The Psychedelic Furs - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The Psychedelic Furs emerged towards the end of the 1970s as a great English postpunk band with memorable songs, a seductive sound and a croaking bohemian singer whom writers never fail to compare to Johnny Rotten. As the band’s membership dwindled from six to three in the mid-80s, the Furs continued to deliver at a high level of pop ambition until the imperatives and mannerisms of the era’s major label product completely replaced the crucial elements of the band’s original sound. The band broke up after approaching a return to form in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but reunited in 2000 and continues to perform. The Furs have promised, but not delivered, a new studio album.
Brothers Richard, Tim and Simon Butler attended the Sex Pistols’ show at London’s 100 Club in September 1976 and were transformed by it. “I had never seen—and still haven't—anybody with that much direct charisma, that much confrontational in your face charisma, and for that it was mindblowing,” Butler later said of Johnny Rotten’s performance in an interview with Tony Fletcher. The Butler brothers formed a punk band that went by several names, including RKO, Radio, and the Europeans, with Richard singing, Tim playing bass and Simon on guitar. Simon was kicked out in favor of second guitarist Roger Morris, and at some point in the late 1970s the band started calling itself the Psychedelic Furs. Throughout its career, the band struggled to find a regular drummer, but Paul Wilson drummed in the band’s early days. They added saxophonist Duncan Kilburn and guitarist John Ashton, both of whom contributed distinguishing features to the Furs’ early sound. Before any Psychedelic Furs records had been issued, Richard Butler and future Death in June member Patrick Leagas collaborated as the Runners from 1984 on EP (RF84 1978).
In July 1979, the Furs recorded their first session for BBC Radio DJ John Peel with fill-in drummer Rod Johnson, who later played with Robyn Hitchcock. Butler’s vocal tone is uncharacteristically clear and full-throated on the Peel session version of “Imititation of Christ.” Peel broadcast the Furs’ first session often, along with the message that the band was in need of a regular drummer. Listener Vince Ely, who had drummed in Chrissie Hynde’s last band before the Pretenders, approached the Furs and got the job. CBS Records, which was then using its massive resources to acquire punk and new wave bands in the UK, US and Canada, signed the Psychedelic Furs in 1979.
The Johnny Rotten comparisons make the most sense with respect to the Psychedelic Furs’ first single “We Love You / Pulse” (Epic 1979), produced by Howard Thompson and Ian Taylor, the former a label A&R man. Both sides of the single and “Flowers,” from the same session, were included on the debut album The Psychedelic Furs (CBS 1980). Producer Steve Lillywhite, then much in demand in the UK, recorded the rest of the album’s songs, including “India” and the single “Sister Europe” (CBS 1980). CBS America feared “Blacks/Radio,” which includes the line, “If it wasn’t for the blacks in the south, my father’s refrigerator factory would close down,” a line Butler attributes to Andy Warhol. The American release of The Psychedelic Furs did not include the disputed song and further altered the album’s sequence by inserting one track from a session with Factory Records producer Martin Hannett on each side. Hannett put lovely Krautrock touches on the Furs’ “Susan’s Strange,” also released as the B-side of the brilliant single “Mr. Jones” (CBS 1980), produced by Ian Taylor and not included on the first LP.
The Furs’ first single and album identified the singer as “Butler Rep,” whose favorite word judging by the lyrics was “stupid.” Richard Butler used his own name, more allusive lyrics, a more intimate singing voice and an altogether more poetic persona on the Furs’ classic second album Talk Talk Talk (Columbia 1981), again produced by Steve Lillywhite. The album includes many of the Psychedelic Furs’ best and best-known songs: in addition to the singles “Pretty in Pink” and “Dumb Waiters” and a superior performance of “Mr. Jones,” Talk Talk Talk includes the favorites “Into You Like A Train,” “No Tears,” “I Wanna Sleep With You” and “All Of This And Nothing.” Please, Butlers, don’t hurt ‘em!
Duncan Kilburn and Richard Butler fought one too many times on subsequent tours and Kilburn was kicked out. According to Butler’s interview with Tony Fletcher, John Ashton communicated through the band’s manager that he would be fine with sacking Kilburn so long as Roger Morris was also kicked out, “which I foolishly agreed to and shouldn't have done,” Butler added. “Because there was no ill feeling between us.” So two fewer Furs entered the New York studio to record Forever Now (Columbia 1982) with producer Todd Rundgren. Flo and Eddie, late of the Turtles and Mothers, sang backing vocals on the album, most prominently on the single “Love My Way,” but synthesizers—presumably Rundgren’s?—were louder than Flo and Eddie on Forever Now. Ever anxious, CBS America replaced Forever Now’s attractive cover artwork with its own marketing imagery on the US release.
Vince Ely quit after Forever Now, and the Birthday Party’s Phill Calvert drummed in the band on the US tour behind the album. Richard and Tim Butler moved to the United States following that tour, and John Ashton flew out to record the gorgeous pop album Mirror Moves (Columbia 1984) in Los Angeles and New York. Producer Keith Forsey programmed drums on all the songs except “Here Come Cowboys” and “Heaven,” recorded with Mink DeVille drummer Tommy Price. Butler collaborated with Death in June in 1984 and 1985, appearing on “NADA!” and the Born Again 12-inch (both New European Recordings 1985).
John Hughes, the movies’ sentimental fabulist of American teenagerhood, took the story and title of “Pretty in Pink” for his 1986 feature. The Psychedelic Furs re-recorded the song and slicked it up considerably with producer Chris Kimsey for the movie soundtrack, which reached #7 in the Billboard Top 200. “John Hughes’s was such a horrible take on that story,” Richard Butler told Tony Fletcher in 2001. “So Hollywood. It’s very weird to look in fashion magazines and see ‘Pretty in Pink’ all over the place. Before I wrote that song I just liked the alliteration of it, the fact that it could mean someone could be pretty when she was naked, or it could mean something else. To have coined a phrase that has gone into public use is very odd.”
Midnight to Midnight (Columbia 1987) was a slick pop album produced by Kimsey, who had previously produced Jimmy Cliff and the Rolling Stones. The Furs worked with Stephen Street, who had collaborated with Morrissey, on the new song “All That Money Wants,” included on the best-of compilation all of this and nothing (Columbia 1988). The band recorded Book of Days (Columbia 1989) in London with Vince Ely returning on drums and David M. Allen producing. Stephen Street produced World Outside (Columbia 1991), with drums by Don Yallech, after which the band broke up.
Richard Butler formed Love Spit Love with guitarist Richard Fortus and, later, drummer Frank Ferrer. Knox Chandler contributed to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. Richard and Tim Butler and John Ashton reunited as the Psychedelic Furs in 2000 with Fortus, Ferrer and saxophonist Mars Williams. The reunited band released Beautiful Chaos: Greatest Hits Live (2001), featuring both live and studio versions of the new song “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime),” as well as the DVD Live from the House of Blues (Eagle Vision 2001). Butler released his first solo album Richard Butler (Koch 2006). The Butler brothers and Ashton have remained the only constant members in the Furs reunion, though Ashton has been missing from the last few tours. The Furs have promised to release a new album, but it has not materialized at the time of this writing.