At their best the Psychedelic Furs are fantastic

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

It’s amazing what the movies can do. In 1986, the John Hughes teen flick Pretty in Pink — the one where poor girl Molly Ringwald and rich kid Andrew McCarthy get it together despite their friends’ disapproval — took its title from a Psychedelic Furs song, which featured heavily in the film. Whoosh! Suddenly they were proper stars. Or rather they were for a year or so.

They reformed in 2000, but were just another band on the nostalgia circuit. Then along came another movie, the 2017 arthouse hit Call Me By Your Name, which featured their 1982 single ‘Love My Way’. Since then, the venues have grown again, the reviewers returned and the notices have been glowing. There are even whispers of another album. The one new song played at the Roundhouse — ‘The Boy Who Invented Rock’n’Roll’ — is perfectly serviceable, though heavier on mood and rhythm than the indelible melodies of the Furs’ best songs.

And the best songs — the two from those movies, ‘India’, ‘President Gas’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Heartbreak Beat’ — were pretty fantastic. ‘Sister Europe’, its title so definitively early 1980s that you could put it in a time capsule with a pair of legwarmers and a copy of Shirley Conran’s Lace, was icy and compelling. You couldn’t accuse Richard Butler of being the most versatile of singers — his voice was always somewhere in the region of David Bowie after three packs of Capstan Full Strength — but that meant there was little for him to lose. Even now he could read out the phone book and make it sound drug-addled and pretentious, which in the context of the group’s swirling proto-goth is very much a good thing.

He was a compelling frontman — his gestures were odd, rather as if he were a marionette —and he looks fantastic, albeit with the caveat that from a distance and under lights his hair could have passed for a small mammal. But when he stood alongside his brother Tim, the bassist — the pair of them in sunglasses and suits — they suddenly appeared vampiric, like the rock stars they seem to have again become.

The previous night, another 1980s figure had played one of the capital’s big halls. But Chris de Burgh remains very much unrehabilitated, perhaps because he was never habilitated in the first place (I was chatting to a Norwegian man next to me before the show: ‘We were surprised to see he was playing,’ he said. ‘We thought he was dead’.) The whiff of naffness has always hung around De Burgh. But if nothing else, his Albert Hall show suggested a man unafraid to take risks. The show was divided into halves, the second featuring his biggest album, Into the Light (the one with ‘Lady in Red’) in full, the first devoted to a performance of 2010’s Moonfleet.

The latter was exactly what it sounds like: a concept album based on the adventure-romance of the same name, complete with interstitial voiceovers about Blackbeard’s treasure and dark and stormy nights. The show opened with finger-picked folk giving way to hard rock of the lightest kind, then veering into a variant on ‘Drunken Sailor’. When the Decemberists do this, everyone goes on about how wildly clever and imaginative they are, so why not Chris de Burgh? But with every passing use of the word ‘Twas’ in the lyrics, with every detour into Disney soundtrack balladry, it became a little less appetising. Twas a rum affair, me hearties. And goodness, you needed rum to get through it.

The second half changed everything. Not because of the music — though much of Into the Light is the kind of superior MOR that when performed by Californian cocaine addicts is lionised in hip circles — but because of the heavily refreshed young couple with access passes who occupied the empty seats in front of us. For half an hour or so, until they left their seats to stand at the side of the stage, they demonstrated such contempt for the idea of older people having fun — refusing entreaties to be quiet from seething people who had paid for their seats, performing mocking imitations of people just trying to have a nice evening out — that I went from being resigned to being out of place to cherishing the crowd for their distinctly unrock’n’roll enjoyment of De Burgh. Go on, show this ignorant pair of larrikins that you don’t have to be drugged-up twentysomethings to have a good time.

I doubt I’ll be trying to catch Chris de Burgh next time he plays in London. But this was a reminder — or twas a reminder, if you prefer — that not everything has to be achingly hip to provide genuine pleasure.

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