Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Fur Out

The continuing confusion as to whether the Psychedelic Furs are "really" "psychedelic" or what we of the hippie era dubbed a put-on doesn't say much for those of the punk era. "Psychedelic revival" my medulla oblongata--acid never went away. And Traffic and Procol Harum were disappointing if not actually shitty bands to begin with, as astute hippies always knew. For historical comparison try the Seeds, featured on Lenny Kaye's original-punk anthology Nuggets, the one he subtitled "Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era." Or better still the MC5, hippie punks if ever there were any, which there certainly were. And are--just ask the Patti Smith Group.

In interviews, the Furs' answer is as clear as a put-on can be.from their early days in London, 1976, they fashioned themselves as a punk-era band who sent up punk's anti-hippie orthodoxy, but they were also a post-hippie band who satirized hippie fatuousness. We can thank them, I suppose, for emphasizing that punk is the child of hippie as well as its antithesis, and if you insist on aesthetic frisson with your rock and roll that's irony aplenty. But what they do for me, if you'll pardon an elementary ironic frisson, is at once more profound and more trivial. The Furs' music is junk--great junk. I love it because it's great junk. What a trip.

Now, great junk is an achievement, especially in new wave, as power pop and DOR profiteers prove with repulsive consistency. And great junk is all the Furs' debut album, aptly entitled The Psychedelic Furs, has going for it--as satire this stuff is pretty thin. The words straddle punk and hippie with an ambiguity that's more vague than evocative. There's a song called "India" and another called "Flowers," flowers in several of the other lyrics, a complaint that we live in a "Soap Commercial, " a song called "We Love You," and so what? Just as important, their music--except maybe for the inaudible-to-deafening buildup that begins "India"--has no more to do with the mysterious subgenre "acid rock" than the next Byrdsy guitar run. The beat is slower than in classic punk but more dangerous than was customary a dozen years ago--that is, it's like lots of other tempos nowadays. If their sound has a Signature it's Duncan Kilbourne's solitary saxophone, which is more Clarence Clemons or Andy Mackay (or Lora Logic) than Chris Wood. There's no need to describe them so abstractly, though, when an instant comparison is at hand. I know I just said I love the Furs because they're great junk, but that was only half of it. I love them because they sound like the Sex Pistols. And I love them, too, for reminding me that I didn't just love the Pistols for what they said or stood for--I loved the music itself.

As it must, the resemblance begins with front man Richard Butler, whose phrasing and intonation owe so much to Johnny Rotten's scabrous caterwaul that I suspect he's doing an homage if not an imitation. And the instrumental similarities are decisive. The Sex Pistols spawned English punk, but they were always somewhat grander than their speedy, compulsively crude epigones, many of whom also took after the Ramones. The Pistols' pace was more unrelenting, especially since unlike the Furs they eschewed ballads, but the overall effect they went for is recalled quite satisfactorily by the Furs' calculated raveups. The difference is tone. Butler's voice has a softer edge, hinting at sentiment and self-pity in the manner of Bryan Ferry. And the band is softer, too--not only by way of Kilbourne's horn, but in the bongs and ripples John Ashton and Roger Morris get out of their guitars.

The Furs played a few ironic games when I saw them live at the Ritz and at Bond's. Butler's sneer and the slant of his head were pure Johnny Rotten, but Rotten wouldn't be caught alive in new Wranglers and that black kimono-housecoat-karate jacket Butler was wearing, and he couldn't pout his ass like Mick Jagger if he wanted to. And though they brought along a light show, its most impressive effect was words going in and out of focus--the lava shapes remained conspicuously stationary. Somehow they didn't convince me, though--I had the feeling that at some level they meant all their stupid (the most common word on the album, according to Milo Miles of the Boston Phoenix) punk-hippie rhetoric. And that was good. Dancing disconsolately to the anonymous DOR coming over the Bond's sound system, I reflected once again that at its norm (not even its worst) this music was as empty on the surface as the most abject disco. You can't say that about the Furs. It doesn't qualify as great junk unless the possibility remains that it's really pretentious.

Village Voice, Nov. 18, 1980