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Echo And The Bunnymen

Thirty years – and counting – in the fickle world of the music business, arena-filling alt-rock stars ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN have had their fair share of ups and downs, not least when their ego-fuelled mainman IAN McCULLOCH opted for a solo career in the late 80s; the singer’s press quote of being the “best group in the world” was probably more a slight on other bands around at the time, rather than flagging-up his own. Anyway, for a time in the first half of the 80s, the Bunnymen could do no wrong, as a consecutive run of albums hit pay-dirt, while classic 45s such as `The Back Of Love’, `The Cutter’, `Never Stop’, `The Killing Moon’, etc., found a niche among the post-punk youth. Accused of leaning too far to the sound of The DOORS, the neo-psych group were always on the fringes in the States, remaining a cult act of sorts.
Formed in Liverpool, England around the fall of ’78, the aforementioned McCulloch had served his time in the Crucial Three (alongside other budding stars JULIAN COPE and PETE WYLIE), while a newfound foil was found in guitarist Will Sergeant; bassist Les Pattinson arrived in time to perform in their inaugural gig at nearby Eric’s. The “Echo” part was derived from the name of their drum machine, a fact later refuted by the group.
Taken under the new management wing of Bill Drummond and his pre-KLF “Zoo Records” enterprise (a label shared with fellow producer David Balfe), the indie trio issued their debut single, `The Pictures On My Wall’; its B-side `Read It In Books’ plucked from COPE’s other pre-TEARDROP EXPLODES outfit, A Shallow Madness; whether penned by Ian or Julian, no one but themselves know the real story.
Subsequently signing to WEA/Warners subsidiary Korova, and discarding the rather un-band Echo for proper drummer, Pete de Freitas (a public schoolboy from the south born in Trinidad), the quartet spent a good deal of their time rehearsing, and, in turn, laying down tracks with Bill and David for debut LP. Preceded by their solitary Ian Broudie-produced minor hit `Rescue’, parent album CROCODILES {*8} cracked the Top 20 in the summer of 1980; an overtly downbeat, melodramatic and Jim Morrison-styled set. Not only was McCulloch’s dour vox picked up on by critics, inventive and “fuzzy” guitarist Sergeant was more than effective on the likes of great tunes `Going Up’, `Monkeys’, a re-vamped `Pictures On My Wall’, `Villiers Terrace’, `All That Jazz’ and piano-addled `Happy Death Men’. Americans were duly treated by a couple of addendums to the group’s first chapter, courtesy of `Do It Clean’ (the B-side of all-too forgotten flop `The Puppet’) and the aforementioned `Read It In Books’; the post-millennium re-mastered CD fitted in the quartet’s `Shine So Hard’ live EP, which had incidentally, broke them into the UK Top 40.
The darker and dirge-deep HEAVEN UP HERE (1981) {*8} was another triumphant and relentless set of shadowy songs, Ian’s lyrical fare and emotion, supplanting for many, the loss of the iconic Ian Curtis, who’d tragically died the previous year. `Show Of Strength’, the swirling `Over The Wall’, the minor hit `A Promise’ and the manic TELEVISION-meets-JOY DIVISION title track were Bunnymen at their best. But then one could argue for quieter moments like the sweeping `All My Colours’ – a true gem.
Boasting their most recent Top 20 admissions, `The Back Of Love’ and `The Cutter’ (spiky classics both), third album in as many years PORCUPINE (1983) {*7} just missed out on pole position. Soaring and equally atmospheric as ever, ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN mixed up the medicine a little by way of `My White Devil’ (about author John Webster), `Heads Will Roll’ and the funky `Ripeness’, meanwhile, combined the band’s need for gloom not glam.
OCEAN RAIN (1984) {*8} solidified a Merseyside revival, that, in small parts, even crossed successfully over the Atlantic, where the album gate-crashed the Top 100. Orchestral and without manoeuvring too much in the dark, the brooding and emotionally majestic set produced some touching tunes by way of hit singles, `The Killing Moon’, `Silver’ and `Seven Seas’. Their most accessible album to-date, it also featured `Crystal Days’ and the subdued closing title track.
If one needed reminding of the group’s prowess over the previous half-decade, and containing a fresh, near-Top 20 hit `Bring On The Dancing Horses’, a “best of” set SONGS TO LEARN & SING (1985) {*9} marked time while the band dusted themselves down.
In the three years it took for the melancholic McCulloch and Co to get their act back together (between February and September 1986, de Freitas had departed for the Sex Gods, only to return as replacement for the deputising Mark Fox of HAIRCUT 100), the momentum was lost for fifth set, the eponymous ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN (1987) {*6}. Still, it hit Top 5 and housed some half-decent 45s in `The Game’ and `Lips Like Sugar’. While U2 and SIMPLE MINDS had taken over the mantle of arena-rock kings, Ian and his team had let it slip, and although there were good tracks among the flak (`Bedbugs And Ballyhoo’ and `All In Your Mind’, for two), there was no coming back. But for a last-ditch stab at the charts via a “Lost Boys” soundtrack take of The DOORS’ `People Are Strange’ (also a Top 40 hit in 1991), the Bunnymen were no more and split after their last gig on the 26th April 1988.
IAN McCULLOCH was always on the cards to go solo (note that he’d released a cover single of Kurt Weill’s `September Song’ in 1984) and it no big shock when the singer emerged with his debut set, `Candleland’ (1989) – inspired by the untimely death in a motorcycle accident on 14th June 1989 of Pete de Freitas. A second set `Mysterio’ was issued in ’92. WILL SERGEANT had offered up an indie solo set in 1983 entitled `Themes For “Grind”’.
Meanwhile, a new-look 90s version of ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN was underway when Sergeant and Pattinson enlisted the help of singer Noel Burke (from St. Vitus Dance), keyboard-player Jake Brockman (a E&TB tour auxiliary from ‘87) and drummer Damon Reece. Not particularly evoking any mad rush to sign them up after WEA showed them the door, the group self-financed their “comeback”, Geoff Emerick-produced set, REVERBERATION (1990) {*4}. It proved one thing at least – Ian was indispensable. Psychedelic to the max, songs such as `Enlighten Me’ and `Gone, Gone, Gone’ were out of place among The STONES ROSES of the day. Needless to say, it was all over after a US tour in January ’93.
Then, as if waiting in the wings all along, Ian and Will (plus rhythm section Leon de Sylva and Tony McGuigan) were back with a new power-driven tour de force, ELECTRAFIXION, their sole album BURNED (1995) {*6} initially garnering critical praise from the Brit-rock-biased music press, while also going Top 40. At a time when grunge was retreating or manifesting into other genres, McCulloch and Sergeant re-activated the riff by way of rock-heavy minor hits `Zephyr’, `Lowdown’ (one of two penned with JOHNNY MARR), `Never’ and Sister Pain’.
There was considerably more media interest over the subsequent reformation of the original ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN line-up of McCulloch, Sergeant and Pattinson. A strong comeback single, `Nothing Lasts Forever’, and accompanying album EVERGREEN {*6} both reached the UK Top 10, while the band proved they could still cut it live with a tour and a series of summer festival appearances. The set itself – with a cover-shot depicting the trio plus a car displacing the long-lost de Freitas – filled a void or led a link into Brit-pop, the intimate and cathartic best bits coming through minor hits, `I Want To Be There (When You Come)’ and opening cut `Don’t Let It Get You Down’. One curiosity was the inclusion of ELECTRAFIXION’s last entry, `Baseball Bill’, a song almost swiped for Will’s moonlighting project, GLIDE.
Although reduced to a duo when Les decided to leave, the Bunnymen produced the eagerly-anticipated WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE? (1999) {*8}, a set recalling their signature sound, although less jaded and cynical than their previous effort; songs such as `History Chimes’, `Get In The Car’ and solitary Top 30 hit `Rust’ all displayed McCulloch’s tenderness towards songwriting.
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN returned on Cooking Vinyl Records with another accomplished set, FLOWERS (2001) {*6}. Although considerably mellower than previous Bunnymen works, the album acted as Part Two to the fantastic “What… Life?”. Mixing contemporary rock with classy melancholy songs such as `Everybody Knows’, `Hide And Seek’ and small hit, `It’s Alright’, they’d set the standards again and were quite happy spending a third decade together. Proof in the pudding, was there first-ever concert set, LIVE IN LIVERPOOL (2002) {*6}, a record encompassing cult classics and relatively fresh compositions. Meanwhile, both Ian and Will continued with their own solo projects, the latter on the ambient-psychedelic GLIDE (who was about to step up with a third set, `Curvature Of The Earth’ in ’04), and the former in 2003 with `Slideling’.
For many fans, SIBERIA (2005) {*6}, was the classicist record the Bunnymen had been waiting for since the band’s much trumpeted re-formation in ‘97, particularly minor hit `Stormy Weather’ and `Scissors In The Sand’. Not as barren and desolate as its title suggested, Ian was his usual confident and cocky self on `All Because Of You Days’ and the self-reflective `Of A Life’ and `Parthenon Drive’. The live in London (Shepherds Bush to be exact), ME, I’M ALL SMILES (2006) {*5} rounded off an enjoyable period for the Bunnymen.
THE FOUNTAIN (2009) {*5} finally found the band back on studio terra firma, a record that was on the precipice between psych-60s pop and their usual rough-around-the-edges guitar-rock. From tracks such as `Proxy’ and the ballad-y `The Idolness Of Gods’, there was nothing really exceptional here, just the feel of 50-somethings McCulloch and Sergeant having the time of their lives. As if to commemorate or document their classic-rock attempts to bring about their past trophies, OCEAN RAIN – LIVE 2008 (2009) {*6} and DO IT CLEAN (2011) {*6}; the latter combining “Crocodiles” and “Heaven Up Here”, were delivered in limited form, mainly for the collector.
Over the years, the Bunnymen have covered a raft of other band’s material, including The ROLLING STONES’ `Paint It Black’, The BEATLES’ `All You Need Is Love’ and `Ticket To Ride’, TELEVISION’s `Friction’, The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `Run Run Run’ and `Heroin’, WILSON PICKETT’s `In The Midnight Hour’, BOB DYLAN’s `It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, JONATHAN RICHMAN’s `She Cracked’, The DOORS’ `Soul Kitchen’ and The LITTER’s `Action Woman’; ELECTRAFIXION covered The STOOGES’ `Loose’.
2014’s Youth-produced METEORITES {*7} re-directed McCulloch and Sergeant back to their 80s sound – it’s what the fans were begging for. Compared in part to Ocean Rain in its pseudo-psych grandiose, the majesty and murky magic of main man McCulloch was evident of the set’s first three bloodletting cuts: the title track, `Holy Moses’ and the swirling `Constantinople’. Registering a Top 40 place (their first in 15 years), ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN were surprising everybody but themselves; even going as far as dishing out their longest studio effort yet, the near, 8-minute, unflagging `Market Town’.
It’d be easy to criticize ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN’s McCulloch and Sergeant for subsequently committing to major imprint BMG in order to oversee dramatic transformations of their classic songs (by orchestra, piano, etc.), but us mere mortals were not in their position of paying the bills. THE STARS, THE OCEANS & THE MOON (2018) {*6} – the album in question – still managed to grace the higher end of the charts; though the jury was out on the once-creative combo. If several poignant hit or miss opinions were taken into account, one couldn’t discount the LP outright until repeat prescriptions for `Rescue’, `Zimbo’, `The Cutter’ and `The Killing Moon’ – at least.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Aug2012-Oct2018

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