Psychedelic Furs - Forever Now
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Beware the artist who lacks a tectonic sense of self; it’s the stable ones who betray you soonest. Meanwhile the poseur will flit—moth-like, compellingly—to another identity to forestall the inevitable. Thus, marvel at Madonna, Like a Prayer, Erotica, and Ray of Light, and mourn the fact that there’s only one She’s So Unusual.
Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs was a splendid fraud who rued the day John Lydon implored God to save the Queen. While perfecting his mirror moves with a hairbrush microphone, out came this emphysemal croak quite lacking in world-historic je ne sais quoi; in a landscape made fecund by Never Mind The Bollocks, this would never do. So Butler and his cohorts (brother Tim on bass, guitarist John Ashton, and the excellent Vince Ely on drums, among others) recorded their eponymous debut: a languid affair, with 137 instruments calling like boats in the fog, in bleating imitation of Bowie’s Low and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. For the follow-up good ol’ Steve Lillywhite steered the Furs into commercial waters—less pistols, lots more sex—and produced what many scribes consider their masterpiece, 1981’s Talk Talk Talk. I guess it is: hooks all over the place, Vince Ely stamping every song with his signature bam-bam-bam, and Butler’s confused sextalk garnishing screeds like “Pretty in Pink” (“The one who insists he was the first in line is the last to remember her name”). It’s as if Butler realized that someone had to wear Johnny Rotten’s clothes now that Rotten was committed to death disco.
There was a problem: these records weren’t much fun. Until 1982 their best songs reflected the turmoil of a frontman dying to sell out (back when “sell out” weren’t mere buzzwords) but too chickenshit to admit it, like a guy who has to take a girl to dinner and smile at her jokes when he just wants to fuck her. Luckily, Butler and the other Furs didn’t have long to wait before they could hurl their bad faith on their audience: something called MTV debuted in 1981. As Duran Duran discovered, to our eternal delight, suddenly it was safe for average-looking poseurs to pilfer three decades’ worth of rock iconography. Profitable too. It’s worth noting that the Psychedelic Furs sold records. Top 40 radio played them years before Depeche Mode and the Cure. John Hughes wrote a movie based on “Pretty in Pink,” although evidently he didn’t listen to the song (Molly Ringwald should have been a trollop, with Ducky laughing at her predicament).
Enter Todd Rundgren. Years of crafting a rather enervated power pop beloved only by ELO fans had taught him that his bad ideas worked best in concert with a band that wasn’t too simpatico (think the New York Dolls and XTC). Recording the Furs was a dream assignment. Graft his Fisher-Price psychedelia to an act with as rickety a sense of normality-as-Sylvia Plath and presto—Magical Mystery Tour! 1982’s Forever Now is really the Furs’ masterpiece, the album on which Butler’s sextalk was sexier and gabbier, the sociopathic monologues hilarious and apt, Ashton and Ely snarling and pounding as if they could scare the Mellotrons out of the studio. Forever Now does quasi-rococo punk a hell of a lot better than those Echo & the Bunnymen and Siouxsie albums those poor emo kids find in used record stores; it is conflicted and assured, sometimes within the same song. It’s the sound of Butler modeling the new clothes and applying the hair gel that his handsome record company advance bought him. When he admits that “Knee-jerk negativity just never got me through,” you marvel at his audacity; shouldn’t he have just said, “Just never got me laid”?
Let us now praise the Furs’ first crossover hit “Love My Way,” which features not only the best use of marimbas since the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” but the most explicit avowal of the Butler Doctrine: using the bully pulpit to endorse an issue he’ll disown one song later. Developed and embellished with unexpected subtlety, “President Gas” has a nasty thing or two to say about conformity; “Sleep Comes Down” has one lovely thing to say in its behalf. The pulsing “Run and Run” is Butler at his horniest, using caddishness as a come-on (“I’ve been waiting all night for someone like you / But you’ll have to do”). Best of all is the fearsome clamor of the title track, with Ashton’s guitar imitating a saxophone, Ely imitating John Bonham, and Butler imitating a human being as he and the girl in “Pretty in Pink” bestride a world populated by bankers in tired suits, policeman in sunglasses, and Ronald Reagan, enjoying every minute of it.
Now seemed to stretch into the future, as each successive Furs album outsold its predecessor until 1987’s Midnight to Midnight took them to, I dunno, Steve Winwood territory, to Butler’s horror and our own. The first side of 1984’s Mirror Moves, however, is well worth your acquaintance; producer Keith Forsey reconfigured Forever Now’s “Danger” and “Goodbye” as the synthtastic “Heartbeat,” “Here Come Cowboys,” and the Furs’ greatest ballad, “The Ghost in You.” Butler was ready for his close-up, and the marketplace let him have it. There was something immensely satisfying about a singer this intelligent and defiantly conflicted pocketing the money the deposed John Lydon never figured out how to earn. If the history of rock has redressed the affair in Lydon’s favor, it only shows the fraudulence of the adage that winners write history. Losers write the contemporaneous.