Part of post-punk’s essential nature was to acknowledge that musical genres were not generated spontaneously but developed through history. The Butler brothers – Richard on vocals and Tim on bass guitar – had this in mind when they founded the Psychedelic Furs. After several other names, the band settled on the term “psychedelic” as a nod to the music of the late 1960s, which other punk bands pretended didn’t matter.
When the Furs started in London in 1977, Roger Morris played guitar, along with Duncan Kilburn on saxophone and Paul Wilson on drums. They gigged for a couple of years before John Ashton joined as a second guitarist. The 1979 lineup, which remained until 1982, also replaced Wilson with Vince Ely on drums.
The following year, the Furs signed with Columbia Records and released their debut album. It was produced by Steve Lillywhite, already known for his work with Siouxsie and the Banshees and XTC. The Psychedelic Furs was released in different versions in the UK versus the US: besides a scrambled track order, the American release cut the song “Blacks/Radio” for being racially problematic. Instead, the band added two other tracks: “Susan Strange” and “Soap Commercial.”
Those changes didn’t help the Furs much in the States, but Britain, Europe, and Australia quickly fell in love with this new sound. The song “Flowers” is a good introduction, encompassing both the grim lyrical style (opening lines: “See the people dead in cars/see the bodies bleed”) and the intensely energetic rhythm drawing from early rock and roll.
It was the Furs’ second album, Talk Talk Talk (1981), that got them serious attention in America. They made it into the Billboard 200 partly because of their choice to ease up slightly on the darkness and let in a glint of pop. The song “Pretty in Pink” was a hit in the UK, and American director John Hughes used it as the inspiration for his movie of the same name.
This is not to say that the Furs suddenly became a mainstream pop band. There’s plenty of haunting madness to enjoy on the second album. For one thing, Richard Butler’s voice remains at its eerie best. And then there are a few tracks, like “I Wanna to Sleep with You,” that are unabashedly frantic and weird. The deranged sax solo at the end is the icing on the cake.
For their 1982 album Forever Now, the Furs had shrunk to four members. Guitarist Morris and saxophonist Kilburn both left the band. The remaining foursome moved to America in hopes of finding a producer to enhance their traction there. They found the right partner in Todd Rundgren, who also played keyboards and marimba on the album and hired a cellist, all of which changed the Furs’ color palette significantly. The result was their most successful album yet as well as their best-selling single to that point, “Love My Way.”
On “No Easy Street,” the multi-talented Rundgren stepped in as saxophonist. There’s a painful loneliness about this song, especially in the way the bassline repeats the same figure all the way through, the first three notes of a minor scale, rising and falling forever.
The band’s success continued to grow with Mirror Moves in 1984, helped in part by the distinctive look of their music videos, which prompted frequent plays on MTV. That album was produced by Keith Forsey, who had recently helped Billy Idol become a star. For 1987’s Midnight to Midnight, the Furs tried a different approach to production by teaming with Chris Kimsey. Kimsey’s resume included producing and engineering several albums for the Rolling Stones. As noted above, rock music history mattered to this band.
Although the album was their best charter in the UK – or perhaps because of that – Richard Butler has publicly complained about the record’s lack of substance, and critics expressed disappointment in its steps toward synthpop. You can hear that shift in the song “Shock.”
Book of Days, from 1989, marks the first time the Furs are listed as producers, collaborating with synthpop and goth master David M. Allen (The Cure, Human League, Depeche Mode). Two big singles came from this record: “Should God Forget” and “House.” Besides the regular Furs quartet, session personnel included The Saw Doctors’ Anto Thistlethwaite on several instruments and Joe McGinty, who had been the Furs’ regular touring keyboardist since 1987.
Furs fans often remark that Book of Days is a return to the band’s darker, heavier sounds from before they jumped into the synthpop pool. “Mother-Son” is a good example of the distressed harmonies, rhythms that grate at the psyche, and lyrics that are both dour and threatening.
By 1991, the Furs were ready to call it quits. Drummer Vince Ely had already left, so World Outside was recorded with the two Butlers, John Ashton, McGinty, Don Yallech on drums, and Knox Chandler on guitar. To co-produce with them, the band tapped Stephen Street, known for his work with the Smiths and the Cranberries. The album garnered them one more major hit, “Until She Comes.”
Like Book of Days, this album sounds substantive and serious. One critic at the time described the pair of albums as a “surprising comeback” for a band that had suffered “a descent into teenybopper limbo.” Indeed, there’s an aching beauty in songs like “There’s a World Outside.”
Happy critics notwithstanding, World Outside was the Furs’ last studio album for 19 years, although they did put out a live greatest-hits collection called Beautiful Chaos in 2001. After such a long silence, a lot of people were surprised by the release of Made of Rain in 2020.
Of course, there were personnel changes, most notably the addition of keyboardist Amanda Kramer. She’s had an auspicious career as a session and touring musician with groups like 10,000 Maniacs and the Golden Palominos. Saxophonist Mars Williams had been touring with the band since the early 2000s, but this is his first Furs album. The producer is Richard Fortus, the Guns N’ Roses guitarist who also had a long touring history with the Furs.
As of this writing, the Psychedelic Furs continue to tour in support of Made of Rain. You can visit their website https://thepsychedelicfurs.com/ for details. The world has a lot of darkness and angst these days, so maybe Richard Butler singing “Ash Wednesday” in every corner of the planet is just what we need.
Header image courtesy of Sonic PR, photo by Reed Davis.