Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Psychedelic Furs, Book of Days (1989)

For anyone born in the 80s or later (I’m a ’79-er myself), it’s possible you think of the Furs as an also-ran with an awful name. If you happen to know they were on a major label for their entire career, you’ll be even more surprised (or disappointed) to see one of their albums in this series. So what if an album by a major label band is out of print, and few (if any) songs from it appear on those compilations with the tacky names? Some soft-rock peddlers ran out of tunes five years after having a hit with “Pretty in Pink” (of all songs!) – who cares?

More than most records I own – and I have a freakish memory for the circumstances in which I acquired most of them – Book of Days came into my possession in a most unlikely way. I was living in the neon-and-smog metropolis of Hong Kong, in the last year of Britain’s 99-year lease on the place, which makes me 16 and especially attuned to romantic despair. On the other side of the world, Britpop was peaking, but I was still months away from my first taste of clubbing in late-night expeditions to Camden, having snuck out of boarding school, which meant I was also months away from any kind of proximity to girls, under-age drinking, and waking up in strange places.

One close, clinging day of drizzle and weak sun, I set off for a distant corner of Kowloon, aiming for the end of the line (that most portentous of places, on the map, but usually just a Croydon or Streatham, when you get there). In fact, I did find myself in an exceptionally Gothic-looking, industrial district of crumbling factories, broken windows, and pale skull-like faces staring from the gantries of factory windows, with loading-cranes overhead like a gallows’ arm. This being Hong Kong, former-industrial districts had no hope of being colonized by hipsters, or even being brightened up by graffiti, so I might as well have been in post-war Europe. This was where I found an old man sitting on the pavement, away from any other shops, or even stalls, selling vinyl-LPs out of an incredibly antiquated perambulator, with an umbrella perched over it (black and spiky as the Bat-sign). On the pavement itself were sun-bleached cassettes of Canto-Pop, and the records were 90% Chinese opera, but the three I found that weren’t 70s soft-rock (Bread, Mud, Rod Stewart) were: The Beatles’ Blue and Red albums, and the Psychedelic Furs’ Book of Days.

Now. All I knew at the time was the Furs’ guitarist had taught Andrew Eldritch how to self-produce, back in their post-punk days. I was, in 1995, a massive fan of The Sisters of Mercy; happy to overlook echo-drenched vocals, and tinny drum-machines, for the sake of smart satirical lyrics from a druggy demi-monde, in which the only sane response to the Cold War and environmental devastation was to “Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out” (one of the Sisters’ many fine slogans, endorsing political cynicism and mind-opening drugs in equal measure). If you’d told me the Furs were imitation Bowie, and a step closer to 80s Cure or Bauhaus than the Sisters themselves, I’d have dropped the record in disgust; I didn’t yet get Bowie, and still have no tolerance for the latter pair. If, however, you’d told me that this particular record was the better produced, better sung, synth-free masterpiece the Sisters never made, I’d have tipped the decrepit old man double… or that it could almost be the template for Suede’s immaculate debut, and may well have been since the latter was produced by the Furs’ keyboard player.

Half a lifetime later (!) I still listen to Book of Days (1989) about as often as, say, The Queen Is Dead (1986); another favourite from the 80s that got me through the grim 90s until British music got back on its feet. Starting out as a chart-friendly mishmash of PiL, and Bowie, before bringing chirpy keyboards to the fore as the Cure had done, on their third and fourth albums, the Furs’ fifth ranks with The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow for lyrical miserabilism. The guitar-parts had always been melodic and sinuous – only occasionally dirty and distorted – but for their dark masterpiece, the Furs layered up lead-guitars that billowed and tore at each other (having been put through wah-wah and chorus pedals), plus prominent melodic bass that carried the songs. In the background – effectively creating a distant horizon, or twilight soundscape, were lower-mixed guitar and keyboard lines that crept into your unconscious; it seemed like it wasn’t there but, in fact, the saxophone that solo’d on so many of their earlier albums, was blended into the furious guitars, adding an extra screech at the limit of the guitars’ range. Having pushed the keyboards and sax away (as if sensing the 80s were over, although they’d always used them more tastefully than most), the Furs were amazingly prescient in their use of cello, paired with acoustic guitars, in a few places. What Nirvana did five years later (trying to break out of their own formulaic sound, and in the process devising a new formula for every chart-metaller from Therapy? to Slipknot) the Furs did in 1989, twice as well.

Overall, it’s an immaculate album; definitely making my Top 50 (of more than 1,500, not including record-company freebies). Nonetheless, I’d write much the same piece on the strength of the title track alone. “Book of Days” is a level of Hellish despair never reached by Morrissey, Andrew Eldritch, John Lydon, Ian Curtis, or Justin Sullivan of New Model Army. Yes, it has a faint surrealism, or mysticism to it, but the core is unmistakeable, gut-wrenching social realism. (That’s to say, Butler’s lyrics – like all of the above – can overlap with, say, those of a Romantic like Robert Smith, but Smith, and uncounted others, either lacks the will or the ability to do social realism, and thereby reach greatness). Over guitars and drums dragging at a funereal pace, but still scraping the sky, Butler intones the life of a woman who never got away, although others have tried to, and in the first verse ‘she’s singing “Don’t forget me boys’, as they leave the unnamed, far Northern town, looking for opportunities in an era when Thatcher let British industry crumble. Two verses on, ‘…she’s thirty and she’s fading / there’s a wasted year for every train that passes’, and – believe me – she doesn’t magically get on the train at the end, either. Over the years, this has remained one of the most haunting songs I’ve ever heard; it sets the tone for most of the album; and much as I like miserabilist music, it’s hard to say whether I’d have gone back to it as often were it not for the alt-rock perfection of “House”, on the second side.

For a rock song from the dire year of 1989, “House” is only approached (but not surpassed) by singles from The Stone Roses’ debut. After that, however, you’d have to wait for Suede’s debut (1993), or Radiohead’s The Bends (1995) to hear anything as catchy, but also sophisticated, in guitar-music. The very first ringing, chorused notes, instantly paint a vast, open, clear-skied soundscape; as soon as you hear the bassline though, ascending and descending the whole length of the fretboard, you know it’s a classic. What’s perverse is: a song that hit Number One on an industry chart for US radio-play somehow failed to become a hit; failed to even chart. Maybe the Furs’ fans were too keen on their synth-pop, or the band were perceived as old by the young fans of the Stone Roses, or actual house-music in its infancy. Somehow a song whose chorus was “we’ll shake this house” both did what it said… and resoundingly didn’t. Maybe the former-fans had heard the relentless misery of the album, and didn’t give the single a chance. For years, the album remained out of print, few of its songs made it onto the compilations, and it never appeared in the multi-packs of early Furs albums: a classic case of an album too early for its time… or the human mind unable to bear too much reality, as TS Eliot puts it.

So – how did the Furs get here? Most people know the band for “Pretty in Pink” – the 80s mega-hit that inspired John Hughes’ film, and (I’d argue) is second only to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent” for crystallizing what it meant to live in Britain through that two-faced decade of Young Upwardly Mobile Persons (with all their fashion crimes), whose embrace of laissez-faire capitalism was directly articulated to the conditions of Increasingly Immobile Persons: the dole culture fostered by Margaret Thatcher. Having described the later Furs as critics of the era, it’s impressive to see that “Pretty in Pink” could still be their archetypal song, rather than something they felt they had to atone for; like, say, Talk Talk, who made the post-rock / avant-pop classic Spirit of Eden only after several years of synth-pop anthems had granted them artistic autonomy.

A single line from “Pretty in Pink” – ‘…she lives in a hole in the side of our lives…’ – says it all; surreal, arresting, eloquent as McCartney’s ‘…wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door’, which AS Byatt described as having all the minimalist perfection of a Beckett play. Yes, “…Pink” is about a girl who ‘…loves to be one of the girls’, but as pop music there’s something very very wrong here; something rotten in Denmark. Musically, it’s what I define as great pop – i.e. it’s got a stronger verse than most 80s songs still in circulation on adult-oriented radio station, rather than just a bland space-filler before a catchy chorus (which seems to be the low benchmark for “good pop”). The greatness comes from the weird, dissonant guitars on the chorus, a kind of musical sneer or leer to match Richard Butler’s voice and lyrics, because “Pretty in Pink”, as he’s explained more than once, means “looks good naked” – as if this insecure girl ‘in the side of our lives’ might be a lovely person, but her real worth to men is only realized (to the wolfish male Id, voiced so well by Butler) when she gets undressed.

Not that this is wholly cynical – plenty of pop, rock, metal, and hiphop songs effectively titillate the listener and leer at women even while they’re pretending to denounce male lust; it’s this double-think that lets people defend a lot of formulaic Horror films and Thrillers. In fact, Butler’s lyrics here are co-extensive with a huge body of work in which he shows himself attuned to that weird discovery all young men make: that it’s only something thin (like a dress, or a mask-like layer of make-up) that nudges the sisters and female friends they knew growing up into that parallel universe of unimagined erotic possibilities, but also unimagined risks (of male resentment, unwelcome attention, violence). Sincere, sharply observed lyrics always have that admixture of the sad and the beautiful, when it comes to the difference between men and women, and in the very best lyrics (and poetry) a dash of surrealism can capture (rather than distort) the mystical sense of what it means to be in one body (and not another) for the duration of an entire life.

The Furs made a lot of good albums during an awful decade for music. Their first was self-important, and in an attempt to be solemn: slow, over-long and boring. Their second, Talk Talk Talk sneered at the bullshit and media-saturation of the 80s to show the class struggle and sexual tension beneath the “New Gold Dream”; yes, they repackaged Gang of Four and PiL as something more chart-friendly (still industrial-sounding, but less black), although at least they started in the right place. For their third and fourth synth-heavy albums (Midnight to Midnight, and Mirror Moves, they almost became the people they despised, although the always-clear, always engaging lyrics redeem the shiny happy music. After their lost fifth album, the Furs would meekly re-integrate keyboards, and tone down the drums. For a moment though… just for a moment, they saw the future. The one we didn’t want to see.

PS - if any of that seemed pompous, you can re-calibrate your seriousness levels here: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/what-your-favorite-80s-band-says-about-you

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