Talk, talk, talk 

The pregnant silence of the Furs' Richard Butler

Richard Butler isn't giving interviews this time around. Fair play to him: For years now, ensconced in his Beacon, N.Y., studio, the cofounder (with bassist brother Tim) of London, England's Psychedelic Furs has concerned himself less with music and more with an art form he has always considered his true calling. Butler favors his daughter as a model and subject in his paintings; for one recent series, he started with black canvas and painted her likeness in little carven-looking vignettes, revealing her face as through a confessional screen. Only reluctantly, it would seem, does he put down his brush to casually reclaim the legacy of the band he formed as an art student in 1977, in his words, "without anything in mind," and whose success seems to have come as a genuine surprise to him. One gets the sense, at all events, that Butler—reticent owner of one of the most distinctively ravaged sets of vocal cords in British pop—has said all he has to say on the subject.

But it's a pity nonetheless. There still seems so much to ask. How, for example, even in their earlier, noisier days, did a band as decidedly arty as the Furs find its way in the 1977 London of the Sex Pistols and Gene October? Were they accepted as fellow punk travelers? Is he handier with his fists than he looks? Did the Furs form personal connections with any of the subsequent bands whose paths their music occasionally seems to intersect, e.g., Joy Division?

And what was it like to work with Todd Rundgren on Forever Now, commonly regarded (also by Butler himself) as the band's best album? How was the group able to accommodate the hothead wunderkind who would later bring XTC to its knees during the recording of Skylarking? In addition to twiddling the knobs, Rundgren also contributed the signature marimba of "Love My Way" (and is it true, Richard Butler, that the hook itself was first tossed off by a music store employee?).

click to enlarge Richard Butler started the Psychedelic Furs as an art student in 1977.
  • Richard Butler started the Psychedelic Furs as an art student in 1977.

How one would have liked to ask Butler if he's had occasion to meet Molly Ringwald, for whom director John Hughes famously wrote a movie around a Furs song she particularly liked. Though Butler was later able to joke about how much money "those three little words" subsequently earned him in licensing, he caught wind of the Pretty in Pink movie only after label and studio suits had already struck a deal negotiating rights to his title. Did he and Ringwald ever get to share a laugh over these events in person? (Interestingly, and despite agreeing to record a new version for the movie soundtrack, Butler has always maintained that the female protagonist of the band's best-known song is emphatically not the plucky, ugly-duckling innocent of Ringwald's portrayal. The title itself is no charitable statement of sartorial suitability, but rather a cavalier and starkly graphic comment on her easy sexual availability. Amazing what got past us in the '80s!)

Above all, one might have liked to ask Butler—and once upon a time he did do interviews, enthusiastically if amusedly, punctuating his answers with an incongruously bloke-y laugh—to what, if anything (besides Molly Ringwald), he credits his band's peripheral but persistent presence in the American perception of '80s pop music? Rather incredibly, given their early MTV exposure, not one Furs single came close to bothering an American chart. "Pretty in Pink," even on the back of the movie's success, stopped just shy of Casem territory, peaking at No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lush "Heaven," from 1984's uneven Mirror Moves, wasn't released as a U.S. single at all, which in hindsight seems no small oversight.

But leaving aside for a moment her association with "Pretty in Pink" (isn't she?): Seriously, if Molly Ringwald were a musical sound, she would surely be the sprightly opening synth notes of "The Ghost in You." Would it really be too much, Richard Butler, to speak up and claim just a little credit?

The Psychedelic Furs play the Wilma with The Church Thu., July 28. Doors at 7 PM, show at 8. $29.50–$39.50 advance.

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