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‘Ocean Rain’: How Echo And The Bunnymen Sailed To Glory
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Ocean Rain’: How Echo And The Bunnymen Sailed To Glory

Through the thick and thin, Echo And The Bunnymen’s fourth album, ‘Ocean Rain’, has remained the group’s most seminal work.

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Its creation may have tested their mettle, but Echo And The Bunnymen’s third album, 1983’s Porcupine, nonetheless delivered for the band. Spawning two spin-off Top 20 UK hits courtesy of the dramatic The Back Of Love and the sweeping, widescreen pop of The Cutter, the album went Top 5 and yielded a gold disc, ensuring that the band’s next album, Ocean Rain, carried the weight of expectation.

Listen to ‘Ocean Rain’ here.

The backstory: “It was definitely a team effort”

However, if the process of making Porcupine (which was initially scrapped and then re-recorded from scratch) gave The Bunnymen the jitters, the record’s success buoyed them. Indeed, the Liverpudlian quartet enjoyed one of their best-ever years in 1983. They scored a further UK Top 20 hit with the standalone single Never Stop, and performed two successful concerts at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, before debuting four confident, freshly-minted songs in a session recorded for BBC Radio 1’s John Peel show during the autumn of that year.

These new tracks – Nocturnal Me, Ocean Rain, My Kingdom and Watch Out Below (later renamed The Yo-Yo Man) – drew considerable appreciation when the Peel session was first broadcast, with Tony Fletcher’s popular music ’zine, Jamming, suggesting that the songs “hint at a readjustment and a period of new positive recovery” for the group.

The Killing Moon: “It’s my ‘To be or not to be…’”

Certainly, the first fruits from what would become Ocean Rain – a new single entitled The Killing Moon – suggested The Bunnymen were building up to something rather special. Primarily recorded during an initial session at Bath’s Crescent Studio, this glorious, brooding nocturne went to No.9 following its release in January 1984, and it remains one of the band’s greatest triumphs.

“For me, The Killing Moon is more than just a song,” frontman Ian McCulloch said in a 2014 interview with The Guardian. “It’s a psalm, almost hymnal. It’s about everything, from birth to death to eternity and God – whatever that is – and the eternal battle between fate and the human will. It contains the answer to the meaning of life. It’s my ‘To be or not to be…’”

However, as guitarist Will Sergeant pointed out in the same interview, The Killing Moon ultimately succeeded because the whole band put in top-drawer performances.

“Mac might have come up with the lyrics and all that, but it was definitely a team effort,” the guitarist said. “The strings are just Adam Peters on cello and the producer [Gil Norton] on some state-of-the-art keyboard thing he had. Mac says he suggested that Pete [De Freitas] play the drums with brushes, but I know Pete had already been inspired by the gentler, jazzier way of playing on Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, which we’d all been listening to.”

The recording: “We wanted something conceptual with lush orchestration”

Nonetheless, what The Bunnymen did agree was on the new musical direction they wished to pursue – for they all wanted to make their most opulent artistic statement yet with Ocean Rain. Later revealing that the band wanted to go to Paris to record, because “we all loved Jacques Brel and that French/Belgian stuff”, Sergeant also noted that The Bunnymen all sought to make a record with a much bigger, cinematic feel than anything they’d created so far.

“We wanted to make something conceptual, with lush orchestration,” he explained. “Not Mantovani, something with a twist. It’s all pretty dark. Thorn Of Crowns is based on an Eastern scale. The whole mood [of Ocean Rain] is very windswept: European pirates, a bit Ben Gunn; dark and stormy; battering rain; all of that.”

The Bunnymen recorded the bulk of Ocean Rain at Paris’ Les Studios Des Dames, with the help of producer Gil Norton, engineer Henri Loustau and a 35-piece orchestra. However, while Adam Peters scored the sweeping string arrangements underscoring songs such as Silver, Nocturnal Me and the title track’s spectral seafarer’s lament, the whole band enjoyed expanding their personal palettes of sound. Pete De Freitas added xylophone and glockenspiel textures, in addition to playing his kit with brushes, while Will Sergeant played his solo on My Kingdom using a Washburn acoustic guitar which he distorted through a valve radio.

“There were loads of funny little keyboards, like a celeste,” Sergeant previously told Dig! of the gear at the band’s disposal. “They had a xylophone. They had a piano with drawing pins in the beaters, which gave it a metallic clank. Les [Pattinson, bass] was on the marimba – he was just dragging things up and down the scales.”

The collective spirit of adventure coupled with a batch of killer songs ensured that Ocean Rain coalesced to form Echo And The Bunnymen’s most formidable record to date. Indeed, the tracklist covered all bases – its broke new ground sonically, but also pulled in a hat-trick of the band’s most stellar hits courtesy of The Killing Moon, the majestic Silver and the blissful Seven Seas.

“The run of singles from that album… were staggering,” lifelong Bunnymen fan and Manic Street Preachers bassist/lyricist Nicky Wire said in a 2018 interview with Cardiff Times. “For me, Silver connected so perfectly – the flow of words is real poetry. It’s the track that made me realise there was a deep, ice-cold mystery to [McCulloch’s] words… Here was someone writing words for music that had a natural poetic rhythm to them. No one else was doing that at the time – arguably, not many have managed it since, either.”

The release and legacy: “It captured a great band at a perfect moment”

Completing an already heady package, Ocean Rain came housed in a sleeve that matched the elegance of the music within. Continuing the elemental theme that had seen The Bunnymen pose in the ice and snow at Iceland’s Gullfoss waterfall for the cover of Porcupine, Brian Griffin, who had shot all the Bunnymen covers to date, chose to photograph the group in Cornwall’s Carnglaze Caverns. In this otherworldly location, the four musicians discovered an abandoned rowing boat perfect for such a session, allowing Griffin to frame Ocean Rain’s iconic cover and create – as band biographer Chris Adams later wrote – “a perfect visual representation of arguably The Bunnymen’s finest album”.

The wider public needed little convincing that Ocean Rain was, indeed, a force of nature. When it was first released, on 4 May 1984, the album shot to No.4 in the UK during an impressive 26-week run on the charts, during which it received a gold certification. In fact, with hindsight, it’s surprising to discover that Ocean Rain was initially greeted with some relatively lukewarm reviews. However, it’s more than regained any lost ground in recent years, with countless retrospectives offering effusive praise – quite often from fellow musicians responsible for landmark releases of their own.

Ocean Rain stood out for me as a unique and special album the first time I heard it,” ex-Bunnymen producer and The Lightning Seeds’ frontman Ian Broudie enthused in the Liverpool Echo. “It captured a great band at the perfect moment and has a lasting, timeless quality which still reverberates in every song.”

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

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