The Psychedelic Furs' acclaimed first two albums, "The Psychedelic Furs" and "Talk Talk Talk," created great expectations. Though commercial stiffs, those albums were artistic triumphs, generating a solid though small cult following of critics and fans.
But many of those supporters have since turned into detractors, charging that the last three Furs albums haven't even remotely fulfilled that early promise.
Not that the Furs, who are appearing Wednesday at the Forum, are floundering. The band, whose principal members are singer Richard Butler, his bassist brother Tim and guitarist John Ashton, is successful.
The gripe against the Furs is that three subsequent albums have been commercially oriented. Disgruntled hard-core followers contend that the band, once on the cutting edge of pop music, has retreated to the safety and comfort of commercialism.
There was a time when the Furs, formed in London in 1979, seemed as promising as U2 did in those days. In the early '80s, the Furs had originality, charisma, a definite creative spark. Richard Butler's brilliance and flamboyance were in full bloom. The material on the first two Columbia albums was everything good post-punk music should be--intense, rebellious, literate, discordant and unpredictable. The guitar blitzkrieg, led by John Aston, often didn't suit Butler's monotonous, frequently off-key vocals, but the resulting contrast was appealing.
These days, the Furs are commonly accused of selling out. Though noted for being surly and difficult, Richard Butler, the leader and best-known member, didn't, as expected, flare up when this touchy subject came up.
Explaining the infusion of commercialistic elements in the last three albums, "Forever Now" (1982), "Mirror Moves" (1984) and the current "Midnight to Midnight," Butler, 33, said: "We were interested in survival. Bands like U2 and the Cure were making it, but we weren't. Our style wasn't getting through to people. We certainly weren't getting radio airplay. I wanted us to have radio airplay. I wanted as many people to find out about the band as possible."
The third Furs album, "Forever Now," which started the trend toward more conventional music, was produced by Todd Rundgren. "We wanted to try out cellos and keyboards and backing vocals," Butler pointed out. They also wanted to experiment on the next album, "Mirror Moves." "We wanted a smoother, more keyboard-oriented sound. We did the album without losing the essence of the Furs." Many Furs fans, of course, disagree.
Butler's defense of the latest Furs album, "Midnight to Midnight," was quite impassioned. The consensus is that, for a pop-rock album, it's rather good, surpassing most of the other albums in a genre loaded with dreck. It's provocative and, in parts, absorbing. But it's also slicked up, toned down and fairly conventional. Mainstream pop-rock fans with an appetite for something slightly offbeat should like it. However, it's not nearly radical or daring enough to satisfy old Furs fans who still fondly remember those first two albums.
For a Furs album, "Midnight to Midnight" is rather simplistic. Butler explained why: "I wanted to do some songs that were more easily understood. I had never done an album like that and I wanted to try one. Lyrically, I wanted this one to be simpler than any album I had done before. It took a lot of paring to make it simple. I find it easy to sit down and write wildly abstract, stream-of-consciousness material. I feel comfortable with the looser form. You can go off on tangents. But writing in this simple style takes discipline."
The last three albums have been recorded more conventionally, which is reflected in their polish. But the first two albums, produced by Steve Lillywhite, were done in a more haphazard, helter-skelter style in keeping with the spontaneousness and freshness that were crucial elements of the punk ethic.
"We were after rawness and energy in the first two albums," Butler said. "We were amateurs who were still learning music. I was really difficult to work with then. I used to drink too much in the studio and refuse to do a second take. I wouldn't go back in and polish the vocals. I thought that wasn't honest. If it was flat in a few places so what. I was singing differently in those days, in a strong monotone. These days, I sing with more of a melodic sense. I think I sing better now."
Last year, the Furs were introduced to the mainstream pop-rock audience. Writer-producer John Hughes, on advice from star Molly Ringwald, used the Furs' 1981 song "Pretty in Pink" as the inspiration and title song for the smash-hit teen movie. Suddenly, conventional pop-rockers were turning on to the Furs. But all that commercialism alienated many of the old Furs followers, who were screaming "sell out" louder than ever.
The version of "Pretty in Pink" used on the sound track is a remake. "When Hughes told us he wanted to use the song, we said we wanted to redo it--to make it better," Butler recalled. "The guitar was out of tune on the original. I thought I could put a better vocal on it, too."
But for all its polish, the new version really isn't an improvement. Butler knows it too: "I don't think we did it better though we tried. I think the original version is far stronger and has more spirit."
To Butler, the best thing about the "Pretty in Pink" remake is that it kept the band's name alive during the years between the current album, "Midnight to Midnight," and the last one, "Mirror Moves," in 1984.
He hinted that the sound-track version has done the band more harm than good. "That song helped us with one audience but hurt us with another," he lamented. "We can't win."
One thing that's been missing from the Furs' music for the last few years is anger, a driving force on those first two albums. The last two in particular are relatively subdued. Butler agreed: "The best songs I do are angry songs. I write best when I'm angry."
Has he turned into a pussycat?
"Hell, no," he replied. "I'm still a very angry person. My anger and frustration are just below the surface all the time. I'm impatient and very short-tempered. A lot of things fuel my anger--the hypocrisy of our society, the lies we're fed about boy-girl relationships in 90% of the songs in pop music, or any number of other things. I've been an angry person ever since I was a teen-ager.
"I'm just not getting the anger out in the same way. I really got it out on that first album. I don't sit down and write angry songs the way I used to. Now I put those angry feelings over more with sarcasm."
But that, Butler promised, will change: "The next album is going to be an angry album. I'm going to write it in the old way. I have a lot more to be angry about now."