90's Recovery Project #4: Half a Life: Love Spit Love and That Song from the Opening Credits of Charmed by James Brubaker
Who remembers Love Spit Love? That’s a real question. Do you? Let’s see a show of hands. I’m sure some Psychedelic Furs super fans who grew up in the 80’s on Richard Butler’s gruff-sung poetry probably remember them. Maybe you remember them from their cover of The Smiths' “How Soon is Now,” off of the soundtrack album for The Craft. I remember hearing the song in a television commercial around the time that film was released. This was probably Love Spit Love’s biggest moment. The album spent eight weeks in the Billboard Top 200 in 1996. Neither of Love Spit Love’s albums made it onto the top 200 at all (though, in all fairness, their debut held its own on the CMJ charts). Or maybe you remember Love Spit Love’s most popular song, “Am I Wrong,” which spent a little over a month on the Billboard Charts, peaking at no. 83, and also reaching no. 3 on the Modern Rock charts back when the Modern Rock charts actually kind of meant something. Of course, on those charts, “Am I Wrong” is listed as a single for the soundtrack to a little known teen coming of age comedy called Angus, which was mostly purchased at the time because it included a new Green Day song, an unreleased Weezer song, and I don’t know, maybe a couple of songs by Ash, who almost had a moment around the same time.
The point I’m getting at, here, is that Love Spit Love flirted with becoming a household name a few times in the 90's, but never quite broke through. To this day, I’m guessing the thing they’re most known for is their tepid “How Soon is Now?” cover, which was eventually hacked up and slapped over the opening credits to Charmed for eight seasons. So, maybe if you want to find someone who will get excited about Love Spit Love, maybe look for fans of late 90's/early aughts supernatural television soap operas? There’s a pretty good chance your 45- year-old co-worker who loves the Twilight series knows a thing or two about Richard Butler’s voice, if not his name or past.
Now, let me be completely clear about something here: all of the above is a damn shame.
After the Psychedelic Furs went on extended hiatus in 1992, Butler teamed up with Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer, and eventually his brother, Tim Butler, to form Love Spit Love. Taking their name from an exhibit of erotic performance art, Butler et al burned hard and relatively bright for about four years, releasing a stunning self-titled debut in 1994, and a pretty good follow-up in the form of 1996’s Trysome Eatone. Somehow, against all odds, I bought a copy of that first, self-titled album in 1995, after my friend’s mom took us to see Live, during peak Throwing Copper, for whom Love Spit Love (and Sponge) were opening. Of course, my friend’s parents, Furs fans through and through, were going for Butler. The rest of us were going for Live. And Live was good, but to my fifteen year old ears, Love Spit Love was the highlight.
In 1995, I’d heard only a few of the Furs’ biggest songs, so I didn’t have a context for what I was hearing. I didn’t understand, then, how big a sonic leap had happened between Butler’s old band’s last album (the dour and murky World Outside) and what he was doing with Love Spit Love. As far as I could tell, Love Spit Love were on the cutting edge of Alternative music, blending big drum and guitar assaults with poetic lyrics, and the occasional lushly textured ballad—it felt like, maybe Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and early Smashing Pumpkins tangled up with early 90's R.E.M.
And that was pretty much everything I wanted out of a band in 1995.
1994’s Love Spit Love was and remains the perfect distillation of Butler and co.’s sonic vision, which is probably why I still return to it regularly, and why it feels so thoroughly representative of the nineties modern rock era that spawned it.
The album opens with a brief, quiet feedback tone, then erupts into a full-on assault, all pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and thumping bass and then—you guessed it—Richard Butler’s gravelly snarl, shout-singing “Wake up demonstrations/said silence is the wrong word.” In an inverse of the loud-quiet-loud, Nirvana-led 90’s trope, the song stays loud until the pseudo-chorus, when Butler sings, over a lovely, if brief guitar figure, “Seventeen can’t be wrong/Seventeen cannot see”—and then the song turns furious again. The song offers a few of these respites from the noise, each dripping with the raw, blind passion of youth. When, on the final hush, Butler sings, “I can’t believe it’s been so long/Can’t believe I can’t see,” the song assumes a fresh urgency as it repositions the song from being about youth to being about a speaker who has learned that wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age, and who is left feeling as lost and “blind” as the 17 year olds the song had seemingly been about.
Considering the song’s themes, I don’t think it’s an accident that “Seventeen” sounds immediately fresher and more urgent than anything the Psychedelic Furs had released since 1984. As the 80’s waned, so too did the strength of the Furs’ output, as if they had become invested in the idea of sounding like the Psychedelic Furs instead of trying anything new—but in 1994, freed from the shackles of that band, Butler’s work took on new life.
All that said, Love Spit Love shouldn’t get much credit for originality. It’s pretty clear that Love Spit Love’s debut album was explicitly drawing on major trends in 90’s music: “Seventeen,” along with “Superman,” “Change in the Weather,” and “Codeine” all point to different facets of early 90’s “grunge”; “Half a Life,” “Wake Up,” and “Am I Wrong,” meanwhile, channel the baroque, chamber pop sensibilities popularized by R.E.M.’s early 90’s albums. But I’m not sure this is a problem—thanks to Butler’s unique voice, and the band’s unapologetic inclusion of 60’s psychedelic signifiers and 80’s textures on a number of songs, the end result feels like its own thing, like a synthesis of the styles of the day with elements not a lot of bands in those genres were incorporating.
Sure, “Half a Life” sounds like an outtake (a really great outtake) from the sessions for Out of Time, but so does “More”—only “More” is anchored by gorgeous, understated keyboards. Or take “Green” for instance—it’s not hard to imagine the song slotting onto a dozen albums by a dozen 90’s acts, but the song’s dramatic orchestral arrangement sounds more like “Kashmir” than the kinder, gentler arrangements on an album like Automatic for the People. Perhaps the one analog we can find for a song like “Green” in the first half of the 90’s is in U2—I’m thinking specifically of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.”
But ultimately, Love Spit Love’s derivative nature isn’t a problem—it’s part of the album’s charm. In the 90’s, it was easy to be suspicious of artist’s who suddenly changed to a louder style after “grunge” broke. We saw it when R.E.M. released Monster—though that album was steeped in glam, punk, and noise, a crunchy answer to the 70’s all-but-forgotten-at-the-time snarl, the album was met with cries of “R.E.M. is trying to be a grunge band to sell more records.” I was too young to know many hardcore Furs fans when Love Spit Love was released, but it doesn’t require much of a leap to imagine Butler’s fans responding similarly.
That misses the point, though. Love Spit Love wasn’t aping trends to sell records, but synthesizing styles to produce something that, at the time, felt exciting, especially for a project fronted by an 80’s Modern Rock veteran whose career had been on the wane. The louder, crunchier passages on Love Spit Love feel urgent and raw. The album’s elegiac pop songs also feel urgent, but more refined, no small feat considering Butler’s world weary voice. Add to that the occasional burst of weirdness (note the Kazoos on “Jigsaw”), and Love Spit Love’s debut album remains something special, despite how overlooked it was in its day, and how few people seem to remember it.
Of course, after releasing their triumphant debut, Love Spit Love ran into label troubles (Imago lost their distribution deal with BMG, and soon went bankrupt), and the band’s second album, Trysome Eatone was released to even less fanfare than its predecessor, leaving Love Spit Love to quietly fade away, whatever legacy they might have been building on the strength of their debut, the popularity of “Am I Wrong,” and the long-term visibility of their “How Soon is Now?” cover disappearing in a barely noticeable sigh of record industry drama and sophomore slump malaise.
It’s not difficult to imagine a world where Love Spit Love went on to record a few more albums and be remembered, at the least, in the same breath as Live, Soundgarden, and Counting Crows—maybe even R.E.M—but that’s not the way Love Spit Love’s story played out, and starting around the turn of the century, Butler retreated to the warm glow of Furs Nostalgia Tour Circuit, where he is still toiling to this day.
James Brubaker is the Associate Editor of The Collapsar and the author of Liner Notes and Pilot Season. His short stories have appeared in venues including Zoetrope: All Story, The Collagist, Hobart, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. He is an assistant professor and director of the university press at Southeast Missouri State University.