Echo & The Bunnymen
S.F. Weekly; June 2001 - third draft
WHAT BECOMES A LEGEND MOST?
If nothing befits a legend so much as arrogance, than the truly arrogant must invent their own legends. In the U.S., Louis Armstrong knew this, winning the hearts of Americans by insisting that he was born on the Fourth of July. In the '60s, a young black man hailing himself as the Godfather of Soul knew it, announcing hit singles which had not yet been recorded. In 1997, England's Melody Maker boasted a headline which proclaimed, "The Greatest Comeback in the World, Ever". Echo and the Bunnymen—arrogant, now apparently "legendary,"—had returned.Read more or less
But what made this particular comeback significant, was that the return of the Bunnymen found them holding their own against a new crop of bands which had largely grown up in the shadow of their own legacy.
Out front stood the Bunnymen's strikingly androgynous vocalist, Ian McCulloch - "Mac" to fans and critics alike - who 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. "What I always liked about the Bunnymen," remarked Ian in a recent telephone interview, "is that I do think we've got a lot more scope than your average rock band". McCulloch's modesty aside, for the most part, the praise was rightfully deserved. The early '80s saw the release of the unanimously lauded 1980 debut, Crocodiles - a maelstrom of swirling psychedelic textures and choppy power pop which became their signature; then the melancholic Heaven Up Here, and finally the worldly strains of Porcupine.
Mac left the band in 1988, at a time when the band was just beginning to attain a long-elusive success in the US. 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, to paraphrase of Mac's own lyrics. Then something odd happened. Side projects and solo endeavors were poorly received, yet at the same time served to stimulate a resurgent interest in the band. By 1999, the press had never appeared so enthusiastic about the Bunnymen's presence.
Bands like The Mighty Lemon Drops paid lip service to the Bunnymen by appropriating their stylistic arrangements, and established groups such as Hole, The Flaming Lips, and Pavement were performing the band’s old hits. Other groups like Blur, Oasis, and Radiohead, had become hugely successful, due in part to having grown up under the Bunnymen’s influence. If the band ever had their work cut out for them in the past, now they would have to face the ultimate test of going head to head with modern day versions of their earlier glory.
Currently, the Bunnymen are touring to promote a new album, Flowers (released this year on SpinArt), which many have hailed as being a return to the psychedelic pop sounds of Crocodiles. "To me it proves that Crocodiles was obviously twenty years ahead of its' time", quipped Ian. "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."
In spite of the Bunnymen's efforts to attain that goal, it seemed that the band was constantly dogged by the trappings of the times. In typical pop cultural fashion, every re-invention of the band's image was co-opted by hordes of idol-worshipping fans. When the live Shine So Hard EP was released in 1981, it was a conscious attempt on the band's part to shrug off the superfluous expectations which had been foisted upon them by many of their fans.
"It was always hard to make sure that people understood where you were coming from, without slagging everything off", recalled Ian. "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".
Perhaps one of the most apparent signs on the road to the Bunnymen's rediscovery is Ian's revisitation to the religious allegory that was so prevalent on the earlier albums. In stark contrast to the romanticism which have been the focus of the past several releases, Flowers finds Ian looking within himself for answers, and therein becomes reacquainted with his true strength as a lyricist. This quality lends a much more introspective and personal touch to the overall songwriting which seemed to have gone missing for a while.
"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 hasn't played guitar like the stuff on Flowers for a long time".
In addition to this year's release of Flowers, a lavish 4-CD box set titled Crystal Days is nearing completion as the tour gets underway. Released on Rhino Records, the set compiles tracks from various LPs, singles, and a live set of covers, ranging from 1979 - 1999. 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.
Ian and Will's personal notes in the Crystal Days collection illustrate that the trip down memory lane was not without its share of regrets. Recalled with equal candor are the personal frustrations between band members as egos and artistic visions collided, as well as the happier moments when the Bunnymen could revel in their fame.
"Well, it's kind of a cliché of everybody's", mused Ian, "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."
Echo and the Bunnymen will be playing two sets on Sunday, July 22; at Amoeba Records in Haight at 6 pm and The Fillmore at 8 pm.
© J. Free; 2001