Still Pretty At 60: Seeing The Psychedelic Furs In 2017
There are old bands that are walking legends, names that only briefly or never dwindled and could fill arenas worldwide whenever they decided to. There are old bands that experience some resurgence of influence and nostalgia, who can put on latter-day shows that are as fiery and life-changing as back in the day. There are old bands with fervent cult followings, the types that might’ve flown under the radar in their youth but later found prominence, receiving a new place in pop history and a shot at revelatory shows late in their career. Then there are the bands lost in the shuffle. The ones that, even with big names or a few immortal singles, weren’t quite one of the bands of their time. Bands that might’ve had a moment close to true mainstream success, but that you might stumble upon playing a mid-size venue out of nowhere, no new album or anything but dutifully touring the hits, chasing fumes of former glories or out of habit or for cash or for the genuine love of it. The Psychedelic Furs are one of those bands, lost in the shuffle despite holding a few iconic ‘80s singles to their name.
Back in 2010, I saw one of the Psychedelic Furs’ contemporaries, Echo & The Bunnymen, play in a 1,000-cap room in Manhattan. Both bands had a similar trajectory, starting out as the artsier post-punk bands to come out of the late ‘70s punk explosion, then gaining broader notoriety with a handful of more lush new wave hits. The experience of seeing Echo was sort of a conflicted one — it was one of the first shows I saw as a then-recent New York transplant, my first (and since, only) chance to see a band I’d grown up with during years well after their most active ones. Echo & The Bunnymen had a new album; they played a handful of post-reunion songs. But everyone was there to hear hits, and the setlist was essentially a distilled, curated run through one of their greatest hits compilations. They gave you exactly what you wanted, in a professional and sort of matter-of-fact way. People loved it, sang along to every word of “Bring On The Dancing Horses” and “Lips Like Sugar.” The crowd was some odd mix of middle-aged punks, and aged John Varvatos rocker types, and old fans who looked like suburban grandfathers and left you wondering whether for two or five years in their 20s, they looked like artsy new wave kids, too.
The situation was reminiscent of that show when the Psychedelic Furs wrapped their Singles Tour at the similarly sized Brooklyn venue Warsaw last night. Appropriately named, the sets on this tour have revolved around all the big hits and notable songs of the Furs’ heyday in the ‘80s, but it’s also sort of an odd conceit: Since reforming in the early ‘00s, the Furs periodically tour and play all the old favorites. They haven’t released any new music, and they’re remembered as a singles band to begin with. This particular tour moniker seemed to underline the obvious, or be upfront about the offer: Come see the Psychedelic Furs play all the songs you love from your teenage years, or the songs you grew up recognizing as totems of a particular corner of ‘80s culture.
All of that might sound like a criticism, but it’s intended as matter-of-fact as the show itself was: This is exactly what you would want out of a Psychedelic Furs show in 2017, perhaps the only time you’ll see them. You want to hear all the hits. And they happily delivered that.
In a strange way, it actually bypasses the threat of nostalgia overload, because it feels somehow straightforward to see the band play “Pretty In Pink” and “Love My Way” in a such a small, standard venue. Maybe the perspective would be different from the crowd, which — just like at that Echo & The Bunnymen show — was ALSO some odd mix of middle-aged punks, and aged John Varvatos rocker types, and old fans who looked like suburban grandfathers and left you wondering whether for two or five years in their 20s, they looked like artsy new wave kids, too. They loved it, sang along to every word of “The Ghost In You” and “Heartbreak Beat.” You could look into people’s eyes and see them getting transported back.
For the band’s part, they didn’t seem too sentimental, but they did seem to be having a legitimately great time. Mars Williams — who, though not an original founding member, started playing sax for the Psychedelic Furs in the early ’80s — ran around stage throughout, mugging with the other band members during the big instrumental breaks. Bassist Tim Butler periodically stalked to the front of the stage and mouthed the words to the big choruses, egging on audience sing-alongs. And his brother, Richard Butler, was as magnetic a frontman as ever. He still has that sort of hungover glam swagger, alternating between earnest arms-aloft gesticulations and doing things like bending his mic stand so that he could lean one elbow on it, cup his face, and look out at the crowd through sunglasses and a smirk, as if to say, “Yeah, it’s still a hell of a song, huh?” His voice sounded essentially the same as it did 30 years ago, which is both remarkable and perverse considering that his voice always sounded like the product of smoking two packs a day. Perhaps because of the venue’s sound, songs like “Heaven” at times strained to fill the room, where songs like “All That Money Wants” or the climactic encore closer “India” — the rager that opens the first Psychedelic Furs album — easily took over everything. The crowd, once more, didn’t care either way — they seemed enraptured throughout.
Out of any generation of musicians we’ve watched grow old, it might be strangest witnessing those from the punk and post-punk eras reach retirement age. Their whole thing was about tearing everything else down. The whole thing was a specific youth violence and revolt. Even when you get to the more smoothed-out character of new wave, it was still adjacent to avant-garde, bringing in structures and textures from krautrock and dance, playing with gender ambiguity and reckoning with the darker specters of the ‘80s often forgotten when we remember the decade via John Hughes movies. Along the way some of them became genuinely big mainstream artists. None of it was built for longevity, for aging gracefully and greatest hits tours. But a lot of those musicians were canny as entertainers, and that’s where the Psychedelic Furs land now. They do not try to pretend they are still a young, active band; they do not say much of anything throughout the show. They just get up and play.
There’s almost a bit of cognitive dissonance that happens, seeing them live today. You either came of age to the tune of “Pretty In Pink” and “Love My Way,” or you grew up with the depiction of people coming of age to the tune of “Pretty In Pink” and “Love My Way,” cemented in Pretty In Pink. That’s the strange thing about the Furs’ legacy. On one hand, they seem like they should still loom larger, like they should be more of an indie reference point and they should play bigger rooms to a wider array of fans. From “Pretty In Pink” alone, they’re tied to a shorthand for a specific part of the ’80s. But they didn’t define the ’80s. They weren’t major popstars or classic rockers elevating themselves to stadium tours; they weren’t as foundational as New Order or the Smiths.
The flipside of that is that it gives them a certain intimacy — you can be a person at a Psychedelic Furs show singing your heart out and it feels more personal, more like this slice of history you can own for yourself. It was fitting to see them in a small room, presenting their work decades later, just as it was then. The Psychedelic Furs might not have defined their time, but they’re the kind of band who have songs that are evocative and seductive and romantic all at once; they’re the kind of band who have songs that define experiences, whether lived or cinematic or lived via an inherited cinematic image. Essentially, they’re the kind of band who had songs that meant something to people back then, and those songs are so durable that they still mean something, and maybe something completely different, now. Maybe that’s what Richard Butler was thinking about in that moment, leaning on his mic stand and gazing out into the room, on the last night of the Singles Tour: These songs, they still haven’t died.