the song you heard on the radio, anyway. "Heartbreak Beat" was the single and I suppose will pass for the highlight; none of these songs are really that bad, but there's no reason to remember any of them. "Shock" has a good guitar riff that it's built on. "Angels Don't Cry" sounds as bland and manipulative as its title, and might as well be Debbie Gibson. "Torture" has brief sex noises in it. Better than whatever album Duran Duran released that year, but not better than Rio. And to tell you the truth, not better than Kick, either.

Book Of Days (1989) **1/2

Selling out didn't sell them many records, so the Furs go back to their roots (a ploy to capture the late '80s alternative market?). Which means a regression to the first album's monolithic drive, which is not a good thing since I didn't like the debut all that much. It's somewhat better than Midnight To Midnight, but it still sounds like the Furs are simply going through the motions without much inspiration. Lots of one word titles, just like on the debut, and not much variety or melody, just like the debut, though there's not much sax and Butler doesn't use the word stupid anyomore. The best song is "House", and I'd probably bookend it on a tape of their greatest hits. The other song that stands out is "Torch", not because it's all that great but because it's an acoustic ballad and therefore makes a refreshing change of pace from the monotony surrounding it. "Shine" is okay, too. The rest is pretty dull. As if to emphasize the connection with their first album, the Furs have a song called "Wedding" that shares almost the same title as the debut's "Wedding Song". Basically it sounds exactly like the early Furs but minus the passion, which was what counted in the first place.

World Outside (1991)

The Furs' final album. I haven't gotten around to buying it, and I'm in no hurry considering how bad their last couple of albums were. I saw a CD of this for $4 the other day and I might pick it up, but don't hold your breath waiting on a review.

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