by Jane Roser
I seriously miss the 80s, with the exception of stirrup pants, shoulder pads and floppy discs. It was hot. White hot as Andi Walsh (Molly Ringwald’s Pretty In Pink character) would say. The Psychedelic Furs were instrumental in shaping the sound of new wave/alternative rock in the 80s and bringing it to an international audience. In preparing for my interview with co-founder and bass guitarist, Tim Butler, I riffled through my vinyl and found a ’45 of The Fur’s “Pretty In Pink” that I bought at Ames in 1986 for $1.77 (I know this because it still had the price tag stuck to John Ashton’s face). Listening to this and my Furs CD collection brought back a lot of memories of dancing to “Love My Way” in an old church-turned dance hall on Thursday nights in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And it was epic.
Founded in London in 1977 by brothers Richard and Tim Butler, The Psychedelic Furs emerged while the British punk scene was in it’s heyday. I asked Butler if the story about the Furs naming their band after The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” was true or a myth. “It’s a myth. We were getting drunk in a pub one night and were thinking of all of the punk band names we liked, such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols. There was an interest in the psychedelic and ‘Furs’ just fit,” he says.
But The Velvet Underground was very influential. Butler recalls the first concert he attended- Lou Reed’s solo show at the Rainbow Theater in London in 1974. When I asked if there were any bands out there today whose music he enjoys, he cited The Killers (okay- kick ass choice). The Furs played some shows with them and about half-way through one set, singer Brandon Flowers told the audience “if it hadn’t been for The Psychedelic Furs, this next song wouldn’t have been written.” The Killers then asked if they could perform “Pretty In Pink” with the Furs onstage. “It makes all of your hard work pay off,” Butler says, touched by the sentiment.
The Furs eponymous debut album was released in 1980 and produced by Steve Lillywhite, who began his career in 1977 and has since gone on to win five Grammy Awards. When asked what it was like to work with such iconic producers such as Lillywhite and Todd Rundgren (who produced the Furs’ hit single “Love My Way” and is a local boy, hailing from Upper Darby, PA), Butler has only praise and fond memories. “My favorite album was the one Todd produced (“Forever Now”). If anyone could be called a musical genius, I think Todd is. Steve is, I think, one of the best producers around. And he was just starting out when he produced our album.”
If you ask Butler which songs their fans request most often at their concerts, the list is pretty easy to guess: “Love My Way”, “Heaven” and “Pretty In Pink.” I told him that my favorite song is “The Ghost In You”, which is such haunting, beautifully written ballad- “Angels fall like rain/ and love, love, love is all of heaven away”.
“We would write songs together. I would start playing a riff and if a particular riff caught Richard’s fancy, he’d start writing lyrics and then go from a riff to a chorus. I remember that song came together very quickly. Richard would write lyrics on napkins or pieces of paper; they’d be falling out of his pockets!” Butler fondly remembers the times his brother would call home when he had an idea for a lyric and leave them on his answering machine to collect later.
DC singer/songwriter, Patrick Hawkins, who regularly performs a lovely version of “The Ghost In You” had something to say about his adoration for the song. “I discovered All of This and Nothing in 1989. My older brothers worked at a record store and brought home a copy. After a few spins, “The Ghost in You” clearly emerged as the stand out track. l had a crush that summer who never returned the affection. I’ll never forget playing and re-playing the track, my pre-teen heart breaking each time. Richard Butler plead “don’t you go, it makes no sense/ when all your talk of supermen/ just take away the time…” To this day the song is my personal anthem of the bittersweet agony of adolescent love, and my chest tightens every time I hear it play.”
Hawkins treasures well written songs more than anything in life and believes “The Ghost In You” is the soul of beauty. “One of the hallmarks of a great song is that it stands up well when re-interpreted. The song shines with a spare guitar/vocal arrangement. Stripped down to its essential elements – lyric and melody. It is timeless, beautiful and just as relevant and astonishing as it was 25 years ago. The fact that the original 1988 recording is so perfect, and that the song is equally as good when sung solo is, I think, the single biggest testament to it’s greatness,” Hawkins says.
Columbia Records released The Furs follow-up album Talk Talk Talk in 1981 which included the hit single “Pretty In Pink.” The song’s theme is actually a metaphor for nudity and about a rather promiscuous woman, then John Hughes turned it into a movie anthem whose main antagonist was a red-headed, innocent teen in an unfortunately colored prom dress. The Furs had not screened the film, nor did they know the plot when they agreed to let the song be used for Hughes’ “Pretty In Pink”.
“Molly Ringwald was a fan of the original song and she asked John Hughes to write a movie based on the song, but I don’t think he read the lyrics. He didn’t want to use the original song because he thought the guitar sounded slightly out of tune [the song was re-recorded for the film]. We saw a rough cut and thought Oh my God. What does he think this song is about?” Butler chuckles.
Talking to Tim Butler is like talking to an old friend you haven’t seen in years. He is charming, gracious, down to earth and full of humorous stories, telling them as if he was sharing them for the first time. One of my favorite stories that he shared was playing a party full of art school students in England when they were first starting out. They set up in one of the house’s rooms and started to play. “When we started playing, people started to leave and they shut the door behind them.” Their loss is all I can say.
The Psychedelic Furs will be playing Awesomefest’s kick off party at The Trocadero on Friday the 14th. Hughes’ Pretty In Pink will be screened at Parx Casino on Saturday. Butler recalls the band playing The Troc in the past “It’s a great venue with a great vibe and we’re really looking forward to playing there. Philly audiences are amazing!”
Be prepared to hear some new songs at the concert. They are working on new material and hope to have an album out by next year. By the way, since we’re on the subject of Awesomefest and all of the awesome 80s movies that are being showcased, here’s a bit o’trivia for you: Butler’s favorite 80’s movie is John Carpenter’s The Thing. Good choice, that movie scared the bejeebus outta me.
So thank you, Psychedelic Furs, for giving us music that is as relevant and inspiring today as it was when I had a bad perm, banana clips and a Jason Patric poster in my locker. Y’all rock.