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Revisiting the Psychedelic Furs

By Jonathan Perry

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  With his goatee and glasses, Richard Butler might be difficult to spot in the crowd of New Yorkers he roams among these days. But the moment the former Psychedelic Furs frontman took the stage at Mama Kin last month and opened his mouth to sing a song from his new band Love Spit Love's second album, Trysome Eatone, there was absolutely no question who he was. "I know what Heaven knows," he crooned in the sandpapery sneer that was his former band's signature during a dark decade defined by Reagan, Thatcher, and rays of light like R.E.M., the Cure, and, yes, the Furs.

Unlike some of their peers, the Furs have never been granted the historical importance or accorded the critical recognition of, say, the Smiths -- even though they link Britain's glam, punk, and new-wave movements. Although they arrived just after the Sex Pistols imploded, as artists they stood firmly in the aesthetic void that separated Bryan Ferry from Johnny Rotten. Infatuated with glamor and emboldened by possibility, Butler and his band managed to sound both jaded and hungry when they burst on the scene in 1979.

Only now is that legacy beginning to be acknowledged, with modern rock titans like Smashing Pumpkins, Live, and Counting Crows covering Furs tunes in concert and on disc. Listening to the 33 tracks on Columbia/Legacy's new two-CD Furs compilation, Should God Forget: A Retrospective, reconfirms the band's rightful place in rock's post-Zeppelin history. The career-spanning set, which includes a handful of unreleased tracks and live versions in addition to the group's best-known material, chronicles the Furs from their early days of beautiful chaos and corrosive allure ("Into You like a Train") to their high-gloss years as a polished new-wave act ("The Ghost in You") to the latter days of not-so-beautiful chaos that began to look like mere disarray ("There's a World Outside"). Butler's limited but distinctive voice mirrored the band's moves, ranging from a bilious, Rotten-esque drawl that leered over John Ashton's flanged guitars to a very Ferry croon set against the nightlife backdrop of singles-bar saxophones and synths.

Butler now describes the Furs' initial musical approach as "almost glam-punk rock with good lyrics." The band sounded defiantly ambitious and unapologetically untutored all at once -- a disposition Butler credits the punk climate with encouraging. "Suddenly everything was different. It wasn't like watching Yes on television and thinking, well, I could never do this in a million years, it's like trying to win the lottery."

For his stream-of-consciousness sketches, Butler looked to the impressionistic poetry of Bob Dylan and the gritty urban realism of the Velvet Underground. The resultant lyrics approximated that remarkable capacity for visceral extremes that marked both Dylan and Lou Reed: savage and sarcastic one minute, introspective and melancholy the next. "I didn't care much for the punk-rock lyric," Butler explains, "though I liked the energy of punk. It's not like I sat back and said, I wanted the lyrics to sound like Dylan and the saxophones like Roxy Music, but I wanted that kind of aesthetic. I wanted that sneer. There was something about it that was a lot crueler and a lot more snide than punk. Johnny Lydon was great for his time, but next to Bob Dylan he sounded like a child throwing a tantrum."

Revisiting "Love My Way" and "President Gas" today makes it clear that the Furs were, indeed, a product of another era. But listening to Butler's new outfit at Mama Kin, one could almost recall those ancient days when "alternative" wasn't just a marketing buzzword. "I'm feeling about the new album the way I did about some of the early Furs stuff," he says. "I've been playing it a lot, too, which is a good sign. Either that or I'm losing my taste."

Butler's palate is just fine. Although Trysome Eatone is nowhere to be found on the Billboard charts, it's a far better disc than his band's 1994 Love Spit Love debut, abounding with the singer's trademark touches: imagistic lyrics, deftly skewed turns of phrase, and insidious melodies that radiate bittersweet charm. And, of course, there's that voice. You could argue that this disc is his strongest since the Furs' zenith of the early 1980s. But, to paraphrase Lou Reed, those were different times.


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