The Psychedelic Furs – It’s All In Your Mind!

 By Madeline Bocaro © 1980

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I just unearthed my talk with Richard Butler and John Ashton of the Psychedelic Furs for CMJ magazine during their first USA tour. We were backstage at their NYC performance at The Ritz on October 22, 1980. (Their debut album had been released in March). It was a pleasure speaking with fellow Velvet Underground fans. Half of their name is inspired by the Velvets’ song “Venus In Furs’…

“It all depends on your idea of psychedelia. Everybody has a different concept of it. For me, it has nothing to do with drugs or day-glo colors. It has to do with the mind. ‘Psyche’”.

Richard Butler, lyricist and vocalist for the Psychedelic Furs is sitting in a cluttered dressing room at The Ritz in New York city. He expounds upon this theory of psychedelia, linking past with present. “Ten years ago, psychedelia thrived on the innocence of a young society who unthinkingly accepted it into their culture. I find that I have a much more challenging task to achieve those same results in the 80s. People have since been exposed to various new musical forms; experimental, pop, punk, etc… and their standards of acceptance are much higher. People now have more freedom of choice and they know more about what’s going on around them.”

The Psychedlic Furs’ music does not bear any of the conventional characteristics of that earlier period. Their 1980s version of psychedelia comes down hard on the truth. They focus upon the progressive and artistic elements of the genre rather than the drug-induced escapist attitudes equated with early psychedelia.

The Furs hold a mirror to social values. Butler’s surrealistic lyrics distort and ridicule contemporary life in abstract passages. His snide and sarcastic vocals are shouted like a warning (usually in monotone) and they set a dismal atmosphere. The hypnotic guitars of John Ashton and Roger Morris work in conjunction with each other, while Duncan Kilburn’s sax accentuates Butler’s aggression. Tim Butler’s bass blends with Vince Ely’s pulsating drums to form a strong bottom, making their music more danceable than that of the ‘60s psychedelic bands such as Moby Grape or the Electric Prunes.

Despite the hot, bright day-glo lighting, the Furs’ live performance at The Ritz in October had a dark, chilling atmosphere.  A lengthy encore of “Flowers” developed into a near dirge, a reflection on the days when their performances relied upon heavy improvisation. Richard’s still intensity often exploded into moments of frenzy, but always reverted to a cold stare.

Once an art student, Butler found that music was a better vehicle for him. “It gives you room for physical expression as well as creativity.” His heroes include Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. (Notice the pastiche of the Velvets’ Exploding Plastic Inevitable stage set (designed by Warhol) pictures on the back of the Furs’ debit LP).

In response to the question of whether the band operated democratically, Ashton replied, “Yes, we definitely are a democracy, though Richard and Tim are brothers and function as the nucleus of the band. We are six individuals with different ideas, and we all contribute equally. The band are pleased with their debut LP on Columbia Records (the American release has two tracks not on the import, with “Blacks/Radio” being deleted), although says Richard, “It could have been a bit less polished, but it’s still a damn great record.” Producer Steve Lillywhite (XTC, Peter Gabriel) has done a commendable job capturing the Furs’ urgency. Richard continues, “CBS Records has been very helpful to us. They don’t tell us what to do, and they don’t hype us – no bullshit – and the record is selling.”

But does he ever feel that people are missing his message? “Yes, sometimes I do, but I can see that there are some who understand. Maybe there is some confusion, being that the lyrics are sort of obtuse. Maybe on the next LP I’ll use a more narrative approach. I just want to make people look closer at themselves and at each other. They can come to our gigs and dance, and not understand anything at all, but at least we know we’re an intelligent dance band. We’re the soundtrack to modern living.”

 – CMJ November 24, 1980 – Vol. 4 NO. 5

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