The cultural ambiguity of the ’90s saw countless former legends fail miserably in their attempts to recapture the lost glory of a heyday long since past. In 1997, however, England’s Melody Maker boasted a headline which proclaimed, “The Greatest Comeback in the World…Ever”. Echo and the Bunnymen – arguably, Liverpool’s second greatest cultural import to the rest of the world since the Fab Four – had returned. What made this particular comeback so much more significant than many of the others, 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.
It seems likely no one could have agreed more with that tagline than 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.
“We all use our influences”, remarked Ian, in a recent telephone interview. “What I always liked about the Bunnymen is that I do think we’ve got a lot more scope than your average rock band”.
For the most part, the praise was rightfully deserved, right from the start. 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 – the melancholic Heaven Up Here, and the worldly strains of Porcupine. At that point, it was established for most that the Bunnymen simply had no rivals. Still, the Bunnymen’s celebrated return to glory in the millennium has not been without its’ share of upsets. A combination of personal tensions and blurred visions led the band on a long path to self-destruction. Mac left the band in 1988, ironically 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. Side projects and solo endeavors were poorly received, yet at the same time served to stimulate a rabid, resurgent interest in the band, and by 1999, the press had never appeared so enthusiastic about the Bunnymen’s presence.
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. “A lot of people are saying this album is very upbeat, 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. I 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.”
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, be it their camouflage apparel, or black raincoats. 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. “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.” Reflecting further, he adds, “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”, Ian responded. “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. To be 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.
“The actual compiling of it”, explains Ian, “I didn’t have anything to do with. 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”, he laughs, “me and Will wouldn’t have agreed on anything! 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 Ian and his mates – collectively known as “The Crucial Three” – were 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 boyhood pal Julian 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. “The person who wrote it has known us for twenty years”, explained Ian. “He kind of interviewed me and Will 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!”, he laughs, almost embarrassedly. “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.”
If anything, 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.”
For those who share Will’s sentiments, the final disc in the Crystal Days set should prove to be a treat. Represented here is 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 once 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. Conspicuous by it’s absence, however, is the much-lauded Shine So Hard EP, previously, the only official live recording the Bunnymen had ever released.
“We’re gonna record gigs over the next few months, and put a live album out from that”, Ian revealed. “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.”
As if all of this activity wasn’t an indication that the Bunnymen have finally regained their foothold in the spotlight, Ian is also working on a new solo album – his third – slated for release early next year. Even more important is the fact that the album is being co-produced by none other than Ian Broudie, who produced Crocodiles.
“It’s already off to a great start”, Ian exclaimed, barely able to conceal the enthusiasm in his voice. Perhaps more in character, he added, “It’s the best set of songs I’ve ever written, I think.” Ahh, now that’s the Mac we’ve known and loved over the years. “I love Candleland, and I like a lot of Mysterio”, he continued, “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.”
We will indeed. Welcome back, lads.
Echo and the Bunnymen will be playing at the Fillmore, on Sunday, July 22nd.
© J.Free; 2001; 2022