Echo & The Bunnymen
S.F. Weekly; June 2001 - original draft
The nineties was a decade of cultural ambiguity that saw countless rock'n roll has-beens attempting to recapture the lost glory of an era, which—for most of us—had long since passed. In 1997, however, England's Melody Maker boasted a headline which proclaimed, "The Greatest Comeback in the World…Ever", suggesting that the return of one band at least, had not only been long-awaited, but was in fact, a triumph. Echo & the Bunnymen - arguably, Liverpool's greatest cultural import to the rest of the world - had returned.Read more or less
Perhaps no one could have agreed more with that tagline than the Bunnymen's strikingly androgynous vocalist, Ian McCulloch – "Mac" to fans and critics alike. With unfaltering arrogance befitting a pop legend, Mac had always possessed a penchant for glib, one-line disseminations of the tragic state of pop culture, while hailing nearly every new Bunnymen release as the best thing the band had ever done. Les Pattinson was the quiet bass player, held securely in check by drummer Pete DeFreitas, who came on board after the band's drum machine ("Echo") proved unreliable, and long-time friend and guitar savant Will Sergeant completed the line-up.
Certainly, the Bunnymen had their moments of shining brilliance right from the start. Their unanimously lauded 1980 debut, Crocodiles, a magnificent maelstrom of swirling psychedelic textures and choppy power pop which became their signature, was heralded as a masterpiece. Subsequent releases, from the melancholic Heaven Up Here, and the worldly strains of Porcupine, established for most that the Bunnymen literally had no rivals. In 1984, the band continued to explore new territory, with the release of Ocean Rain, a delicate album filled with some of Mac's most literary, if not optimistic lyrics to date.
Still, the Bunnymen's celebrated return to glory in the millennium has not been without its' share of upsets. In the decade that followed Ocean Rain, the band endured a barrage of tribulations which would have driven a lesser band into the annals of history, and left them there. In 1988, Mac turned in his resignation, after a slew of albums which were either met with indifference, or indignant reproach. Ironically, the split came at a time when the band was just beginning to attain a long-elusive success in the US, on the heels of their sixth album, which the band themselves had all but dismissed.
A tumultuous period ensued, as Ian and his mates pursued two distinctly separate paths. Mac launched a solo career which spawned two mildly-received albums, while the remaining Bunnymen continued using the name - releasing only one album (with a different vocalist), which was met with general disinterest. By 1994, it seemed that the once legendary Bunnymen had been relegated to distant memory, if not stripped of their dignity by the press – even worse, it seemed to many that the band had simply lost their touch. It was either time to get back to business, or get out of the game, and if any one characteristic had ever shone through these lads' ambitions, it was that none of them were quitters.
Mac and Will patched up their differences that year, forming a new band, Electrafixion, which indeed rekindled some of the spark the two old friends had shared in the early days of the Bunnymen. During this period, resurgent interest in the Bunnymen of old grew to the point that within a year, Electrafixion were playing as many of their old hits as the new material. The question almost asked itself, and by the end of the day, Echo and the Bunnymen had been resurrected as well.
Evergreen, released in 1997, was a triumphant nod back to the basics, from a Crocodiles-like cover photo, to the rediscovered dynamics between Will and Mac. It was clear that this comeback was more important than every other '80's band which had propped up their decaying corpses in the limelight for a quick dollar. The Bunnymen were also now holding their own against a new crop of bands which had largely grown up in the shadow of their own legacy.
Undaunted, the band released another album in 1999, "What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?", and although it received virtually no promotion whatsoever, the press had never appeared so enthusiastic about the Bunnymen's presence. This year becomes perhaps the hallmark of achievement for the band, as the Bunnymen are currently touring to promote a new album, Flowers, released this year on SpinArt; Mac is working on a new solo album slated for release early next year; and Rhino Records is nearing completion of a lavish 4-CD box set, titled Crystal Days, which compiles tracks from various LPs, singles, an unreleased album, and a live set of covers, ranging from 1979 – 1999.
In a phone interview with Ian McCulloch on the eve of this year's tour, we talked about the glory days of the Bunnymen's past and present, as well as plans for the future.
Despite the stylistic changes you've gone through, there is a signature Bunnymen sound throughout Flowers, which comes across as rather timeless.
Ah – well said. To me it proves that Crocodiles was obviously twenty years ahead of its' time.
How do you account for the revisitation to the religious allegory that was so prevalent on earlier albums? For a while, you had begun to incorporate more of a romanticism in your lyrics.
I tried to bounce off the music more. The whole thing was done very quickly, and I think I just tried to let my mind do the wandering, rather than the heart. I think that's why it's got more of that kind of spiritual connection. I wrote pretty much everything on the acoustic, and carved the songs out more like a songwriter type thing. It was a lot more spontaneous, and going with what we felt instinctively was the right kind of vibe. Will just came to the party – he hasn't played guitar like the stuff on Flowers for a long time.
You've been quoted in the press as saying that the Bunnymen influenced bands like Radiohead, who turn influenced the Bunnymen, and so on. What else are you aware of that has fallen into this cycle, in terms of your current sound?
It's hard for me to tell. A lot of people say, "it just sounds like you". I can't see it all the time, in the way other people can. I've nicked a little bit of Dylan Thomas, a little bit of Lou Reed, on this album. We all kind of – you know, not necessarily steal things, but we all use our influences.
Ever since Porcupine, it seems that the general tone of Bunnymen material has become increasingly optimistic.
Yeah – people say that, which I think is a good thing. A lot of people are saying this album is very upbeat and stuff, but I always thought that we were a good balance - I don't think we've ever written one type of song, and repeated it. What I always liked about the Bunnymen is that I do think we've got a lot more scope than your average rock band. I've always thought that we could mix it up a little bit, and also use a little bit of European influence as well.
I do think that's why our old albums stand up still, because there is a timelessness about it, because we approached it differently. We weren't really that taken really with stuff that was going on at the time - especially in the eighties, there was so much rubbish out there. You have to forge your own way if you wanted to do anything worthwhile.
As much as you have always strived to reach that goal, the trappings of the times always seemed to follow you around. For a while, you had this huge appeal with goths, particularly during the "camouflage era" that ended with Shine So Hard.
It was always hard to make sure that people understood where you were coming from, without slagging everything off. It was a bit extreme, but in those days, it was - what we're doing is… (pausing for emphasis on each word) what we do. I look back and I think, what the hell, you take yourself seriously. Which you have to do, at that formative stage - you've gotta be seen to know who you are.
About the forthcoming box set – among the singles and various tracks which were compiled, there are also a number of tracks which comprise an unreleased album recorded back in 1986, which it seems the band was fairly opposed to at the time.
Yeah, there's quite a few of them. The actual compiling of it, I didn't have anything to do with, because we felt it would be better coming from someone else's subjectivity. It would have to be put together by a fan, rather than us, 'cause for starters, me and Will wouldn't have agreed on anything! (laughing), and also, I'd have ended up with about two tracks on it. There will be some things on there that will make me cringe, but it will make fans think, "wow!" I think it is an album for the fans, and me and Will should keep well out of it.
To be sure, Crystal Days is a veritable treasure chest of rarities and album tracks that provide a near-completist's overview of the band's history. Undeniably a labor of love, the 4-CD compilation delves back into the band's own adolescence, when Mac and his pals Julian Cope (later to become the frontman for The Teardrop Explodes) and Pete Wylie (of Wah!) were collectively known as "The Crucial Three", plotting out their own pop revolution.
Virtually every single the Bunnymen ever recorded can be found in this collection; the pre-Crocodiles versions of "Monkeys" (featuring Cope on keyboards), early 7" versions of "Pictures On My Wall", "Read It In Books", a handful of unreleased tracks recorded for the BBC's John Peel sessions, various UK-only B-sides, and a smattering of tracks from every album, which lend a cohesive quality to the whole package that a mere "Odds and Sods"-type compilation might have been lacking.
The set also contains lengthy notes on the material, provided by Mac and Will themselves, perhaps the harshest – and most qualified – critics of their own legacy to pop culture.
Ian: The sleeve notes - the person who wrote it has known us for twenty years, he's our press officer in England. He kind of interviewed me and Will - 'cause he's a friend more than anything - about our recollections of certain times, and what songs meant to us and still mean to us. I would never have listened to all the things! (embarrassed laughter). It's probably the best versions - it will probably surprise us; and fans, they'll be like, "why didn't they put this out?", I suppose.
In searching through all those memories, was there any one realization about the legacy of the Bunnymen which left the biggest impact?
Well, it 's kind of a cliché of everybody's, but the most amazing thing is how quickly it seems to have gone. The highlights - there were loads of them - started out with a drum machine with one song and playing live, making it last twenty minutes, 'cause you didn't want to leave the stage; the camouflage era - I mean, I'm not one for nostalgia, but there were great times. It still is great, you know - I love playing live now. We did a lot of weird tours, and weird things when we played live. Will misses that, and he always says, "I wish we could do that again", but you can't go back.
For those who share Will's sentiments, however, one need look no further than Disc 4 in the Crystal Days set. Here is represented the Bunnymen's particular penchant for playing searing cover versions in their live sets, and making them their own. Focusing mainly on a legendary 1985 show, broadcast on Swedish radio and widely circulated as a bootleg, this set includes heartfelt renditions of Television's "Friction", The Modern Lovers' "She Cracked", as well as some early live B-sides mixed in for good measure. A stirring version of "All My Colours", re-titled here as "Zimbo", from the 1982 WOMAD Festival, and featuring The Royal Burundi Drummers; and the classic 1983 live version of "Do It Clean", during which Mac always referenced several covers within itself, are but a few of the highlights.
Aside from the Shine So Hard EP in 1981, the Bunnymen have never released a live recording, remarkably enough. Rumor has it that a live Bunnymen album is finally in the works.
We're gonna record gigs over the next few months, and put a live album out from that. That will be on Cooking Vinyl - probably next year. It's been a long time coming. You'll have all the songs from the beginning to now in a live context, rather than like an anthology. I just think it's a good time to do it.
Let's talk about your upcoming solo album – I hear you're working with Ian Broudie again, who produced Crocodiles.
Yeah, he's producing some of it - it's already off to a great start. It's the best set of songs I've ever written, I think.
What do you see as being the major difference this time around?
I love Candleland, and I like a lot of Mysterio, but this is just so confident sounding, rockin', slow and emotional, and it's just got a real breath of…song. I don't always say, "this is the best thing I've ever done", I just feel good about the songs, and everyone who's heard the demos loved them, so you'll see. It won't be out 'til next year, probably March. But, it's a cracker!
You once said, many years ago, that one of your dreams was to write a song that Frank Sinatra could sing – do you feel that you have written that song?
Well I think he could have done "Nothing Lasts Forever", maybe, or, "The Killing Moon", maybe "Ocean Rain". That ambition is no longer valid because he's dead. I've got one, that will be on the album, called "Cracker Jack", and I throw in a Frank thing - it's like (starts singing) "Cracker Jack/cracking your ha-ha-heart/Jack!"; 'cause he used to say "Jack!" a lot - in things like, "something in the way she moves – Jack!" So, that's kind of my homage to Frank. So, maybe I have already written it, but it's more like "Bad Bad Leroy Brown", than "My Way".
Echo and the Bunnymen will be playing at the Fillmore, on Sunday, July 22nd.
© J. Free; 2002