If the surface of pop is glitter then The Psychedelic Furs are sandpaper, rubbing it up the wrong way. Their abrasiveness is ingrained in every cynical line that Richard Butler sneers – in the Gitanes rasp of his unfiltered voice and the near-Lynchian squall of Mars Williams’ uncompromising saxophone.
Their performance this evening is the opening night of a tour that takes them back to the scenes of their first brushes with popularity, some four decades ago. The intervening years have seen them play hard to get with chart success, before being seduced by the siren call of the stadium chorus, breaking up and finally reconciling. Together again for the better part of this century, it’s less a reunion than a revisiting; a reminder of the potency and timelessness of their disaffection. Contrary to a fault, the reward for their perversity is – having never quite fallen into step with their times, and despite having nothing new to say for themselves, no new material to inflict – that they avoid the trappings of a nostalgia act.
Even so, there are few fresh faces to greet them at the O2 Ritz Manchester that’s a little less full than it could be, so that the air drummers can pound away without the stickiness of spilled pints and the iPhone cinematographers do not spoil anybody’s view.
In his after-dark sunglasses, Butler senior (his brother Tim is also a permanent fixture) is, perhaps, blind to the low density of the crowd. Certainly, his showmanship is undiminished by audience numbers. Dapper in a three-piece suit, he is in continual, prowling motion; exuding a kind of aloof menace, in equal parts Larry Grayson and John Lydon, the lord of the sardonic dance. If a west coast health that’s more California than Lytham St Annes belies his years, the rest of the band cut equally striking figures, like a Jaime Hernandez vision of a new wave band, from their polka dot shirts to their black berets.
Sharpened by experience, their set rarely falters into filler, switching back to the art-schooled continental sensibilities of the apposite Sister Europe then forth to the post-stadium repentant sheen of All That Money Wants. Children of Bowie, and his reinvention, they never quite lose their way.
Underpinning their evolutions and diversions is the misanthropy of the thwarted romantic, an almost Houellebecqian bitterness at the world’s failure to live up to its promises (which in Butler’s lexicon are invariably synonymous with lies). In the early songs, such rancour comes closer than it should to misogyny. Even so, Pretty in Pink – a song better suited to Heathers than the John Hughes film it dignified – reserves its cruellest barbs for those who objectify and abandon its heroine.
The natural counterpoint to such alienation, however, is that when The Furs deign to sing of love as opposed to lovelessness, with the bright-eyed hope of Love My Way, the effect is even more affecting by way of contrast.
While those three minutes evoke pop’s uncanny facility to encapsulate emotion apart from the sequential monotony of time, its kindred spirit binds band, audience and performance together. When Butler rasps in The Ghost in You of the immaterial something that “don’t fade”, he sings to the past selves of those who are growing old with him, those who within their thinning hair and thickening waistlines have sandpaper intellects but glitter hearts.
The thing about abrasion, of course, is that it opens what lies beneath the surface.