Post-Nostalgia Experience

Seeing the Psychedelic Furs

The Psychedelic Furs demonstrate there’s more to ageing rock stars than touring the nostalgia circuit.

Cool older guy Richard Butler.

Despite having only one new album since the band went on hiatus in the early 1990s, they continue to perform for the same size crowds they did in their postpunk heyday. Only now the audience is more diverse, particularly from the standpoint of age.

When I saw that the Furs would come through Tucson last spring, I was intrigued. Although I’d been a fan of their music growing up, I’d never had the opportunity to see them live.

My decision to spend the money on a ticket resulted from careful calculations.

Although I’ve seen long-time performers go through the motions, the Psychedelic Furs weren’t playing at the county fair but at the Rialto Theater, a not-for-profit venue that features plenty of new music. That seemed promising.

The more important question for me was whether I would have enjoyed seeing the band back in the day.

Some New Wave artists of the 1980s were disappointing live, typically because their sound depended on synthesisers. Bands that used a lot of guitar were more likely to be worth seeing live, though there were exceptions.

I could have gone online and watched clips of Furs’ concerts over the years. Maybe I should have. But something told me that the sound on their records would translate well on stage.

Two songs into the London band’s show last April, I knew I’d guessed correctly. Despite the inevitable compromises that come when loud music is echoing around a space not designed to have great acoustics, the Psychedelic Furs sounded better than they did on record.

The two guitars were distinct in the mix. Tim Butler’s bass was prominent without being overwhelming. Zack Alford’s drumming seemed more sophisticated than the original recordings, as made sense for someone who played for David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen.

What struck me most was how incredibly strong Richard Butler’s singing was. Despite having limited range and a voice so gravelly it calls to mind late Bob Dylan, he managed to cut through the band’s wall of noise like the proverbial knife through butter.

Even when he was practically whispering, Butler’s words came through clearly.

Although I had long felt the Furs’ lyrics were underrated, it took seeing him perform them live to realise how good they really are.

Richard Butler’s approach adapts the techniques of modern poetry, prioritising strange juxtapositions and the montage effects that materialise when the mind tries to close the gap.

The end of their hit “Pretty in Pink” provides a self-reflexive example: “The traffic is waiting/She hands you this coat/She gives you her clothes/These cars collide”.

Is the traffic outside a figure for the sexual activity inside? It’s hard to tell.

Maybe their relationship is an accident. But we will discern meaning regardless because sheer randomness is scary.

Generally speaking, the better the lyrics, the more likely their author is to try to control their reception.

This might take the form of explaining where they came from or dismissing the speculations of fans who have devoted a little too much time to pondering their meaning.

Although Butler certainly has the right to pursue this kind of retroactive control, his performance last spring suggested that he might not want it.

But I was too swept away by surprise at the bodily dimension to his performance, the post-gender slipperiness of the poses he struck, to follow through on my thoughts about his lyrics.

That’s one of the reasons why, when I saw that the Psychedelic Furs would be coming to Tucson again, I knew I wanted to see them again, even though it had been barely over a year since their last visit.

The other reasons were that Exene and John Doe from X, a favourite band I’d never managed to see, would be opening and that the concert was on my birthday.

Despite being past retirement age, “Half-X” were tremendous, playing a mix of covers and originals that reinforced the connection between their brand of punk and the Bakersfield country sound of the 1960s.

Their harmonies were as compelling as ever, bringing out subtle dimensions to their consistently outstanding lyrics.

The nearly sold-out auditorium loved their performance, treating the duo more like a headliner than an opening act. To say that Exene and John Doe were a tough act to follow would be an understatement.

I was wondering whether I would want to stay for the whole Psychedelic Furs set since I had seen them so recently and had presents to unwrap back home.

Once again, the Furs rapidly confirmed that I’d made the right decision to see them.

They sounded super. The crowd was locked in from the first song. I was swept away by the peculiar magic that happens when a band mirrors their fans’ enthusiasm without reservation.

Once I’d had the opportunity to regain my bearings, I could feel my train of thought from the previous year coming back to life, like a recording that started playing in my head.

I was closer to the action than last year and could observe Richard Butler more closely, both when he was standing at his microphone and, even better, when he took it off its stand and wandered over stage left, sometimes appearing to stare right in my direction.

This time, I could see how his rock-star moves, like a postpunk Mick Jagger, were deployed to complement his lyrics. They seemed like a running ironic commentary. So did his facial gestures, which I had been too far away to see last year.

Because I was also tuning in to the bleakness of those lyrics, I initially wondered whether Butler was trying to soften the blow they deliver.

After a while, though, I started to perceive his stylised performance differently. Although he was doing a great job of enunciating his lyrics, despite having to sing over a squall of guitars, he also wanted to underscore them with his movements.

This added layer of emphasis could have detracted from the words themselves. But it did the opposite.

If Butler’s face and body were delivering an ironic commentary on his lyrics, it wasn’t because he wanted them to mean something different than they once had, but because he acknowledged that they belonged to the crowd as much as they did to him.

When he smiled while delivering a depressing line, the impression was that he was bemused by its impact on the crowd, not that he wished to drain it of negativity.

I had noticed something similar during Exene and John Doe’s much quieter acoustic set, especially when they performed some classic X songs.

Despite their superficial differences, the two acts share a conviction, not only that it is worth expressing something well, but that the point of doing so in public is to bring about a kind of self-dispossession, transmuting their words into a common good.

The most remarkable thing about the Psychedelic Furs of today, as I have now witnessed twice, is that they can rely on the presence of devoted fans who seem to know all the words to their songs, whether they are 65 or 16.

They played some of their biggest hits early in the set both times. And they did not hesitate to mix in album tracks that the kind of people who listen to playlists of 1980s pop hits would not recognise.

Clearly, the Furs are doing something right.

Perhaps it just boils down to touring enthusiastically, instead of treating it as a grind. Still, I think there might be something deeper at work.

To witness hundreds of people enjoying themselves in public is a wonderful sight after the deprivations of the pandemic. But to see them take pleasure in the work they have put in to memorise songs takes things to another level.

Richard Butler and the Psychedelic Furs clearly understand that our need for such collective experiences is greater than ever right now, at a time when so many of the problems we encounter in our everyday lives are driving us apart.

The true strength of their songs is that they inspire the devotion necessary to make this possible.

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Photograph courtesy of Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.