Continuing on along with nine other music fans, with the “Album Draft” run by Hans at slice the life this summer, it’s time for my seventh album pick.
Some music is quite timeless, some is very much rooted in the times from which it came. However, when it’s at its best, music sometimes can be both. So for my seventh pick, I choose an album which is definitely a product of the 1980s… but still sounds great to me to this day, the Psychedelic Furs 1984 great, Mirror Moves.
I was raised on AM radio in the ’70s, but a range of FM stations in the ’80s, so my tastes in pop/rock are a bit eclectic. I love the melodies and emphasis on lyrics that so much of the ’70s delivered, but also the wild experimentation ’80s music provided. Offering a little of each, the Psychedelic Furs. Lumped in with “new wave” that was everywhere by that time, they definitely had elements of that sound but they also had a jaggedness that borrowed from the punk of the decade prior and a rather pop sensibility that would have fit in with the AM hits I liked when I was younger. Wikipedia describe them as “austere art rock, touching on new wave and hard rock.” Accurate. To me, the “post-punk” label was as good as any for them, and I usually pictured a triangle at the top of that sound’s chart, featuring Echo & the Bunnymen, Love & Rockets and the Furs. Cool Brits with guitars and synthesizers and new ideas and a great sound. They were all tall and skinny too, so around 1984 I aspired to their looks and hair, usually failing rather badly even though my lanky build was right.
The Psychedelic Furs were built around the a couple of brothers, Richard and Tim Butler. Formed in the late-’70s they were originally a rather large group, with two guitarists, a full-time sax player, drums… they created quite a large and jagged sound with obscure, artsy lyrics. Their first two albums were well-received by critics and a small core of fans, but missed commercially. For their third, Forever Now, they worked with super-producer Todd Rundgren, who imposed his sensibilities onto their sound – surprisingly to the approval of the band’s leader, Richard Butler. He wanted a more accessible sound and Rundgren delivered with the semi-hit “Love My Way.”
A lot transpired in the two years between that album and this, including a paring down of the group. Their original drummer Vince Ely quit, other members drifted away leaving a slimmed-down trio of Furs – Richard Butler, singing and doing the majority of the writing, Tim Butler the bassist (and sometimes co-writer) and guitarist Jon Ashton. This might have been important to the development of Mirror Moves, as it likely played into the choice of producers the band, and Columbia Records, picked – Keith Forsey.
Forsey was an American drummer who cut his musical teeth working with disco superstar Giorgio Moroder (who had spearheaded the career of Donna Summer and created Blondie’s “Call Me”) . A producer who drums checks two boxes for a band whose drummer just quit. Forsey had just begun producing, working on Billy Idol’s solo debut. Idol was probably a good comparison for them, a punkish figure who wanted a slightly glossier, streamlined sound which Forsey delivered, “White Wedding” and all.
Richard Butler set out to create a “pop-py” sounding record, and grow their sales (although he also has said he did not want to ever be Michael Jackson-style popular) . And Forsey being American, the band set out to L.A. and New York to record the record. Those months helped shape the sound and in some cases lyrics that went into it as well.
Forsey brought along his Moroder-style drum machines which dominate the rather predictable beat on some tracks (while others seem to utilize a real, old-fashioned drum kit) and the layering and production does indeed sound as prototypically ’80s as leg-warmers and skinny leather ties look. Still, to me, that’s not a terribly bad thing. Hey, I was young, the world was my oyster, and there was a sense of newness and freshness to everything, especially the music around me. The station I listened to most at the time, CFNY in Toronto was essentially a “college radio” station with a powerful signal and 500 000 listeners which elevated bands like Depeche Mode and Simple Minds to superstar status in the city long before most Americans had ever heard of them. Not coincidentally, Mirror Moves ended up being their #1 album of the year. It was an album that instantly connected with me and one I found myself listening to start to finish repeatedly. One or two of my co-workers on my summer job that year at the conservation authority might well still remember me proseletyzing endlessly about the merits of the Psychedelic Furs on our way out to job sites!
So the album : First off, you have Richard’s voice tying it all together. It gives the band a sort of distinctive continuity no matter what they’re playing (rather like how Michael Stipe does that for R.E.M.) . As Rolling Stone put it back then, “Oy, that Butler!”. They compared him to Bowie trying to imitate Johnny Rotten’s sneer. Nasal and raspy (I saw an interview this summer with him and he noted people usually think he chain-smokes because of his voice but he quit in the ’80s and still sounds the same), it’s a Dylan voice. You either love it or hate it, and if you hate it, you probably won’t like their music, end of story. Thankfully, I quite like his unique gravel truck voice.
The production was the paintjob, but the songs were the frame of this very good album. A remnant of the LP age, it has nine tracks and runs about 38 minutes. More tracks might have been nice, but the limitations of the day resulted in a very consistent and solid album. To me, there’s no real one standout tune on it, but neither are there any throwaway songs. There is melody enough, and hooks aplenty to grab you but enough quirky twists and surprise instruments popping up (for instance, though their old sax player had left, Mars Williams was recruited to add sax and horn breaks here and there, most noticeably on “Like A Stranger”) to keep it from being boring. Butler’s lyrics, his “slyest and sharpest” to the ears of Allmusic, are blurry enough to be painterly without being too obscure. They paint a mental picture in your mind, but it’s an impressionist work. Not abstract, yet neither photographic. For every song about love, there’s one about the way of the world and their experiences in the U.S., and of course, no band harkening back to the psychedelic-’60s in the slightest could be without a song referencing Alice in Wonderland, hence “Alice’s House”.
The best-known tracks on the record are the lovely “Ghost in You”, and the guitar-driven “Heaven”, which was a rare top 30 hit for them in their homeland. If you went out to the clubs back in the day, you probably know “Heartbeat”, with its boogie-woogie sax intro. The extended dance mix hit #4 on American dance charts, somewhere this band seldom dwelled.
I noted there are no dogs on the record, and no one shining hit that eclipsed the rest of the record. But to me, the highlights would include “The Ghost in You”, a lovely little relatively slow love song with some of Tim’s finer bass work and terrific love lyrics (“don’t you go, it makes no sense…”) ; it’s apparent companion piece, “My Time”, which slowly builds in tempo and tension and with lyrics like “It’s my time, to hold out a a hand, and it’s my time to turn on a light for you” would be a much better wedding song than its contemporary that so many people love, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. And we can’t forget “Alice’s House”, maybe referencing the Carroll book, maybe a psychiatric hospital and maybe being the sequel to the story of that mixed up girl they introduced us to in “Pretty in Pink”, the song that led to a classic ’80s movie.
And the finale, “Highwire Days”, with its backbeat drums fading in to striking effect and lyrics scolding the tabloid journalism of the day (which is even more true these days) is a “can’t miss” too.
Speaking of the current relevance, there’s also “Here Come Cowboys,” a good, flat-out rocker of a song inspired by their time in the Reagan-era America, which was a single that Butler didn’t want released. It didn’t do well on the charts but is a fine song and has a video which looks eerily prophetic now in its content that could be taken from today’s news, with the racing police cars, and images of upset Black youth.
All in all, it might not be for everyone. But I like the layer-upon-layer synthesizers and distorted guitars, steady percussion, and multi-dubbed singing. If there’s a record you won’t feel bad singing along to, this could be the one since some songs seems to have four or five vocal tracks going on, so what’s one more voice? There’s enough for me to find something unexpected every time through. It’s an example of the excesses of the mid-’80s, yes, but also an example of great songwriting, fastidious work blending the sounds in the studio and memorable tunes that somehow sounds fresh to me whilst simultaneously taking me back to the tail end of my teenage years.
The Furs just released a brand new album, Made of Rain, by the way. Listening to what I’ve heard of it, the sound is still the same but for great songs the Butler way, you can’t do better than Mirror Moves.