When the Psychedelic Furs first formed in England in 1977, the punk movement was still going strong. And yet the Furs didn't subscribe to its principles. They didn't scream about anarchy in the UK or write songs about rioting in London. In fact, singer Richard Butler didn't scream at all. His husky vocals made him sound more like Joe Cocker than Johnny Rotten. And the band's synth-heavy music had more in common with the Doors than the Clash. So what made the group, which still stands as one of post-punk's most original acts, want to do something different?
"People were getting bored of the punk three-chord thrash and all the nihilism," says bassist Tim Butler via phone from his Kentucky home. "They wanted something different. Our sound came about from the fact that we were six people jamming and not really knowing how to play or write songs. We would go on stage and jam for 10 or 15 minutes on a song like 'Imitation of Christ' and 'Sister Europe' and it was refreshing to people. We delivered a wall of sound. We didn't know when to hold back. Basically, it was chaotic, but it was refreshing to the audience."
And what made the guys want to incorporate the saxophone into the mix?
"It's funny," he says. "We started out just fooling around in my room and Duncan [Kilburn] wanted to play sax. We told him to come along and play. It wasn't like we felt we needed to have a sax and had to have Duncan. He happened to be a friend who happened to play saxophone. It worked out and made us different from other bands around. There still aren't many bands with the saxophone."
The group held down a month-long residency at the Music Machine in London. Butler says only about 100 people showed up to the first gig, but by the end of the residency the group was playing to a capacity crowd of about 1500.
"People were just hungry for something new," he says.
By 1980, the band had inked a deal with Columbia and went into the studio to record with producer Steve Lillywhite, a soon-to-be hit maker who was just on his way up the ranks.
"He was starting to get a name," says Butler. "When he came to record us, he had just done Peter Gabriel and I think he had done a couple of things with Siouxsie and the Banshees. He was pretty new. He did our first album and then he did U2's first album and then our second album and then he did October. He was leapfrogging between us and U2. He was a young, fresh producer."
The Furs' resulting self-titled album was a hit in the UK but didn't really take hold in the States, even though songs such as "Sister Europe" an "India" are still staples in the band's set. The band's second album, 1981's Talk Talk Talk, had a bigger impact in the States where critics such as Robert Christau praised Butler as a "reluctant romantic who half-believed in 1967." The album featured tunes such as "Pretty in Pink" and "Dumb Waiter." "Pretty in Pink" would later resurface in a 1986 John Hughes film.
"[Actress] Molly Ringwald was a big fan of the band and that song in particular," says Butler when asked about how the tune became a hit in the film. "She asked John Hughes to write a movie vehicle for her around that song, which he did. The movie has nothing at all to do with the song. He obviously misheard something in there. It was very flattering. It was a help and a hindrance in our career. It did some good things and some bad things."
Part of the band's success stems from the distinctive keyboard sounds in songs such as "The Ghost in You" and "Love My Way."
"Those were both written by Ed Buller who was our keyboard player at the time," says Butler. "He did those keyboard parts off the top of his head. I think he thought they captured the atmosphere and the lyrics of the songs. Those are the most memorable parts of those songs."
The anti-love song "Love My Way" became an even bigger hit than "Pretty in Pink"; "Heartbreak Beat," a single from 1986's Midnight to Midnight" peaked in the Top 40. But neither of those songs are the most popular ones that the Furs now play.
"The two songs that get the most reaction live are actually 'The Ghost in You' and 'Heaven,'" says Butler. "I don't know what makes those songs get more of a reaction. I would have thought 'Heartbreak Beat' would because that's our biggest single, but it doesn't. I don't know how these things work."
So does Butler hear an influence in bands that are playing today?
"I can hear in some of the guitar parts and the mood of a lot of the music nowadays," he says. "It's crazy that a band like Korn recorded a cover of 'Love My Way.' It's weird. Their music is totally different from our music. The Foo Fighters cover 'Sister Europe.' It makes you feel good."
Butler says the band, which took a hiatus in the '90s but then reunited in 2000, is at a particularly good place. While the group hasn't issued a new studio album since getting back together (it does play one new song, "Little Miss World," in its sets), it has continued to tour.
"We're writing new songs but we want to make sure it will stand up alongside the rest of catalogue," Butler says when asked about the status of a new studio offering.
He says a change in attitude has been key to the band's rebirth.
"[We're] having fun," says Butler. "Before the hiatus/break-up we were not really having fun being in the Psychedelic Furs. Since we've been back together, we're having fun with no big ego clashes or in-fighting. The audience is singing along to the lyrics and having a great time. Having been around for so long, it's a great thing to realize that people still like you that much. We have an audience that ages from 16 to 60 and they're singing along with it. It makes us realize it was all worth it. Plus, our best is yet to come. We're not finished."