The Psychedelic Furs | The Wendy James Band
The Roundhouse, London
12th October 2019
LTW’s Phil Ross and Svenja Block set out to see Wendy James and the Psychedelic Furs’ Butler Brothers look pretty in pink, and discover ‘It’s all in the lips, the hips, the eyes and the thighs’.
Svenja and I exit the underground at Chalk Farm, avoiding the puddles on a dark and rainy October evening, on our way to The Roundhouse.
My mind drifts back over thirty years to when I skipped out of Piccadilly Circus tube station and up to MCA Records in Soho. The corridors and offices, where I had blagged a job in the Press Department, were adorned with gold discs and framed magazine covers of MCA pop stars like Kim Wilde and Tiffany.
Wendy James and her former bandmate, songwriter Nick Christian Sayer cut forlorn and slightly bedraggled shapes that day. Their debut Transvision Vamp single Revolution Baby had just bombed at No. 77 in the UK Singles Chart, and neither the band nor the record company employees knew whether they would be dropped that day.
Radio 1, the primary medium for the music industry at the time, was blasted out every day in every office. And as the label staff opened champagne to celebrate the third week at No 1 with Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now, right on queue the chart topping hit came on the airwaves.
Wendy and Nick endured the ignominy and gratefully accepted a glass of bubbly. They were in the right place, a happening label, where the bosses saw their potential and stuck with them. Their subsequent chart positions improved rapidly.
Encouraged and emboldened, James metamorphosed into a fully grown vamp who could pull the eyes out of your head like a magnet. She adorned the front covers of magazines such as The Face and Tatler, and seemed perfectly at home with the tabloids, television and touring. Soon they had their own No 1 with the Velveteen album which went platinum in the UK and Australia.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
Svenja offers to buy me a drink at the bar before she heads off to the photo-pit. She’s excited, she loves Wendy, she tells me again about the posters, the singles she had as a schoolgirl.
I’ve been polite about this for some weeks now. I had left MCA when Transvision Vamp were at their peak, and as the band and Wendy had disappeared from popular sight, I hadn’t had any reason to think about them since about 1989.
But Svenja has tempted me with seeing The Psychedelic Furs, so as Wendy’s intro track gets played and the stage lights up, I go dutifully down the right hand side to the front.
A band of beautiful, well groomed boys march on and pick up their instruments followed by Wendy holding two large inflatable guitars. She treads delicately to the edge of the stage and chucks them to the crowd before retreating to the mic stand, raising her fists triumphantly in the air and shouting “We’re here”.
A ripple of applause breaks out. Wendy clutches her fists to her heart, “Thank You” she cries before the drums beat and the guitars sweep.
She clasps her hands and stoops low. The pent-up, nervous energy and excitement is obvious as Wendy steps up to the mic. She looks to Pip Stakem, nodding in time with the building rhythm of his guitar strums and comes in flawlessly with the opening lines of Tell That Girl To Shut Up.
She stomps, knees facing outwards, rocking the mic stand forward then back, arms gesturing, fingers pointing with perfect, punk rock pop mannerisms. I find myself singing along to the first chorus, thinking surely the big tracks get saved for the end?
Where will Wendy go from here?
By the second number You’re So Great, I’m thinking this is basically quite simple power pop, and I reflect on Dusty Springfield’s later career. I don’t recall James proclaiming anything other than straight-forward Blondie-esque aspirations to write “Dirty sounding pop tunes” and to perform with commitment. As she once said, “To go out there and give everything, writhe around on the floor, Iggy Pop style, you know, just own it”. The sleaze is evident in songs like the excellent You’re a Good Man, Sister and the grinding Bitter Funny.
I’m distracted by a WhatsApp from Svenja: ‘What a shite audience for Wendy. Feel for her’. Instinctively I feel a pang of concern and look to the stage to gauge Wendy’s reaction, as if she had seen the text. She has her hands in the air like some high priestess of pop, gyrating her hips as she sings “I love, love, love the way you groove”. She crouches as if to close the chasm of the photo-pit between her and the audience. She pounds her fist against her chest, demanding I Want Your Love.
The crowd isn’t going crazy, a few heads bob but the applause is big and warm, and Wendy is unperturbed. She is grinning broadly, “I love you, I love you, I love you” she says repeatedly before going into an explanation about the Kurt Shirt. This is a Transvision Vamp T-Shirt made famous for being worn by the Nirvana frontman. It will be on sale after the gig at the merch stall she tells us and she will be there to sign stuff and take selfies.
As the set continues, I become acutely conscious of the audience. There are a lot of Wendy James fans in here but overall it’s a tough crowd. Like the professional that she is, she doesn’t stop working, smiling, pacing the stage, bouncing, rocking, working hard. She gives us a whirlwind taster of her catalogue mostly from the MCA stardom days and the splendid Racine era.
Omitting the collaborative work with Elvis Costello that foreshadowed her wilderness years, she comes to the crunch moment with a three song preview of her new material.
Wow, Perilous Beauty is outstanding. A slow, grooving, grungy piece of artistry with a monumentally catchy pre-chorus where Wendy chants “It’s all in the hips, the lips, the eyes and the thighs” before it drifts in and out of a dreamy melody.
Finally the big chords of Baby I Don’t Care fire up, Wendy screams “Whoooo” and I’m dancing. The woman in front of me turns to tut as I accidentally brush her. I look along the motionless front row and then to The Wendy James Band rocking it out on stage. The woman in front turns to tut me again. Wendy has her foot on the monitor, her fist punching. It’s a great climactic ending and yet there is only sporadic hip-swaying and hands in the air around the periphery of the crowd. However, their cheers are genuine and loud as James departs with multitudinous I Love Yous, Thank Yous and “I’ll see you at the merch desk”.
I decide to put some distance between myself and the tutting lady and find a different vantage point for The Furs. Their entrance is operatic with cello sounds, neon light and smoke which give way to the huge bass drum, snare and Mars Williams’ tortured sax solo intro of Dumb Waiters. The band look fantastic, Tim Butler is wearing a deep red velvet jacket, suede winkle-picker boots and Austin Powers trews.
“Allo” shouts Richard Butler. He’s wearing a black suede jacket and waistcoat with the big white cuffs of his shirt protruding downwards. He waves and starts to bob as his gravelly, melodic voice drawls “Give me all your paper ma, gimme all your jazz”. With a big knotted tie and shirt collar up, he struts with vintage Carnaby Street style and energy. Just sheer class.
As I feel the “So good so far” chorus of Mr Jones pound my diaphragm, I close my eyes and rock my head. The driving rhythm over the plinking melody of Love My Way is truly transporting. The Psychedelic Furs were the defining sound of the post punk, new wave era. Along with Human League and Simple Minds they paved the way for the massively commercial Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran to name but a few.
It was a golden period for British pop with many of the bands huge on the newly formed MTV. Several groups found their way onto movie soundtracks such as The Breakfast Club (Simple Minds), and The Furs matched that when Pretty In Pink the 1986, teen romcom which grossed $40m at the box office, was named after the band’s 1982 single.
Some of the people here this evening have presumably followed The Furs from those early Art Rock gigs of the late 70s. Spizz (of Spizzenergi) who’s here tonight, tells me their first show was supporting him at The Nashville in 1979. But the glamorous, heady decade of hairstylists and music videos would consign the anger and DIY ethos of punk to the bargain bins of the record stores until the emergence of the Seattle scene in the 1990s. So perhaps it’s not surprising there’s no moshing here tonight.
The band is breathtaking, as they always were. Treating us to a generous helping from their rich back catalogue. Sister Europe is luxuriant in a Bowie-esque fashion reminding me of Joe The Lion. Two women in their 50s, wearing leather jackets scream as the opening melody of Heaven pierces the air. I can’t control myself and head back quickly, this time down the left side of the hall.
I want more than anything to dance but I’m scribbling these notes, I have to record this feeling, this moment. I sing along: “Heaven, it’s the whole of our heart”. I’ve got to the front and am making my way to the middle. I stuff the notepad into my pocket, close my eyes, head moving side to side. I’m spinning through Rich Good’s guitar solo.
By the time Butler croons “There’s a song on the air, with a love you line”, I’ve found myself caught up in the gently swaying crowd close to the front. No-one tuts me.
This is one of the wonderful transformational qualities of music, for a magical moment it’s 1984 and I’m a teenager again. I open my eyes, and for the first time, I notice Butler’s grey hair. Momentarily I sense gravitas and I imagine a statesmanlike similarity to a Gary Oldman character. The band seem slightly taken aback as the song ends and he shouts “Thank you London”. Perhaps they felt the enormity of the moment like I did. He bounces as they pound Into You Like a Train. He crouches, reaching out to the audience which is static again, mesmerized.
The drum sticks click one, two, three, four – the sax slides in and the big guitar sweeps herald Pretty In Pink. Richard is strutting stage left, stage right, hands signalling, gesticulating, spinning, he kneels, waves. Tim Butler takes centre stage, foot on the monitor for those big chord progressions we all love.
The crowd bobs gently and appreciatively. As the song shimmers to an end they are waving, clapping, whistling, roaring loudly. They don’t move much, but ‘I gotta give it to them’ I think, ‘This is a great crowd’. Butler is ecstatic, bouncing, smiling. India, the encore is huge and lush and epic. The brothers are great performers, great rock stars, holding the stage and the audience.
My mind drifts back to Wendy, I wonder if she’s still at the merch desk? I wonder if she’d do an interview?
Please note: Use of these images in any form without permission is illegal. If you wish to use/purchase or licence any images please contact Svenja Block at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Psychedelic Furs photographs are subject to a photo release form and shot exclusively for Louder Than War.
All words by Phil Ross. More writing by Phil can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.