I was a Psychedelic Furs fan from the get go. I remember the first album creating a huge seismic event on its release in 1980. I actually heard a couple of tracks from this played on [I believe] WORJ’s “Import Hour” where DJ Mike Cooper played “Sister Europe” and its B-side, “* * * *.” A bit later, I saw the ad for their debut album in its US “remix version” in the holy “Dogfood” free New Wave music paper available at a local record store chain and it was the album that I bought that week. As I recall, it was part of the CBS Developing Artist Series, and as such had a $4.98 list, often discounted to $3.99. This was an important consideration for an eleventh grader as I was at the time!
The album had been dramatically resequenced for American ears and some tracks were missing with cuts from a non-LP single appended to the running order. Even the cover was completely different; the garish Barney Bubbles artwork having been ditched for a dark, moody design that was considerably less dissonant to the musical contents. For better or worse, this is how I’ve experienced the album for over 30 years. The US CD I bought in the 80s is a straight dupe of the LP version. In 2002, Epic/Legacy finally remastered/reissued the CD of it with the UK track listing with select bonus tracks but I haven’t managed to get one of these just yet.
That debut album was probably the first time I’d heard productions by Steve Lillywhite. His life-changing production of the third Peter Gabriel album was still some months down the road. I was familiar with Martin Hannett from the debut OMD single, “Electricity.” Hannett had produced the “Susan’s Strange” single added to the US copy. The album was a big hit to my ears for blending Roxy Music/Velvet Underground influences with the nascent Post-Punk style of the day. It was abrasive and confrontational with an underlying dark melodicism. Vocalist Richard Butler sounded like he had gargled with broken glass, but his lyrics were artistic and distinct with an aversion to cliché that I appreciated.
“We cut his feet with razor blades and out of him comes foul white light.” – “Flowers”
When their second album, “Talk Talk Talk” appeared in 1981 it was the must-buy of the week. It sported ten new songs that were more focused and less sprawling than some of the material on the debut. “Pretty In Pink” was the standout hit that caught a lot of ears. Steve Lillywhite produced again in spite of his stated policy not to repeat working with an act. The Furs appeared to be a band on the rise, and rise they did.
Todd Rundgren produced their third album “Forever Now” and the gorgeous “Love My Way” became their first top 40 hit. I was ripe to see them but living as I did in Central Florida in the early 80s, none of the bands I loved ever included trips to my home town. It was strictly a “Rock Superbowl” mentality in Orlando! It remained until 1987, when touring behind their biggest hit “Heartbreak Beat” and the surprisingly boring “Midnight To Midnight” album before I’d finally get a chance to see the band I’d followed for seven years.
1987 was a bad time to see any of the bands I had been a fan of for the previous 5-7 years as the mid decade musical mindset had drifted far from the musical values that had defined my generation of bands. Seeing them, I had the sense that it was too late for me; like I had missed my chance at something special and had to settle for second best. The Furs didn’t outright stink like other Post-Punk faves Simple Minds had the previousyear, but the thrill was definitely gone.
Fast forward a quarter of a century later and I was happy to see that The Furs would be playing The Orange Peel in my new home town. I definitely planned to go. I had the sense that it would be a far better proposition all around. Even Simple Minds had wised up and when I saw their excellent show in 2002, they were older and far wiser than the train wreck of 1986 that I had previously seen. I suspected that this would be the case for The Furs as well. The band had diabanded in the early 90s and the Butler brothers had formed Love Spit Love to some acclaim, but the group had occasionally reformed for tours in the new millennium and better yet, this tour would be a “classic album” tour where the band played a seminal album in its entirety as part of the show. Of course, this time it would be 1981’s “Talk Talk Talk” and I’d get to hear a whole lot of material that got short shrift 25 years earlier. Guaranteed.
I got to the venue and it was confirmed that there would be no opening act. This was “an evening with the Psychedelic Furs.” The band took to the stage in the nicely full [est. 800/1100 capacity] club and proceeded to play all of “Talk Talk Talk” in its entirety, though they played the UK album running order in order to achieve a more powerful live arc of music. Richard and Tim Butler [bass] have been the standby original members of the band in all of its incarnations. Half of the original lineup had left by the time of the third album, and sax mainstay Mars Williams, who had played with the band intermittently since then, was the next most veteran member of this night’s lineup. The band was fleshed out with Rich Good on guitars, Amanda Kramer [ex-Information Society] on keyboards, and Paul Garisto on drums, all of whom have played with The Furs for years.
Original guitarist John Ashton sometimes accompanies the band but tonight Rich Good was in the drivers seat and I for one, didn’t mind. His playing was a tasty improvement to the sound of the albums in my opinion. He hit the marks where they couldn’t be bettered and exceeded the tone and attack of a great swath of fine material. Likewise, Mars Williams on sax is ten times the player that original saxophonist Roger Morris was on the first two albums. The Furs were unique among their peers for having a sax player. There were countless Roxy Music inspired bands, but few of them crossed that line. Williams had the benefit of a wide playlist with thorough sax integration to the sound and he ran with it like the champ he is.
The setlist began with A-side of the UK album so “Pretty In Pink” was served up right way as the second song to the delight of the crowd. The most intense tracks like “So Run Down” and my favorite from this album, “Into You Like A Train” followed mid-set before coming down with the more reflective material like “All Of This And Nothing and “She Is Mine.” Throughout the set vocalist Butler said only the occasional “thanks” but the look on his face at having the chance to perform well-loved material and to do it so spectacularly, thirty years on, communicated everything he needed to. Looking like Keith Richards’ younger, wiser, bookish brother, it was clearly a joy for him and the energized, appreciative crowd completed the excellent vibe.
Quite frankly, Butler was legendary in the early days for drinking heavily and retreating to the wings for a smoke. As much as I love the first album, any shows during that time may have been better contemplated than attended. At 55, Butler is a far more together individual and frankly, his vocals are miles better as well. The strident croak of the debut [it really is harsh] have been replaced by a voice of considerable power for its admitted idiosyncracies.
After a brief intermission featuring live recordings of Edith Piaf [!] the band returned to play the rest of their concert. Material was pulled from just the first five albums. The only track from my beloved debut was the top notch single “Sister Europe.” I would have loved “Susan’s Strange,” “Pulse,” and of course, “India,” but “Sister Europe” is definitely my second favorite cut from that album and among the handful of my very favorite Psychedelic Furs tracks.
Album cuts and singles from “Forever Now” and “Mirror Moves” formed the bulk of the second set. “President Gas” from “Forever Now” is a track that will just become more and more significant in my lifetime, so it’s not in any danger of sounding dated. “Love My Way” gave Amanda Kramer plenty of synthesizer goodness to contribute to the sound. “Here Come Cowboys,” “Heartbeat,” and “Highwire Days” were further welcome additions to the setlist
The beautiful “Heaven” from “Mirror Moves” as another top five Furs cut and it shone brightly in a live setting. The melody is so gorgeous just thinking about it is making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The only track played from “Midnight To Midnight” was “Heartbreak Beat” which was a wise decision. While the album seems blanded out, the single is undeniably appealing. If there was ever a track worth saving from that album, it was surely the one.
This was a great evening with The Furs and a real treat hearing them perform their second album as a whole. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a “classic album” show and while there is the regrettable hint of nostalgia, the fact remains that “Talk Talk Talk” is an undeniably great album and it’s likely that all of its songs have never been performed live over the years; not even when it was contemporary. When I saw them previously in 1987, they had five albums worth of material to draw from and last Friday, the exact same conditions applied. What they delivered was a far better evening with The Psychedelic Furs given the benefit of hindsight and accumulated wisdom. That the band were playing for their legacy rather than the ravening maw of the chart monster made a huge difference. Tim Butler hints that new material is being worked out and if the band manage to make their eighth album at any point, I certainly hope that they hit Asheville again for another show.
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