Forever Now: A Retrospective of The Psychedelic Furs
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In the summer of 1984 I attended my first ever concert at the Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland amusement park. It was The Psychedelic Furs with Talk Talk as the opening act. My knowledge of The Psychedelic Furs going in was pretty weak and I had to bone up on their music via my brother’s record collection, which included their first two albums. I knew the band Talk Talk a little since the single from their current album, “It’s My Life,” was getting decent radio play in Toronto.
Imitation of Christ
Pretty in Pink
She Is Mine
Into You Like A Train
So Run Down
Love My Way
Sleep Comes Down
The Ghost in You
Like A Stranger
Pretty in Pink
All of the Law
All that Money Wants
Until She Comes
There's A World
Alive (for Once in My Lifetime)
The show was amazing, but as a first-timer how was I to know any different? However, later in that same week I’d see my next two shows: Springsteen at the CNE Grandstand and Simple Minds at Kingswood again (with Toronto’s own, The Tenants, opening) and it was The Furs that made the biggest impression. Watching this band – mysterious, artsy, new wave fashionable – and led by the enigmatic and graceful Richard Butler, whose voice of sandpaper made every song sound cool, made this band the most wonderful thing I had seen or heard. And while New Order was in the process of entrenching themselves as my favourite artist, The Psychedelic Furs were a strong second.
The Psychedelic Furs were the consummate post-punk band. Equal parts punk, new wave, rock, and pop they were one of many acts to build a new sound by leveraging the many genres breaking out during the early 1980s. The band was formed in 1977 in London around the brothers, Richard and Tim Butler. One of hundreds of punk bands forming during that seminal year, they gained interest as labels tried to cash in on this exploding music scene. Filled out with Duncan Kilburn on sax, Paul Wilson on drums, and Roger Morris on guitar (Tim played bass), the band played around England under the name ‘RKO’ and then ‘Radio.’ They eventually settled on ‘The Psychedelic Furs’ as a nod to the Velvet Underground song, “Venus in Furs.” In 1979 Vince Ely replaced Wilson on drums and John Ashton was added on guitar and the six-piece band entered the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite to record their first album.
India; Sister Europe; Imitation of Christ; Pulse; Wedding Song \ The Psychedelic Furs (1980)
What a debut! The band had evolved from the pure thrashing sounds of punk and developed a darker soundscape of guitar, bass, sax and that distinctive voice of Richard. The opening song, “India,” built from a quiet refrain into a raging, booming punk song. The album that followed ranged from the lush and broad melodies of “Sister Europe” and “Imitation of Christ” to the bass and sax propelled “Pulse” to the pounding rhythm of “Wedding Song” – there wasn’t a bad song on the album. The music was artistic and dangerous; something that drew you in while suggesting caution, like a smooth, beautiful lake of dark water. The Furs joined with other acts like The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees in establishing a darker punk-pop sound.
After my awakening to The Furs in 1984 I taped their first two albums off my brother, with one on each side of a cassette tape that lived in my Walkman for the better part of my grade nine year. I have fond memories of riding the bus home from school along Davisville Ave in the dark after hockey practice, listening to these albums over and over and over as houses flashed by in the snowy, flitting light of the streetlights. It was the perfect soundtrack for an adolescent struggling to find his place in the world and establish his individuality while attending an all-boys school where uniformity was encouraged. No one at school listened to The Psychedelic Furs and because of that I loved them all the more.
Pretty in Pink; Dumb Waiters; She Is Mine; Into You Like A Train; So Run Down \ Talk Talk Talk (1981)
The first album gained them attention in the UK, charting as high as 18th, but gained no attention across the ocean. The second album, also helmed by Steve Lillywhite, lessened the focus on the longer and broader songs of the first album (though still held one with “All of this and Nothing”) in favour of tighter, more melodic and pop-oriented songs though still with a strong, raw guitar and punk edge. The result was a minor breakthrough into the Billboard Top 100 in the US and their first singles to chart in the UK.
Launching with one of the most distinctive singles of the decade with “Pretty in Pink,” this pop-punk song established The Furs as a leader in writing rockier, darkly tinged songs absent of keyboards unlike others exploring similar boundaries. There were so many catchy melodies and rhythms on the album, such as “So Run Down” that rode along a rolling bassline and driving drum beat and that combined pop sensibility with a murky, bottom-end foundation. Again, there wasn’t a bad song on the LP, launching The Furs career on a stellar two-album combination that was building their fan base.
Forever Now; Love My Way; Sleep Comes Down; President Gas \ Forever Now (1982)
The band went through some changes leading into their third album, recorded in the third consecutive year. Roger Morris and Duncan Kilburn left and the remaining four went to the US to record with producer Todd Rundgren. Now without their signature sax sound and a second guitar the band added keyboards, resulting in a less dark, more pop-oriented approach as well as a return to some of the larger sounds of the first album. Songs like “Forever Now” and “President Gas” had a big, wall-of-sound quality that lacked the edgy guitars of the prior album. The smooth, new wave melody of “Love My Way” would give the band their first hit, reaching 44th in the US and almost equalling its success in the UK. Evolving their sound and experimenting did not diminish their song writing abilities, delivering a third consecutive impeccable album.
“Sleep Comes Down” had a lovely, psychedelic tone to it in the guitar and accompanying Beatle-esque strings that, given the band’s name, was oddly lacking in most of their music (though “Imitation of Christ” does have some psychedelic guitar licks in it). In fact, at that point the band felt the ‘psychedelic’ moniker was misleading and didn’t fit the band’s image and sound. They tried to reduce their name to just The Furs but it appeared people were attached to the original name and both fans and the music press alike didn’t play along with the rebranding attempt. The band decided to stick with the full name after all.
The Ghost in You; Heaven; Like A Stranger \ Mirror Moves (1984)
Vince Ely departed after the recording of Forever Now and the band continued, now as a trio with just the Butler brothers and Ashton. Working with producer Keith Forsey on the fourth album, they would rely on drum machines and Forsey himself on drums for laying down the beats. Mirror Moves was their highest charting album to date propelled by the success of the two lead singles, “Heaven,” and “The Ghost in You.” Another single, “Heartbeat,” would get to #4 on the US Dance Chart.
Lacking the heavier drums, bringing back some sax on a few songs, using more keyboards, and smoothing out the guitar led the band to its purest pop sound yet, losing any remaining feel of the darker, bass-driven songs of the first album. “Heaven” was the consummate example of the band’s pop-punk sound, delivered in a palatable pop format with a catchy video of them performing in a downpour. “Ghost in You” and “Like a Stranger” were smooth pop songs, moving Richard Butler’s voice to the front more than ever before.
While it was another strong album, this album had some weak spots as the band explored dancier beats and songs like “Here Come Cowboys” suffered from the watered-down guitars. However, I didn’t care about that as this was the first album of theirs I would buy after having seen them in (my aforementioned first) concert for this tour. It was a dominant album in alternative radio as I also shifted my listening exclusively to radio station CFNY, where The Furs were in heavy rotation and Mirror Moves would be named the station’s #1 album of the year, not to mention the band received plenty of airtime on MuchMusic due to the popularity of the “Heaven” video.
Pretty in Pink \ Pretty in Pink Soundtrack (1986)
After touring heavily and beginning work on their next album, The Furs had an unexpected boost to their career from John Hughes, the movie writer and director making a name for himself with teen angst flicks such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and the National Lampoon Vacation series. Hughes filled his blockbusters with new wave music of the era, giving exposure to many lesser known (and mostly British) acts in America. In 1986, he would have a banner year with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, a movie indeed named after The Psychedelic Furs’ song.
Unfortunately the band would go into the studio and re-record the song, stripping it of its post-punk guitar and structuring it along the lines of their current, watered down sound. The new version of “Pretty in Pink” that accompanied the movie was a pale imitation of the original, but of course would result in the band’s highest charting single yet.
Heartbreak Beat; All of the Law \ Midnight to Midnight (1987)
Riding high on the wider exposure the band released their fifth album in seven years. Musically it would be the weakest yet though still featured many of the great melodies to which the band was known. Richard Butler explained that the album was rushed due to pressure to release new music on the heels of their “Pretty in Pink” success, and even he described the album as “hollow, vapid, and weak.”
Their line-up gained a drummer again in Paul Garisto and the return of a regular sax player in Mars Williams (who had played on Mirror Moves), making the band a quintet again. Midnight to Midnight was not a bad album but was more commercial sounding and lacked the inventiveness and distinction of their prior work. “Heartbreak Beat” (mis-labelled in Spotify as “Heartbeat”) would be their most successful single in North America but their weakest showing to date in the UK. The album was their highest chart success, buoyed by their newly established profile. However as new wave and the post-punk era died off and rock music started to assert itself again, The Furs were losing their core audience and relevance as an influential and compelling act in the ‘80s music scene.
All that Money Wants \ All of this And Nothing (1988)
Despite the best success of their career, the band seemed to be losing steam and musical direction. It was timely to release a greatest hits compilation, All of This and Nothing, taking the title from the song on the Talk Talk Talk album. Aside from reminding people what a splendid accumulation of songs they had, it offered the chance to release a new single, “All that Money Wants.” Very consistent with the sound from Midnight to Midnight the song failed to chart aside from a low spot in the UK, though it did get to #1 on the new US Modern Rock chart.
Torch; House \ Book of Days (1989)
The late ‘80s were a moribund period for alternative and new wave music, and many artists such as The Furs faded. Despite releasing Book of Days in 1989, the band largely disappeared from view and this album did nothing to stop that. Filled with largely forgettable songs the singles and albums received minor attention and chart success. Vince Ely returned on drums and they were once again without a sax player, now delivering as a four-piece. The album, like Midnight to Midnight, lacked the power of a star producer (the band assisted in producing this one for the first time), which perhaps left them without a proper guide. At this point I wonder if they also were suffering from so many line-up changes and the cumulative contributions of steady participants?
Now, Book of Days was still The Furs and had Richard’s wonderful vocals carrying them through, so as a fan of the band the album cannot entirely be dismissed. The songs were decent and in some respects the band returned a little to the darker elements of their early albums. The problem was that compared to their discography this effort just didn’t compare favourably.
Valentine; Until She Comes; There’s a World \ World Outside (1991)
Although only two years later, the difference in timing and output for this album was enormous. I had largely forgotten about the band, swept up like everyone else in the musical explosions of grunge and Madchester and having left the ‘80s behind. Book of Days had come and gone with nary any notice from me; I hadn’t heard any music from it yet in 1991. Then one night I saw The Furs on The Late Show with David Letterman performing “Until She Comes.” Perhaps aided by it being a Friday night and I was well into the intoxicated weekend of a club-going 21-year-old, I was knocked over by a wave of nostalgia and love for my long lost teenage crush.
I rushed out and bought this cd, the first and only I’d buy in that format for this band, and quickly bought tickets to see them at the club, RPM. This was a fantastic album and it was as if the band had rediscovered their musical mojo – holding on to their impeccable melodies but maturing their sound to a modern, lush, well-produced finish. “Until She Comes” was their most beautiful song of their career, layering in a lovely cello over an intoxicating melody to accompany Butler’s as-always perfect vocal. “There’s a World” likewise was another big, bold song that pulled elements of their entire career into a perfect composition.
It was great seeing them in concert again (even if the opener, Tribe, nearly stole the show). But of course, as a fade, yesteryear act the album did nothing and was completely ignored by record buyers and radio. It charted in the UK but did next to nothing in the US (though “Until She Comes” would reach #1 on the Modern Rock Chart, which I think is meaningless if it does nothing to actually help the act get airplay and sales). For the band, now essentially back to the Butlers and Ashton along with helpers, it probably dealt a death blow to the idea of The Psychedelic Furs. They had released their best album since Mirror Moves, possibly even Forever Now in terms of consistency and musical quality, yet failed to reinvigorate their fan base or win new adherents.
In 1992 Richard Butler formed Love Spit Love with Richard Fortus and Frank Ferrer and eventually brought his brother on board as well. This new band managed to gain some attention among alternative and college radio and released two albums in 1994 and 1997 before disbanding in 2000. For The Psychedelic Furs, it appeared we’d seen the last of them.
Alive (For Once in My Lifetime) \ Beautiful Chaos: Greatest Hits Live (2001)
It wouldn’t be the case, as upon the break-up of Love Spit Love the trio of the Butlers and John Ashton reformed as The Psychedelic Furs and began touring again. In 2001 they recorded a live album and DVD titled Beautiful Chaos: Greatest Hits Live which included four previously unreleased songs. “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime)” was included as the only new studio recording, their first in ten years. It was a good song similar in style to the World Outside album and showed the band could still produce solid music. Unfortunately, it would be the last song they released.
The band continues to tour playing their hits and the odd deeper, album tracks. Ashton moved on, replaced with former members Paul Garisto and Mars Williams and joined by new members Amanda Kramer and Rich Good. They put on a solid show and for old fans like me, it’s really nice to see them up close in places like Lee’s Palace, where I saw them in 2005 and 2010, and at The Danforth Music Hall where I caught them in 2017 (interestingly, the largest venue in Toronto for their recent shows and sold out at that). They come around about every two years it seems but without new music I don’t need to see them that frequently. Why they don’t put out new music I can’t say, perhaps it’s too frustrating to shout into the wind of the modern music industry when you’ve once strode upon the highs of chart and fan success? Richard put out a solo album in 2006 which I am yet to hear, so perhaps that’s it right there? Why do ‘new’ when you can make a living with ‘old’?
The diminished status of the band today is indeed an unfortunate state for a band with such a strong legacy. Their first four albums rank among the greatest of the 1980s and they helped form a new sound that bridged the gap between the first generation of punk and the later eras of modern rock. Richard Butler was of the Bryan Ferry and David Bowie mold, mixing style, presence, and a unique vocal style that gave his band distinction and a prominent place in the modern rock landscape.Victim to the changing moods of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s it was a shame the band wasn’t able to maintain their success and capitalize on their maturing sound. Their sound though, lives on in many a modern act.