The Alternative Number Ones: The Psychedelic Furs’ “Until She Comes”

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The Alternative Number Ones: The Psychedelic Furs’ “Until She Comes”


In The Alternative Number Ones, I’m reviewing every #1 single in the history of the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks/Alternative Songs, starting with the moment that the chart launched in 1988. This column is a companion piece to The Number Ones, and it’s for members only. Thank you to everyone who’s helping to keep Stereogum afloat.

OK, this is fucked up. Some coincidences are just coincidences, and some make you think that you’re going crazy, that the universe is trying to tell you something. This is the second kind.

When Billboard first launched its Modern Rock chart in September 1988, its first #1 hit was Siouxsie And The Banshees’ “Peek-A-Boo,” and then that song was followed by Big Audio Dynamite’s “Just Play Music!” and the Psychedelic Furs’ “All That Money Wants.” Sure. Makes sense. But then three years later, all three of those bands scored back-to-back-to-back #1 hits in the exact same order: Siouxsie And The Banshees with “Kiss Them For Me,” Big Audio Dynamite with “Rush,” and the Psychedelic Furs with “Until She Comes.” It was Big Audio Dynamite II, not the first Big Audio Dynamite, but that only makes it freakier. Big Audio Dynamite broke up, and they still were part of this bugged-out déjà vu replay of the chart’s opening months.

You’re trying to tell me that this just happens? That these three bands all just magically knocked out #1 hits in the same sequence that they’d done three years earlier? No. This is the matrix glitching out. This is aliens sending us a coded message. This is a sign of the rapture that didn’t actually happen in 1991, unless it did happen and we just didn’t notice. Oh, and I’m writing about all three of these songs just as this column hits its first anniversary! I suppose that’s just a coincidence, too!

OK. It’s OK. I’m calm. When I sit back and take a breath, I can understand how something like this might happen. Album cycles sync up all the time. Circadian rhythms. Creative wavelengths. Phases of the moon or whatever. In its early days, American modern rock radio was in love with the British musicians who’d been there in punk’s late-’70s big-bang moment, and all three of those bands fit that description. Most of them were past their peaks, but modern rock radio was still pretty ignorant of what was going on in this country’s underground, at least outside of bands like R.E.M. that were too big to be ignored. That would change soon. Maybe this is just evidence of a holding pattern.

But then hold on. Wait. Those three 1991 chart-toppers from those three bands? For all three of them, it was also their last time at #1 on the Modern Rock chart. Yeah, I know what you’re going to tell me. You’re going to say that the format was running on fumes and that it needed to be shaken up. You’re going to tell me that this was all table-setting for Nirvana’s grand arrival. I see what you’re doing, and I don’t buy it! There was someone behind the scenes, pulling levers, trying to lull us into benign acceptance. “Oh, look! Another Psychedelic Furs song! That must make you so comfortable!” And then they just spring Nirvana on us! Well, I just know that person is reading this column, and I want that person to know: I’m onto you, motherfucker! I will not rest! The world will know that [muffled gagging sounds, several thuds, prolonged silence].

Yes. Hi, everyone. Tom here. Don’t worry, he’s fine. I mean, I’m fine. I’m feeling much better. Everything is normal now. Please ignore everything that just happened. Let’s talk about a Psychedelic Furs song.

When Siouxsie And The Banshees and Big Audio Dynamite II reached #1 on the Modern Rock chart in 1991, it was because they were making music that was both exciting and accessible. These were well-established bands — or, in Big Audio Dynamite’s case, a new version of a well-established band — but they were engaging with insurgent new genres of music that were coming out of the margins. Siouxsie sampled Schooly D, brought in Talvin Singh, and made a psychedelically dreamy dance-rock masterwork. BAD II layered samples like De La Soul and went for drunken patched-together acid-house irreverence. Both “Kiss Them For Me” and “Rush” had hooks to spare. This was not the case with the Psychedelic Furs. The Psychedelic Furs were on autopilot, but they were still beloved enough, at least among modern rock radio programmers, that they could just cruise their way back to #1.

Unlike Siouxsie or BAD II, the Furs had another #1 Modern Rock hit between 1988 and 1991. In 1989, the band released Book Of Days, which they recorded with the Cure producer David M. Allen. That album was not a hit, and it did not lead the Furs back to past glories, which is what it was supposed to do. Lead single “House” hit #1, and then none of the album’s other singles charted. This tracks. Book Of Days had some of the swirling romantic drama of past Psychedelic Furs records, so it hit some reliable nostalgic buttons, but it didn’t have memorable songs. “House” faded from memory, and the band doesn’t play it live very often anymore.

That’s pretty much exactly what happened with 1991’s World Outside, which until very recently stood as the final Psychedelic Furs album. The Furs were always able to wrangle big-name producers, and they made World Outside with Stephen Street, who was most famous as the Smiths’ regular producer. The Furs had worked with Street before. Street recorded “All That Money Wants,” which was a bonus track for a greatest-hits compilation, and that song is really good. Street was still in-demand, too. In 1991, he also produced Blur’s debut album Leisure, and then he continued to work with that band all the way up through 2015’s The Magic Whip. I get why the Psychedelic Furs hired Stephen Street, but it didn’t make much difference.

World Outside isn’t a terrible record or anything. It has none of the beer-commercial sheen of some of the Furs’ late-’80s work, and it centers Richard Butler’s excellently bitchy baritone and the reverb-drenched whoosh of the guitars. Street, who co-produced World Outside with the Furs, pushed them away from using saxophones and toward cellos and organs. He also got them to record with session musicians, which they had to do. (Original drummer Vince Ely, who rejoined the Furs in 1988, left again in 1990.) If you put on World Outside as background music, it’ll add some cool cinematic grandeur to whatever you’re doing. There’s just nothing particularly special about it.

All the pieces were in place for World Outside to be a good Psychedelic Furs album, but the Psychedelic Furs just didn’t have a good album in them. The record sounds like a band going through the motions, without any big ideas or interesting moves in their arsenal. It came and went without much notice. “Kiss Them For Me” and “Rush” both crossed over from the Modern Rock chart to the Hot 100, but the Furs’ “Until She Comes” did not. In the US, World Outside didn’t even make the album charts. In the SPIN Alternative Record Guide, the LP’s only mention is this: “World Outside was such a bad album that SPIN refused to send me a copy for fear that my ears would develop gangrene.” This makes me think that future PEN/Faulkner Award winner James Hannaham never even heard the record, and I’m fine with that because it’s funny.

There’s a more accurate and damning review of World Outside in the July 1991 issue of SPIN, the one with LL Cool J on the cover. (I’m going to have much less fun researching this column if anyone ever pulls down Google Books archive of SPIN scans.) In that one, Jim Greer, future Guided By Voices bassist and writer of the Steven Soderbergh movie Unsane, wrote some stuff about the Psychedelic Furs’ descent into mediocrity, and then he went on: “None of which would matter if World Outside were any good — but it’s not. It’s not really bad, either. It’s just dead boring, and boring is a cardinal pop sin.” Hey, that guy played bass on Alien Lanes! He was once engaged to Kim Deal! He knows what he’s talking about!

I would agree that World Outside is a pretty boring record, but I basically like lead single “Until She Comes,” the Psychedelic Furs’ final #1 Modern Rock hit. Much like the La’s’ “There She Goes,” another big Modern Rock hit in 1991, “Until She Comes” appears to turn drug addiction into a metaphor about a girl. (“There She Goes” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.) Richard Butler sings about not being able to think or function until some vague “she” returns to his life: “I can’t be saved from my wounds until she comes.” That’s not exactly a fresh angle for a rock song, but Butler has a way of making clichés sound profound. When you’re born with that voice, that ability is basically your X-Men mutant power.

I love the way Richard Butler sings “Until She Comes.” He turns the word “again” into a sigh of longing, dragging it out and turning it into a hook even though the song really doesn’t have much in the way of melody. The band and Stephen Street surround that magical voice with lots and lots of reverb. Acoustic guitars and organs and cellos all softly envelop Butler. Butler sings his own multi-tracked backing vocals, muffling the sound of his own voice and dragging his lead out into the murk. The track works as a pleasant-enough wallow in photogenic misery.

I wonder if a different production style could’ve given the band some more juice. There are plenty of live performances of “Until She Comes” that sound really good; see the bottom of this column for evidence. Butler’s singing voice did not rely on studio trickery; he could really make that sound in concert. Maybe the reverb subtly hurt the record. Maybe they should’ve just let Butler’s voice breathe. We’ll never know. “Until She Comes” is not especially memorable, and it’s nowhere near the list of the band’s best songs. Just like “House,” “Until She Comes” has mostly been missing from the Psychedelic Furs’ recent setlists. It’s probably the best song on World Outside, but that’s really just one more sign that the Psychedelic Furs were out of gas.

The Psychedelic Furs followed “Until She Comes” with “Don’t Be A Girl,” which has some nice bongo action but not much else to recommend it. That title screams out for attention, but it’s Richard Butler asking you not to be a girl because their kisses taste too sweet and their money comes too cheap. The man was really stretching the idea that he could sing anything and make it sound profound. “Don’t Be A Girl” made it to #13, and then the Psychedelic Furs never made the Modern Rock chart again.

The Psychedelic Furs got the message that their best days were behind them, and they broke up in 1992. That same year, Richard Butler and his bass-playing brother Tim, two of the only longtime Psychedelic Furs members, were living in New York, and they started a new band called Love Spit Love. They enlisted two musicians, guitarist Richard Fortus and drummer Frank Ferrer. Both of those guys, weirdly enough, would both go on to play in the Chinese Democracy-era version of Guns N’ Roses. Ferrer is still in GN’R now. Love Spit Love’s highest-charting Modern Rock single, 1994’s “Am I Wrong,” peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.) Scott Lapatine, my very nonviolent boss who would never replace me with a clone, is a big Love Spit Love fan who brings them up often. But that’s normal. We all know Love Spit Love fans who continue to mention that band. It’s not a warning sign.

Love Spit Love made two albums. Counting Crows, a band who will eventually appear in this column, notably covered the Furs’ “The Ghost In You” for the Clueless soundtrack, which probably did as much as Love Spit Love to keep the Furs’ name alive. The Psychedelic Furs got back together in 2000, with a new lineup that included the Love Spit Love guys, and they’ve been touring the nostalgia circuit ever since. In 2020, the Psychedelic Furs released Made Of Rain, their first album since World Outside. It was pretty good, and it charted a whole lot higher, in both the US and UK, than any of those late-period Furs albums.

Everyone who’s seen the present-day version of the Psychedelic Furs says that they’re still great live, and I believe it. Later this year, they’re touring the US with the Jesus And Mary Chain, another reunited band that’s been in this column. I might have to get to one of those shows. That’s the kind of thing that he I mean me says all the time. I say that I’ll go see some show, and then I don’t do it.

Anyway, I’m definitely Tom. Come back next week for another informative and entertaining edition of The Alternative Number Ones. This is Tom, signing off.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1991, just before the David Letterman/Jay Leno late-night wars kicked off, the Psychedelic Furs played “Until She Comes” on Letterman’s Late Night. As mentioned above, they sounded really good. Here’s that performance:

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