For Psychedelic Furs, the rock mainstream was a big mistake

March 05, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

There was a time, not too long ago, when people thought the Psychedelic Furs could be huge -- bigger than the Cure, bigger than R.E.M., bigger than any band on the whole alternative scene.

It didn't seem an unreasonable idea. No one doubted the band's charisma or fan base, and its critical reputation had been solid since the band's 1980 debut. And between MTV and John Hughes' film "Pretty in Pink," (which took its title from a Psy-Furs song), the band was beginning to become known in the rock mainstream.

All it would take, the thinking went, was a more upscale, pop-friendly sound. So the Furs, who play Hammerjacks Saturday, made "Midnight to Midnight" -- a slick, synth-heavy album the band still winces over.

"That was a big mistake, direction-wise," admits bassist Tim Butler over the phone from a tour stop in Athens, Ohio. "It's still a bit of a bad taste in our mouths, that period.

"We keep slagging it now," he adds, "but every once in a while I will listen to it, and there are a few good tracks on there. I think they're a bit overproduced, but that was our choice at that time. We went in that direction. At least we can say we tried and it failed."

They can also say they learned their lesson, for after that, the band gave up its pop pretensions and got back to basics. Indeed, its current album, "World Outside," is almost as raw and guitar-edged as the music the Furs made when still a part of the London punk scene.

Butler, one of the band's founding members (along with his brother, singer Richard Butler, and guitarist John Ashton), credits that to a change in the band's recording strategy.

"We just wanted to get to a studio with no pressure to have a single, or any heavy pressure from the record company," he says. "Just get in there, and start playing again as a proper band in the studio, as opposed to musicians that go in and overdub their stuff separately, and take six months to do an album. Things tend to lose their vitality and energy that way.

"It's good that we've got a permanent band again," he continues. "Pretty much everything that's on the album was done in one take, with very few overdubs. Everything is raw and live -- which was always our sound, anyway, before we started getting into the heavy production of 'Midnight to Midnight.' "

It's easy to hear what Butler means, for the sound of "World Outside" is focused and aggressive, from the ringing overdrive of "In My Head" to the shimmering psychedelia of "Sometimes." Yet the songs retain their melodic luster no matter how loud the guitars get or dense the instrumental textures become.

"We've always said our sound is like a wall of melody," Butler explains. "It's like a beautiful chaos. We have six people whose musical influences are the same, and everybody's pulling in the same direction musically. Everybody's really comfortable with each other. There's no big sort of egos on the bus or anything that sort of get in the way."

In fact, the Furs have maintained such a normal-guy sense of themselves that the band almost gets embarrassed when complimented by younger bands. "Things like, 'You guys helped to get the whole alternative music scene going.'

"We don't sort of sit around and think, 'Yeah, we influenced that band,' or 'We influenced this sort of music.' It didn't sort of cross our minds. We just make music."

Psychedelic Furs

When: Saturday, 9 p.m.

Where: Hammerjacks, 1102 S. Howard St.

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 659-7625 for information, (410) 481-7238 for tickets

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