The 80’s get a lot of guff: for the fashions; for the hair; for not being the 60’s, or the late 70’s, or the 90’s, or whatever.

But lemme tell ya sonny, the 80’s were a pretty great time for music. Disco and electronic music kept on mutating and innovating and would explode again in the 90’s in new forms; hip-hop kept gathering steam on its rise to worldwide cultural juggernaut.

And the continuing aftershocks of postpunk’s “we don’t know what we’re doing, so let’s try this” novelty-seeking meant that even some less-known rock bands were often making more interesting music than the best-known bands of many other times and scenes.

If you only vaguely remember The Psychedelic Furs, chances are you know them from the version of “Pretty in Pink” that was re-recorded for the film of the same name. Supposedly the (perfect) original recording has (perfectly) out-of-tune guitars, but John Hughes wanted to use the song for a movie idea he had, so the 1986 edition cleans them up.

Strangely, it doesn’t clean up the wildly-inappropriate-for-the-film lyrics, which appear to relate the story of a sexually-promiscuous girl who is likely dead – a suicide? – being mocked en masse by her former lovers, rather than a cute/funny story of a beautiful redhead, her pet nerd, and a handmade prom dress. (A moment’s consideration of the song title should make it obvious that “pink” refers not to apparel, but to apparel’s absence.)

The original version, up top, is from the Furs’ 1981 sophomore record Talk Talk Talk, about which Glenn McDonald of the sadly-mostly-defunct music blog The War Against Silence wrote:

No album works more feverishly, and unsuccessfully, to deny its own soul-tearing capacity for empathy. “Pretty in Pink” before they defiled it.

Yeah. It’s really, really good. Both it and the self-titled debut might be as close as the early 80’s got to the Velvets (their bandname even recalls “Venus in Furs”), alternating blasphemous drones with bruised tenderness.

Like this more atmospheric song – I sometimes think these are the saddest guitar chords I have ever heard; they sound completely enervated and lost:

The Psychedelic Furs – Imitation of Christ

Richard Butler sang in a hoarse London drawl that walked a highwire between Bowie’s elegant ennui and Rotten’s venomous sneer; like a cigarette rolled with sandpaper. One of my absolute-favorite rock vocalists, he’s a disillusioned romantic presiding over the music, which on the first two records was often a pounding din of thick sheets of corrugated guitar pitted against rusted junkyard saxophone.

As the album title Talk Talk Talk might indicate, Butler’s abstractly ugly/beautiful lyrics – if they were not quite poetry, they were certainly closer to it, and far sharper*, than pop lyrics usually get – were frequently concerned with the difficulty of true understanding or meaningful connection; with communication signals rendered nonsensical and incomprehensible against the white-noise background of constant media bombardment.

My set it plays
Love songs all day
It sells toothpaste
Razors band-aids
It sells love
And it sells hairspray
Ha ha all day

The Psychedelic Furs, “So Run Down”

Words are all just useless sound
Just like cards they fall around

The Psychedelic Furs, “Sister Europe”

On the surface those words may seem sardonically nihilistic, but there’s a real wounded idealism beneath their corroded façade; a sorrowful protest against the commodification of all human experience. Not for nothing did the punk-influenced Psychedelic Furs include a term in their name that was associated with flower children.

Our dreams have all gone up on sale
On tomorrow’s pages
And we paid for the cross and the nails
On tomorrow’s pages
And we put on our prettiest face,
And we wait for the news that we’ve made

The Psychedelic Furs, “Highwire Days”

In early single “We Love You”, the band lays down a lackadaisical, half-assed chugging groove that’s as stupid as it is catchy, even as it seems to mock the very idea of “trying” or “caring”. Butler acidly spits a litany of all the things that he “loves” (I’m partial to the deadpanned “Frank Sinatra / Fly me to the moon” line), never quite resolving the song’s fundamental ambiguity – I mean, he can’t be totally sarcastic, since he also lists The Supremes, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, can he?:

The Psychedelic Furs – We Love You

“Mr. Jones” is maybe my favorite number off Talk Talk Talk; I can hear its jittery insistence in postpunk revivalists like Interpol.

So good so far
Slow down ha ha
Movie stars and ads and radio define romance
Don’t turn it on
I don’t want to dance

The Psychedelic Furs, “Mr. Jones”

He may not want to dance, but I can’t help it when I hear this one.

Speaking of “talk talk”, I like the way the dual guitar riffs seem to be answering one another, as the bass and drums barrel forward:

The Psychedelic Furs – Mr. Jones

In the mid-80’s, the Furs lost their way a bit; as did many musicians at the time, they made some questionable sonic and fashion choices that sometimes diminished their previous locomotive power. But before they went off the rails with 1987’s hollow Midnight to Midnight, not even glossy keyboards nor ginormous shoulderpads could wreck well-crafted songs that were often melodically-stronger and more instrumentally-varied than ever, even perversely (for the Furs) embracing near-unalloyed beauty.

“The Ghost In You”, from 1984’s Mirror Moves, is outright ROMANTIC; it’s easily as pretty as any pop song from that decade or most others, with terrific guardedly-optimistic lyrics (love is all of heaven away” in the first verse, but by the last is theoretically attainable at only heaven away”), and a delicately-interlocking melody and counter-melody on the chorus:

The Psychedelic Furs – The Ghost In You

The chorus of “Like A Stranger” has a triumphant trumpet figure that makes me think of the Beatles for some reason – or maybe just 60’s psychedelia – as it brightly contrasts with the melancholic gently-descending line of the vocal. But no matter how sweet the melodies get, that coarse-textured voice is usually enough to keep the songs just on the right side of saccharine.

The second verse also combines what may be my favorite six syllables of enunciated phonemes and imagery in any song lyric ever, as Butler trips down the phrase “snowblind and / sleepwalking” (seriously, roll those words around your mouth a few times, hitting the vowels hard, and you’ll see what I mean):

The Psychedelic Furs – Like A Stranger

But the faux-orchestral (the riff in the verses sounds a little like sawing violins) “Here Come Cowboys” showed the Furs hadn’t completely lost their gift for caustic cynicism – the titular wranglers are casually dismissed as “…no fun at all” – and atonal noise, at least in the discordant scribbly guitar solos:

The Psychedelic Furs – Here Come Cowboys

At the end, the Furs tried to return somewhat to their roots; Book Of Days intermittently recalls the dense rock of the first two records sonically, but lacks hooks.

Final album World Outside, however, has sturdily-melodic tunes that soar nearly as high as anything the band ever did. On the hypnotic “Until She Comes”, the song’s structure actually seems to move, dreamlike, in the same unhurried cyclical sweep described by the words:

The Psychedelic Furs – Until She Comes

The driving “In My Head” has coolly-cinematic lyrics, including one that I love (Butler must have liked it too, since he uses it twice) that perfectly evokes a certain flavor of alienation and loss you’ve no doubt experienced, but can’t quite name – there’s probably a German word for it:

Time is what it’s made –
Made by others, I regret
“Remember me”, I hear it said
Out of faces I forget…

The Psychedelic Furs, “In My Head”

The Psychedelic Furs – In My Head

*Five Butlerian Bon Mots:

I’ve been waiting all night for someone like you, but…you’ll have to do. (“Run and Run”)

He isn’t very honest, but he’s obvious at least. (“Forever Now”)

Get smart; get scared. (“Highwire Days”)

It’s sick, the price of medicine. (“President Gas”)

I don’t believe that I believed in you. (“All That Money Wants”)

Whose voice reliably gets to you, and over what misunderstood, unfairly-dismissed or unjustly-forgotten music do you get indignantly and righteously overprotective?


Glyph is worse than some and better than others. He believes that life is just one damned thing after another, that only pop music can save us now, and that mercy is the mark of a great man (but he's just all right). Nothing he writes here should be taken as an indication that he knows anything about anything.


  1. Not to go off topic, but I do not support the latest (started, what, 9 months ago?) of bringing back 80s fashion, or a basterized version. Not supporting a recent trend (maybe its just the NW) in fashion makes me feel a little old :(.

    • At MD we’re all about off-topic.

      I haven’t seen it here yet, but I fear it. The fashions were mostly Not Great the first time around, and revivals usually somehow seem to make it worse (since they riff on whatever the most conspicuous aspects were – it’s like making a car entirely out of ’59 Eldorado fins). The “grunge” revival was similarly egregious.

      But the Furs were still a good band!

    • Sadly Miss Mary its not just the NW, even more tragically this is at least the second if not third revival of 80’s fashion (or someones idea of 80’s fashion) that I’ve seen.

      Glyph, only vaguely remember??!!! this is my youth

      • this is my youth

        Then this one’s for you (us)!

        Man, I love his voice.

        • we’re well into the early 90s here in nyc. i’m not rooting for those terrible neon yellow and greens, but am rooting for ladies’ shorts overalls (dunno the actual term).

    • Acid Washed Jeans were Totally Rad then and they’re Totally Rad now.

      If we can bring back head to toe denim outfits, I will be delighted. If we can finally keep them around for good this time? I will die a happy man, buried in head to toe denim.

        • A good friend of mine and I made a pact; whichever one survives the other has instructions to take the cremated remains of the other around, and blow them in the eyes of the people we don’t like.


          “Hi, are you Joe S., who was mean to Glyph in 6th grade?”

          “Er, I guess so…”


          “OW! MY EYES!!”

  2. The Furs were a really good band. Yeah their sound changed a lot and very much in a more commercial direction. But they were still pretty good at the 80’s sound after they were good at a punk/ post-punk abrasive sound. Pretty in Pink is a good song and it always puzzled me how no one appeared to get the song. Oh well not the first time people complelty got a song wrong. I knew people who thought REM’s The One i Love was romantic.

    Funny Pysch Furs related anecdote. I was a DJ at the college radio station. Back then college radio was all alternative/punk/’hardcore/new wave. Nothing really popular but boy did we have some great music.Well a girl who was a scorer for the college hockey team took a liking to my form. Clearly she had major problems to do that. Unfortunately i was friends with her boyfriend, we were both players on the team. Well i didn’t that’ know over the last couple months they had mostly broken up. So one night i’m playing songs on the radio and she is listening in the dorm. Dave her sort of BF is hanging out with her trying to get her back. Kathy, who didn’t know from any ALT music at all, she was into Triumph and Styx, asks me to play her a song. So my dim 19 year old brain thinks up a good song for her. I think of a very catchy, up beat song i know is accessible to her. The song was When Love Breaks Down by Prefab Sprout. Its still a good song. Well about 8 seconds before i’m going to play the song and say a bit about how i’m playing the song for her, my piece of brain realizes i’m playing an obvious break up song (ITS CALLED “WHEN LOVE BREAK DOWN” MORON) for Kathy with her BF hanging around. Dave knew Kathy liked me a bit and he wasn’t happy about it. So of the many options i had i took the worst one. I whipped the record off the turntable (yes this was the 80’s) and grabbed the top record off the pile and queued up the first song without thinking what it was. I just knew it was a good PF album. I send the request out to Kathy, press the play button while trying to see what song i was playing. The song was In To You Like a Train. Good song. guess what a song with that title is about. Dave my soon to be ex friend was displeased with me. Kathy thought it was funny.

    We were married about 6 years later. To Kathy not Dave btw.

    • Dude. I love everything about this story. This makes the whole thing worthwhile. I buried “Into You Like A Train” up there in a link; I love that song, but figured it might be too, ah…direct for some readers.

      But as you learned, sometimes you gotta take the direct route.

      I wrote this piece because about once a year I get on a Furs kick and for about a week nothing else will do, and it seems like their star has fallen; on Amazon you can get most of their original albums for $3.99 now – you could get all the good records for under $25 probably, or that 2-disc retrospective used for under $10.

      People say, “oh yeah, they had that one song in that movie” and basically treat them like they were the equivalent of Flock of Seagulls or Modern English or something; when really, if you like the VU or Bowie, they are MUCH more in that tradition.

      That’s not entirely listeners’ fault, the Furs did embrace style and surface (as did Bowie) and make strong efforts at commercialism (weirdly, considering their early strongly anti-commercial lyrics), even if they too-late corrected for this. Re-recording “Pretty in Pink” in 1986 does seem about the turning point, since up until then they had remained interesting even when overtly trying to be “pop” (Todd Rundgren’s production on Forever Now was a stab at big US sales, and it’s NEAT, and Mirror Moves is just as good).

      Then Midnight to Midnight retained that commercial sound and 80’s style but forgot to include any real songs, and that was when they really stumbled. Book of Days almost gets their original sound back, but songs are still lacking.

      But at least they went out on a high note, World Outside is a lost, if not “classic”, at least “really, really good” record; sort of a synthesis of everything they did well, it’s got texture and melody.

      I saw them once back in the day and they were FANTASTIC – small club, at the end Butler came out in the crowd, shaking hands; then I saw one of their earlier reunion tours, and it was also great (at that time, there was talk of new music in the works). At that one, some chick grabbed Richard Butler’s leg while he was on stage and when she wouldn’t let go (ripping his pant seam almost up to the crotch), he conked her on the head with the mic in between singing lines, didn’t miss a note.

      So a few years ago I saw they were doing another reunion tour, and I excitedly talked some friends into going (probably using an embryonic verbal form of this post), and it was AWFUL. Just phoning it in. Embarrassing.

      Richard Butler is mostly a painter now, living in NYC. His paintings are actually sort of interesting if you can see them in a large format (small thumbnails don’t do them justice because he tends towards muted colors).

      • Do you like the Furs, Chris? Not too many rock bands with sax…

        • I love the Furs. I can actually remember the first time I heard them, when I was a kid (7 or 8), and my next door neighbor stole a bunch of records from his high school-aged sister’s room (she was a big Clash and X fan), and the record on top was Talk Talk Talk. We spent the day launching ourselves onto his bed with one of those mini trampolines while listening to punk and new wave that we did not understand in the least, but which we implicitly recognized was better than the shit our parents listened to (because our parents listened to it).

          • I meant to add that, after the records were forcibly taken back by his older sister, I don’t think I heard a Furs song again until the movie Pretty in Pink came out. In fact, I doubt I heard most of those bands again for years.

            Also, speaking of saxophones, this is one of the songs that I distinctly remember hearing in her collection:


          • Thinking back to that day (in addition to the theft, we also put a hole in his bedroom wall when I did a flip off the trampoline and put my foot through it), it is also the first time I remember hearing Michael Jackson. I’m sure I’d heard him before, but buried in that collection of punk and new wave was Thriller as well. I remember saying to my friend, “I think I’ve heard this girl before.”

            Sometimes I wish I was 7/8 again. I’m bored. Me too. You want to do something moderately dangerous, potentially destructive, and absolutely certain to get us in trouble when our parents find out, like say jumping off a trampoline onto a bed while listening to stolen records? I can’t think of any reason not to do that, so yes, yes I do.

          • Theft, hooliganism, destruction…sounds like you guys understood punk rock intuitively.

  3. Not really familiar with the Furs, but thanks for the introduction.
    Not really my cup of tea.
    Some of it reminds me of later Camel, and some of Wire.
    And basically, my same criticism of Wire sums my thoughts:
    Probably would have sounded a lot better played by Rush along about the Caress of Steel days.

    The live cut is cool.
    I think the studio probably gives them too much space to consider things. Live is more a vibe; chemistry.
    I remember hearing a Blondie bootleg that sounded totally different than what I’d come to expect from them (good stuff too, highly recommended). I think maybe a lot of those new wave bands were like that. We really can’t tell much of it by listening back to the studio cuts.

    The sax is cool.

    But overall, too twangy; not gruff enough.
    But were Motorhead to release an album of Furs covers, I’d be interested.

    • Heh…that “live” one isn’t live. It’s mimed/lip-synced. 🙂

      Did you try the earlier stuff (which is where that “live” one came from)?:

      India: (starts with a 2-min ambient intro) http://youtu.be/zH9Gi-Z1Uxs
      Pulse: http://youtu.be/FRYuQo274rU

      The 1st two records are definitely not very studio-heavy. And I can confirm they were a steamroller live.

      After that, for sure, lots of studio (Todd Rundgren produced Forever Now, so…yeah).

      • India sounds good. The chord changes in the chorus are the same as a Sex Pistols tune; I can’t remember which one. “Pretty Vacant” maybe.
        I listened to some of the Forever Now, and I thought roughly half of it was good; “President Gas,” “No Easy Street.” I really like the hi-hat sound in “President Gas;” very tight and dark, almost like a ride without the ring.
        “Only You and I” sounds very similar to to “New World Man” from Rush’s Signals.

        I like Rundgren as a producer for the most part.
        Though pretty much all the early Grand Funk studio stuff has a weird dead sound to it.

        • I know “President Gas” was probably written with Reagan in mind, given the times; but it’s a great all-purpose vitriol song against any president, left or right, D or R…the lyrics are ambiguous enough (and the real complaints never change) that you can sing it with most any president in mind and it’ll work (no politics!).

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