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It's always difficult to be satisfied with a greatest hits compilation featuring the work of a band that has a considerable back catalogue and the same problem arises with this compilation although for anyone new to the group it does represent a good entry point to get to know some of their other material. What makes this compilation released in 2001 more interesting is that the tracks were picked by the lead vocalist and life force behind the band Richard Butler. He has tried to represent and distil the bands considerable output into this collection in a largely chronological order from 1980 to the mid 90's.
The band was formed in the British punk boom in 1977 going under a variety of names before settling on The Psychedelic Furs. The idea behind the band was to make music that while exemplified the punk attitude could still embrace the more complex melodic tones of psychedelic and alternative rock. The threadbare three cord rhythms of early punk music gave way to a more complex instrumentation involving synthesizer and sax. On first hearing the band you can't mistake the huge influence of David Bowie from his 'Station to Station' phase and a nod (in appearance at least) is also given to The Velvet Underground. The bands signature sound often involved layers guitars, rich percussion and sax counter-pointed with Butler's rasping vocals. By 1979 the band's line up on the release of their first single 'We Love You' (strangely not in this compilation) included Richard Butler (Vocals) his brother Tim Butler (bass guitar), Duncan Kilburn (saxophone), Vince Ely (drums), John Ashton (guitar) and Roger Morris (guitars).
Although forming in the late 70's the Furs were really an 80's band and it wasn't until the release of their 8th single 'Heaven' in 1984 that they cracked the UK top 40 peaking at 29. 'Heaven' is a perfect example of the style the band perfected in later years where they moved away from their punk/alternative beginnings and developed into a more radio friendly pop. This softer style was perfectly exemplified by the 1984 album Mirror Moves that also included two other singled featured on this CD 'Here Come Cowboys, which was less successful and 'Ghost In You' which did chart in the US and was an even bigger hit in Canada as well as the track 'Heartbeat'. The style of the band is hard to define since it is so distinctive that it is difficult to make comparison with other bands of the time. The tracks included here like 'Ghost In You' with their swirling sax backing and soft indie-riff guitars should be perfect love songs but Butler's lyrics always give the song a sense of melancholy and grittiness that belies their lyrical sentiments. The songs are never celebratory they always a more introspective and mournful quality to them.
The sound of the band was different in their earlier period as can be seen by the first track on the album 'Sister Europe'. This is a much darker, sombre hard hedged offering. From the very start of the track when you hear the portentous drum beat leading into the song soon accompanied by the wailing sax you know that this is not a love song. 'Sister Europe' is a brilliant track and possibly the best on the album. 'Sister Europe' the second single released by the band in 1980 is off their debut album the eponymous 'The Psychedelic Furs'. This first album is one that is most obviously influenced by David Bowie's work of the time and despite the material on this album being amongst the best of the band's early output it is woefully un-represented on this compilation. Songs like 'India', 'Imitation of Christ' and 'Wedding Song' should've been included.
One thing to note about the band's sound and their distinctive use and prominence of the saxophone and instrument which in recent years has been looked upon with derision by serious indie music fans being associated with soft rock, pop and soul and even more tragically the power ballad of the 80's. It is easy to forget that in the past the sax was always a 'down and dirty' instrument not populist for consumption and in artists like Bowie and other post punk indie bands it was a used to instil a brashness to the music or to set a darker eerier tone. Forget the cocktail lounge sound of Kenny G, the sound of the sax in the Psychedelic Furs' music is much harder, much more evocative of the darker seedier side of life. It is nice to see that now after so many years in the musical wilderness the sax is finally being reclaimed by the alternative bands like the Zutons, which in many ways are not all that far from the early Furs' sound.
One of the early singles from 1981 that did have limited success was 'Pretty In Pink', originally on the 'Talk, Talk, Talk' album. Even though it peaked at number 43 in the charts it is probably the best-known song by the band. This is due to its inspiration of the John Hughes Bratpack film 'Pretty In Pink' of 1986 and the inclusion of the song in the soundtrack. The film was a huge success and the song was re-recorded and re-released this time charting at number 18 and more importantly breaking the band in the US market. Unlike the debut album 'Talk Talk Talk' is well represented in this compilation with 'Mr Jones' and 'Dumb Waiters' the only notable omission would be 'Into You Like Train'. The Bowie influence is still evident on these tracks and in many ways the pop quaintness of 'Pretty In Pink' the exception on an otherwise much more serious album. For me 'Mr Jones' and 'Dumb Waiters' would be the stand out tracks.
'Pretty in Pink' exemplifies what is probably best and worst about the band. It hang like an albatross around their next forever associating the band with the catchy post punk 'Breakfast Club' generation of disenfranchised teenagers that high-jacked the punk attitudes for a brand of bubblegum alternative pop. Once again what prevents the song from descending into commercial soft pop hell is the quality of the production and the distinctive raspyness of the vocal delivery. With the increasing popularity of this type of alternative pop in the US the band found themselves more comfortable producing music for the US market and becoming very much an MTV band. Despite releasing further albums in the late 80's and early 90's they were critically dismissed and largely forgotten in the UK. On the back of the chart success of 'Pretty In Pink' the band were pressurised by the record company to put out a commercially accessible follow up album to maximise their growing popularity. The result was the forgettable Midnight to Midnight which Butler himself later described as 'hollow, vapid and weak'. Surprisingly enough in view of Butler's own opinions two songs from this album 'Heartbreak Beat' and 'Angels Don't Cry' were chosen for this compilation. They are probably the best song son the album and retain the Furs distinctive if diluted sound but there seems to be little effort put into the recording and composition. What should've been an opportunity to cement their reputation as a progressive indie band instead saw them lose fan with accusations of artistic compromise for commercial expediency and quick chart success.
The Furs were never comfortable with their softer pop image and in the late 80's they attempted to return to a more indie rock sound with the release of the much grittier single "All That Money Wants" in 1988 track 13 on this album. This single saw the return of original band member Vince Ely and was much closer to the bands late70's work and at least to my taste represented a return to form. With its more incisive guitar sound and darker themed lyrics it proved to be a fringe hit in the US on the 'college' rock charts but failed to make any significant inroads in the UK. Unfortunately for the furs once a band are seen by the music press as having 'sold out' to commercialism and the US market it is very difficult to restore their reputation and by moving back to a less accessible sound they needed critical backing in order to be seriously considered by the UK indie market. 'Until She Comes' another lament to lost love and a later release in 1991 is also a return to form and applies the same indie punk rock values that made the furs noticeable when they started again it scored a hit in the US indie charts but again failed to be noticed in the UK.
Overall the career of the Psychedelic Furs was a tale of slight disappointment. They managed achieve some success and tried to balance and develop their idiosyncratic post punk indie style with more melodic if still hard hedged pop melodies but failed to carry their fans or the music press with them, their attempt to return to a more gritty sound coincided with Grunge and Brit Pop on the indie scene which made their music seem even more out of place. Given some luck and a little more musical business sense the Furs could have been (and should've been) one of the most important and successful British band of the 80's, but as it stand their music is a forgotten treasure trove that many will have be surprised to discover. This compilation while not being in my opinion totally representative will whet the appetite for much better things to be revealed looking at their back catalogue.
TRACK LIST AND DETAILS
1. Sister Europe
2. Mr. Jones [Single Version]
3. Dumb Waiters
4. Pretty in Pink [Original Version]
5. Love My Way
6. President Gas
7. Here Come Cowboys
10. Ghost in You
11. Heartbreak Beat
12. Angels Don't Cry [Orginal Single Version]
13. All That Money Wants
15. Until She Comes
16. There's a World Outside
17. Only You and I [Live]
Label: Sony ASIN: B000056VJ6
'The Psychedelic Furs Greatest Hits' (2001) is available from Amazon as an import for £12.99(+p & p)
at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2007
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Sister Europe
2 Mr. Jones [Single Version]
3 Dumb Waiters
4 Pretty in Pink [Original Version]
5 Love My Way
6 President Gas
7 Here Come Cowboys
10 Ghost in You
11 Heartbreak Beat
12 Angels Don't Cry [Orginal Single Version]
13 All That Money Wants
15 Until She Comes
16 There's a World Outside
17 Only You and I [Live][#]