Everybody has one band who, above all others, are Theirs. Echo and the Bunnymen were Mine.
It’s hard to explain why they should have snagged on to me more than any other – there were plenty of others, before and after, who came close and with many of them I had the same sense of discovery, both in the sense of finding them for myself and in being taken to places unknown. It helped that the silly name and their distinct difference from, on the one hand, boorish metal and on the other, flagging rock ‘n’ roll revivalists meant they were great for winding up the people who favoured those styles. They also eschewed many of rock’s fatigued conventions at a time when its last rites were being read, from simple gestures like foregoing the drum riser to have the band in a line on stage, to their khaki stage gear and camouflage set, to event gigs like the mystery tour to a botanic gardens (captured in the short film Shine So Hard) and the celebrated Crystal Day, where Liverpool as a whole became the venue and the gig was just one element of a show which also took in Chinese theatre, a bike ride and a visit to the band’s favourite cafe which was required for tickets to be valid. It may be that these were largely the ideas of their manager, future KLF pop provocateur Bill Drummond, but instead of being overcompensatory gimmicks, they were inspired and complementary to the extraordinary music the band were making.
And most of all, that music and lyrics had a swagger, inexhaustible reserves of cool that I could never hope to claim for my own but could at least revel in the reflection of, and at the same time a real – to borrow a phrase from contemporary heroes Dexys – knowledge of beauty – which meant it had heart as well as heft. In short, listening to the Bunnymen made me feel 100 feet tall.
Roughly 94 feet taller than Ian McCulloch, the garrulous, big-coated first Bunnyman among equals, who at this stage had as much to say in song as in interview and sang it in a voice which could leap from sardonic drawl to anguished peal and back again faster than you could say “King Kenny.” (his Liverpool fandom even went a long way towards rekindling my own interest in football, which had expired utterly through a combination of Scotland’s 1978 World Cup calamity in Argentina, a realisation that I myself couldn’t play the game for toffee and a sense that, compared with music, it was just plain uncool. Joe Strummer or Terry McDermott?)
Alongside him was Will Sergeant, a guitarist of ideas as much as action, influenced by Eno and Tom Verlaine in equal measure, who could bring textures by the score to a song while rocking like an entire ecosystem of beasts. Further along, the brilliantly athletic rhythm section of bassist Les Pattinson and the – it’ll always be painful to write the word – late Pete de Freitas on drums, elastic, double-jointed, able to switch direction at half a second’s notice and enabling the band to turn the conventions of rock songwriting, as they would put it themselves, inside out, back to front, upside down.
Two particular songs on Heaven Up Here conduct this surgery on the song with a Nobel level of skill and precision. Opener Show of Strength shifts gears, leaps ever higher and steps as surefootedly as a tightrope walker asking for the rope to be hoisted a few more feet, then it disappears like a spy whose mission is accomplished, leaving Mac alone to file the final report: “Hey, I came in right on cue/One is me and one is you.”
Similarly, Over The Wall fades in on a simulation of the sound of the seas that Mac would return to time and again for inspiration, a gently pulsing rhythm box and a three-note riff embodying Sergeant’s economical yet panoramic style. Pattinson goes one better with a rotating four-note bassline as far evolved from root-note jockey playing as the Grand Canyon is from a pothole, while De Freitas knows exactly when to hold back, when to detonate and when to let loose the steeplechases where Mac riffs on Runaway by Del Shannon (who, Mac claimed, was mooted as producer for first album Crocodiles) and pleads, twisting another cliche “come on and hold me tight…to my logical limit.” A year earlier, he’d chosen this for his all-time top 10 in Smash Hits but what would usually be unpardonable hubris actually seemed quite reasonable.
Elsewhere, they offer their own perspective on the parched funk of Talking Heads and Gang of Four – both strong undercurrents in early Bunnymen – on It Was A Pleasure and No Dark Things. The title song takes the triple-jump rhythm of Bowie’s Star and accelerates it to prove that rock that’s foresaken the roll can be its own kind of dance music, while All I Want is equally celebratory amid call-and response guitars and drums tossed on – to quote their Liverpool contemporaries the Wild Swans – a harsh and foaming sea.
Melancholy arrives on The Disease, probably their oddest ever song, a simple, see-sawing riff embellished by backwards vocals, injections of feedback and ominous rumbles. Like Heaven Up Here itself, it also sees Mac contrasting heaven with hell – a device he’s used in at least half a dozen other songs since.
The mood darkens further on All My Colours (aka Zimbo) where Mac ponders desolation and decline to the accompaniment of then-voguish tribal drums but to far more defeated and less triumphant ends than the ones that Adam and the Ants were, coincidentally, pursuing to massive success. This version of the song actually works less well than many live versions, as the vast snare crack which heralds the chorus is needlessly muted – I’d recommend instead the version from the 1982 WOMAD festival with the Drummers of Burundi (“we’re Echo and the Burundimen” quips Mac) which appeared on the 12″ of The Cutter.
It’s often observed that, despite three top 10 hits, the Bunnymen ultimately never achieved the stadium status of U2 and Simple Minds. Just as significantly, neither have they secured the place in The Canon that Joy Division/New Order and the Smiths now routinely occupy. Since reforming in the late 1990s, they continue to produce alluring records and remain an enticing live act but, while I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re tarnishing their legacy, the songs are now largely linear (the very thing Mac claimed to dislike in early masterpiece Villiers’ Terrace), join-the-dots affairs, glaringly missing the vigour of the original rhythm section, while Mac has long since retreated from his early vivid lyricism (eg “a shaking hand would transmit all fidelity”) to an all too familiar litany of sunandrainandmoonand stars. In view of Oasis and Coldplay’s acknowledged debt to the Bunnymen, he might be held indirectly responsible for the trite, unimaginative lyric writing that’s so pervasive today.
But then I remember what the Bunnymen have meant to me for so many years and, even if they are peripheral in official rock history, it makes me feel even more vindicated. I’m more than happy to share them with anyone but you must understand – they’re Mine. (PG).