Relics of Our History
109 · 27 February 97
The Psychedelic Furs: Radio One Sessions
I don't, generally, bear musical grudges. If an artist who's been making music I like decides to stop, and start making some other kind of music, that's their privilege. If they keep it up for four or five albums, I'll probably even quit buying them. There are only two notable exceptions to this otherwise commendable policy of tolerance, two rock crimes so unforgivable that I can imagine no atonement sufficiently powerful to wholly dispel my resentment. The first is Paul Weller's dissolution of the Jam. The other is the betrayal of "Pretty in Pink".
"Pretty in Pink", for those of you with an even more atrophied sense of musical history than my own, was a song long before it was a movie. In its original, true form, it is the opening track to the Psychedelic Furs' blisteringly vicious 1981 second album, Talk Talk Talk. The whole album teeters on the brink of collapsing into the event horizon of its own vindictive bitterness, but even in the company of nine other songs about the moral bankruptcy of more or less anything popular, mainstream or sentimental, "Pretty in Pink" stands out. Caroline, its abused, neglected, forgotten protagonist, embodies an objectification that doesn't even have glamour to recommend it. The men in her life, upon whose regard she hangs her bedraggled self-image, don't even register her presence vividly enough to remember what her name is, and don't even value it enough to take off their coats. Caroline herself is complicit in this treatment, of course, but for once Butler can't seem to find it in himself to despise her for it, and in the end the song is the only one on the album in which, for me, empathy is able to hold its own against disdain.
Pretty in Pink, the movie, was made in 1986. If the coincidence in titles was unintentional, the film would merely be unfortunate, a social homily whose stirring moral is nothing grander than "rich people are people, too", a romance in which the girl seems more than smart enough to pick the guy who obviously loves her, but doesn't, and a resume entry that would keep James Spader in shitheads and Annie Potts in quirky quasi-maternal roles for the ensuing decade. However, as a self-incriminating note on the back of the album jacket stresses, "the music in Pretty in Pink is not an afterthought". As an artwork which seeks to consciously associate itself with the song after which it is titled, then, the film is nothing less than loathsome, and if there were a prize awarded for missing the point, there would be no need for other nominees. The phrase "pretty in pink", in the song, was a cruel vanishingly-faint-praise joke that represented the meager extent of Caroline's admirers' regard for her. In the film, "pretty in pink" ends up referring to the dress Molly Ringwald's character assembles out of remnants and nylon net (we're supposed to be impressed, but it keeps looking to me like a waste of perfectly good nylon net), which she wears to the dance where, just by arriving and looking radiant and tentative, she wins Andrew McCarthy's marginally-more-sensitive shithead character away from his cartoonishly stuck-up and intolerant friends. To the extent that it hasn't been simplified out of existence by that point, anyway, the song's moral ambiguity is completely undermined by the film's earnest insistence that boy-gets-girl is a heroic finale if they only look good enough together. Caroline and the ghosts flitting through her life looked fine together, too; the point was that there was nothing else fine about them, and pretty is not enough to base a life on.
Even this juxtaposition would have been tolerable, I think. If John Hughes had just made the film and used the song, I would have regarded him as a hapless idiot, laughed at the irony, and gone on with my life. The detail that transformed this from incompetent to offensive for me, though, was that the Psychedelic Furs actually re-recorded the song for the soundtrack to make it catchier and more upbeat. This tells me that the sell-out was conscious and intentional. Hughes knew the song was not happy, the band knew that movie was, and yet both parties went through with it. There is no excuse for this.
Hughes and director Howard Deutch, for their parts, did a creditable job of apologizing, I thought, by making Some Kind of Wonderful, another high-school caste-jumping romance whose plot so closely resembles Pretty in Pink's that I'm willing to believe that even they considered it a remake of the earlier movie done for the sole purpose of correcting the lessons. For the Furs, though, things only got worse, as the worrying commercialism and gloss of 1984's Mirror Moves gave way to 1987's dance-pop ersatz-INXS credibility fire-sale Midnight to Midnight. Grown men have seldom looked as ridiculous to me as Richard Butler did on the cover of the twelve-inch dance remix of "Heartbreak Beat", a once-trenchant critic of empty relationships trying to look alluring enough in leather pants that people who never listen to the lyrics anyway would buy his records.
But ever since then, he's been slowly clawing his way back into my affections. Book of Days, the band's 1989 follow-up, had the dull sheen of somebody rather fewer than twelve steps into a twelve-step program, but at least it wasn't self-parody. The World Outside, in 1991, was the last Psychedelic Furs album, and while it couldn't quite recapture the drama that Butler's profound ennui had the first time around, either, it seemed cognizant of its heritage, and determined to embarrass it no further. Richard and Tim Butler reemerged in 1994, with ex-Pale Divine guitarist Richard Fortus, as Love Spit Love, whose roaring debut album I was surprised to wholeheartedly adore. A second has yet to materialize, but the band did contribute an inspired cover of the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" to the soundtrack to The Craft, which earned them a little more replenished respect from me.
The final track of this BBC radio-sessions album, then, presents the final step in their rehabilitation. The only one of the disc's recordings not made at the time of the song's release, the version of "Pretty in Pink" here is a 1990 acoustic version, Butler and guitarist John Ashton edging carefully through a rendition of the song that feels to me like a proffered truce. They have wisely not attempted to restore the original venom, as if nine years never happened, but the misplaced dance buoyancy has been exorcised, and the song is once again sober and clean, drained a little from the experience, but perhaps ready to contemplate another life. I still don't forgive them for it, exactly, but I think I'm now willing to move on.
The rest of this collection steers clear of the band's sensitive middle period, too, perhaps reluctant to risk further aggravating the issue. The first seven tracks, recorded in 1979 and 1980, cover six of the ten songs on the band's debut album ("Imitation of Christ", "Fall", "Sister Europe", "We Love You", "Soap Commercial" and "Susan's Strange"), along with their trademark cover of "Mac the Knife". The performances are strained and boxy, but that's the way the early Furs songs were supposed to sound. I think the Furs were really better off in the studio than live, but radio performances are a reasonable compromise, and a couple of these, notably the surging guitars of "Soap Commercial" and Richard's voice cracking on "Susan's Strange", are eye-opening. If nothing else, these takes illustrate what a key part of the band's sound saxophonist Duncan Kilburn was, which is easy to forget if you don't actually listen to The Psychedelic Furs that often any more.
The next five tracks, recorded in early and late 1981, cover half of Talk Talk Talk ("Into You Like a Train", "It Goes On" (here called "On and Again" for some reason), "All of This and Nothing", "She Is Mine" and "Dumb Waiters"), and seem much more interesting to me. Nearly all the songs are here arranged distinctly differently from the album versions: "It Goes On" doesn't change tempo, "All of This and Nothing" seethes with springy guitar reverb, the drums on "She Is Mine" boom comfortingly, "Dumb Waiters"'s cymbals crash with audible menace. The band seems to be still trying to work out how to inject live energy into these bleak songs even as they're performing them, and the resulting tension and instability is arresting.
The last three songs, leading up to "Pretty in Pink", are all from Book of Days. "Entertain Me" is dense and robust, "Book of Days" itself is atmospheric and elegant, and "Torch", which is done with just acoustic guitar and cello, is resonant, introspective and poignant. The jump from the bristling Talk Talk Talk material to this is startling, but listening to these later songs, hearing the band's newfound calm, hearing the corners of Butler's voice smoothed by wisdom, or even just time, with no trace of Forever Now, Mirror Moves and Midnight to Midnight to contradict our interpolation into the nine-year gap, it is just possible to imagine that the Psychedelic Furs arrived in 1990 by another route.
Talk Talk: The Very Best of Talk Talk
There are bands that lend themselves to abridgments, and Talk Talk is not one. "The Very Best of Talk Talk" is an oxymoron, albeit a complicated one: It's not that the four albums this compilation spans don't have enough good material to fill it, it's that Talk Talk's first four albums represent one of the most remarkable stylistic evolutions any rock group has ever been through, and if you're going to spend any time or money on the subject of Talk Talk at all, you ought not to pass up the chance to experience it properly.
I recommend that you start, slightly out of order, with their second album, It's My Life. As engaging as Yaz, and as intricate as the Blue Nile, It's My Life is to me a genuine pop masterpiece, and one of the true enduring treasures of the New Wave era. It happens to be where I encountered them, personally (opening for the Psychedelic Furs on the Mirror Moves tour, as a matter of fact), but it's also a much more dynamic and compelling album than their debut, so not only will you be less likely to abandon the project out of lack of interest after only one record, but if you do, you'll have a better album to show for your efforts. Next, do go backwards and get Talk Talk. This one is chillier and more muted, a more straight-ahead synth-pop album. If you like it, that's excellent, but even if you don't, at least listen to it two or three times, so that you get a feel for how far the band has come in just two records. Third, get The Colour of Spring. This was the band's most successful album, commercially, with the minor hits "Life's What You Make It" and "Living in Another World". Where Talk Talk clicks and It's My Life snaps, The Colour of Spring swells, much of it relying more on gradual motion than sharp rhythm. At the time, it seemed oddly unresolved to me. I wanted another It's My Life, and this album is much more restrained, organic and open. If it puzzles you, too, don't fret, because it will make much better sense in retrospect, as the transition to the next one. Talk Talk's fourth album, Spirit of Eden, is the journey's reward. I won't try to explain why, because it's more fun to be surprised. You might despise it, or you might agree with me that it's the single greatest piece of recorded music ever produced, but even if it bores you, it's as different an album from Talk Talk as I can imagine, and the fact that a single band made all four of these records is as good a demonstration as anything of the human potential for change.
Once you're past the first four albums, if you're still interested, there's a little more. There's a fifth album, Laughing Stock, that follows in the style of Spirit of Eden, which tells you all you need to know about it, either way. The band's rhythm section, Paul Webb and Lee Harris, have a techno/world-beat-ish side project, called Orang. And then, if you really want to make your life miserable, there are a number of b-sides you can try to track down. Here's where this compilation finally has something to recommend it. Early advance press had referred to it as Asides and B-sides, which implied lots of non-album tracks, but in the end, disappointingly, there are only two. "For What It's Worth" was the flip-side of "Living in Another World", and sounds about like you'd expect from an out-take from the period of The Colour of Spring. "John Cope" was the b-side for the single of "I Believe in You", and although the idea of making a single out of anything from Spirit of Eden causes me enough cognitive dissonance to induce a migraine, "John Cope" could easily be one of the segments they cut out of the album in order to make it the way it is. The collection also provides, for the truly obsessive, the single versions of "Talk Talk", "Today", "Living in Another World", "I Believe in You" and "Give It Up", an edit of "Eden", and the "original version" of "Such a Shame". These are pointless, but at least they aren't more dance remixes.
'til tuesday: Coming Up Close: A Retrospective
I'm not that crazy about the idea of reducing 'til tuesday to a single disc, either, but they do at least lend themselves to it better than Talk Talk does. The main argument for anthologizing, here, is that the band's debut album, Voices Carry, though it has the title track, which was their biggest hit, is not as consistent as their second and third. The compilers, in fact, reduce it to three songs: "Voices Carry", the companion hit "Love in a Vacuum", and the token album track "You Know the Rest". These are good, but I like "Looking Over My Shoulder", "Winning the War" and "Sleep" just as much. More to the point, though, I think debut albums should be allowed to be debut albums. Not everybody can make Little Earthquakes on their first try (or even their second first try); Voices Carry is a perfectly honorable example of what mortals do when they suddenly get a major-label record contract, which is that they record all the truly brilliant songs that got them the deal, and then the people from the label say they can't sell the album until it's at least thirty-six minutes long, so they go back and write some more songs real quick. Those other songs usually aren't as good as the first batch, but for precisely that reason, they show what kind of soul the band has. And if you don't want to know what kind of soul they have, what are you listening for?
'til tuesday's second album, Welcome Home, was much more confident, and the compilers leave out only four of its ten songs. "What About Love", "Coming Up Close", "On Sunday", "Will She Just Fall Down", "David Denies" and "No One Is Watching You Now" are in; "Lovers' Day", "Have Mercy", "Sleeping and Waking" and "Angels Never Call" are out. This seems to me like a reasonable division. "Coming Up Close" is one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, I think, and the others exist so much in its shadow that pretty much any five of them will do as well as any other five.
The third album, Everything Different Now, also gets six songs: "Why Must I", "'J' Is for Jules", "(Believed You Were) Lucky", "Limits to Love", "Long Gone Buddy" and "The Other End (of the Telescope)". Of the four left behind, though, "Everything's Different Now" and "Rip in Heaven" are two of my very favorites, and this whole album is easily solid enough to purchase on its own. And once you've bought this, and bought the debut for perspective, you might as well get the middle one and not bother with the retrospective. The only flaw with this reasoning is that the collection adds one previously unreleased track, a sparkling, jangly, acoustic-pop gem called "Do It Again". And of course you need that.
Roxette: Baladas en Espanol
No such conundra need plague your decision about whether to buy Baladas en Espanol, Roxette's collection of their own old ballads re-recorded with the lyrics in Spanish. I'm sure there's a good commercial reason for this, as Roxette has huge followings in Europe and South America, and since English isn't their native language to begin with, doing the songs in Spanish, too, is probably a matter of indifference to Per and Marie. Artistically, though, there are at least three things wrong with this idea. First, Roxette ballads are much better interspersed with their non-ballads. An album of nothing but ballads devalues them and lacks pacing and range. Second, since they didn't re-do the music of these songs to adapt them to Spanish musical idioms in any way (which is probably just as well), this has to be one of the least Spanish Spanish albums ever made. And third, Roxette lyrics, particularly the ones in their ballads, don't tend to be all that remarkable to begin with, and translating them and re-recording them in a different language seems like a lot of work for just the fun of hearing how they manage to cope with a language in which "heart" is a three-syllable word.