Everybody knows “Pretty in Pink,” whether it’s from countless, repeated plays on “flashback weekend” radio shows, the re-recorded cheesy sax version in the John Hughes movie of the same name, or those Motorola Razr commercials with the pink cell phone model. It’s a ubiquitous, catchy, perfect pop gem, something of an unusual inclusion in the Psychedelic Furs’ first four albums. Though their pop sheen would become more pronounced over time, they were, at heart, an arty post-punk band that echoed Bowie’s Eno collaborations, Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols and Liverpool bands like Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. This London outfit wasn’t always concerned with a hook, but it just so happened that they were remarkably competent when it came to writing them.
Talk Talk Talk, the Furs’ second album, made their accessibility more apparent after their bleak, murky debut painted them as somewhat of a droning, dissonant, yet slightly upbeat update of the Velvet Underground. By album number two, they had teamed up with Steve Lillywhite, who would later earn credit for his work with U2, and made a slightly more commercial, better-produced and more ambitious work.
This slight shift in sound is, of course, introduced to us through “Pretty in Pink,” the album’s infectious opener. Less like the Pistols than like a Bowie-fronted Byrds, “Pretty in Pink” is a jangly summertime pop song, albeit one with a distorted guitar hook that often obscures the Rickenbacker sounds underneath. It’s a timeless song, like many of the others on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, though the Talk Talk Talk version is undoubtedly the best, shorter and without as much squealing sax saccharine. And yet, some of the other artists on the soundtrack, such as Jesse Johnson and Belouis Some, didn’t quite fare as well over time, lost with the era from which they were spawned.
“Mr. Jones” and “No Tears” were high on the accessibility scale as well, the former a revved up rocker and the latter a slightly lazier pop song with a soaring chorus. “Dumb Waiters,” however, reveals the more ferocious side of the band that was heard on their debut. Marked by ill-tuned saxophones, rumbling bass, a metallic beat and Richard Butler’s detached barking, it’s an amazing moment of surrealism among more anthemic rockers. It’s among the band’s most paranoid and uneasy moments, Butler singing, “gimme all your paper ma, so I can get a gun/she has got it in for me/yeah, I mean it honestly/she’s so mean.”
Side two reveals some slightly less straightforward songs, though it begins with one of the most powerful rockers in the band’s catalog, “Into You Like a Train.” Propelled by effects-treated guitars and saxophone, Butler takes on a decidedly more elegant persona, as opposed to the disturbed protagonist of “Dumb Waiters.” “It Goes On” layered on the instruments and chunky distortion, though, just as before, its chorus was one for the raised fists and cigarette lighters. The best run of songs on the disc, however, come with tracks 8 through 10. The first is “So Run Down,” which begins with Vince Ely’s repetitive, hi-hat and bass heavy beat. It’s arguably one of the best drum beats of all time, well suited for dancing and rocking out. Meanwhile, Butler’s lyrics run down a laundry list of quickly spouted rhymes, ultimately leading to the chorus of “I don’t think that I can stand/ I’m so run down.” In a fantastic parallel between music and lyrics, the speed of his verse goes by so fast, then slows at the chorus, it seems to mimic the idea that he really is losing energy.
“I Wanna Sleep With You” is a glammed-up, sleazy rocker that sounds something like The Cure mixed with T. Rex. It’s sultry swagger and dark undertones make it a strange contradiction, and yet it’s a brilliantly executed track. Closer “All of This & Nothing” is the real treat, however, the band putting the greatest song at the very end. It’s the longest and the least direct, with false intros and outros, fade outs and varying sections, but at the heart of it all, it’s a creepy and caustic break-up song that sounds bitter and confused rather than sad and lonely. Butler names a lengthy list of objects—dominoes, a pack of cards, a picture of the queen—before viciously declaring “now I’m left with all of this, a roomful of your trash.”
The Psychedelic Furs may have peaked with Talk Talk Talk, but maintained a pretty steady run of high quality material that never really got bad, just never quite as good as this. It’s a prime example of a band allowing their sound to be dressed up and given a shoe-shine and haircut, without the overall aesthetic being torn down. The edge, the anxiety, paranoia and artiness all remained in place, they were just presented in a more enticing package.
Chameleons UK – Strange Times
Echo & The Bunnymen – Crocodiles
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.