Graded on a Curve: The Psychedelic Furs, (s/t)

Love a band? Hate a band? It often comes down to simple timing. For instance, had My War been the first music by Black Flag I ever heard, instead of their earlier EPs and singles, I would never have given them the time of day. The same is true for The Psychedelic Furs. I first heard them when they were putting out such catchy and undeniably lovely new wave songs such as “Love My Way,” “Heaven,” and “Pretty in Pink.”

Unfortunately, I disliked new wave, because in the wake of first-generation punk it sounded too wimpy, emasculated, and dance-oriented for my tastes. To paraphrase one David Bowie, “I never got it off on that new wave stuff/How bland/Too many Duran Durans.” Or to quote the great Minutemen, “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”

But had I heard the Furs around 1980, instead of, say, 1983, things would have been very different. In fact, I’d have loved them. Because 1980 was the year they released their debut LP, the eponymous and post-punk The Psychedelic Furs. Forget their melodic new wave tunes that ended up on film soundtracks and got played at every prom in the land. The Furs’ debut is a fabulous collection of droning grooves over which vocalist Richard Butler talk/sings enigmatically about who knows what to the accompaniment of guitars and one great saxophone. And to think I never heard so much as a song off it until Kid Congo Powers covered the ecstatic “We Love You” at a live show here in DC. Thank you, Kid, for your great tastes in music and your great mustache and for turning me on to The Psychedelic Furs. I owe you big time.

Brothers Richard and Tim Butler formed The Psychedelic Furs (or The Europeans, as they almost called themselves) in 1977. By 1979 they were in the studio, recording their Columbia Records debut under the direction of ubiquitous Überproducer Steve Lillywhite. A few personnel changes had occurred between the band’s formation and the Lillywhite sessions, and the line-up during the recording of the Furs’ debut included Richard Butler on vocals, John Ashton and Roger Morris on guitars, Tim Butler on bass, Vince Ely on drums, and Duncan Kilburn on saxophones. Remember that last name, because The Psychedelic Furs—which was successful just about everywhere but here in the United States—features some of the coolest rock saxophone I’ve heard since Viva! Roxy Music.

LP opener “India” is a real slow starter—if it were a student, it might be labeled remedial—with some quiet, and I mean very quiet, guitars taking it to about the 2-minute mark, when Ely’s pounding drums and the guitarists finally erupt and establish a great groove over which Butler sings a sort of love song to a woman named India. (So you can forget about it being an adaptation of the classic John Coltrane song or some kind of waffle-brained paean to the “Wisdom of the East” a la George Harrison.) The groove grows louder as the song goes on, Butler sings, “India, stupid on the carpet floor” and “India, I’m American, ha ha ha” (if it’s a joke I don’t get), and finally takes the song out repeating, “Please me” about nine times. Inspirational lyric: “Put your face upon a line/This is for the discotheque/This is stupid, I object.”

Meanwhile, the slowish and wonderfully droning “Sister Europe” opens with some superheavy drum beats followed by a big throbbing bass out of which a melody evolves, and it sorta reminds me of Roxy Music. Butler introduces himself with the cryptic lines, “Stupid [writer’s note: “stupid” is one of Butler’s favorite words] on the Steinway/So sick upon a Steinway/The sailors drown,” and the chorus (“Sister of mine, home again/Sister of mine, home again) is very pretty and melodic. Meanwhile, Kilburn plays a couple of understated sax solos while Butler sings, “Words are all just useless sound/Just like cards they fall around/And we will be.” We will be what? Who knows? Who cares? All that matters is that the slow “Sister Europe” is over before you know it, and you’re left wanting more.

“Imitation of Christ” is a perkier, almost pop affair, with a pretty melody, lots of killer saxophone, and a great drum-pounding chorus. Butler opens the song with the wonderful lines, “Another Christ is on the cross/The nails are words, the nails are lies,” and later sings, every bit as surreal as Guillaume Apollinaire, “Jesus is a woman too/He looks like all of me and you/Your money talks and all your friends/Will laugh at her pathetic tits.” Need I say I love Butler’s lyrics? He feels no big need to make sense, and has such a deadpan sense of humor he may not even being humorous. As for “Fall,” it’s a speed rap, a cantankerous rant set to some brilliant music, and one excellent tune. It opens to pounding drums and a big bass, and then the sax comes in, followed by Butler who sings and sings and doesn’t want to be bothered by choruses or anything like that. Instead he tosses off lines like, “We will have a heart attack/We will be alone and/We’ll fall we’ll fall we’ll fall/Fall in love like sailors do/Tell your lover you’ll be true/Sail upon the stupid sea/We’ll fall.” I especially love that “stupid sea,” and it’s about time somebody came out and called it for what it really is.

“Pulse” is another lightning-paced groove in which Butler spits out his lyrics in a rush, like a machine that dispenses words, or a winning slot machine spitting out non-sequiturs. Why, he even channels John Lennon for a moment, singing, “War is over if you want.” It’s hilarious. The song is worth it just for Tim Butler’s throbbing bass at the beginning, and the mad and frenetic guitars that join it. As for Butler, when he isn’t singing about the “dancer’s semen reeling” or listening “to the flowers fall” he’s singing, “You are miracle drivel/Optical sewer.” I haven’t the foggiest notion what he’s talking about, but I love it, just as I love the song’s unrelenting propulsion, the great rhythm section, and Kilburn’s frenetic sax work.

Next up is my all-time Psychedelic Furs fave “We Love You,” which Butler opens with a shout to the accompaniment of guitars and drums, after which the song more or less follows the same formula as “Fall” and “Pulse.” So why do I like it more? I suppose because it’s just one great list, with Butler itemizing all the things he’s in love with (the factory, capitalists, your blue cars, Frank Sinatra, doing the twist, the Supremes, Sophia Loren, and the list goes on and on). I also love it for its bass break, Kilburn’s brilliant sax work, the backing vocals that come in later, and the way the song ends with the band repeating “We love you.” Oh, and the way Butler barks, “Hey, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop.” And finally, I love it for the way he sings, “I’m in love with the words that scream/We are so stupid, we all dream.” Why, one could almost begin to suspect that, in the words of Herman Melville, Butler (like yours truly) has been “warped over to the ranks of the misanthropes.”

As for “Wedding Song,” it opens with a cool drumbeat, followed by some feral and fearless guitar riffs and one snaky sax line. This one could pass for a PiL song—Butler almost seems to be channeling John Lydon vocally, and the giant drum-driven riff that is the song has that Public Image touch as well. And then there’s Butler’s constant snarling repetition of “You’re useless,” which phrase he drags out to great effect. Me, I don’t care if it’s a rip of The Carpenters, it’s great. There’s a fantastic chukka-chukka guitar solo at around the 3-minute mark, after which a long instrumental (with Kilburn throwing in some sax at the end) that takes the song out.

Taylor continues his heavy use of the word “stupid” on the hard-driving “Blacks/Radio,” which opens with some heavy guitars and Butler muttering the immortal lines, “The stupid and the stupid and the infantile/Listen to records with the A-bomb hairstyle.” Kilburn goes wild on this one, playing several brilliantly dissonant sax solos while the drums produce a nuclear boom boom boom, while Butler rants and raves about “doing the radio” and the twist and how he’s sick of “sex and the sound of cars” while the guitars rage and Kilburn provides perfect fills. If it’s an angry drone rocker that goes on and on without ever growing old you’re seeking, look no further. Rave on, Richard Butler, rave on!

LP closer (I own the shorter UK version of the album, which omits “Susan’s Strange” and “Soap Commercial”) “Flowers” is a very fast tune, opening with a speedy bass until the rest of the band comes in, playing a tuneful and frenetic melody that rather reminds me of David Gedge’s The Wedding Present. Meanwhile Butler is in a morbid frame of mind: “See the people dead in cars,” he sings to open the song, “See the bodies bleed/I know he’s so dead and gone/I think that is free.” After that it’s all about torture and making “a god of useless drivel/Sew it at the seams/Float it down the river/Where the sewage is the sea.” This is one damned infectious tune, with plenty of cool sax fills and fantastic lockstep drumming and more wonderful guitars than you can shake a dead Jimi Hendrix at, but it’s Butler’s acerbic vocals and macabre lyrics (he’s constantly repeating slight variations on “His body is upon the wall/His teeth are sharp and white/We cut his face with razorblades/And out of him comes foul white light”) that make the song. Finally Butler cryptically sings, “We cut his teeth on razorblades/And out of him came stupid light/That’s flowers,” after which the song dissolves into beautiful chaos, with the sax doing the squonk and the guitars playing some wonderful distortion before the song ends in the musical equivalent of a 10-car pile-up.

The Psychedelic Furs went on to put out a parcel of excellent songs, some of which are my speed and some of which are not, but they never released another post-punk masterpiece like The Psychedelic Furs. Which you can tell is their best album just by looking at the cover, which features Butler (in hip VU sunglasses) and Company all staring off in different directions, looking pretty in the LP’s pink hue. Whereas Talk Talk Talk (some of whose songs I love, especially “Into You Like a Train,” “Dumb Waiters,” and “All of This and Nothing”) has that archetypal new wave look to it, which would have caused me, had I seen it in the record store bins back in 1983, to give it a very wide berth.

If you’re a drone and groove lover like I am, The Fur’s eponymous debut may well be the best album to come along since just about any LP by The Fall. Indeed, Mark E. Smith, who practically invented repetition (even named a song after it) and is renowned for his dry and inscrutable lyrics, could be Richard Butler’s soul mate. A frightening thought, that. Although I can’t for the life of me imagine Smith entitling a song “We Love You.” Not even sarcastically. Just not his speed, which he prefers in powder form.


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