Richard Butler talks Psychedelic Furs’ comeback album, the real story of ‘Pretty in Pink,’ and how he got that voice
In 1986, post-punk outfit the Psychedelic Furs hit the mainstream when a re-recorded version of their college rock classic “Pretty in Pink” inspired the John Hughes film by the same title. The Furs followed up quickly with their 1987 album Midnight to Midnight, which was their most commercially successful effort yet, but frontman Richard Butler later denounced the rushed release as "hollow, vapid, and weak,” and by 1991, the band had split up.
“I was tired of it. I was kind of tired, a bit bored. I was tired of the roteness of it. It didn't feel creative anymore, and it wasn't fun. And when it came to the idea of making another record, I felt like I knew what it was going to sound like — and I didn't want to make a record that sounded like that,” Butler tells Yahoo Entertainment. “There was no excitement in it anymore for me. I needed a break.”
Butler and his bandmate/brother Tim went on to form Love Spit Love for a while (“Unlike a lot of brothers in bands, Tim and I have always got along famously,” Richard quips), and a reconfigured Furs began touring again in 2001 — but incredibly, it’s taken them almost 30 years to release a new studio album. The ambitious and symphonic Made of Rain comes out this week and is already earning critical raves, and it picks up right where the Furs’ early-’80s opuses Forever Now and Mirror Moves left off; it’s the sound of forever now, so to speak. The record sounds so timeless, in fact, that when Butler’s brittle, instantly identifiable voice rips through the dense layers of guitar noise and skronky horns on the opening track, to declare that he’s “The Boy That Invented Rock & Roll,” he’s 100 percent convincing.
“I don't even know,” Butler replies when asked why it took so long to release a new Psychedelic Furs album. “I mean, I think I spent 25 years saying, ‘Why?’ and then four years saying, ‘Why not?’ And then we just did it. We were a very creative force, and when we started writing songs, it just happened quite naturally.
“I'm actually happier with this record than I thought I would be going into it, which is always a good position to be in,” Butler continues. “I'd hoped the best for the record and was fully confident in the band, knowing that we played well and worked together well — but I’m [surprised with] the songs we came up with, even at the last minute, things that happened in the studio. Like, ‘You'll Be Mine’ was basically a little ditty that Tim had written the music for and I did the vocals for, and in the studio — with [producer/former Love Spit Love member] Richard Fortus’s help, obviously — it turned into this kind of epic creature.”
As for the Pretty In Pink ditty, Butler admits that it was a blessing and curse. The song, originally from the 1981 album Talk, Talk, Talk, first came to Hughes’s attention through his muse, teen actress Molly Ringwald. “Music was incredibly important to John, and he had an amazing, amazing record collection and made me the most incredible mixtapes,” Ringwald told Yahoo Entertainment in 2013. “A lot of the songs that ended up on those [soundtracks] — the Bunnymen, the Smiths… we made a lot of mixtapes for each other. I don’t think he had heard ‘Pretty in Pink’ until I played it for him.”
“It was a double-edged sword in that I think the song deserved a better interpretation than that movie. The song wasn't about somebody in a pink dress. It was a lot darker than that!” explains Butler. “And a lot sadder than that. It did bring us a whole new audience, which as I said, was a double-edged sword.”
So, what was “Pretty in Pink” really about? “Well, not to ruin it for anybody, but basically it's about a girl — or it could be a guy — who sleeps around a lot and feels like that empowers them and gives them a sense of value. But everybody else involved, the people that sleep with this person, are ridiculing them behind their back,” says Butler. “It feels like Caroline’s in control. But she’s not.
“I don't ever set out to write a song with a particular aim in mind. I'm not really a narrative songwriter. I'm more intuitive than that. I write about my feelings at that given moment — mostly, I think you could say it’s probably fairly close to the automatic writing that the Surrealists used to do,” Butler continues. “Having said that, I do attempt at some point to make it make sense, bring it into some sense of reality, and give it some cohesion. But that's the secondary thing.”
OK… so, who was “Caroline”? Was there a real-life Caroline? “It's just a name. I like the sound of it,” Butler chuckles. “I suppose she was based around the couple of people that I knew at that time.” And did those people ever figure that out? “No, no, it wasn't that clear,” he laughs.
When it comes to onscreen use of the Butler brothers’ music, “Pretty In Pink” isn’t the only iconic moment. Love Spit Love’s cover of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” became the theme song for the WB’s Charmed, and the Todd Rundgren-produced “Love My Way” soundtracked a memorable Stranger Things scene in 2017. But Butler cites his favorite cinematic career highlight: “As opposed to [Pretty in Pink], Call Me by Your Name’s use of ‘Love My Way’ is the most perfect way I could have imagined a movie using our song. That film actually could have been a longform video for ‘Love My Way.’ It was so beautifully matched.”
It’s not surprising that filmmakers would be inspired by the Furs’ music. “I'm very visual as a writer, so I tend to write in terms of images, which makes them, I guess, somewhat cinematic in a way,” Butler ponders. And the tracks on Made of Rain (an album partially inspired by Brendan Kennelly’s book-length poem “The Man Made of Rain”) are almost mini-movies unto themselves — particularly “Wrong Train,” the only song written earlier and not specifically for this album, with a colorful and cutting chorus that says, “A wife that hates me/So does her boyfriend.” Clearly the punk edge that dates back to when Richard and his brother first saw the Sex Pistols as teens is still there, decades later.
“It wasn’t the why, it was the how,” Butler says, remembering how a fateful Pistols concert set him and Tim on their Psychedelic path. “Before, I looked at musicians — I looked at Bryan Ferry and David Bowie and Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan, and I massively admired all these people — but I didn't know how they got there from where I was, this kid sitting in suburbia. And then I went to see the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, and it seemed all of a sudden that you didn't have to start at these massive, orchestrated, fantastically arranged songs. You could start with something really simple. That was the ‘how.’”
One could draw a through-line from Pistols agitator Johnny Rotten to Richard Butler’s equally iconic and sardonic snarl — which sounds untouched by time on Made of Rain — but Butler muses, “I think the sarcasm and the snarl came from Bob Dylan, really.” Butler’s ragged, pack-a-day rasp is one of the most recognizable voices in rock, right up there with the vocals of ‘80s peers like the Cure’s Robert Smith, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, or the Sisters’ of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch — a huge compliment, as far as Butler is concerned.
“I'm glad to be put into a category with Robert Smith,” Butler says. “My favorite vocalists aren’t really singers. They're more vocalists. Like, I love Bob Dylan, but he's not a fantastic singer in the way that you'd say that, you know, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey or Freddie Mercury is a technically fantastic singer. We are not technically fantastic. Robert isn't technically fantastic, nor is Bob Dylan or Neil Young, or Leonard Cohen, or Lou Reed. But these are the singers I admire.”
Butler’s untrained growl, which sounded weathered and lived-in even way back in ’81, is probably easier to maintain with age, compared to the voices of power-belters like Whitney or Mariah. So, what’s his secret? “The rasp really comes from when I push my voice to certain notes at volume,” admits the 64-year-old Furs frontman. “I don't even smoke! I haven't smoked for years and years; it has nothing to do with cigarettes. I think people tie me in with cigarettes because I used to smoke onstage all the time, but I haven't smoked for a long, long time. It's nothing to do with that.”
Butler doesn’t exactly have a regimen for maintaining his voice. “Not as far as I know. I might be damaging it by the day; I have no idea!” he shrugs. “I mean, the funny thing is when we go out on tour these days, it seems like we'd play three, maybe four shows, and I'd start to lose my voice every time. And I wonder whether I can do the next show, and then the next show is a little hairy. And then after that, it gets back to being normal. So it's almost like I got used to straining my voice live. It's very odd.”
By default, however, Butler can be on “vocal rest” for a while. “It's kind of ironic to have been touring all this time, for 20 years, and finally have a whole new album out — and we can't tour to promote it,” he laments. (Made of Rain was originally supposed to come out in May, but was delayed due to coronavirus concerns and concert postponements.) But maybe one of Made of Rain’s soundscapes will end up on another soundtrack, and in the meantime, this interview concludes with the suggestion that Butler join forces with one of his uniquely voiced post-punk peers. Who would be his dream duet partner?
“Maybe Robert Smith. Nick Cave. Martin Gore. Any of those,” Butler deadpans. “They're all good.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
· Molly Ringwald talks jazz career, Simple Minds cover
· 'Pretty in Pink' director Howard Deutch on film's famous lost ending and Molly Ringwald's theory that Duckie was secretly gay
· The Cure at 40: How Robert Smith became an enduring, unlikely rock star
· Johnny Marr on how the Smiths helped 'wipe out jock culture' for the '80s generation
· From ‘Sex Dwarf’ to Sex Cells: Soft Cell’s Marc Almond reflects on 40 years on the fringe
· Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch talks influencing friend Chris Martin: ‘I'd turn up and tell him when the lyrics were a bit s***’
· Peter Hook reflects 40 years after suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis: 'People who are left behind are the ones that suffer'
· Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore: ‘I can’t claim that the songs were all written for Trump’
· John Lydon opens up about devotion to wife of 40 years and her Alzheimer's battle: 'Once I make the commitment, it’s forever'
Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Spotify.