What the Butlers saw – the welcome return of the Psychedelic Furs

Stage Presence: The Psychedelic Furs are all set for their latest UK return this October. Photo: Maggie Butler

It’s been 36 years since The Psychedelic Furs relocated to America, but you wouldn’t know it, listening to bass player and founder member Tim Butler.

Tim, the younger brother of lead singer Richard in a post-punk outfit best known for hits such as ‘Pretty in Pink’, ‘Love My Way’, ‘Heaven’ and ‘The Ghost in You’, still has a strong London accent, despite all those years away. And how’s life right now?

“I can’t complain, although it’s brutally hot out here.”

Ah, wel, we just happen to be having a bit of late summer sun too, I replied, keen to compete and let him know what he’s missing out on.

“So are we. It’s supposed to get to 103, so that’s some late summer heat as well.”

Okay, you win, Tim. Is home still Kentucky?

“Yeah, I’ve been here 11 years now.”

But you’ve been based in the States a lot longer.

“Oh yeah, Richard and I moved over to America in 1983. So I’ve lived over here longer than I lived in England.”

Do you get back to your old haunts when you visit?

“We don’t really have time. It’s normally a pretty tight schedule.”

Front Man: Tim’s older brother, Richard Butler, who first floated the idea of them forming a band (Photo: Mike Pfeiffer).

If you could find that little bit of down-time, would it be a case of heading back to your native Middlesex?

“I think it would probably be down the pub we used to go to on afternoons when we were first in the band and unemployed, when we both lived in Muswell Hill.”

Ah, on The Kinks’ old North London patch.

“Yeah, yeah, the Muswell Hillbillies, yep!”

Incidentally, despite those London roots, Tim told me his folks – he’s one of three lads – were originally from Bolton-by-Bowland, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, and Ripon in Yorkshire’s West Riding, Yorkshire, so has a fair amount of Northern England pedigree.

Richard had an art school background. Was it a similar story with his little brother?

“Actually, I’d just left school after O-levels and CSEs, and pretty much immediately he said, ‘Do you wanna form a band?’ Like millions of people before, I said, ’I can’t play’. He asked what I wanted to play. I fancied drums but couldn’t afford a kit, yet wanted to be at the bottom end – either bass or drums. So I got a bass, learned to play it, and within around six months we were playing our first shows.”

Do those early appearances (they started performing in early 1977) remain clear in the memory?

“Yeah, we did one at the old Roxy club. Richard read about Iggy Pop taking a vacuum cleaner on stage with The Stooges, so we tried that there … but it just sounded like bass feedback, so we stopped that pretty quickly. Ha ha!”

If I recall right, the Roxy wasn’t running that long in the scheme of things.

“No, and I think we were playing there at the tail end of it. That was probably ‘77/’78.”

Did you happen to see The Clash open that iconic punk venue on New Year’s Day, 1977?

“No, but I saw The Clash play the 100 Club with the Sex Pistols, which was what really made us talk about getting a band together. That was with Keith Levene playing with The Clash, and there was Siouxsie and the Banshees playing, with Sid Vicious playing drums and Marco Pirroni playing guitar, and of course the Pistols had Glen Matlock with them.

“That was a transformative gig for us, with the Pistols a kick up the arse to the music business and the whole prog rock, denim-clad sort of music scene. Sort of like Nirvana were in America in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“I think there needs to be another kick up the arse now. For a while I thought it was going to be The Killers, but they didn’t turn out like I thought. A great band, but I think the mainstream pop chart is still a bit stagnant. It all sounds the same. There’s nothing that stands out. It could all be the same person.”

On this UK tour you get to finish at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, another treasured venue with a punk past. Is that old ground for you?

“Sort of. It’s great. Last time we were here we ended up playing (The Cure’s) Robert Smith’s Meltdown Festival – getting to play the Royal Festival Hall, which was a great call to be asked by him to do it. But anywhere in London is sort of like home territory.

“We started there and played the Electric Ballroom and the Music Machine (both Camden, not far from The Roundhouse), where I remember playing when they had the original stage up in the air, this huge jukebox underneath the stage. I’m talking way back now!”

That sell-out Royal Festival Hall date was one of a handful of successful UK summer shows for the band in 2018, The Psychedelic Furs now returning – for a third year in succession – for a nine-date tour starting next Tuesday, October 1st, at the O2 Ritz in Manchester, just across the road from Oxford Road station.

The Psychedelic Furs’ story properly started with the brothers rehearsing in their front room some 42 years ago, until their Mum threw them out for being too loud, their first self-titled debut LP following in early 1980. I wasn’t even a teenager until later that year, and admittedly it took me a while to catch up, brought up to speed by night-time BBC Radio 1.

I certainly knew a lot more about them by the time the success of John Hughes’ 1986 US high school rom-com movie Pretty in Pink led to a re-release of the 1981 single (from second album, Talk Talk Talk) that inspired its title. But it was really 1988’s All of This and Nothing compilation that proved to be my Furs gateway LP, and it remains a favourite, along with the single that came out that year, ‘All That Money Wants’.

What’s more, I was fairly surprised to learn that following year they were still a going concern, writing great songs, when I shelled out on vinyl for the somehow less celebrated Book of Days, the sixth of seven studio albums so far. And now even that’s 30 years ago.

Book of Days was sort of a weird album for us. We’d done the whole Midnight to Midnight thing (1987) and got completely disillusioned with the way we were going, chasing the successful American market, veering away from our original goals. Trying to fit in with what was going around.

“So we made a severe right turn, and went back to not using any synthesisers. It was all natural instruments. We didn’t really want to do any videos, although we did one. But that sort of disillusioned fans and they drifted off. And when we came out with World Outside (1991), I think people were just ‘nnnhh’.

“That’s when we decided to take a break. We didn’t realise it was going to be so long! Richard and I did Love Spit love (their offshoot band), then I became an engineer at Electric Lady Studios in New York for two years. And then we got a surprise call from our agent, asking, ‘Do you want to do this tour with The B-52’s and The Go-Go’s? You only have to do 40 minutes’. And we said, ‘Hey, why not! See if the chemistry’s still there’.”

And it clearly was.

“Yeah, and it was fun being the Furs again. We’d grown tired of the whole music business – tour, have a little rest, write, record … that old treadmill.”

Is it a different motivation these days, with the pressure off, playing for all the right reasons?

“Yeah, we’re about to release a new album after all these years, and we’ve done it all on our own terms, with no pressure and no, ‘Why don’t you write another ’Pretty in Pink’ or another ‘Love My Way’?’ We wanted to be as good as our best work from the ’80s … and I think it is, but we’ll wait and see what other people think.”

A friend who caught you live a couple of years ago told me he was pleasantly surprised you still had it as a live band, having feared that wouldn’t be the case all these years on.

“Yeah, I hear that, and see it in reviews, the fact that we don’t phone it in. A lot of bands that get back together and are touring from the ’70s or the ‘80s sort of phone it in, but we go out there and put everything into it. And it shows in the way the audience reacts, and come back to us so we get more into it. It makes for a better experience, and there’s nothing better. We come off stage and say to each other, ‘Shit! That was a really great show!’”

I’m guessing you’re attracting younger fans too. Does it surprise you looking out at the audience sometimes?

“Yeah. That’s great too. Recently, ‘The Ghost In You’ was used in Stranger Things on Netflix, and the film Call Me By Your Name (2017), used ’Love My Way’ quite a lot.”

Well, so many of those tracks are timeless.

“Yeah, and that’s the whole thing. Except for that album, Midnight to Midnight, I think our whole catalogue could come out now and not be out of place on alternative radio.”

Like so many great bands that came though from that era, you weren’t content to stand still, that old punk approach still in there somewhere, remaining keen to move into new directions.

“Yeah, if some bands find that hit sound they’ll stick with it, playing it until people are bored with them. But we’d get bored. You have to keep getting better, striving to get better from album to album to keep it exciting.”

I always felt you packed a big sound. Was that intentional from the start? How important were the likes of first LP producers Steve Lillywhite and Factory production supremo Martin Hannett, and later Todd Rundgren when you relocated to America?

“We always had that. Our sound came from the fact that in the original Furs, nobody really knew how to play their instruments or how to write songs. Someone would come up with a riff and everyone would pile on, try and make themselves heard and stick out.

“It became like a wall of melody. Somebody – I don’t know if it was Richard or a review – described it as ‘beautiful chaos’. By the time we got to my favourite album, Forever Now, we’d got the art of songwriting down better, but still maintained a certain sort of anger and strange way of writing songs – not the normal way.

“I think that came from that early spell – everyone battling to be heard, people changing half-way through a verse, changing their guitar line or whatever, or maybe a chorus or vocal coming in halfway through a verse and continuing. All these strange structures.”

You mentioned Forever Now, and I understand that was the first Furs LP your other half heard. I guess she (Robyn) must have been equally impressed.

“You mean my wife? Yeah, yeah. She’s been a fan since that album, when I think she was 14 or 15. We’d both been married twice before but finally talked to each other on MySpace. You remember that? Ha ha! Yeah, I guess that was a pivotal album for her.”

And is there another generation of Butlers coming through, waiting to set the music world alight?

“Erm, I’ve got two stepchildren – one 21, the other 26 – but they haven’t shown any ambition to get into the music business. Richard’s daughter’s been interning for a record company in England though, so I guess into more of the business side.”

Richard’s based in upper New York state, while Tim’s in Liberty, Kentucky, around 800 miles away. How do they rehearse and send songs to each other?

“Ah, it’s the age of the computer, using a program where you can write something and record it, then send it via the internet.”

And that works for you, I guess.

“Yeah, and what’s cool about this band is that we actually have two other people putting song ideas in – Paul Garisto and Rich Good. They’ve sent ideas and have songs on the album. So it’s a collaborative effort as opposed to either Richard and I writing the songs or Richard and John (Ashton, guitar, par tof the set-up from 1979 onwards, and again when they first reformed).”

Ever think back in 1977 you might still be doing all this at the age of 60, still being discovered by new generations of fans?

“No. It’s great knowing you’ve actually done something that’s changed – however small – alternative music and people’s lives. You never think that when you start up. You think, ‘Let’s go out and play, get drunk, pick up some chicks …’ You don’t think past your next gig.

“To still be doing it after all these years, I think it shows we’ve written songs that are lasting and still tap a nerve when someone new hears them. And we’re very proud of our legacy.”

Bass Instinct: Tim Butler hogs the camera, with brother Richard on the right, in live action with The Psychedelic Furs

Support for The Psychedelic Furs’ nine-date UK tour tour comes from the Wendy James Band, led by the singer of late-‘80s/early ‘90s indie success Transvision Vamp, best known for ‘I Want Your Love’ and ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, Elvis Costello having produced and written her 1993 solo LP Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears, before she stepped away from the music industry. Wendy returned in 2011 with second solo album I Came Here to Blow Minds, followed in 2016 by The Price of the Ticket, with another LP following soon. For more details about her, head here.

October tour dates: Tuesday 1st – O2 Ritz, Manchester; Thursday 3rd- Pyramids Centre, Portsmouth; Friday 4th – Dome, Brighton; Saturday 5th – O2 Institute, Birmingham; Monday 7th – Stylus, Leeds; Tuesday 8th – O2 Academy, Glasgow; Wednesday 9th – O2 Academy, Newcastle; Friday 11th – Rock City, Nottingham; Saturday 12th – Roundhouse, London. For ticket details try www.aegpresents.co.uk.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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