1981: The Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk
by J A Gray
1981. Good God almighty. A few chapters ago I laid into the music of 1974 and pulled little in the way of punches, but given the choice I’d listen to a lifetime of 1974s if it meant I didn’t have to listen to a solitary 1981. A mere four years after the white-hot summer of punk, yet the urgency and promise of that whole new generation of bands had all but sputtered to a halt by now. Even those artists that were still making great music, like Dexys or The Clash, chose not to release LPs in 1981. The old guard helping out much either – the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and The Who all released albums in 1981, but none of them were up to par. What we were left with often sounded tinny and anaemic. Yes folks, it was the dawn of 80s production – arguably the greatest criminal offence in popular music history. It touched everyone who made records back then, which is particularly tragic in the case of the bands who recorded their best songs during this time. A record has to have something very good going for it to rise above such crippling circumstances.
I first heard The Psychedelic Furs when Marcus played me some songs from their Forever Now album during one of my visits to London around about 1982 or 1983. A few weeks later I borrowed their debut LP from a girl who lived further on up the hill from my parents’ house. She was called Suzanne and she was one of several punky or alternative girls who began to wear their hair and their clothes differently around town. Living in the sticks meant that we were always a little behind the curve, but Suzanne had been one of the first. The first Furs album wasn’t nearly as accessible as their later records, but it still had a certain something. Richard Butler, the Furs’ lead singer, had a sneery bark of a voice back then, but occasionally he’d drop the shouting and attempt a little crooning to reveal a voice pitched half-way between Johnny Rotten and David Bowie. I was also most entertained by how many times he sang the word “stupid”. Everybody and everything appeared to be stupid, except perhaps the singer himself.
I’d first heard their name mentioned by a girl called Rebecca, who was another of our town’s punky sirens. Rebecca’s transformation had been gob-smacking. One day she had unremarkable, long, curly, mousy hair and enormous spectacles, both of which succeeded in masking her beauty. Out went the glasses, to be replaced by contacts, and the hair was now dyed orange and piled high on her head, then tied up with a scarf or some other colourful rag. Her school uniform was now adorned by modish additions; light coloured macs or bright pink shoulder bags. In the dull and grey landscape of a Northern town, she was a riot of Technicolor. She turned heads wherever she went. And she began to run with an older crowd, all very arty and sophisticated. They knew their clothes and they knew their music. Rebecca told us about these quirky little post-punk bands that the rest of us had never heard of. One of the names she dropped was The Psychedelic Furs. After The Clash’s Year Zero stance of “no Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977”, and Johnny Rotten’s “never trust a hippy” rhetoric, I remember being particularly struck by a new band coming from the punk scene so obviously referencing the 1960s in their choice of name.
When I moved to Birmingham in 1984, I began to buy their albums. This was partly because I already had that in mind to do, but partly because living on my corridor in the students’ residence were two other guys who were also pretty keen on The Furs. And two more different blokes you couldn’t hope to meet. I met Jon first as he arrived at about the same time of day as I did. He was a sight to behold, dressed in a bright white leather jacket, with super-tight black jeans, pointy high-heeled boots, and a girl’s scarf around his neck. His curly hair was dyed black and lacquered into a frizzy fright-wig. He might just have got away with this except that the good lord hadn’t blessed him with the most handsome of faces: slightly chubby, and perpetually ruddy, chops were set either side of the smallest monkey’s nose I had ever seen. His choice of costume would soon be explained. At length. Because Jon’s passion for the Finnish glam-hair-metal band Hanoi Rocks was matched only by his inability to shut the fuck up unless he was unconscious. It was the endless jabbering that proved to be his eventual undoing. At first Jon was much loved by all. He was big-hearted – the life and soul. Even his clumsiness was endearing, as he staggered around or toppled over in those ludicrous boots. But he wore us all out with his constant yapping, bless him. Before too long we’d start giving him the slip just to give our ears a rest.
The other Furs fan moved into the room opposite mine the next day. He was called Ian, and he was about as tall and skinny as I was. His thinning hair was cut short except for at the front where it was giving the world a last flamboyant wave before departing for good. He wore a long grey woollen overcoat and carried a nerdy briefcase. Ian had three distinct personalities, and each had its own voice. Fun-time Ian spoke with a cockney accent, drank pints of ‘brown and bitter’, and was up for anything. He yelled his disgust at the TV (“get off the television you old person, you!” being a favourite), and laughed with great gusto at any hijinks and pratfalls. Pompous Ian spoke very proper Home Counties English, peppered with an occasional stammer, disapproved of everything and everyone, and was both condescending and, well, pompous. He totally lost any trace of a sense of humour whilst in this mode, leaving him wide open to ridicule. One evening the rest of us were up late in the communal kitchen and most likely making a bit of a din. Cockney Ian had gone to bed about an hour before, but before long Pompous Ian stormed into the kitchen, stark naked, with one hand cupping his genitals whilst the other hand wagged an accusatory finger. His insistance that we keep the noise down was met by the loudest explosion of hysterical laughter you ever heard. Pompous Ian couldn’t see the funny side at all, and looked utterly bemused by our reaction.
Ian was the first one on our corridor to find himself a student girlfriend. He brought her back to our hall of residence. Whilst they were enjoying a steamy shower together, the rest of us removed every last item from his bedroom and reassembled it down to the last detail in the kitchen, complete with soft lighting and a duvet corner drawn back just a little, invitingly. She thought this was hilarious and took it well, but yet again we were on the receiving end of a vitriolic bout of stammering, naked fury from Ian’s humourless alter ego.
His third personality was, I like to think, the real Ian. Softly spoken, gentle, intelligent and kind. It was this Ian that looked out for me when I felt like a ‘little boy lost’. He’d worked for a year between school and college, and that really made a difference. You could usually tell those of us who had come straight from school from those that had experienced this small taste of the real world. We were that much greener.
Then there was me, with my check shirts and my poor man’s imitation of an Ian McCulloch hairstyle, my chronic naïvety, and my desperate need to be accepted by the big boys. But at least I knew my music, and that was enough for Ian, Jon and myself to form a temporary alliance. We didn’t agree on everything in each other’s collections, but we all liked The Psychedelic Furs. Pretty soon the band provided the soundtrack to our corridor’s daily soap opera. We played their first four albums over and over. But after that time, I more or less forgot all about them. An awful fifth album, Midnight To Midnight, didn’t help. And neither did a less than wonderful performance at the 1986 Glastonbury Festival, during which Richard Butler seemed to be more concerned with looking as showbiz as possible in his hideous designer clothes. They had clearly lost their way. So that was that for me and The Furs.
About three years ago I was in a record shop and in one of those moods where you want, almost need, to buy something. Anything. But nothing was leaping out at me, until I noticed a rack of miniature box sets called Original Album Classics. These cater for the budget end of the market – they stuff between three and five of an artist’s old albums in little replica LP sleeves inside a card box which is just big enough to hold them. No sleeve notes, no bells or whistles, though you might get bonus tracks if any of the albums in question have already been remastered and had such things added. I bought my first one of these boxes that very day and it was The Psychedelic Furs. A bit of a nostalgia trip. And why not?
I couldn’t listen to the CDs without remembering my first year in Birmingham, and that corridor of rooms in the hall of residence in particular. The first album still sounded as opaque and uneven as ever, and albums three and four (Forever Now, and Mirror Moves) charted their course towards commercial pop, which they managed with a good deal more style and grace than most, at least initially. But it’s the second album, Talk Talk Talk, which stands as their most consistent record. Not that it’s anywhere even close to perfect – it sounded thin and chaotic back in the 80s, and it sounds even more dated now. You can level a lot of the blame at producer Steve Lillywhite, and even more at the times themselves, but you can’t underestimate how much of it was down to the band itself. They had two guitar players, neither of whom took the traditional roles of either driving rhythm or biting lead. Instead, they combined to generate a kind of aural wash, often featuring horrible chorus pedals. When a song was riff-based, those riffs would nag at your ears rather than punch you in the gut. Sitting in the midst of this murk was a saxophone, which often took the lead lines. A saxophone can sound great on anybody’s record if it’s used sparingly, but song after song across an entire album can often change that ‘great’ into ‘grate’. All of this top end confusion might have been bearable if it had been bolstered by a rock-solid bass-and-drums combo, with plenty of bottom end, but no, we didn’t get that either. If they did play with any bottom out on the studio floor, it was soon engulfed by the already over-crowded middle ground by Lilywhite in the control room. This was 1981, and for some reason people wanted records that sounded like your amplifier was broken.
So why am I writing about an album made by a band I find it so hard to say many positive things about? And why was I ever a fan of theirs in the first place? It’s all down to Richard Butler. A singer of limited range, but of great style and personality. And he could write a great lyric too. I could even go so far as to say he was a major talent hampered by a group of, at best, ordinary musicians. (It strikes me at this point that I could well say all of the same things about Jarvis Cocker and Pulp.) Simply put, when Butler was on good form, you could forgive and forget the rest of the Furs their limitations.
Talk Talk Talk keeps the rough textures of the first album, but the songs are tighter and more accessible. I’m thinking here of tracks like Dumb Waiters, Mr. Jones, Into You Like A Train, and So Run Down – upbeat and punky songs which sound amphetamine-edgy and get by on their riffs and Butler’s hectoring vocals. Other tracks are more subtle, following the lead of Sister Europe from the first LP. Some of them are even well on their way towards being commercial, and in fact the album’s second track, Pretty In Pink, would be reincarnated as a major Trans-Atlantic pop hit when it was remade for the movie of the same name a few years later. But, for me, the album’s high points are No Tears, All Of This And Nothing, and She Is Mine – songs on which a fair dose of sneering cynicism remains, but where the overall tone is now more world-weary, making Butler sound less harsh and more vulnerable.
No Tears has a striking melody and is the closest the Furs had yet come to writing a mainstream pop tune. In many ways it is a precursor of the kind of material they would record with Todd Rundgren for the next record, Forever Now. All Of This And Nothing stands out most of all because of its lyric. It’s a list song – a list of things left behind by the singer’s ex-lover, “a roomful of [her] trash”, but all of the elements are beautifully juxtaposed, with poetic asides, and by the final verse the items have become more esoteric, and so bring us a much fuller picture of what went down: “The sound of people getting drunk/A ceiling and a sky/A bank that’s full of promises/A telephone that lies”.
And then there’s the tender melancholia of She Is Mine. The title recalls Bob Dylan’s song She Belongs To Me. In neither song do we get the notion that the woman in question belongs to anyone at all. The lyric too echoes Dylan’s mid-60s freak show wordplay, but here the sense of a freewheelin’ hero declining to become too involved in the likes of “romance and engage and divorce”, is desperately undermined by the saddest of tunes, and by Butler’s mournful and touching delivery. If you were to read the lyric without the music playing then the words might seem callous or even shallow, but the finished result can leave you in a puddle. It’s my favourite Psychedelic Furs song. Even the saxophone is judged to perfection.
By Forever Now, the Furs had lost the sax player and one of the guitarists. They also worked with a better producer, Todd Rundgren, and sounded cleaner and less cluttered as a result. It would trump Talk Talk Talk all round, except that it runs out of steam during the second half of the record. The album after that splits Furs fans down the middle – Mirror Moves had a high-gloss production, with synthesisers and drum machines to the fore and made an unashamed, and successful, bid for the pop charts. Yet it also contained some of the group’s most beguiling melodies, and some of Butler’s finest lyrics and vocal performances. For some it was the beginning of the end, for others it was the last hurrah. Midnight To Midnight found them not just running on empty, but broken down flat on the creative hard shoulder, with a couple of wheels missing and a gaping hole where the engine used to be. Even the band admitted it was a disaster area of a record.
In all honesty, Talk Talk Talk is probably the least essential album I’ve discussed so far during this project. If it had been released during a year with stronger competition, I may even have neglected to find a place for it in my list of also-rans. This alone says much about the albums of 1981. But credit where it’s due, there was a time and a place when The Psychedelic Furs provided the perfect soundtrack for my life. And for Jon’s (when he shut his cakehole long enough to listen). And for all three Ians.
N.B. Talk Talk Talk is currently available, in remastered form, as a CD with bonus tracks. This same extended edition is also available as one of five Psychedelic Furs CDs in the Original Album Classics. This box set is a great way to buy all their best albums (and, unfortunately, their worst one) in one fell swoop, though, because the CDs are housed in a replica mini-LP sleeves, you have to be able to live without luxuries like printed lyrics and liner notes.
My other nominations for 1981 albums of merit:
The Replacements / Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash
Echo And The Bunnymen – Heaven Up Here
The Stranglers / La Folie
Todd Rundgren / Healing
Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Trust
Pretenders / II
Squeeze / East Side Story