“When did you first see them live?”
-“Sometime in the ’70s”
-“At Glastonbury about twenty years ago”
Tonight’s crowd at the Highbury Garage has been around a bit – watching the stage is a landscape of widow’s peaks and thick trunks. There are men in plaid, with beer bellies and thick necks, a man in a battered original Cure t-shirt, and scores of men and women with a free pass from their significant others to come and wallow in nostalgia for an evening.
The Psychedelic Furs, led by brothers Richard and Tim Butler, were formed in 1977 and released their eponymous debut album in 1980. They’ve been gigging, bar some years in the wilderness, for thirty-five years, and some fans here have probably been coming to watch them for as long.
They kick off with the clattering, motorised ‘Into You like a Train’ from their breakthrough second album, ‘Talk Talk Talk’. Their early sound is tight and bass-driven, claustrophobic with flanged guitars, shrieking sax and Richard’s hoarse, evidently British, atonal singing voice. It just works, a lesson in how to pull off that style, unlike modern pretenders (The Drums, I’m looking at you. Find a singer).
Richard is a sinuous, writhing, grinning golem, still with the gaunt cheeks of his youth. Replete in head-to-toe black, a waistcoat, and heavy black-rimmed spectacles he looks like a successful graphic design consultant. Tim stalks the stage with his bass from behind dark glasses looking for all the world like Andrew Eldritch after a few good meals, and still managing to conjure up a little of the menace from the Furs’ punkier days.
The crowd are more than willing, their flesh discovering strength perhaps forgotten. Better-known hits like ‘Mr Jones’ and ‘Pretty in Pink’ are met with roars of approval, while a hundred similarly bespectacled faces mouth words they didn’t realise they remembered.
The more synth-heavy art-rock sounds of their later albums still please, with ‘Love My Way’ and the sublime saxophone of ‘Heartbeat’ provoking men in their ‘50s to roar out the words alongside girls young enough to be their daughters. Furious renditions of ‘India’ and ‘President Gas’ set off widespread moshing down the front and brings the set to a close after a respectable 90 minutes.
What’s our problem with ageing rock stars? No one tells BB King, Fats Waller, or Dave Brubeck to stay at home and age gracefully. Perhaps it’s the words “rock” and “star” that are so inflexible, that allow so little leeway for age and maturity over youth and exuberance. In his fifty-seventh year, Richard may be nearly superannuated but remains super-animated, miming lyrics with constantly moving hands, clearly enjoying himself as he high-fives fans down the front. Mars Williams – besides Tim the only other member from the ’80s lineups – looks like an immaculate bluesman in suit and shades, his sax soaring. With youngsters in the crowd as well as first-time-arounders, it’s clear that not only can the Psychedelic Furs can still knock out a show, but that their post-punk heritage lives on in the countless revivalists of the last decade inspired by them and their ilk.
To hell with the naysayers. How do you want to earn a living in your later years? Maturity is for wine and cheese.
Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.