It's never pretty when a band makes that monumental plunge from cult favorite to big-money, arena-playing, leather-clad rock group. Critics inevitably scream, "SELLOUT!" Long- time fans feel betrayed. And the college radio stations promptly hawk the band's back catalogue to used record stores. Most bands only have to face the painful consequences of going commercial once. But the Psychedelic Furs have been criticized for straying too far from the fringes of the rock scene nearly their entire career.
The first time the Furs were accused of pandering to teendom was when the British post-punks allowed their alluring tune "Love My Way" to appear on the soundtrack of Valley Girl in 1983. Hearing the dark-edged track turned into the love theme for a grade-Z flick about L.A. new-wavers severely riled Furs faithfuls.
The group caught even more flak for its next leap into the mainstream, namely the rerecording of its classic track, "Pretty in Pink," for the John Hughes movie in 1986. Critics whined about the band's decision to replace the song's grungy guitar riffs with slick saxophone on the new version. Artistic gripes aside, the exposure from this brat-pack project gave the band its first sizable hit.
Furs guitarist John Ashton shrugs off any criticism of the band's soundtrack exploits. "Any form of success will piss somebody off," reasons Ashton in a recent phone interview. "It's not like Pretty in Pink doubled our audience or anything. It certainly did bring a bunch of young girls to the front of the stage, which was fun for a while."
But even the Furs felt uncomfortable about their next commercial breakthrough. After "Pretty in Pink" handily won over the teen market, the band's label, Columbia Records, made clear what it wanted out of the British dream boys' next album. "`We need a hit! We want another hit!'" cries Ashton, mimicking the Columbia chiefs' order. The band bowed to the bigwigs' pressure and, sure enough, the 1987 LP Midnight to Midnight, which included the smash single "Heartbreak Beat," turned out to be a bona fide pop monster. In Ashton's opinion, it's also the worst thing the Furs have ever committed to vinyl.
Midnight to Midnight took six months to record, two weeks to remix and then sat on the Columbia shelf for three months before its release. "We lived with it for far too long," groans Ashton. "By the time it came out we were sick and tired of it." The worst part of the experience, says the guitarist, was having to spend another seven months touring in support of the "piece of shit."
"I can't say it was totally down to the record company," admits Ashton about the Midnight fiasco. "There were management fuck-ups and artistic fuck-ups on our part. I choose not to dwell on the album, since everybody had a hand in screwing it up."
Columbia be damned, the band was bent on making its new album, Book of Days, more in line with the dark, hard-edged style of vintage Furs. "This album became a crusade to get back to what the band was best at doing, which is writing interesting rock 'n' roll, instead of trying to write songs that are commercially viable," asserts Ashton. The Furs pretty much succeeded on that score. Book of Days does have the same commercial sheen that's characterized the band's recent LPs, but it's also more thoughtful and less boogie-oriented.
Missing from the new album, though, are the pointed political tirades that have made for some of the Furs' best material. Ashton admits his band may have become less critical of America as a whole since the Furs have taken up digs in the states. But the band's animosity toward U.S. politicos was clear enough on earlier tracks like "President Gas" from 1982's Forever Now, which slagged off Ronald Reagan with lines like "He isn't very honest/But he's obvious at least."
"`President Gas,' in itself, wasn't anything totally anti-American," Ashton argues. "It was more to do with war-mongering generally, although Ronnie did provide the perfect foil for that one, I'm afraid. But I think it's really as much to do with Thatcherism as Reaganism. It's just that there were enough people writing about the Iron Goddess back home for us not to bother with it."
Most everyone would agree-- Ashton included--that the scathing commentary of "President Gas" represents the Furs in top form. Trouble is, the band has yet to come up with something to equal that seven-year-old track. "The hardest thing a band can do is realize that you might have peaked two or three albums ago," notes Ashton soberly. "You have to be very tough on yourself at those times."
It's true that the Furs have regained at least some of their bite with Book of Days. And Ashton has yet to see this LP written off as a "sellout," which he takes as a sign that the band is back on course. "That constant search for commercial success really did grind the band down to the point of it being pretty unworkable," admits the guitarist. "But we're through with that now. Now we're interested in portraying the Furs as we really are instead of the Furs for mass consumption.