Listening to Records with an A-bomb Hairstyle – The Psychedelic Furs 35 Years On

News that the Psychedelic Furs are planning to release a new album almost a quarter century after their last, we travel even further back to remember the first great LP of the 1980s… which turned out to be one of the last as well.

The_Psychedelic_Furs_re-issue_coverThe cover – briefly available in three day-glo shades – of The Psychedelic Furs gave away little.

A freckled two tone mugshot frontage an indistinct clutter, a live shot backside (from the Nashville in November) nodded vaguely towards the reverse of the first Velvet Underground album.

Inside, however, The Psychedelic Furs was laid out like a locomotive journey into the abyss, stygian concrete overlaid with a half-croaked sheen of majestic pop, a wall of noise and texture with, as Richard put it, “everybody doing something different within the same number.”

It was subtle, building in intensity from the opening whisper.  The deliberately buried intro to “India” was a two minute drift designed to make you turn your stereo up… up… up… to try and find out what was buried in the grooves.  And then the band slammed in with zero remorse and all the ornaments fell off your mantelpiece.

Livid on its liquid bass, “Sister Europe” and “Imitation Of Christ,” its lyrics now firmly nailed to a title borrowed from medieval monk and theologian Thomas á Kempis, maintained the low-key pace.  But “Fall” – possibly the most distasteful expression of blissful love and romance ever written – upped the tempo to confirm the relentless drive that would wrap itself around the remainder of the record, and the harsh, churning ambience which the band summoned up from places the production didn’t even touch.

“Pulse” and “We Love You,” revived from that earlier (but, since the band’s shift between labels, damnably hard to find) single, led into the skirling “Wedding Song,” another of Richard’s less-than-idealised visions of romance and, at a time when such comparisons could generally be received as a compliment, the song which most blatantly illustrated his debt to Johnny Rotten/Lydon.  Public image Ltd’s mutant funk-dub Metal Box was still a recent development in chronological terms – the Psychedelic Furs” absorption of its lessons, condensed into one four minute march, was as pioneering as the PiL disc itself.

By the time you arrived at “Blacks”/”Radio” (and the concluding “Flowers”) then, you were accustomed to the carnage, just as the band were predicting.  So, it was time to reach back into the bag and pull out something different, a taste of something you’d not heard before.  There’s a delicious moment about three minutes into the medley, which you have to play loud (with the bass even louder), where the drums start the heart attack, the sax and axe squeal and your stomach knows before your head that the planet has just shifted gear.  It is quintessential Psychedelic Furs – it’s what all the fuss had been about for the last year and a bit.  It was almost as good as the hoover.

“All we’ve ever wanted to do was create enjoyable music for people,” Richard Butler shrugged.  “If anyone tries to look too deeply into our music, they won’t find any hidden meanings there at all.”

People tried, anyway.  One reviewer sat down and painstakingly counted every time the word ‘stupid” appeared in a song, as an illustration of Butler’s presumed contempt for humanity. “He came up with twenty-or-so “stupids” (and another dozen-odd “useless”’s) and, even now when I”m making a record, I have to think about that.  There’s words that do get repeated over and over again.”  Preparing the first Love Spit Love album for release in 1994, Butler reflected, “this time it was the word “talk.”  I suddenly noticed it one day – “Jesus Christ, how many of these songs have the word “talk” in them?”  I went through and every single one did.”  He ended up excising it from three of them.  “That seemed enough.”

He dismissed any suggestion that the recurrence of the word packed any form of profundity – and, even if it did, so what?  “Rock music can’t change what’s going on,” he warned Sounds.  At the very best, “it can colour things” and it was that colouring that he wanted to pursue, as far as it could go.

“We’re making our music and it’s gradually gaining a lot of popularity.  [But] I don’t want hype or a lot of push, cause we’re gonna gain popularity just by what we’re doing.  You get bands like the Clash who won’t go on Top Of The Pops, [but] I want as many people as possible to hear this band, because we have something to say, and I think we have something very good to say.  I don’t mind going on Top Of The Pops and miming, as long as people who see us listen to what we say.  I’d like to have something out on K-Tel.”  In years to come, such a blatant hunger for the furthest reaches of fame and renown would come back to haunt him with a vengeance.  For now, it was sufficient to know that those reaches were in reach.

Producer was Steve Lillywhite, fresh from overseeing Peter Gabriel’s third album, as Richard Butler explains.  “It was interesting working with Steve.  Peter Gabriel hadn’t been using any percussion [at his sessions], while Steve was famous for his drum sound at that time, he had a whole new drum sound that was very instantly recognizable.  So, he decided he wanted to record all the drums on our album without using any cymbals or high hats.”

The band objected furiously when the idea was first mooted, but Lillywhite was adamant: “If you really like them, then we’ll put them in afterwards.  But I just can’t stand that riding on the high-hat business getting in the way of the drums.”

‘so, that’s what we did,” recalls Butler.  “Any high hats we wanted, Vince got to ride them afterwards.  Which was a good thing, because it was a good discipline.  People are so used to hearing the whole kit; they’re so used to the drummer keeping time on the high hat that it becomes part of the overall sound.  And Lillywhite was, “I don’t want that trashy chigga-chigga-chigga sound through everything.”  That was a great idea.”

Most of the songs were cut in one take; most of the vocals as well.  Equally impressively, Butler refused to allow Lillywhite to add any effects to his voice, not even a hint of reverb.  “Because it was the first time,” Butler continues, “I felt that the feeling is the important thing.”  Only one track drew any special extra attention, “Sister Europe.”  After Butler’s original vocal performance was rejected as too angry-sounding, Lillywhite told him to go down the pub.  “Have a couple of beers, and when you come back, I want you to sing like it’s three in the morning, and you’re talking on the telephone to someone.”  Looking back, Butler acknowledges, “it was a good way of putting it, and it was a good way of letting go of having to feel like you’re angry with every song.”

Of course, the most important aspect of the entire affair was the opportunity, at last, to get at least a portion of their live set down on tape – even if it did arrive a little too late for a handful of existing audience favourites.  When “Useless” (swiftly retitled “The Wedding Song”) was written in the studio around a sax riff and a drum beat which appeared from who-knows-where, it immediately displaced something else – there was no time to record either ‘dumb Waiters” or ‘shoes.”

Elsewhere, “Sister Europe” itself was displaced as the album’s anticipated curtain-raiser by the newly composed “India”; while the once-squealing “Girl’s Song” was tamed with a moodily moaning sax melody, duelling for supremacy with Richard’s all-but spoken vocal (and Ashton’s chanted “girl song, girl song”).  Even the live finale of the improvised “Chaos” was compressed to barely a fraction of its traditional length, as a bridge in the medley of “Blacks” and “Radio,” and Ashton still shudders as he recalls, “I’ve forgotten (thankfully) how many takes it took to get that transition  to sound like the Furs on a good night.”

Such disruptions were a necessary evil, though.  The experiences of other bands… so many other bands… had long since proven that free-for-all free-fall seldom works within the confines of a gramophone record, no matter how exhilarating they may seem in a club and a crowd.  The Psychedelic Furs were intent that they would not join that same sad role call.  Their one unquestionable essay into experimentation, the twisted, spastic ambience of “****” (titled for a Warhol movie, but also casually referred to as “Fuck”), a heartbeat pulse over which effects from elsewhere in the recording were spread and skewered, was reserved for a shortlived live intro tape and, later, as a UK b-side.

John Ashton: “We obviously needed someone behind the boards who knew what they were doing. I think that the sound had [already] become refined between the first Peel session and when we went in to do the album.  Elements of that wall of sound chaos thing were really quite small in retrospect.  Songs like “India,” “Pulse,” “Blacks” and “Radio” were still an avalanche of sound, just a lot of energy really.  But the tunes themselves, songs like “Sister Europe,” would not have benefited from that kind of full-tilt approach.  I always felt that the band had this incredible sort of power, but it also had this refined kind of almost laid-back feel at times.”

Tim Butler continues, “Even though we were playing minimally back then, we were playing minimally in interesting ways, which made it sound more complicated than it was.  Our songs were a wall of simple melodies, hummable melodies.  Not that you can hum “India.”  I don’t think I’ll ever be a bus stop and hear someone whistling “India”!”

But you know what he means and it was the ability to isolate that knowledge and turn it into something more than a notion that Lillywhite brought to the sessions.  And it was that, in turn, that encouraged the Psychedelic Furs” own confidence to flourish.

For each of the band members, Christmas 1979 was spent playing back a tape of the completed album, then reconvening to acknowledge that it didn’t quite hit the spot.  They could listen to “Sister Europe,” and know they had recreated the feel of the live experience.  But they could pick holes in the versions of “Fall” and “Imitation Of Christ,” and know that both needed to be completely remixed.

And there was more.  Lillywhite’s version of “Flowers,” all agreed, was certainly inferior to the one they’d taped with Taylor and Thompson during the sessions for their debut single; while “Girl’s Song” just didn’t work at all.  It would ultimately be dropped in favour of the “We Love You”/”Pulse” 45 coupling, before elements were cannibalised for a completely new song, “All Of This And Nothing.”

They could even admit, with an honesty that really wasn’t shared by the fans that heard the same tape (bootleg cassettes were on the street market circuit some two months ahead of the actual album), that the medley of “Blacks,” “Chaos” and “Radio” wasn’t all that it ought to be, either.   “They’re a feeling more than anything else,” opines Ashton and the Lillywhite mix didn’t quite nail it.  On 7th January 1980, the Psychedelic Furs alone returned to the studio for three days, to remix three tracks and reorganize the rest.

On the whole, however, it was impossible not to acknowledge that the band had done themselves, and their music, proud.  John Ashton: “The first album was about how it was great to be in a band, it was like  – “this is what it’s all about!”  It was just such fun.  That’s all I ever wanted to do, play guitar in a band, and I spent a year or so being in London, just kind of being at loose ends, wondering what was going to happen.  And then I met these guys and it just all started to avalanche, snowball.”

The Psychedelic Furs – The Psychedelic Furs (UK CBS 84084)

(A brutalized US version, and a hideously compressed CD both exist.  They should be ignored.)

Side One

India

Sister Europe

Imitation of Christ

Fall

Pulse

Side Two

We Love You

Wedding Song

Blacks/Radio

Flowers

(adapted from the forthcoming revised edition of the book The Psychedelic Furs: Beautiful Chaos by Dave Thompson)

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