The Psychedelic Furs + Echo And The Bunnymen

Posted: November 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Parallel Lines

Background note: I first interviewed Richard Butler at the Gramercy Hotel, in NYC, in the early ’90s. As we sat down at the table in the bar, he fired up a cigarette and said, “You can’t write that I’m smoking, my wife will kill me.” So much for post-punk rebellion… Still, Butler and the ever-quotable Ian McCulloch were among my idols growing up, so it was always a thrill to interview them. This piece was written as a preview of their joint tour, in 2001.

The distinctive croon. The doomed-romantic lyrics. The ever-present cigarette and shades. The fastidiously unkempt hair. From a distance, the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler and Echo And The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch share much in common. But mostly it’s their separateness that links them. In fact, they each carved such individual career courses in the ‘80s that they never really crossed paths until 2001, when the two bands toured together for the first time.

“There were other bands who had that mutual-admiration thing going on—like the born-again Christians,” explains McCulloch, taking a playful jab at the Bunnymen’s rivals, U2. “We weren’t that kind of band, and I don’t think the Furs were, either.”      

Here, the two post-punk icons indulge in a little mutual admiration, while glancing in the rear-view mirror, discussing their recent work, and plotting the road ahead for their respective careers.


What was your opinion of Echo And The Bunnymen back in the ‘80s?

They took over being the critics’ darlings immediately after we had been the critics’ darlings. In England, you’re the critic’s darlings for about six months, and then it moves on, and you’re the worst thing that ever happened to rock and roll. [Laughs.] So, of course, I kind of pricked up my ears when they came out and said, “Wow, what’s this all about?” I liked the first album [Crocodiles]. I loved “Villier’s Terrace” and “Rescue,” I thought those were great songs.

I was curious about that, because back then you and Ian McCulloch had reputations for being mouthy and arrogant.

Him more than me, I think. [Laughs.]

What do you think his opinion of the Furs was back then?

Probably pretty deprecating. In all the interviews I used to read he was always saying, “We’re the greatest band in the world and everyone else is crap.”

Your recent live album features a few new songs, including “Wrong Train,” which seems to put down your new suburban life in upstate New York. Do you miss living in the city?

I really miss New York. You walk out the door here and there are trees… trees…. It’s beautiful, but there’s not really any culture. In New York, there’s culture on a daily basis. You walk over to the St. Mark’s Bookshop, and it’s a great bookstore. There are no great bookstores here. If you want any books you have to order them online. There’s no great browsing to be had.

You might find some wrestling mags down at the convenient store.

[Laughs.] Or car magazines–how to make yourself a hot rod and all that. And of course, shooting and deer-stalking magazines.

“Wrong Train” also has a few lines about your wife. Does she leave the room whenever you play that tune?

No. [Laughs.] She gets a kick out of it. She likes sarcasm. She likes the bit that says, “A wife that hates me, so does her boyfriend.”

And on the new song “Alive,” you sing, “I’m alive for the first time in my life.” And the sentiment seems genuine, rather than, say, “We Love You” from the first album.

There’s a bit less sarcasm involved.

Where does that new-found positivity come from?

Friends getting sick and worrying about their health. It’s easy to get wrapped up in hypochondria, and at the end of the day, you say, “Wow, I’m still here. That’s great.” [Laughs.]

On a lot of your older tunes, it sounds like you were reporting about other people’s lives in an abstract way. Most of the new tunes seem like you’re reporting your own feelings. How did the change in perspective come about?

“Alive” is a lot about looking back. Like it says in the song, when you’re young you think that you’re going to go on forever and you think you’re indestructible and blessed. And when you get older you realize how mortal you are.

I take it the line in “Cigarette–“A perfect day running through my head”–refers to the Lou Reed tune, “Perfect Day”?

No, but I guess I should say it does. [Laughs.] That song was about sitting at the end of somebody’s bed and sort of smoking a cigarette and letting the day go through your head.

Why do you think you’re writing so many mid-tempo ballads these days?

For me, rock songs are the hardest to write and ballads or mid-tempo songs are the easiest. It always has been that way. Especially now that I’m in my forties, to write a rock song seems forced. I don’t feel like the songs need that sort of false energy. I don’t listen to that sort of thing any more by other people. I guess it’s not what I want to do or listen to.

When you were first starting out, did you imagine you’d still be singing something like “India” at this point in your life?

No. I had no idea it would go on this long.

What did you envision for yourself?

I didn’t care about what the future might bring. It was one of those sort of things.

Did you imagine you were going to burn out at a young age?

Yes. There was a time when I was drinking rather a lot and partying rather a lot, and I guess if you asked me then I probably thought I would burn out.

You and McCulloch would have been a pretty dangerous combination back then.

[Laughs.] I don’t think either of us needed any encouragement, so I don’t think one would’ve been egging the other one on.

Ian still seems to enjoy the occasional pint or six. Do you think your healthy tendencies might rub off on him?

I doubt that.

At this stage in your career, does maintaining your musical legacy become part of the job description, in addition to generating new material?

I don’t know. It’s very difficult. You want to get out there and play new songs and pick your own set. But in a way, you have somewhat of a debt to the audience. They come to a show wanting to hear a certain set of songs. You’re sort of stuck in the middle. Having done two greatest-hits tours, we can play more new songs and get on with being musicians.


What was your opinion of the Psychedelic Furs back in the ‘80s?

I bought the first album as soon as it came out, because I really liked what I’d heard. And I went to see them live, probably as early as 1980 in Liverpool. They were one the bands that I thought definitely had something. And old Bowie spoke highly of them in those days, so….

Your new album, Flowers, sounds regretful, but it also has a few rays of optimism. On “Buried Alive,” you sing, “Don’t want to believe that life is just to die?” Does that describe your general outlook on life? Are things improving with age?

We still have that fire and chemistry. It’s proof that you can “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But there shouldn’t be any rules about life. The whole reason you form a band is because you’re not happy with being told “This is the route you go in life: you get a job, you do this, that.” The idea of being in a band is self-expression, and also to follow your own path and your own rules–or non-rules. You can’t really do that if you work in a bank.

And you’ve always cast yourself as a crooner a la Sinatra. That role gives you more room to move as an artist, rather than the rock star who ties himself to teenage sentiments and looks silly as he gets older.

I think people try to compliment me, saying, “Oh, he’s the crooner of his generation.” But that ignores the fact that I can rock out with the best of them. Sometimes they say, “You’re better than Sinatra.” That’s usually from Brazilian fans. But I do like to be able to sing the ballady-type things and I also like to scream my head off.

Basically, I’ve always tried to make sure that I write about themes that make sense for whatever age you’re at. The minute you start singing “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation,” it ties you down to all those clichés of rock-and-roll rebellion and sex and rock and roll. And that was never where we were coming from.

When you wrote something like “Rescue,” did you imagine you’d still be singing it at this age?

Even at this age, I don’t imagine I’ll be singing it in another 20 years. But maybe I will. I don’t think anyone thinks about those sort of things. You just take each thing as it comes and you write about what happens. “Rescue” makes more sense to me now that I’m out of the shackles of that teen-angst thing. I think it resonates more as a song.

In what way? How did the meaning change?

When I wrote it, I was 19, and it was more self-pitying. But now with the lyrics–“If I said I lost my way”–I’ve made an actual journey, where maybe I did lose my way along the path. Whereas when I was 19, I hadn’t really been out of the house. Now I’ve been to loads of places, both physically and mentally. There are more reference points for me when I sing it. Obviously, the more you live, the more possibilities for that journey to go askew.

The new album talks a lot about that–regret over the loss of innocence. In “SuperMellowMan,” you have the line, “Can it ever be the same? Will we ever dream again?”

Invariably things never are the same. There’s a lot of importance placed on youth and your formative years, but if you’re a human being, you evolve daily–or at least yearly. The idea that things can’t be the same is a good springboard for making things different and better.

And you still write a lot about destiny versus life’s circumstances, too.

“Killing Moon” is probably the best I ever got that: “Fate up against your will.” I love that line. I still think about it, and it’s almost as if someone else had written it for me. But, yeah, I think that’s what we all go through.

Obviously, if I was paving roads for a living, I wouldn’t have as much time to ponce about thinking about these types of things. But by being in a group, people actually allow me to write that stuff. And maybe I over think it. Maybe I should write songs about Long Tall Sally or Route 66. But I’m not really good at writing those sorts of songs.

At the end of the day, it’s only rock and roll. But I do think that if you can involve the listener with a half-decent lyric, it’s some kind of… I hate to use the word “message,” like I know anything more than anyone else, but that’s what intrigued me about certain songwriters like Leonard Cohen or Bowie or Lou Reed. A lyric would make me think, “Oh, I know what he means there.”

And whether you ever figured it out or whether your idea of what the lyric means tallies with the songwriter, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just the process of reacting to the song and being a part of it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Only that I’m dying for a slash.


A Brief History Of Post-Punk Greats

The Psychedelic Furs

By the mid ’80s, the Psychedelic Furs rivaled U2 for arena-packing power. What happened? Last year’s 17-song Greatest Hits collection tells much of the story through a chronological overview of the Furs’ more commercial moments. Not that commercial success was ever the group’s intent–at least not initially.

Formed in late-’70s London, the six-piece band enjoyed riling the increasingly staid punk scene with a name that evoked punk’s nemesis, a stage show that featured 20-minute drone fests, and Richard Butler’s biting lyrical stream of consciousness sung in a sax-like tenor. The early Furs were an acquired taste, to say the least. But if you were a rock fan searching for a band that combined aspects of the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Sex Pistols–a hybrid best illustrated on the collection by 1981′s “Pretty In Pink” and “Dumb Waiters”–the Furs were manna from heaven.

For their third album, Forever Now, however, the band had reduced its line-up to four and hired Beatles-obsessed producer Todd Rundgren. The collision of the band’s primitive technique and Rundgren’s baroque arrangements resulted in a perfect marriage of art and commerce and yielded the marimba-driven hit, “Love My Way.” With a taste of success, the Furs went back for more on 1984′s synth-reliant Mirror Moves. The album yielded hits like “Heaven” and “The Ghost In You,” but at the expense of hardcore fans who missed the early work’s corrosive quality.

By 1987′s Midnight To Midnight, the group was creatively bankrupt and ready to cash in what remained of its credibility. Gelled hair, vinyl outfits and then-expensive-sounding studio production won the dollars of fickle modern-rock fans–who subsequently dropped the Furs for the next hot thing: Joshua Tree-era U2.

By the time the group recovered its muse for its last two albums (represented on Greatest Hits by “All That Money Wants” and “Until She Comes”), it was back to the clubs for the band before breaking up in the early ’90s. The Furs have since regrouped for a few tours and continue to work on new material, some of which can be heard on the live reunion disc, Beautiful Chaos, and the companion DVD, Live From The House Of Blues.

Echo And The Bunnymen

The ad copy for Echo And The Bunnymen’s fourth album didn’t mince words–”Ocean Rain: The Greatest Album Ever Made.” That most fans failed to realize the over-the-top declaration was the Bunnymen’s idea of a cheeky joke says a lot about the Liverpudlians’ perceived place in the rock firmament during the better part of the ’80s. Singer Ian McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson and drummer Pete de Freitas were the pioneers of a majestic post-punk sound that found bands like U2 trailing at least a step behind them with each album.

By 1983, the Bunnymen had critical respect and a commercial foothold in the States, thanks to hits such as “The Cutter.” For most bands, the next move would have been obvious: Keep the arena-sized production values they’d popularized; write a few radio-ready anthems; and conquer the charts as rock’s best new band. But the ever-contrary Bunnymen had other ideas.

They headed to Paris, because the pneumatic-lipped McCulloch felt he could sing better there (thanks to the wine), and recorded one of the most artistically ambitious albums of the decade. Instead of huge, thwacking drums and big droning guitars, the Bunnymen employed an orchestra, acoustic guitars, upright bass and brushed drums on McCulloch’s most poignant ballads. And whether it was due to the wine or not, the singer turned in the best performance of his life on the epic “The Killing Moon,” achieving a sublime croon that finally had others, as opposed to just himself, uttering his name in the same breath as Sinatra’s.

Though they achieved more Stateside success with their subsequent self-titled album, and have since reconvened to record better-than-you’d-expect new material, Ocean Rain remains their artistic peak. But “The Greatest Album Ever Made”? Well, most jokes are funny because they bear an element of truth.



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