If it’s June and sunny in London, then more often than not it is Meltdown time.
The recurring festival has moved around in the calendar in recent years, partially to suit the redevelopment of the South Bank arts complex on the south side of the Thames. Curated annually by a different musician, the artists making the selections have often varied in profile and longevity. In most recent years, we’ve had the older established stars (Yoko Ono and David Byrne), underground icons (Mo’Wax’s James Lavelle) and newer artists (M.I.A.).
This year’s curator is the Cure’s Robert Smith, one year shy of his 60th birthday with teased hair and lipgloss still very much in evidence. The selection of bands is very much in keeping with what you might expect. There’s no jazz, no hip-hop. It’s mostly dark and guitar focussed. We tried for quite a few nights and struggled even as Southbank members., missing out on Nine Inch Nails (“you’re 12,473rd in the queue”) and the closing Robert Smith concert.
I’ve got tickets for three gigs. The Manic Street Preachers have a new album out and they’ve always got something to say. I’ve listened to Japanese guitar band Mono but have not yet seen them.
But we’re here for the first night of the festival and a trip down memory lane with the Psychedelic Furs. Still based around the Butler brothers, Richard and Tim, they’re now predominantly a touring band. I saw them in their heyday at Birmingham Odeon and also in the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden. Both are now sadly defunct but were excellent venues. I’m not normally one for seeing older bands still doing the rounds but a combination of the heart of the band still being strong, the chance to enjoy the Festival Hall plus some positive feedback on a recent gig from my mate Mark convinced me to give them a go.
The Furs were a favourite band back in our school days. They had the dramatic sweep of Bowie and combining the new wave thing with the sax and guitars for a big sound that made them a flouncy delight. Their knack with a romantic melody helped sweeten the occasional edginess. “Love My Way” and “Ghost In You”channelled that lovelorn heroic yearning. Richard Butler’s vocals always just kept to the right side of anthemic, never tipping into pomposity until their attempt to break America with “Midnight to Midnight” in 1987, based on use of the re-recorded “Pretty In Pink” for the John Hughes eponymous romantic teen flick (a film memorable for the sole reason that it is the first movie I ever walked out of).
The band took a break in 90s and haven’t released a new LP since “World Outside”, almost 30 years ago. In one sense, there’s an honest dignity about not recording new material. Richard Butler commented in 2014:
“We just enjoy playing with no turmoil or in-fighting in the band. It’s just enjoyable. There’s no pressure from record companies or anything. We’ll do three or four weeks, takes some months off, and then we’ll do another 3 or 4 weeks.”
This sense of fun really stood out at the RFH. Richard Butler had a ball. Dressed in black with obligatory shades and a frock coat which was a constant prop, he bounced around the stage as the years fell away. Shaking hands with the audience who rushed to the edge of the stage as “President Gas” began, he trod the line perfectly between aloof and engaging. He and the band owe an obvious debt of gratitude to Bowie and occasionally the vocal twang strayed towards John Lydon. But the force of their personalities and the quality and depth of the material transcends their age and the Furs were hugely impressive in their own right.
Opening with an edgy “Dumb Waiters”, the setlist drew on almost all of their albums. The RFH can be an imposing and sometimes sterile environment but the band broke through the fourth wall with energy that was lacking at the recent Albert Hall Bunnymen gig. “Highwire Days” soared and “The Ghost In You” twinkled beautifully. But often it was the oldest material that was most impressive. “Sister Europe” was cut from same dramatic cloth as “Stranded” era Roxy Music and was a spotlight for the saxophone of the diminutive Mars Williams. “Imitation of Christ” and “India” were both highspots, delivered with verve.
They finished inevitably with “Pretty in Pink”, the pumping guitar introduction casting it as a “Born to Run” for the 80s.
The show opened Smith’s festival perfectly. It was an exemplary performance showing why, despite an absence of new material, the Psychedelic Furs continue to sell out decent size venues without descending into pastiche. Richard Butler gave a masterclass as a front man and the band matched him handsomely, always on the move, never staying just in the shadows.
It’s a model that a few bands, including the Bunnymen, could do well to study.
NB: Southbank pictures c/o of the Meltdown Festival FB page via Victor Frankowski