When Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols broke upon the music scene with a ferocious guitar assault, screaming about the queen and how there was no future, the whole question of artistic integrity in rock was revived. If anything, punk was about opposing authority. The pre-existing rock stars in Britain had become, in the punk view, too much like a form of aristocracy.
Growing up in London in the 1970s, brothers Tim and Richard Butler, the first in secondary school and the second enrolled in art school, loved the intensity of the Sex Pistols. The example of Johnny Rotten (Johnny Lydon) starting a cultural revolt by only knowing three chords on his guitar was a revelation.
“A whole new world opened up,” says Psychedelic Furs bassist Tim Butler from his current home in Kentucky. “Music was the only way out. There was mass unemployment. As soon as you left school, you were immediately unemployed. Kids didn’t have any hope. When we formed, we were influenced by the energy and the attitude of the Sex Pistols. But everyone was playing three-chord, three-minute songs, and we started to look for something else.”
A few years later, on the other side of the world, in Sydney, Australia, Steve Kilbey formed a band with a bloke from Liverpool, England—Marty Wilson-Piper—originally calling the band the Church of Man, later shortening it to the Church. By that time punk had led to new wave, but neither Kilbey nor Wilson-Piper wanted anything to do with such fashionability. By that time many of the new bands had eschewed the whole idea of a guitar solo. The Church pursued a twin-guitar sound, creating a kind of post-rock psychedelia with extended instrumental sections.
“We were deliberately trying to buck the trend,” Kilbey says over the phone line from Sydney. “We were classicists trying to find our way back to Yes, Genesis, to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. We kept playing the guitar solos, doing the long hair, even to the point of wearing paisley shirts.”
Considering their different attitudes about how to approach music in a post-punk world, it’s ironic that the Psychedelic Furs and the Church have become a successful double bill for nearly two years.
The Psychedelic Furs had disbanded in the early 1990s because, according to Butler, they were tired of playing such hits as “Love My Way” and “Pretty in Pink.” The Butler brothers then formed a new band, Love Spit Love, and the pressure was off. “Nobody knew who we were and we could play what we wanted,” he says. But in the late 1990s, they got invited to play a short set for a punk- and new wave-era nostalgia show.
“We had an offer to play with the B-52s and the Go-Go’s. They asked us to do a 50-minute set,” Butler says. “We did that and found out that people remembered us, that people needed to hear us. We started to hear how younger bands were influenced by us. We were finding we were getting the respect that we had sort of lost.”
The Church never stopped making albums, but at around that same time in the late 1990s, they were ready to break up the band. But the popularity of a farewell concert tour caused them to change their minds.
“We were always going in and out of fashion,” Kilbey says. “There was always something that would wipe us out, and then we’d decide we’d keep on doing shows. We had lots of times when we almost called it quits. Everyone has that frustration, whether it’s in a marriage, a business relationship or a band. And then after that, we would say it was a mistake. It becomes a little embarrassing to say you are going to call it quits and then come back. We kept deciding that we still had more music to contribute.”
The Psychedelic Furs responded to the three-minute blaster style of punk by trying to do something different. Instead of raging for three minutes, they would just play one song with ferocious energy for 10 minutes.
“When we started out, none of us could really play,” Butler says. “We would go into the studio and just jam and say, ‘Everybody play at once.’ Our first album ... someone (a music critic) called it ‘beautiful chaos.’ It was cacophonous, but it seemed to draw an audience.”
Butler says the band had the good fortune to get teamed up with a hot young producer, Steve Lillywhite, who had already produced one of the early solo albums for Peter Gabriel, as well as U2’s first album, Boy (1980).
“He was the first person to help turn those jams into songs,” Butler says. “Richard would be singing with a ton of anger and he (Lillywhite) would say, ‘Try singing it more and calm it down.’”
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That first self-titled Psychedelic Furs album in 1980, as well as their follow-up, Talk, Talk, Talk, the next year, also produced by Lillywhite, features washes of dissonant guitars, straight-ahead drumming, brash bursts of saxophone and Richard Butler’s growling vocals, with his skill for finding a kind of roundabout melody above the din. The noise-drenched cacophony was still there. So was the anger.
The song “Pretty in Pink” caught the attention of director John Hughes, who used the track for a hit film of the same name. But Butler says the original song isn’t about a girl who was pretty but didn’t know it. He says it was about a girl who “slept around and didn’t respect herself” and “nobody wanted to know.”
The success that the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack brought to the band was a bit problematic, however.
“That was a blessing and a curse,” Butler says. “We got more of a following but we lost some of our hardcore fans. There were all of these young girls showing up in ‘Pretty in Pink’ T-shirts. The old fans left us as we gained a huge audience, but it was a very fickle pop audience. In that respect it was a downside.”
But as the Psychedelic Furs rode the MTV generation into international fame with a sort of new wave pop laced with cynicism, the Church spent the early 1980s pursuing artistic integrity while fighting the trends. This made them something of a rock critic’s misfit. Their songs were ethereal, cerebral, trending toward mysticism. Not the “dumb rock” of AC/DC, says Kilbey.
“The source of that was my study of Greek and Egyptian mythology, a study of ancient history. I even studied Latin in school, things like art movies,” Kilbey says. “I just wanted to get all of that into rock ‘n’ roll.”
But it wasn’t easy. They weren’t punks but the attitude was anti-social, and very anti-commercial. They were signed to Capitol Records, only to find that the record company executives didn’t like the brainy sort of art-rock they were doing. Kilbey recalled the day one record company official asked them to sound more like another Australian act, the Little River Band, an easy listening sort of group.
“It’s always a struggle,” he says. “It was in the early days, was in the middle days, and still is now. All the record companies do is sign you up, say they like you how you are, then try to do everything they can to change you. They want you to wear different clothes. Different hair. They will say, ‘I love you, now change.’”
Even during their most successful days, the members of the Church were anti-authoritarian, an attitude usually expressed in the form of resisting the advice of their handlers and their record producers. After some up-and-down experiences with producers and record labels, the band was able find its signature sound on Arista Records with Starfish (1988). The album’s spacious sound has arching, twining twin-guitar interplay with a shimmering sort of chiming, chimerical brilliance. The track “Under the Milky Way” became a hit. That was followed up with another successful album, Gold Afternoon Fix (1990), which includes several other pieces that are still part of their regular set list. This was recorded during a period of their regular rebellion against their producer Bob Clearmountain and their settings in Los Angeles.
Disenchantment became a kind of artistic muse. As Kilbey stated at the time: “The Church came to L.A. and really reacted against the place because none of us liked it. I hated where I was living. I hated driving this horrible little red car around on the wrong side of the road. I hate that there’s no one walking on the streets and I missed my home. All the billboards, conversations I’d overhear, TV shows, everything that was happening to us was going into the music.”
Throughout their career, the Church has remained out of sync with their generation of MTV bands from the 1980s. For example, prior to touring with the Psychedelic Furs, they were teamed up with a reunion of Duran Duran, perhaps one of the most beloved and hated pop groups of their time.
“That was terrible. That was the worst tour ever,” Kilbey says. “They were the worst band in the world. I hated touring with them. What an absolutely hopeless bunch of girlies. It makes my skin crawl just listening to them ... That’s one of the reasons I really like touring with the Psychedelic Furs. It’s a much better fit.”
Catch the Psychedelic Furs with the Church on Fri, July 15 at the Pepsi Amphitheatre, Exit 337 off I-17 south of Flagstaff at Fort Tuthill County Park. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18–$65 and can be purchased online at www.pepsiamp.com or by calling (866) 977-6849. To learn more about the bands, visit www.thepsychedelicfurs.com and www.thechurchband.net.