It was 1980, the year of Prince’s Dirty Mind, Springsteen’s The River, and Talking Heads’ boldest statement yet, Remain in Light.
Across the pond — London to be exact — a budding band was proving itself to the British pop scene with a self-titled debut album.
The Psychedelic Furs formed in 1977, just as punk was fizzling out and making way for the avant-garde darkness of postpunk and the angular futurism of New Wave.
Brothers Richard (vocals) and Tim Butler (bass) were fascinated with the contrast between the primal edginess of punk and the smooth sophistication of art rock. So the six-member band — which formed in the Butler family living room — melded these styles, creating an attractive fusion of atmospheric rock splashed with waves of pop throughout its melodies and saxophone hooks.
“People in punk bands didn’t feel they could fit in with that sort of music — the glam and the prog rock," Tim Butler said in an interview with Nashville Scene.
“We got [the saxophone] in the band because we were fans, when we started, of Roxy Music, and they had a cool sax player, and they had a cool sound. I like to think of our sound as like a melding of the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music.”
Those two bands are the perfect representation of the Furs' delicate musical balance. They borrowed from the Pistols’ aggression through Richard Butler’s vocals, while traces of Roxy Music’s finessed tales of sex and glamour can be heard in the Furs' lyrics and pop hooks.
Though it was evident the band was still finding its sound on its debut album, the British press and charts treated the Furs well: The album peaked at number 18 in the United Kingdom.
Their sophomore album, Talk Talk Talk, however, was truly the beginning of their pop success. No longer trying to sound like a mashup of their idols, the bandmates had crafted their own unique sound with help from producer Steve Lillywhite.
Lillywhite — who at the time was working with U2, XTC, and Siouxsie and the Banshees too — also produced the Furs' debut and wanted the band to take more risks this time around.
Richard Butler says Talk Talk Talk allowed the definitive Furs sound to come to life.
“The first album was certainly the sound of the band as it was at the time, and the second step was refining that sound,” Richard Butler told the Quietus, adding that
The band also began drawing attention in the States. Talk Talk Talk charted on the Billboard 200 upon its release.
One of the band’s new American fans was none other than a young Molly Ringwald, the future muse of director John Hughes. The redheaded actress played the song “Pretty in Pink” to Hughes and suggested he write something around it.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the cult film of the same title debuted, and by then, the Furs had already released two more albums and scored their first Top 100 hit with “Love My Way” from 1982’s Forever Now, which was produced by Todd Rundgren.
The Furs re-released “Pretty in Pink” as a single to coincide with the soundtrack release, though the newer version was seemingly less gritty. Regardless, it became a massive success.
Richard Butler says the song was a metaphor for nudity and promiscuity.
“The song, to me, was actually about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks that she's wanted and in demand and clever and beautiful, but people are talking about her behind her back,” he told the Quietus. “That was the idea of the song. And John Hughes, bless his late heart, took it completely literally and completely overrode the metaphor altogether! I still like the song,” he joked.
Much like the striking relatability of Hughes’ teen characters, the Psychedelic Furs and their New Wave counterparts were authentic alternative heroes in the age of MTV.
British New Wave brought a much-needed dose of darkness and humanity that was lacking in America’s pop sphere. After all, this was the time when older acts were trying their best to adapt to the '80s sound through synthy jams, to varying degrees of sophistication.
Although the mid-’80s were big for the Furs, the band never expected such success. Pretty in Pink had catapulted them into the American Zeitgeist, and they felt pressured to strike for new hits while the pop iron was still hot.
The result was 1987’s Midnight to Midnight, a rushed album that Richard Butler has since dismissed as “vapid.” The members of the once-small English band found themselves disillusioned with their place in pop.
“Part of me didn’t want to get to that level,” Richard Butler said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “I [had] achieved a certain amount of success, and it was good enough.”
Two albums later, in 1991, the band went on an indefinite hiatus.
In the past few years, the Furs have seen an unexpected revival through recent features on two modern, successful '80s-themed soundtracks.
A short scene in the second season of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things places two of its teenaged characters — the will-they-
Perhaps an even bigger soundtrack feature for the band is 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, the indie gay romance starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. The scene involves an inhibited dance where, for a moment, the characters are free to be themselves. The song of choice? “Love My Way,” which Diffuser says Richard Butler wrote about “the challenges of being ‘a girl in a gay relationship.’" The chorus goes: “Love my way, it’s a new road/I follow where my mind goes.”
These soundtracks are introducing the band’s hits to younger audiences and, in turn, boosting the Furs' streaming numbers.
With a solid spot in the '80s pop canon due to its unlikely pop achievements, the band now enjoys success as a solid touring act. South Florida concertgoers will hear “Love My Way,” “The Ghost in You,” and other hits when the Psychedelic Furs play the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale Saturday, April 20.
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