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Echo And The Bunnymen: Killing Tunes And A Deathless Legacy
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In Depth

Echo And The Bunnymen: Killing Tunes And A Deathless Legacy

Echo And The Bunnymen sought to be “the coolest and the best” band in rock – and their music has secured this iconic group’s longevity.

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In a 2017 article in The Guardian, Creation Records founder Alan McGee suggested Echo And The Bunnymen were “the bridesmaids of rock” – the implication being that the band’s music never quite attained earned them a global profile or sales figures comparable to that of their peers such as U2 or Simple Minds.

On a purely commercial level, that argument may have legs, but judged on their artistic achievements and influence on successive generations of alt-rock stars, then this singular Liverpudlian group have long since knocked their contemporaries out of the park. Besides, they had their own take on what constitutes “success” all along.

Listen to the best of Echo And The Bunnymen here.

“The Bunnymen, more than any other group, more than R.E.M., more than U2, did try to discover our own voyage without destination,” the band’s frontman, Ian McCulloch, told The Washington Post in 2001. “We never had any goals particularly, other than to be seen as the coolest and the best, and the group that never sold out.”

McCulloch has never been backwards in coming forwards when it comes to doling out quotable remarks – and he’d been telling the media The Bunnymen were the best rock’n’roll band in the world years before Oasis’ Gallagher brothers turned self-aggrandisement into an art form. Yet The Bunnymen’s music really is hung with jewels, and the best Echo And The Bunnymen songs suggest their singer’s claims may not have been so outlandish after all.

“Me and Will were always the chief ingredients”: forming the band

The Bunnymen’s voyage to becoming “the coolest and the best” had disarmingly humble beginnings. The fledgling group made their spontaneous live debut supporting their contemporaries The Teardrop Explodes at esteemed Liverpool punk haunt Eric’s in November 1978 – the place where guitarist Will Sergeant first encountered Ian McCulloch.

Sergeant knew of McCulloch from Liverpool’s nascent punk scene; the singer had briefly been involved in a formative but semi-legendary band, The Crucial Three, with fellow future Liverpudlian legends Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes and Pete Wylie of Wah! Sergeant and McCulloch also shared a love of David Bowie’s music, but the guitarist was going on instinct rather than prior knowledge of McCulloch’s musical capabilities.

Sergeant’s first impressions were that McCulloch “was quick, that he was funny, a similar sense of humour in a way”, he told the Scottish Herald in 2021, adding, “I thought he was great.”

The guitarist also discovered Mac was “a really good rhythm guitarist” himself during putative early sessions when the two spent hours playing guitar in the back room of Will’s father’s house in Melling, outside Liverpool. Listening to records by bands such as The Velvet Underground and The Doors, the pair would jam for hours on end in search of their own sound.

“Me and Will were always the chief ingredients,” McCulloch told The Washington Post. “And also we were the original two members. It was me, Will and a drum machine. He had a homemade guitar and a really damp house that he used to live in with his dad. So it was me, Will and a lot of condensation.”

“It was fantastic and such a rush”

Sergeant didn’t even know for sure whether McCulloch could sing before the band made their live debut at Eric’s. In typical punk DIY fashion, the band had acquired their third member, bassist Les Pattinson, just days before the show – and Pattinson had never previously played his instrument, either.

“I bought a Grant bass from [local friend] Robbie the punk for £40,” the bassist told Penny Black Music in 2011. “We rehearsed in NVCQ, a local art centre. Mac didn’t even turn up! Paul Simpson [of The Teardrop Explodes] was there and played keyboards. It was the first time I had played bass, and we came up with a song called Monkeys. Mac would later sing it at the first show, reading lines from a notepad. It could have gone so wrong, but it was fantastic and such a rush.”

Going on to develop a uniquely melodic, driving style, playing primarily upstrokes, Pattinson developed into one of the best bassists of the 80s – albeit one whose talent could go overlooked. His input proved crucial for the fledgling band, who only acquired their unlikely name around the time of their Eric’s show. Paul Ellerbeck, one of McCulloch and Julian Cope’s friends, is credited with coming up with the name Echo And The Bunnymen, though the band initially hated it.

“We had this mate who kept suggesting all these names like The Daz Men or Glisserol And The Fan Extractor,” Will Sergeant told Liverpool Explodes author Mark Cooper. “Echo And The Bunnymen was one of them. I thought it was just as stupid as the rest.”

Yet, like many great bands, the Bunnymen soon began to transcend their peculiar name. They immediately made waves with their debut single, The Pictures On My Wall, released through Liverpool indie imprint Zoo, created by their original management team of Bill Drummond and David Balfe. Reputation-enhancing gigs with like-minded post-punk trailblazers such as Joy Division and The Fall followed, along with crucial exposure through a radio session for influential BBC Radio 1 DJ, John Peel.

“We wanted success the way that Bowie had it”: rise to fame

However, the magic really came in earnest when The Bunnymen replaced their long-suffering drum machine with a real-life drummer, Pete De Freitas. Unlike the other band members, who hailed from working-class Liverpool families, De Freitas came from an affluent background, grew up in the south of England and attended an elite private school. Yet his affable and outgoing manner was a welcome addition for his famously fractious bandmates, and his commitment, power and finesse behind the kit made all the difference to The Bunnymen’s future development.

“A lot of drummers do rate him, and there’s a lot of people who know how good he was,” Will Sergeant told Far Out magazine in 2021. “But I agree he should be remembered better. He’s not always there with John Bonham and Keith Moon and all that – and he really should be.”

With their classic line-up in place, The Bunnymen signed a major record deal with Warner Bros subsidiary Korova Records (and to Sire in the US) late in 1979. They spent much of the next decade on an upwards trajectory, releasing the string of classic albums upon which their reputation rests. Setting the standard, the band’s 1980 debut, Crocodiles, remains one of post-punk’s landmark releases, and McCulloch credits Sergeant with playing a key part in the record’s timelessness.

“Will defined the whole Bunnymen ethos,” McCulloch said in 2001. “Everything he played was loosely based on [Television guitarist] Tom Verlaine’s guitar sound. He liked it sharp and shrill, with not a lot of effects on it.

“A lot of that pure sound came from Will. We wanted some commercial success, but the way that Bowie had it, or The Doors, or any of the groups that we liked. But the 80s were such a crap decade, the minute you did use a synth, you were on dangerous ground.” Adding that Crocodiles’ producer, David Balfe, “was all for the here and now, anything to get us in the charts”, McCulloch noted that it was Sergeant who ensured the group stayed true to their own vision, securing their legacy in the process: “Will had to remain firm about certain things, because he knew in ten years those albums would sound like crap if they had some dodgy synths on them.”

“There was never going to be any kowtowing”

Crocodiles peaked at No. 17 in the UK in the autumn of 1980 and eventually went gold. It also ushered in The Bunnymen’s golden age – most of the next decade, during which the band seemed to have the Midas touch. Further classic albums followed courtesy of the brooding, widescreen Heaven Up Here and the dense, Eastern-tinged Porcupine, and bona fide hit singles arrived alongside them, with The Back Of Love, Never Stop and the cinematic sweep of The Cutter all gracing the UK Top 20.

Whether they liked it or not, these records made The Bunnymen mainstream stars and, by this stage, McCulloch was rapidly becoming one of rock’s most swaggering and charismatic frontmen to boot.

“He’s so good with words – and what a great frontman,” Will Sergeant told Dig! in an exclusive interview in 2021. “He’s got that arrogant snarl. It’s a bit Johnny Rotten and it’s a bit Jacques Brel. He’s our David Bowie, isn’t he?

“I like the surreal element of his lyrics,” Sergeant added. “On Going Up [from Crocodiles], there’s a line where he goes, ‘Rusty chalk-dust walker.’ I don’t know what that is, but I love that combination of words and the sound of them. It’s interesting and intriguing… He’s just a one-off.”

“If you put out a great song, it connects”

Both Heaven Up Here and Porcupine saw The Bunnymen expand their palette of sound, but they arguably made their most lasting artistic statement with 1984’s majestic Ocean Rain. Recorded primarily in Paris with producer Gil Norton and a full orchestra in tow, the album yielded several of the band’s most enduring songs in Silver, Seven Seas and their haunting signature hit, The Killing Moon. With its swooning strings and elegant orchestration, Ocean Rain also proved that rock’n’roll could be epic and drenched in emotion without descending into flag-waving portentousness.

Speaking to the Irish Independent in 2011, McCulloch said, “There was never going to be any [kowtowing] to America. No wearing cowboy hats and cowboy boots. With Ocean Rain, we went to Europe and made a more European sound. I was always into Jacques Brel and ABBA – anything that had decent lyrics and a great tune and was foreign, as in European. I was one for Marlene Dietrich rather than Doris Day.”

Despite their indifferent stance towards the US, The Bunnymen did make significant inroads there. During this period, British and Irish alt-rock outfits such as U2, The Cure and New Order were also achieving significant sales and receiving widespread acclaim, and The Bunnymen seemed well-placed to capitalise on this.

With the release of their self-titled fifth album in 1987, McCulloch and company were perfectly poised for mass success. They had two songs in high-profile teen movies – Pretty In Pink (Bring On The Dancing Horses) and The Lost Boys (a cover of The Doors’ People Are Strange) – which increased their profile hugely, while their singer’s striking looks seemed tailor-made for the MTV generation. The band also embarked on a major tour with New Order and had a hit with the anthemic Lips Like Sugar. Yet, at this crucial stage, The Bunnymen started to burn out. In hindsight, it simply wasn’t in their nature to play by the industry’s rules.

“Can’t you just shake someone’s hand? It wasn’t the way we were”

“I remember being on the phone to Rob Dickins, who was our boss at Warner Records,” McCulloch recalled in 2011. “He was the only one who dealt with us and he loved us, thought we were the best group in the world. He was always saying, ‘Why can’t you just go and shake someone’s hand, play the game a bit?’ It wasn’t the way we were.”

With the world at their feet, The Bunnymen imploded. McCulloch shocked everyone by quitting the band in 1988, and then Pete De Freitas tragically died in a motorcycle crash, aged just 27, on 14 June 1989. Still featuring Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson, the band soldiered on with a different line-up, cutting the decent, yet ultimately doomed Reverberation album in 1990, while McCulloch enjoyed critical acclaim for his first two solo albums, Candleland and Mysterio.

After a reconciliation, Sergeant and McCulloch again began working together as Electrafixion, before reuniting with Les Pattinson as Echo And The Bunnymen in time for 1997’s high-profile release Evergreen. Representing one of rock’s most credible reformations, the album reached the UK Top 10 and spawned one of the band’s biggest hits in Nothing Lasts Forever.

“I knew Nothing Lasts Forever was the most important song I ever wrote,” McCulloch told the Wales Arts Review in 2018. “I wrote it when I was solo and I sat on it for a while, but I didn’t just leave it. Around the time of Candleland, I came up with that chord sequence and a little idea of the melody lines. I read that Leonard Cohen said that if a song takes ten years to write, it takes that long. I knew I had this classic that was already there and everyone who heard it at the time said straight away ‘That’s the single!’

“There was a chance we may not have been accepted the same,” the singer continued, “but I think if you put out a great song, it connects. I’ve always had that confidence in The Bunnymen.”

“We don’t get the credit we deserve”: influence and legacy

Despite Les Pattinson’s departure, in 1998, Sergeant and McCulloch have led Echo And The Bunnymen to further glories. Still a huge live draw, the band have released critically acclaimed 21st-century albums including Siberia, Flowers and Meteorites, while their 2018 album, The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, featuring orchestral reworkings of a clutch of their classic songs, reacquainted them with the UK Top 20.

The group have also exerted an immense influence on a host of bands. The Killing Moon helped them reach a new generation of fans when it was used to soundtrack of the powerful opening scene of Richard Kelly’s high-profile sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko in 2001, and Bunnymen DNA is all too easy to detect in a host of widely-lauded 21st-century bands, among them Editors, Doves, Franz Ferdinand and Coldplay. The latter act have even maintained a friendship with Ian McCulloch since they first met him while recording their mega-selling second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, in Liverpool in 2002.

“With Mac, because he’s so infamous and he’s so as you expect when you meet him, all cigarettes and sunglasses, so you’re shit-scared for a bit,” Coldplay’s frontman, Chris Martin, told NME that same year. “But then you realise that what’s driving him is the same as what’s driving you and your band.”

“I like it when other bands say they’re influenced by us,” Will Sergeant once confessed to the Chicago Tribune, before later telling the Scottish Herald, “I think we don’t get the credit we deserve.

“We didn’t sell that many records,” he continued. “All those other bands sold millions. We didn’t. But there was something about us, a presence about us, that’s always made us seem bigger than we actually were.”

Buy Echo And The Bunnymen vinyl at the Dig! store.

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