In the '80s, there were jelly shoes, and people were hopping on Pogo balls. Every piece of clothing had shoulder pads. It was a time of awkward, stylized spryness. E.T. and Michael Jackson had a fling. Techno music was born, Pac-Man chomped eight-bit dots, Hungry Hungry Hippos and Prozac were invented. Denise Huxtable ran it ALL. In 1981, a band from London called the Psychedelic Furs released the album Talk Talk Talk on Columbia Records. The single was "Pretty in Pink." In 1985, Molly Ringwald asked director John Hughes to write a movie based on the song. She loved it, and could cry better than anyone at your prom. Singer Richard Butler's voice hinted at David Bowie's, and the Furs' dour, poshy post-punk pop became a defining sound of the decade. They touched on an arty new wave and probably never played Hungry Hungry Hippos. Sprung out of the British punk scene of the late '70s, they would go on to cut austere mega-hits like "Love My Way." It was hot, "white hot," as Ringwald would say. Bassist and founding member Tim Butler spoke—in a beautiful, wafting, cursive English accent—from his home in Liberty, Kentucky. He was sitting in his car outside a grocery store waiting for his wife.
How'd you end up in Kentucky? Something tells me Liberty, Kentucky, is slightly different than the London post-punk scene. Well, I met my wife on MySpace, when that was going strong, and we began a long-distance relationship. I'd fly down here to see her, and she'd fly up to Southern New Jersey where I was living, which ain't the prettiest or friendliest place. I wanted to move because I was ending a previous relationship, and she said, "Why don't you come down and live in Kentucky? I've got a house." And here I am six years later, happily married, and calling Kentucky home [laughs]. Lots of horse farms here—Kentucky is similar to where I grew up in the countryside of England, with the rolling hillsides and all the green.
You met on MySpace. What happened? Were y'all in each other's Top Eight? She had been a fan since she was 14 or 15 years old—way back, around the time of the Forever Now album. I guess she had sort of a crush on me. I had gotten on MySpace, and she found me. We started talking, one thing led to another, and here I am. I guess MySpace is trying to make a comeback with Justin Timberlake.
The Psychedelic Furs have a couple decade-defining mega-hits. Where do you play the mega-hits in your live set? Gotta be strategic with those. It can work both ways. We did a tour a few years ago where we started the set with "Love My Way." We still have enough songs that are well-known among our audience. Like, we can put in a "President Gas," which wasn't a hit, but people go crazy for it. I think some people like it when we play the hits early and don't keep them waiting. I don't think it really matters where we put them, though—what hurts a set is when you put too many slow songs together. Obviously, if we don't play the hits, we get lynched [laughs].
What do you remember about writing "Pretty in Pink"? We came up with it when we were writing songs for Talk Talk Talk. It was later in the evening. A couple of the guys in the band had left. At some point, we started playing that riff, and immediately we were like, "Wow, that's a good riff." We played it a few times, then Richard said, "Let's play it again!" When he says that, it means he has an idea for a vocal melody or a lyric. At the time, we didn't think it would be the single, we just thought, "Good, another track." It fit. We recorded it and were sitting in the studio listening back, when our producer, Steve Lillywhite said, "This should be the single." We didn't really care, we just wanted to get out and play live, and do some carousing. It was sort of a hit when it was first released, but then John Hughes was asked by Molly Ringwald to write a movie vehicle for her around that song. It snowballed from there.
How does your brother, Richard, come up with his lyrics? The "Pink" in that song refers to nudity, right? I think certain words popped up that night, but I also think he worked on them a bit and honed them down. By the end of that jam session, he had a pretty good handle on it. He's a complicated guy. He used to go around with pockets full of lyrics written on pieces of paper and napkins. He was constantly writing things down. We'd be in a pub drinking, and he'd say, "Anybody got a piece of paper? And a pen?" Maybe for "Pretty in Pink," he just stuck his hand in his pocket and they came out on a piece of napkin.
Whose idea was it to rerecord it for the film? John Hughes wanted to use the song, but the company that was helping him gather music said that the guitars sounded out of tune. They are a bit discordant, but that's part of the sound of the song—it's arranged to sound like that. It wasn't squeaky-clean enough for what they thought should be in a movie soundtrack. Then they said, "Well, you don't have to be the ones to redo it if you don't want to—we can get some other band to rerecord it." But if they were going to use the song, we wanted to be the ones playing it, so we rerecorded it ourselves and added the saxophone to the second version. To me, the rerecorded version is inferior to the original. Steve Lillywhite's one of the best producers in the world. Maybe they just wanted to get someone else to do it [laughs].
Walk me back to London in the late '70s, when the Psychedelic Furs were forming. What bands did you like to see? We used to go see the Clash a lot. We saw the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, and that was what made me want to form a band. Listening to them play three-chord songs, seeing that you didn't have to play a million notes a minute. The feel was everything. Punk had the feel, it didn't have the musicianship. It had this passion that was sorely lacking in the music of that period with all the progressive rock bands. And then there was the Clash—they just had anger. In England back then, something like three out of five kids leaving school were unemployed. The year we saw the Pistols, there was a garbage strike, and bags of garbage were left on the street, smelling up the place. It was a depressing time, which is why punk happened. The kids didn't see any future. Richard and I were living in Muswell Hill, North London, where the Kinks came from [laughs]. Richard was going to art school, and we wanted to form a band—he realized he could get a message across to more people in a song than in a painting. But I couldn't play any instruments. I wanted to be a drummer or a bass player, and playing bass was the cheaper option.
Who else was on that bill with the Sex Pistols the night you decided to form a band? It was the Clash, playing their third show. Keith Levene was playing guitar with them. Paul Simonon had the bass notes painted on his fret board. Siouxsie and the Banshees also played that night—Marco Pirroni was playing with them, and they had Sid Vicious on drums. They did a 20-minute version of "The Lord's Prayer." I think the Sex Pistols had just signed to Virgin, and it was some kind of festival. The Pistols headlined one night, and the Damned headlined a night, I think—it's still the best rock show I've ever seen. When they had Glen Matlock, a bass player that could play. Before the whole thing with Sid Vicious came about. It was amazing and life-changing to see and hear. Glen left because I don't think he got along with John Lydon. Sid came into the picture and it all went downhill.
Tell me a Sid story. I met him a couple times. Right when he started playing with the Pistols, I remember seeing him at an Iggy Pop show. David Bowie played keyboards in Iggy's band. It was at the Rainbow in London. Sid was living up to his name. He was sitting on the foyer steps on the way out of the Rainbow, and there was just a whole line of security guards walking toward him. He looked like he was about to be a bit of a problem [laughs].
I take it you're a big bluegrass fan now, living in Kentucky? What have you been listening to lately? Bluegrass actually isn't my cup of tea. I like the Killers, and Space Hog. We played some shows with Space Hog recently. They're great. I like early Roxy Music a lot. I'm still old school.
Any surprises in the set for this current Psychedelic Furs tour? We're doing a lot of songs we haven't played in quite a while, which makes it exciting. We're doing "Pulse," "Wedding Song," "Soap Commercial," and "Here Come Cowboys."
Any bluegrass? Maybe a bluegrass medley? A "Love My Way" bluegrass redux? That would be a surprise, but we haven't worked that up just yet. I'll let Richard know about the medley.