Saturday, October 11, 2008

Psychedelic Furs Meet The Brat Pack

British band Psychedelic Furs burst to life in 1978, around the time the British punk movement was at its peak. They’d kicked around for a year or so under various guises, including ‘RKO’, ’Radio’ and ‘The Europeans’. Though their eventual chosen name wasn’t very punk like, their early sound certainly was, and drew heavily on the inspiration offered by their idols of the late 60s, the Stooges and Velvet Underground. In fact the name Psychedelic Furs came about in part because it was thought by the band that it would stand out from other contemporary punk band names, and in part as a homage to their psychedelic era idols.

The original Psychedelic Furs line-up comprised brothers Richard Butler (vocals) and Tim Butler (bass), along with guitarist Roger Morris, saxophonist/keyboardist Duncan Kilburn and drummer Paul Wilson. In their formative stages John Ashton came on board as a second guitarist, and soon after they found a long term drummer in Vince Ely. The band themselves described their early material as “beautiful chaos”, but found an ally in the BBC’s insurgent disc jockey John Peel (as did so many other up and coming artists) during the late 70s. The exposure the band received via Peel’s ‘Radio One’ session led them to a recording contract with Columbia. Psychedelic Furs eponymous debut album was released in March 1980 and was well received in Britain (#18), and yielded the extremely minor Australian hit ‘Sister Europe’ (#100). The album was co-produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had already overseen albums for Ultravox, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and XTC. The band’s sound was a kind of post-punk minimalism, full of jagged melodies offset by Richard Butler’s brooding, almost monotone vocals.

They recorded their sophomore album ‘Talk Talk Talk’ (May 1981), this time around with Steve Lillywhite as sole producer, and though the album showed glimpses of a more conventional pop-rock ambience, it still managed to subvert its own links with the mainstream with tracks like ‘Into You Like A Train’, ‘Dumb Waiters’ (UK#59), and the original version of ‘Pretty In Pink’ (UK#43), a track the band would revisit in the studio a few years later. ‘Talk Talk Talk’ received a big enough audience to reach #30 in the U.K. and became the band’s first foray into the U.S. charts (#89). They shifted base operations to New York during 1982, and Psychedelic Furs would soon become a popular act on the U.S. indie/college music scene.

Drummer Vince Ely was replaced by Phil Calvert, and producer Steve Lillywhite by Todd Rundgren, for Psychedelic Furs 1982 album ‘Forever Now’ (UK#20/OZ#49/US#61). The album’s lead out single ‘Love My Way’ was the first Psychedelic Furs track I can recall hearing, and I remember thinking it reminded me of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ - I think a major mental block must have formed in my brain at the time over that, because I still on occasion get the artists and songs mixed up - so if that happens during the course of this post, you’ll know why. ‘Love My Way’ ended up becoming Psychedelic Furs highest charting hit in Australia (#23), and also performed well in Britain (#42) and the U.S. (#44). The band was also looking to broaden its sound by including brass and string arrangements on the ‘Forever Now’ album.

During 1983 Keith Forsey was recruited in place of Phil Calvert (who had joined Crime & The City Solution), whilst original members Duncan Kilburn (saxophone/keyboards) and Roger Morris (guitar) also left the scene. Ex-Waitresses (see future post) saxophonist Mars Williams joined the fray, with John Ashton now covering all guitar duties, reducing Psychedelic Furs to a quintet. Their next single ‘Heaven’ reached #30 in Britain (though it wasn’t chosen for single release in the U.S.), whilst its source album ‘Mirror Moves’ (UK#15/US#43/OZ#97) reflected a band that was on the verge of big time success. Despite launching their first major international tour during 1984, that ‘A-List’ status continued to elude them. The follow up single ‘The Ghost In You’ (US#59/UK#68) became a fringe dweller on the charts, and was somewhat symptomatic of most of the band’s releases to that point. Psychedelic Furs were also in jeopardy of alienating their original core fan base, with their material becoming increasingly over-produced, dulling the edginess of their earlier work. Following the completion of their world tour, the drummer’s chair once again became vacant with Paul Garisto filling the void.

One of the Psychedelic Furs’ core fans happened to be writer/director John Hughes (‘The Breakfast Club’), who had written a screenplay inspired by the lyrics to the Furs’ 1981 song ‘Pretty In Pink’. Hughes approached the band with the idea of them re-recording the song for inclusion in the film realisation of his screenplay - an offer too good to refuse. The 1986 teen romance/comedy ‘Pretty In Pink’ became a moderately successful cult classic, and the accompanying release of the new version of the song promised to give Psychedelic Furs that monster commercial hit that was so far absent from the band’s c.v. Unfortunately, despite strong airplay ‘Pretty In Pink’ circa 1986 could only manage #18 in Britain and a disappointing #41 Stateside.

1987’s ‘Midnight To Midnight’ (UK#12/US#29/OZ#38) proved to be Psychedelic Furs strongest album in commercial terms, but received criticism for moving even further away from the band’s stylistic roots in favour of an overt commercial pop-rock sound. The album featured the advance single ‘Heartbreak Beat’ which became the Furs biggest U.S. hit (#26), and matched that performance in Australia late in 1986, though the follow up singles ‘Shock’ and ‘Angels Don’t Cry’ failed to consolidate the commercial gains. The soundtrack version of ‘Pretty In Pink’ popped up on the band’s 1988 retrospective album titled ‘All Of This And Nothing’ (UK#67/US#102), which featured the new single ‘All That Money Wants’ (UK#75). By that stage original drummer Vince Ely had renewed his vows with the band, but his return did nothing to turn around Psychedelic Furs’ flagging fortunes. The 1989 album ‘Book Of Days’ (UK#74) saw the band attempt to reconnect stylistically with their adolescent career years but commercially it bombed. Only one single was lifted, but ‘House’ failed to find a home on any chart.

By the time their 1991 album ‘World Outside’ (UK#68) surfaced (now with drummer Don Yallitch in the mix), Psychedelic Furs were in their death throws. The album’s abysmal sales, particularly in the U.S., signalled the end for the band who split late in 1991. Richard and Tim Butler went on to form the band Love Spit Love with Richard Fortus and Frank Ferrer. They released a self titled album in 1994 (US#195), which yielded the minor U.S. hit single ‘Am I Wrong’ (#83), with a follow up album ‘Trysome Eatone’ in 1997.

Richard Butler then began writing songs during the late 90s for a proposed solo album, and soon fellow New York state residents, and Psychedelic Furs alumnus, Tim Butler and John Ashton joined in on some demo sessions for the material. The vibe felt right, and the core trio decided to open the wardrobe and don the Furs outfit once again. They played a North American summer tour with another 80s comeback act the Go-Go’s during 2000. The reception was so positive that the band hit the road for their own headline tour during 2001, with Love Spit Love guitarist Richard Fortus, and drummer Earl Harvin rounding out the revamped line-up. The live album ‘Beautiful Chaos’ was issued in November 2001, and remarkably it was the first official ‘live’ album from Psychedelic Furs. The album also featured the band’s first newly recorded song in over a decade with the haunting ballad ‘Alive’. In subsequent years Psychedelic Furs have continued to keep their flame alive, touring regularly with their core members, the Butler brothers and John Ashton providing the band with much valued continuity, along side former World Party keyboardist Amanda Kramer and 80s alumnus Mars Williams returning on saxophone.

'Love My Way' video clip courtesy of YouTube user gnowangerup

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