"Wasn't she eeeeeeeeasy?/Isn't she pretty in pink?"
Listening to Richard Butler's sneering vocal 30 years on, it's hard to see how anyone ever took the Psychedelic Furs song "Pretty in Pink" for any kind of valentine—much less as the inspiration for a romantic teen drama. It's a grinding rocker with a blaring fuzztone guitar riff, and the lyrics paint a jaded picture of a social climber who "loves to be one of the girls." Anything she offers is conditional and temporary: "She doesn't have anything you want to steal/Well, nothing you can touch." And the song's title doesn't mean pink blouses or scarves—it means with her clothes off.
When it came out in 1981 on the band's second album, Talk Talk Talk, it was emblematic of the era of jagged British postpunk. Like many of their peers, brothers Tim and Richard Butler were inspired to start playing music after seeing a Sex Pistols show at the 100 Club in London. But the band they formed was something a little different from the Pistols' straight-ahead shock rock. As much as they liked the attitude and noise of punk, they were also fans of artier bands like the Velvet Underground, Love, and Roxy Music.
"We're sort of like the missing link between neanderthal man and Homo sapiens," Tim Butler says with a laugh, speaking by phone from the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, where the Furs played last week. "We took the energy from punk and the melody and image a bit from bands like Roxy Music and sort of the era of glam, and melded them together. I think we helped in the beginning of alternative music getting through to the mainstream."
Butler, now 52, is the band's bass player and one of its songwriters, and he and his brother are the only founding Furs left in the lineup that arrives at the Bijou Theatre on Tuesday. (Saxophonist Mars Williams and drummer Paul Garisto have been with them since the mid-'80s.) They had mounting success through the 1980s, plying the boundary between college radio and the top 40. Their chart positions never quite matched their hipster cachet, but decades on, they retain a fanbase that has probably only grown as their original fans have raised another generation of Furs-lovers.
The band broke up in the early '90s, after a few later albums failed to find much traction. The Butlers formed another group, Love Spit Love, which had a minor hit in 1994 with "Am I Wrong?" By 2000, with the grunge era fading, they sensed it was time for a reunion. "Music went through the whole period of rap-metal," Butler says, "not dressing up or anything, plaid shirts—very boring. And then the more melodic guitar bands came along."
The Furs have spent the past decade touring intermittently, sometimes playing with some of those younger bands who claim them as influences. Butler fondly mentions a date with the Killers that ended with both bands on stage playing "Pretty in Pink." And the group's '90s hiatus allowed them to come back to their old songs with new appreciation.
"We got to a stage probably in '93 when you get the treadmill of the album-tour-album-tour," Butler says. "We started to hate being the Furs, going out there and hating ‘Pretty in Pink,' hating ‘Love My Way.' But now, there's no pressure on us. We go out and we enjoy it."
On this tour, the band is playing Talk Talk Talk in its entirety, from the squonk and snarl of "Dumb Waiters" to the gentle, moody "She Is Mine." Then, after a short break, they come back and play other hits and college-radio classics like "Heartbreak Beat," "Heaven," and "President Gas."
Talk Talk Talk has long been the critics' and fans' favorite of the Furs' records, retaining some of the dense, buzzing murk of their 1980 debut but condensing it into more tuneful bursts. "It still sounds fresh and relevant," Butler says. He allows that his own favorite in the catalog is the band's third album, Forever Now, which saw them turning more toward New Wave romanticism. But he understands why Talk Talk Talk resonates. "It's a very aggressive album" he says. "It's a young musician's album. Now we're sort of back in shape to do it. But it's very in-your-face and up."
That aggression is probably why director John Hughes asked the band to re-record "Pretty in Pink" for his Molly Ringwald movie of the same name. They complied with a more lush and dance floor-friendly rendition, which was a highlight of the film's best-selling soundtrack. But the uncompromising original is what you can expect in concert.
What you won't hear is anything new, though Butler says there is an album in the works.
"We're working on it, but we're not going to be rushed," he says. "We're not in any rush to come out and think, ‘Hey, you know, we can conquer the world! We can go up against Lady Gaga!' So we might as well take our time and make sure we're happy with it."