Psychedelic Furs, Lene Lovich Band: Norwich Waterfront, 11/09/2017

Two New Wave acts from the last century sound as good today as they ever did.

Photo by Raul Umenes 2017

Norwich is a great city for live music. Just up the road from the old-new home of Lowestoft, 40 minutes by train or car, the main two venues for live bands are the Lower Common Room (LCR), part of the University of East Anglia, and The Waterfront next to the River Wensum, both run by the Union of UEA Students. I was last at the latter in 2009 to see From the Jam – Paul Weller’s famous band minus Paul Weller – and the venue’s low-slung ceiling and club-like ambience proved ideal for experiencing A-list acts up close, not to mention intense moshing.

Tonight it’s the turn of two late 1970s/early 1980s New Wave survivors, Lene Lovich and the Psychedelic Furs. Both originated in a period when what we now call independent music was twisting and turning in intriguing, genre-busting directions after the scorched earth minimalism of punk. It was a time of strikingly individual bands who all had something new to offer: John Lydon’s Public Image Limited, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, The Teardrop Explodes, Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen…

Speaking of which, Jude Rawlins, the guitarist in the Lene Lovich Band, wears an Echo and the Bunnymen T-shirt. This is entirely appropriate, as Lene’s backing group’s bass-heavy sound of psychedelic punk guitar swirls, together with Blondie-style keyboard runs, is nostalgically suggestive of a distinctive turn-of-the-1980s New Wave sound. All four of Lene’s backing musicians clearly enjoyed the progressively positive response from the audience, with bassist Val Gwyther frequently bursting into bouts of energetic pogoing.

Lene herself, of English and Serbian descent, now lives in Dereham in Norfolk, but she’s still dressed like some shaman from the Russian steppes, all plaited hair with black ribbons and billowing, threadbare shawls. At first, the crowd don’t know what to make of her vaguely disturbing grin and staring eyes, but a few songs in we realise the manic expressions, as well as the extreme contortions of her body and arms, are all part of the stage act, and go with it.

The only songs I knew from Lene’s catalogue were her 1979 hit, Lucky Number – the centrepiece of the set – and her cover version of I Think We’re Alone Now (originally recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells). The rest of the material, which I’m assured dated mostly from her heyday, was instantly infectious and had as many people dancing along as her two best known songs. Lene and co. departed the stage to unanimous cheers and applause, having successfully won over everyone in the venue. Her and the band’s frequently expressed thanks to the Psychedelic Furs for allowing them on the tour, suggested musicians enjoying an Indian summer of rediscovery and appreciation.

The Furs’ latest reunion venture was advertised as The Singles Tour and more than lived up to its name. I’d forgotten how many great New Wave anthems they’d released as 45s: Dumb Waiters – which kicked off the set with the band’s signature saxophone-dominated wall of sound – Run and Run, Sister Europe, Danger, Mr. Jones, the obligatory Pretty in Pink and Love My Way, All of This and Nothing, Heaven… If they have a definitive track it’s the Velvet-Underground-crashing-into-the-Spiders-from-Mars-era Bowie closer India, the still urgent, thundering drums and frenzied sax demonstrating why the Furs made such an impression when they came to prominence in the late 1970s.

The musical gene splicing continued in the personality and vocals of the impossibly lean and fit, 56 year-old front man Richard Butler. He pirouetted, jumped, camply rolled his hips and implored the audience to enter the Furs’ aural world with welcoming open arms, bringing to mind a slender John Lydon crossed with Liberace. It’s an approach that worked brilliantly in such a small venue, and Butler’s vocals, leaning between Lydon (again) and Dame David, were as seductive as ever.

If there’s a narrative thread in the Furs’ songs, it’s that the broken and toxic affairs on the first three albums – The Psychedelic Furs (1980), Talk Talk Talk (1981) and Forever Now (1982) – give way to a positive embrace of loving relationships. By the time of House on the LP Book of Days (1989), Butler was actively disdaining the vacuous celebrity life, with lyrics like “Now the party girls have gone/I hear the rattle of their heels.” No wonder he looks so happy and healthy today.

The Furs were slightly schizophrenic, as their ambition to break America resulted in some very commercial pop indeed later in their career, produced following their biggest American hit, a rocky, re-recorded version of Pretty in Pink. In the hands of the 2017 line-up of the band, songs that I hadn’t been keen on before like The Ghost in You and Until She Comes, provided a welcome respite from the more full-on tracks, as well as showing how melodically beautiful the band’s playing can be.

The Norwich date was the last night of the tour, and the valedictory guest appearance of original guitarist Roger Morris on the earliest material had Butler and his brother Tim – the flamboyantly dressed, permanently shades-wearing bassist – grinning from ear to ear. Morris’ welcome return capped a great night of brilliantly performed music.

I don’t know what it is about this era of rock and pop, but people will clearly still pay good money to see acts like Lene Lovich and the Psychedelic Furs, whose music – all these years later – sounds as fresh and vital as when it was first recorded. That was also  the case with The Stranglers and The Skids earlier this year, and it’s reflected in two of the bands the Waterfront has headlining next week – Sparks and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

For music fans of a certain age, we are truly blessed. Bring it on.

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