From the very end of my second run at Mountain Xpress weekly newspaper in Asheville, N.C., coinciding with the end-run of my first marriage, which was much like a labored limp at that point. Another story on another resurfaced ’80s band — though as it turned out, I actually liked more than a little of what these guys did early in their career, and still do. It’s shorter than my usual efforts, probably because there wasn’t much left of me on any level by this point. Fumes. Nothing but fumes.
This story coincided with a VH1-sponsored tour of the Furs co-headlining with Welsh anthem-rockers The Alarm, which hit popular Asheville nightspot The Orange Peel on April 12, 2004.
Originally published April 7, 2004 in Mountain Xpress | (c) 2004 Mountain Xpress
Forever, right now
The Psychedelic Furs, fixtures of a disparaged time, have become strangely timeless
After all these years, I still get a bit pissy when faced with anything from movie mogul John Hughes’ ’80s adolescent-whine oeuvre. And that goes double for Pretty in Pink.
Forget that my own teen angst had nada to do with what the 1986 flick’s Brat Pack principals were able to convey through blatant overacting. My gripe with Hughes is much more specific.
I’ve never forgiven his poor girl/rich boy movie for forcing me to picture freckled lip-biter Molly Ringwald, or this-frown-means-I’m-emotional Andrew McCarthy, whenever I hear The Psychedelic Furs’ blistering, almost psychotically desperate “Pretty In Pink.”
Admittedly, the Furs did this to me themselves, revising the leadoff cut from their 1981 landmark album Talk Talk Talk for the Hughes movie’s soundtrack. But with acid lines like “He’s walking around in this dress that she wore/ She’s gone, but the joke’s the same,” even their less-satisfying remake is anathema in spirit to the cinematic treacle to which it was indentured.
The band, however, hardly regrets the association, guitarist John Ashton admitted in a brief phone interview during a band stop in Baltimore.
“We were pop stars for, y’know, 10 minutes,” Ashton quips. “We made a lot of money — and we spent it all.”
Yet the Hughes connection has blurred pop-culture memory; the band is now frequently name-dropped alongside such poodle-headed ’80s synth-goo gods as Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls. The Furs, though, were far more than just the New Romantic trifle suggested by their splashy videos (the once-ubiquitous “Love My Way,” 1982) and worst indulgences (the leather-boy getups, circa 1987).
The group’s early recordings created a veritable post-punk Wall of Sound, layering guitars, saxophones and, increasingly, classical instruments into a multitextured, Velvets/Low-era-Bowie kind of drone. It was the perfect bedrock for vocalist Richard Butler’s sneering, dead-sexy British rasp — like some baritone Thin White Duke gargling with gasoline.
At their best, the Furs blended sexual ambiguity with blunt, testosteronic ardor, creating some of popular music’s most articulate declarations of disaffection.
The Furs date to 1979 — the tail end of punk’s spike-haired London hailstorm. And from the very start, the band was fraught with lineup changes. But the core group jelled as Ashton, Richard Butler and brother/bassist Tim.
Of the Furs’ seven CBS studio records, their sophomore effort (Talk Talk Talk) and intermittently brilliant third album (the Todd Rundgren-produced Forever Now from 1982) are essential post-punk documents flush with songwriting prowess that’s only now getting the respect it was always due.
There were later flashes of brilliance: “The Ghost in You,” “Heaven” and “Highwire Days,” from the wonderfully splashy Mirror Moves (1984); and “Until She Comes” from the guitar-heavy World Outside (1991). Yet by the latter album’s tour, the Furs had long since become bored and frustrated, as Richard Butler frequently declared in interviews for his later group, Love Spit Love.
“And out of the frustration came anger,” Ashton admits.
The group split up in 1992. But the beginning of the end, says the guitarist, was 1987’s overproduced Midnight to Midnight (with its bland almost-hit “Heartbreak Beat”). The Furs were counting on the album, says Ashton, to be their “masterstroke,” building on the previous year’s success with the re-recorded “Pretty in Pink.”
“We had a great album with Midnight to Midnight when we started, and it just went to hell,” a surprisingly candid Ashton admits. “It took too long to make, and Richard was fiddling on his ideas. It became a little bit too big and just too rock ‘n’ roll and bombastic. The music was there; it just kept getting watered down all the time.
“I started to really take it out on Richard because of that,” the guitarist continues. “I was angry at him, I was angry at everybody, I was angry at myself for letting it happen.
“I was angry at the whole damn world, really.”
By 1992, Ashton reveals, the Furs’ principals — relocated by then to the States — no longer felt like a group; they were three guys and some hired guns.
For a time, both Butler brothers were in Love Spit Love (best known for the theme song to the WB network’s witch-hottie dramedy Charmed, a remake of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now”). Yet the full core of the Furs from what Ashton calls “the good-old, bad-old days” only began playing together again in 2000 (for an ’80s package tour with The Go-Go’s and the B-52’s).
The band — filled out for the past several years by drummer Frank Ferrer (formerly of LSL) and keyboardist Amanda Kramer (ex of The Golden Palominos) — is now playing better than ever, Ashton declares.
A 2001 live greatest-hits package, Beautiful Chaos (Sony), suggests he’s hardly being immodest. In fact, the album closer — the gorgeous new studio cut “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime)” — vibrantly announces a band with much left to say.
To quote the group from more than 20 years back: “Let it stay forever now.”