30 Years Ago: Psychedelic Furs Finally Hit the Big Time (Briefly) With ‘Midnight to Midnight’
The Psychedelic Furs had been building toward blockbuster success for a while. When it finally arrived in the late '80s, however, the good times didn't last long.
Midnight to Midnight followed a pair of gold-selling albums in 1982's Forever Now and 1984's Mirror Moves, but this February 1987 release took another huge retail step – becoming the Psychedelic Furs' first Top 40 U.S. smash. "Love My Way" had initially broken the group on American radio in '82, then an update of "Pretty in Pink" – reworked for a 1986 John Hughes film of the same name – set them up for this breakthrough.
Questions quickly followed, however, for a band that had begun life in the late '70s with a witty post-punk attitude, blending elements of David Bowie, the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music while darkly ruminating on love ("Sister Europe"), consumerism ("We Love You") and the political scene ("President Gas"). Brothers Tim and Richard Butler, who co-founded the Psychedelic Furs with guitarist John Ashton, tried to push back at first.
"People think that because we've gotten to the Top 40, we've sold out. We haven't," Tim, the band's bassist, told the Orlando Sentinel in 1987. "What's happened is that people are coming around to our music after all these years. It's not that we're changing to fit the market. We're still saying 'Think for yourselves, don't follow leaders.'"
Still, as the Midnight to Midnight single "Heartbreak Beat" rose to a career-best No. 29, it was clear that the Psychedelic Furs' "overnight" success (some five albums in) had come at a price. Richard Butler, who fronted the band, didn't exactly admit to dumbing things down to get to this level of success – but he came close.
"I wanted to do some songs that were more easily understood," singer Richard Butler told the Los Angeles Times. "I had never done an album like that and I wanted to try one. Lyrically, I wanted this one to be simpler than any album I had done before. It took a lot of paring to make it simple. I find it easy to sit down and write wildly abstract, stream-of-consciousness material. I feel comfortable with the looser form. You can go off on tangents. But writing in this simple style takes discipline."
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Pretty in Pink, which used a sleeker, more stylized version of a song originally found on 1981's Talk, Talk, Talk, brought a larger, but not necessarily more sophisticated group of ears to the group.
"It got us across to an audience that doesn't usually buy records or go to see bands really," Tim told the Sentinel in 1987. "A movie-going audience is very different from a rock 'n' roll audience, I think. It brought us a younger audience, so now we have a big, healthy cross section – 13 to 30 and beyond."
Later, talking to the Lincoln Journal-Star in 2016, Tim admitted that "it also lost us a few of the hardcore fans who had been following us, after that movie and tour. You had all these young girls turning up in pink T-shirts dressing like Molly Ringwald."
As quickly as they flocked to the Psychedelic Furs, however, they skittered away. Midnight to Midnight, which boasted a similarly polished production aesthetic, didn't produce another Hot 100 single. In fact, "Heartbreak Beat" was the last one ever, as the Furs began shifting back to their core aesthetic.
Their follow up project, 1989's Book of Days, sank to No. 74. After one more album, 1991's only slightly better performing World Outside, the Psychedelic Furs went on an extended hiatus. Midnight to Midnight had made them, and then had broken them.
All of a sudden, a decade passed. When the Psychedelic Furs finally reformed at the dawn of the 2000s, they had a new perspective on their biggest album.
"For a while, we were staying away from Midnight to Midnight," Tim Butler told the Journal-Star. "That was the only album we feel fell into being overproduced. But we’re playing ‘Angel’s Don't Cry,’ a song never played live, even on the Midnight to Midnight tour. It’s getting really good reactions. Maybe that album isn’t so bad.”
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