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“Living Proof At My Fingertips” – A Beginner’s Guide to Echo & The Bunnymen

If the universe was a fair place – and for various reasons, let’s face it, it isn’t – then Echo & The Bunnymen would have been as commercially successful as U2. Both bands shared quite a lot of common musical ground at the start of their respective careers, boasting similar takes on post-punk in terms of their guitar-based sound, both having photogenic, sunglasses-wearing frontmen who delivered lyrics in sonorous tenor singing voices.

Strangely enough, at one point in the early Eighties, it looked as though that might actually end up being the case. Echo & The Bunnymen were supported by U2 on one of their first UK tours, and enjoyed UK Top Ten singles and Top of the Pops appearances before their Irish counterparts, winning rave reviews for their first four studio albums as Bono and co. initially struggled to find consistency in the field of the long-playing record. With his detached nonchalance, cryptic lyrics and spectacularly tousled hair, lead singer Ian McCulloch was an indie pin-up, while Bono at that point hadn’t settled into his image.

As the decade progressed, though, U2’s star rocketed while McCulloch and his colleagues were riven by factionalism and writer’s block. By the time the former were enjoying multi-platinum, continent-conquering success with The Joshua Tree in 1987, Echo & The Bunnymen were delivering a tortuously birthed fifth album that failed to live up to expectations. Misfortune and tragedy – some of it self-inflicted, but much of it by the general unfairness of the cosmos – conspired to hamper their career.

In truth, few rock frontmen have suffered the loss of their singing voice as profoundly as McCulloch, whose deep croak is now a mere shadow of the melodramatic tenor/baritone he used to boast. Nevertheless, Echo & The Bunnymen soldier on to this day, touring and infrequently releasing records that fall short of their early Eighties glory days to varying degrees, while polishing the dazzling run of material upon which their impressive legacy is rightly based. It is that body of work to which we intend to introduce you.

Having been a close friend of future Liverpool indie scene legends Julian Cope (of The Teardrop Explodes and later a prolific solo artist and cultural commentator) and Pete Wylie (Wah! Heat, among many others), McCulloch formed the embryonic Echo & The Bunnymen in 1978 with guitarist Will Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson. Popularly (but falsely) rumoured to have been named after the drum machine they used before permanent percussionist Pete De Freitas joined in 1980, the band quickly gained attention from the indie music press with their debut single ‘The Pictures On My Wall’ that was released on future KLF member Bill Drummond’s independent label Zoo Records, completing the first of an eventual six John Peel sessions by the end of 1979.

Released in 1980, Echo & The Bunnymen’s first album Crocodiles is nothing less than one of the finest indie debuts of that decade. Playing off the tension between McCulloch’s caustic, cryptic lyrics and Sergeant’s choppy and murky guitar textures, the band produced a work of remarkable consistency straight off the bat, helping to define the indie-rock sound so often associated with the early Eighties in the process – the gothic, raincoat-wearing indie boy look is practically synonymous with Echo & The Bunnymen. Crocodiles was an album of dark treasures that seeped into your unconsciousness, despite seeming innocuous at first – the balance of despair and optimism of ‘Stars Are Stars’, the bad acid trip of ‘Villiers Terrace’ and the strident ‘Rescue’ merely the highlights in a robust and economical collection that established a template that Echo & The Bunnymen would cultivate and expand upon in the coming years.

Indeed, during this period, there was something elemental and mysterious about the Bunnymen, reinforced by the artwork for the albums in question which all featured the band posing at distance from the camera in visually arresting natural settings – the strikingly lit forest clearing of Crocodiles, a beach at dusk for Heaven Up Here, a frozen Icelandic waterfall for Porcupine, and a subterranean river for Ocean Rain. It was at odds with the band’s general demeanour of cold, aloof impenetrability, telegraphed by McCulloch’s lyrics that were delivered with a versatile voice full of passion and urgency that was also capable of a detached, sultry croon.

The wide vistas and horizons of their gothic, post-punk music evoked the cold scale and grandeur of nature, but at the same time were infused with powerful and heart-swallowing emotion. Nowhere was this clearer than on 1981’s second album Heaven Up Here, an album that, for many fans, flawlessly epitomized the early sound of Echo & The Bunnymen. Dwelling again on the darker themes, Heaven Up Here felt like the yin to the yang of Joy Division’s monolithic Closer, haunted by the same conceits of despondency, betrayal and the anxious, existential feeling of wasted potential. The opening triptych of ‘Show Of Strength’, ‘With A Hip’ and ‘Over The Wall’ represents one of the most perfect and atmospheric openings to any post-punk-derived album. Mid-album dirge ‘The Disease’ feels like the weight of the world is about to crush McCulloch, while the spine-tingling ‘All My Colours’ (formerly known as fan favourite ‘Zimbo’) is almost hypnotically despondent. However, the soaring abandon and passion of the album’s later moments like ‘No Dark Things’ and ‘All I Want’ ultimately offer redemption and resolve for the battered listener. Heaven Up Here was cemented in the culture when it was voted the best album of 1981 by the NME’s readership.

While that album was reportedly an absolute joy for Echo & The Bunnymen to write and record, its successor Porcupine was the complete opposite. Split by creative differences and held up by writer’s block, the band laboriously turned in a moody and inscrutable collection that divided their fanbase considerably. Nowhere was that more evident than its second single ‘The Cutter’, which opens with an Eastern string sound reminiscent of The Beatles’ psychedelia phase and reaches a bombastic, trumpet-driven peak courtesy of a cameo from their manager Bill Drummond that puts this strange piece into almost anthemic territory.

The group didn’t initially like it, but it became the Bunnymen’s first UK Top Ten single. At its best, Porcupine was another formulation of the muscular, intelligent and lysergically-influenced post-punk for which they’re known. At worst, it drifts a bit aimlessly on tracks like ‘Gods Will Be Gods’ or the appropriately spiky ‘Porcupine’, and veers sharply between emotional peaks and valleys, never settling into a consistent mood and its art-rock posturing occasionally forced. However, the frantic yet dreamy ‘The Back Of Love’ mean there’s plenty of rewards for patient listeners to what is, admittedly, far from the most accessible Bunnymen record for a newcomer. Korova’s initial fears that it wasn’t sufficiently commercial were banished by its placing at No.2 in the UK Albums Chart.

Porcupine quickly made more sense as a transitional phase in the context of 1984’s Ocean Rain, which alongside Heaven Up Here is the album which almost all Echo & The Bunnymen fans hold up as the group’s finest moment. Working with a 35-piece orchestra to add emotional peaks and baroque, romantic flourishes, the Bunnymen retained their literate, arty sound but opted for a more direct approach. The result was a collection of refined indie informed by the chamber-pop sounds of Scott Walker, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. The Eastern scales of the sinister ‘Thorn Of Crowns’ and the atmospheric ‘The Yo Yo Man’ created a sombre atmosphere in parts of Ocean Rain, which were occasionally dispelled by the soaring ‘Silver’, ‘Seven Seas’ and the closing title track, whose shafts of redemptive light pierced the gloom.

The record’s undisputed centrepiece, however, was ‘The Killing Moon’, an enduring indie classic and easily the group’s most famous song. A highest of high gothic dramas, with shifting tenses in the lyrics and set to brushed drums, vibrato-heavy guitar and ominous bass, it’s a show-stopper in any context. The chorus line’s hook “fate up against your will” apparently came to McCulloch in a dream, ideally suiting a key place in the opening credits to the cryptic 2003 film Donnie Darko nearly two decades later, when the song found a new generation of fans. At it’s core is the most quintessentially teenage conceit imaginable – the valourisation and savouring of misery – and it’s inspired legions of imitators ever since, none of whom have emulated it.

By now, Echo & The Bunnymen enjoyed a significant cult fanbase and no small amount of commercial success, ‘The Killing Moon’ becoming their second UK Top Ten single. Ocean Rain, however, proved difficult to follow. Abortive sessions the following year only yielded the (admittedly beautiful) stand-alone single ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’, and the group continued to fracture. Drummer Pete De Freitas announced he was quitting at the start of 1986, only to rejoin as a session musician for the mammoth sessions that eventually produced their self-titled fifth album in 1987. The Bunnymen’s chemistry was failing by this point, with the album criticised for being ponderous and lacklustre in many places, notwithstanding the glorious single ‘Lips Like Sugar’. While it proved to be their biggest hit in America, the band were drifting by the end of the Eighties.

The nadir came with the departure of Ian McCulloch following the death of his father in 1988, who passed away suddenly while the band were touring. Further tragedy then struck with the death of Pete De Freitas in a motorcycle accident the following year. The remaining Bunnymen soldiered on with Noel Burke, lead singer of the defunct UK outfit St. Vitus Dance, as frontman, but resulting album Reverberation, released in 1990, was a critical and commercial disaster. The band were dropped from their label, and ignominiously split up soon afterwards.

Salvation eventually came in the mid-Nineties when McCulloch and Will Sergeant began working again, under the name Electrafixion. When Les Pattinson joined in, the three decided to resurrect Echo & The Bunnymen and released a sturdy, triumphant reformation album in Evergreen in 1997, spawning their third UK Top Ten hit ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. While Pattinson then quit again to take care of his mother just before 1999’s What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? was released, Sergeant and McCulloch’s alliance has broadly held firm ever since, with subsequent albums Flowers (2001), Siberia (2005), The Fountain (2009) and Meteorites (2014) ranging in quality from indifferent to respectable.

The 2018 tour behind an album of re-worked orchestral versions of old hits, titled The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, may have been like shooting fish in a barrel but served to remind everybody of just how spectacular Echo & The Bunnymen could be at their peak. Furthermore, it underlined the extent to which Ian McCulloch and co. totally personified a certain kind of sound and attitude within British independent music. Their run of four consecutive albums in the first half of the Eighties is one of the most perfect bodies of work in the field, showing a band sure of their identity but not afraid to introduce new elements and adjust their sound. Their legacy is always worth celebrating.

To that end, we’ve compiled a playlist of the very finest moments of Echo & The Bunnymen, designed for a newcomer. Happy listening!

Listen to our Introduction to Echo & The Bunnymen playlist here via Spotify!

Influenced: The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The KLF, Pavement, Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead, Doves, Coldplay, The Coral, Arcade Fire, The Killers

Influenced by: The Velvet Underground, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, The Doors, David Bowie, Joy Division, The Fall

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