Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Psychedelic Furs in my life

Like most folks, I was introduced to the Psychedelic Furs after hearing "Love My Way," an almost Top 40 single from 1982's "Forever Now" record [it peaked at 44 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, back when the Top 40 was "rigged" and not completely based on sales]. I remember to this day the first time I heard the song on a Boston radio station that doesn't exist anymore and thought it was one of the most amazing thing I had ever heard. I remember what struck me ... xylophone in a rock song? And those eerie synthesizer parts that come into in the middle of the verses ... wah, wonhn ... what the hell is this?
At the time, my taste in music was varied. It was mostly geared towards whatever was on FM radio at the time, whatever my parents had on cassette, the 45s I would buy, and things my friends would listen to.
I only had a couple of serious friends at the time. Leo was one of them. We would listen to all kinds of things in our early teen years although Kiss, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, the Go-Go’s, the B-52's, Gary Numan, and whatever was on the radio at the time come to mind. Sometimes, his dad’s Freddy Fender records would creep in there too. Our friendship was a steady diet of Fangoria Magazine, Micronauts, “General Hospital,” Flaky Puffs, delivering the Concord Monitor, our silly dream of becoming indie film directors before anyone knew what indie films were [our homemade Super 8 movies prove this].
My favorite bands were often blues-based artists like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, and the Rolling Stones, and more mainstream "cutting edge" artists, like Blondie, Flock of Seagulls, INXS, and The Knack [I have no problem admitting these things publicly]. I would later get into more spirited music like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Fear, Gun Club, and other stuff, while still listening to Donna Summer disco and black artists like Isaac Hayes that most folks in New Hampshire despised [Almost daily I get a dose of Hayes' heavier stuff. I can't get through the day without it ...]. I still listen to the music I enjoyed way back when and I'm surprised at how much stands the test of time.
After hearing "Love My Way," I drifted on to other things. But later, I bought "Forever Now,” the debut, and "Talk Talk Talk," which instantly struck me as the best of the three.
The debut is a good collection but it is hampered by its primitive lyrics, sparse instrumentation and spotty production [interestingly, two modern day production gods, Martin Hannett and Steve Lillywhite, both worked on the record]. Still, it has standout tracks like "We Love You," "Sister Europe," and the magnificent "India" [I would later cover the song "Pulse" for a compilation CD, backed by Eric Moffett's band Euthanasia, from Providence. It would also be released on a limited run solo CD I put out in 2001 called "Symphony & the Destroy All Covers EP"].
The band’s third album, "Forever Now," is actually still one of my favorite records. It's simply beautiful. But it also sounds dated now - with the primitive MXR guitar flange flourishes, sparsely mixed sax, plunky circus keyboards, and Todd Rundgren’s super mix ... dry at times, wet elsewhere ... it just wreaks 1982. The songs and many of the lyrics are still strong. I probably heard "President Gas" every other day on the mp3 rotation during last summer's commodities shock that sent gas prices up to $4 a gallon, shaking my fist in anger at the fact that our country still didn't have a sane energy policy after more than 25 years [and, frankly, we still don't have one even though the presidency and Congress are controlled by Democrats]! "President gas on everything but roller skates ..." was so realistic when thinking about the almost cultish following of then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama and the sugar high over GOP MILF Sarah Palin [and I use MILF here as a term of endearment]. The darker side of the album - "Only You and I" and "Sleep Comes Down," with its creepy cello swaths - are some of the highlights that bring you down so low.
However, when listening to the second album, "Talk Talk Talk," I started to understand the raw sexuality and power of the band, the joke that is life, and even the horrible way people treat each other ["The one who insists he was first in the line is the last to remember her name ..."]. The blasting chainsaw guitars screaming and screeching … this was true rock and roll. Of course, I was in the middle of my rabid and wayward teenage years so "I Just Want to Sleep With You" and "Into You Like a Train" quickly became theme songs for the troupe of kids who were partying away the summer of 1983 [and later, 1984] with absolutely reckless abandon, before any of us knew we could die from "a big disease with a little name," as Prince would later pontificate. "Pretty in Pink" would become a movie a few years later but before that, it was an anthem of sorts ... a sarcastic joke on the used, the sluts, and the throwaways that we all were - or felt we all were - even if we weren't. We were actually loved or being loved, if only for a few fleeting hours in some strange parent's otherwise unoccupied bed or the backseats of our cars ["I'm in the middle of someone now ... can you come back later?"].
The Furs would later mature but many of us didn’t mind … we were growing up too.
“Mirror Moves” gave us the Furs stripped down to a trio with trigger drums and machines. In some ways, the collection has the best writing the band had done to that point, as far as lyrics and song structure. “The Ghost In You,” “Heaven,” and “Heartbeat” became staples on alternative radio while many of us analyzed some of the more compelling album tracks like “My Time” and “Only a Game.” Even though we were all growing up, there was still the occasional chance for Furs-inspired mischief. One girlfriend at the time took “Alice’s House” and renamed it “Anthony’s House,” in honor of my crazed parties in the summer of 1984, knowing that the minute I heard her version whispered in my ear, there would be a romp in the hay soon. The video era, now in full swing, would bring more fans to the music. Especially with “Heaven,” a video that received decent rotation on MTV that featured the band spinning in circles being doused with water to simulate a rainstorm. Sure, the band was polished up, but that happens when you work with Keith Forsey, the guy who wrote “(Don’t You) Forget About Me,” from the hit movie “The Breakfast Club,” the song that made Simple Minds stars. Even though the band seemed to lose their edge, it wasn’t a big deal because the music was still better than most anything else on the radio. The change in style and seriousness may have also been perpetuated by Butler’s move from England to New York City, as he reportedly became a regular in the dancehall and art scene.
After all of this, did it surprise anyone that the Psychedelic Furs wouldn’t be featured in a John Hughes’ movie? To some of us, no. So what if they “cashed in” a bit and re-recorded a slick version of “Pretty in Pink” for the film? They were our band and always would be. In fact, unlike some music snobs, I was excited for them. Wow, they’re finally on MTV even though MTV sucks. Wow, they’ll actually make some money for a change. Wow, look at all the teenage girls who like them now … they're young, cute, they don't look like Madonna anymore ... Who could blame the band for making a living? Don’t we all want to make a living? I think the purists were upset at the rerecording more than the Hughes film itself. Why not use the original version? [The original version would be used as the backdrop for a commercial advertising pink flip cellphones in 2007].
And then came “Midnight to Midnight,” seemingly so phony, so saccharin, so New York, especially to a jaded former resident. But in hindsight, it was not that bad. “Heartbreak Beat” is a brilliant pop song and the band’s only Top 40 single. And the extended version, which clocks in at more than eight minutes, epitomizes the dance hall grooves of the city at the time. The rest of the album is poppy and simple but the riffing remains. The gear and the clothes are just better.
At the time I wrote:
I don’t know how to approach this one so I’ll just make some statements. It’s very rockish. John Ashton has become very impressive at his playing, most noticeably on “All of the Law,” “One More Word,” and “Heartbreak Beat” [the single version not the 12-inch version]. The 12-inch version is watered down and even for the extra song not on the LP [“New Dream”] not worth the purchase. Richard Butler continues his romantic city life dreams and wonderment, he still is a walking orgasm! No doubt about it, they want to be rock stars but then again, who really doesn’t? And big deal … they deserve it! Furs fans will have to form their own opinions about “Midnight to Midnight” and decide if they are going to support the band they have long cherished. I like it, it’s a good record.
Hindsight being what it is, I don’t agree with my comments about the 12-inch. Sure, it wasn’t worth $4 especially when albums were $7 or $8. But I never listen to the single version now, only the extended version. It's perfect road music for my very long commute.
The band toured and toured and then, took a break, and shockingly, realized they didn’t like who they had become. True fans didn’t mind – this happens. But the purists were already lost.
The band released a "Best of" compilation, a sacrilege at the time, and tacked on “All That Money Wants,” an acoustic driven ditty that seemed almost like a beg for forgiveness.
In 1989, the band surprised all with the bombastic brilliance of “Book of Days.” A complete surprise to most who assumed this band would ride off into the sunset. Well, you thought wrong:
Wow, wow, wow! Good morning, here it is. I’ve been waiting so long for this album. Too long. It’s amazing. I knew they had it in them. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed “Midnight to Midnight,” I think I was probably the only one who did. It was a departure, a breakthrough in pop sensible, trying something new. But “Book of Days” is a leap backwards, yet forwards, into darkness. Where Richard Butler was tantalized by the glamour and glitz of New York on “Midnight …” he is tortured and fascinated by it on “Book of Days.” The sounds are big and loud, screeching guitars, throbbing bass and the ever popular return of Vince Ely on drums. “Entertain Me” is somewhere between Joy Division romp and The Cure’s drear with fuzzed out guitar blasts … remember “I Just Want to Sleep With You?” Have they been hanging out in Alphabet City on LSD? How a band could become so mellow and frightening is beyond me. “Book of Days,” the song, starts off with a bright 12-string acoustic and then lashes into a dark, dreary mess, this is going to turn some heads … “the air here tastes like poison, the traffic moves on broken roads, the river runs like sewer, my own feelings let me down …” Look out Molly Ringwald clones, our band is back, stripped down with white sharp teeth dear … watch its bite, its quite an enormous chunk. “Should God Forget" asks the question hauntingly and with no definitive answers. Just the brash scars of “Dumb Waiters” and “All That Money Wants.” I’m missing Mars Williams’ sax blasts and hope he’s on the tour [he wasn’t]. He’s just too good to give up on. Yeah, it’s here and it’s mine, all mine. Would you like to wallow in it with me? “Torch” is an acoustic break at the end of side one, complete with cello and mandolin (Anthony Thistlewaite of the Waterboys). Then, side two starts … more darkness, more great songs. The best of the lot, “House,” is a great song, kinda like “Shadow In My Heart.” The album finishes with “I Don’t Mine” and I don’t. This record is brilliant. It really is.
Many probably won't agree with this but I think "Book of Days" is easily the second best overall Furs album, second only to "Talk Talk Talk." You can't find it anywhere. It might be downloadable somewhere online, I don't know. But it really is that good.
A couple of years later, the luster would dull slightly. “World Outside” was still the Psychedelic Furs but it didn’t compare to “Book of Days” earth shattering intensity:
… there is a lot going on here that is good. The opening cut, “Valentine,” is pretty psych, guitars spinning over triggered drums. “In My Head” is the perfect second single with its “Heaven” riff and synth waves. Stephen Street’s production gives value to a lot of the weaker material such as the single “Until She Comes,” a weak, strummy copy of “All That Money Wants” and “Torch” combined into prepackaged gloss. “Sometimes” has opening bars right out of a Lulu song, you’ll know it when you hear it but it sits there like a dud. “Get a Room” is a pretty acoustic ballad but a lot of “World Outside” is swamped in technology which seems to try and save itself from the weak songwriting. This band is getting to sound a little tired. Too bad.
Ouch. It seems a little harsh now especially since "Don't Be a Girl" still sounds good after all these years. But maybe not. The band had clearly reached the end. Richard Butler would form Love Spit Love with his brother Tim but this outfit would never achieve the level that the Furs did [although the cover of “How Soon Is Now” wasn’t bad]. It was worth a try though, right?
But after about a decade, the band would reform for some reunion tours both as co-headliners and opening gigs for bigger bands. A couple of new songs were put together here and there. But the main point was to give the fans what they wanted – an opportunity to experience the band live. And now, after reaching three decades of playing music, that is what the Psychedelic Furs are going to give their fans.

Tomorrow: The night I met Richard Butler ...

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