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“A Musician With No Boundaries”: Remembering Pete De Freitas, Drummer For Echo And The Bunnymen
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

“A Musician With No Boundaries”: Remembering Pete De Freitas, Drummer For Echo And The Bunnymen

Pete De Freitas died aged just 27, but this much-missed figure was one of the coolest – and greatest – drummers ever to sit behind a kit.

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Simply because he was 27 when he died, in a motorcycle crash on 14 June 1989, Echo And The Bunnymen’s original drummer, Pete De Freitas, has since gained entrance to the so-called “27 Club”: a ghoulish term for rock stars who expired at that seemingly cursed age, and which has been widely used since the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994.

Yet, despite a propensity for (literally) living fast on his beloved Ducati, De Freitas was anything but another of rock’n’roll’s James Dean wannabes. Once described by his group’s original manager, Bill Drummond, as “the sanest and most balanced of The Bunnymen”, De Freitas was polite, intelligent, urbane and charming – in addition to being one of the greatest drummers ever to sit behind a kit.

“A lot of drummers do rate him, and there’s a lot of people who know how good he was,” Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant told Far Out in 2021, before lamenting that his bandmate is “not always there with [John] Bonham and Keith Moon and all that”.

Listen to the best of Echo And The Bunnymen here.

Growing up: “He was a free spirit looking for the big adventure”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Pete De Freitas played an integral role in Echo And The Bunnymen’s transition from cult post-punk Liverpool heroes into one of the most important acts of the 80s – and that’s especially remarkable when you consider he originally had no links with Merseyside at all. Born Peter Louis Vincent De Freitas, in the Caribbean, in Port Of Spain, Trinidad And Tobago, on 2 August 1962, De Freitas was the son of a copyright lawyer who sent the young Peter to be educated at a renowned British public school, Downside, in Somerset.

From there, De Freitas had a degree at Oxford University in his sights, until a friendship with Kieran Balfe, brother of Zoo Records’ co-founder David Balfe, brought him to the attention of The Bunnymen, whose Zoo-sponsored debut single, Pictures On My Wall, was causing a stir. However, while Sire Records’ Seymour Stein was keen to sign the group at this stage, he stipulated that it would only happen if the band replaced their long-suffering drum machine with a flesh-and-blood sticksman.

Joining The Bunnymen: “What Pete did on our records was amazing”

Having heard promising tales of De Freitas’ drumming skills, Balfe and manager Bill Drummond agreed to meet their putative new signing in London. The knockabout punk band he was playing with didn’t impress them, but De Freitas’ ability most certainly did. Initially, The Bunnymen could barely believe he would consider ditching his potentially affluent, middle-class lifestyle to slum it in Liverpool, but in the way that opposites often attract, so Pete De Freitas was immediately enamoured of Ian McCulloch, Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson.

“He thought we were the Three Stooges. He was from a totally different background, totally different part of the country,” bassist Pattinson told Mojo magazine’s Paul Du Noyer in 1997. “But I don’t think he knew how much we liked him for that. Me and Will would take the piss out of him. He came from Oxfordshire, so we’d go, ‘Where’s that? Is it by Wales, or something? We should call you Taff.’ So we did! He was called Taff!”

Having hit it off on a personal level, De Freitas rapidly sealed his induction into The Bunnymen. Following that initial meeting with the band, in the autumn of 1979, his first official practice session, in the basement of band associate and future Space bassist David “Yorkie” Palmer, made it clear the group needed to look no further for their drummer.

“We wanted him to join immediately,” Will Sergeant said in the liner notes for a reissue of the band’s debut album, Crocodiles. “There was nobody else. Pete was dead polite and posh, knew about fancy foods and social skills. He taught us loads. We taught him about egg sarnies and black pudding. He was a free spirit looking for the big adventure, so he moved to Liverpool.

“After he joined, I went home thinking, This is great,” Sergeant furthered. “But something changed. For the better. We didn’t know a good drummer from a bad one, but what Pete did on our records was amazing.”

Drumming abilities: “Pete had power in spades”

Pete De Freitas made his live debut with Echo And The Bunnymen on a grossly mismatched bill at the Electric Ballroom, in London’s Camden district, on 12 October 1979, where they shared the stage with 2 Tone/ska-pop legends Madness and Bad Manners. However, the young drummer survived that ordeal and his input was crucial to the band as they rehearsed the songs for their landmark 1980 debut album, Crocodiles.

“Villiers Terrace and Going Up are among the first tracks to get the Pete treatment,” Will Sergeant recalled in his second book, Echoes: A Memoir Continued…. “A new element is being added: space to breathe. This leaves Macul [Ian McCulloch] to fit his dark poetic vocals in with a rock-solid background, and it gives me room to drift about within the parameters of the tune during the parts that are not strictly formulated.”

De Freitas went on to make an outstanding contribution to Crocodiles, and his solidity and dexterity on classic tracks such as Rescue, All That Jazz and the album’s blazing title track are still something to behold. Remarkably, he upped the ante further with his work on The Bunnymen’s next two albums, Heaven Up Here and Porcupine. Often playing complex, tom-heavy parts on songs such as All My Colours (Zimbo), Over The Wall and the band’s breakthrough Top 20 hit, The Back Of Love, De Freitas continually astounded his bandmates with his skills.

Recalling mixing The Back Of Love at George Martin’s AIR Studios, Sergeant wrote: “[Producer] Ian Broudie and [engineer] Colin Fairley were working on the sound for the complicated drum patterns Pete had created. It was particularly complex because it involved Pete crossing his hands and playing the low tom with what, technically speaking, was the wrong hand.”

He added: “To get a powerful hit on the tom would take great strength, but Pete had power in spades and he managed to beat the shit out of the drums anyway. This arse-over-tit technique was the only way for him to do it and it highlights the incredible way Pete played the drums. As a musician, he had no boundaries and would always find a way to do what he wanted.”

The lost weekend: “Pete basically was having a breakdown”

Developing his technique even further on The Bunnymen’s celebrated fourth album, Ocean Rain, De Freitas added marimba and glockenspiel to his percussive armoury, and also varied his method of performance by swapping sticks for brushes when the mood prevailed.

“Mac says he suggested that Pete play the drums with brushes,” Sergeant told The Guardian in 2014. “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.”

Stuffed with glorious, cinematic pop songs such as The Killing Moon, Sliver and Seven Seas, Ocean Rain remains a high-water mark in The Bunnymen’s discography, and its success (a UK Top 5 placing and a gold certification) led the group to the very cusp of major international success. However, with exhaustion and excess catching up with the band, things began to unravel. Having begun a freewheeling solo project, The Sex Gods, with Liverpool friends Andy Eastwood, Tim Whittaker and Stephen Johnson (aka Jonno), De Freitas decided to quit The Bunnymen and relocate to New Orleans, where he embarked on an extended “lost weekend” early in 1986.

As his brother Geoff admitted to Mojo in 2014, “Pete basically was having a breakdown” at this point, though the drummer eventually returned to Liverpool later that year. He was readmitted to The Bunnymen – albeit as a hired musician on a salary – and he played with his usual aplomb on the original band’s final album together, 1987’s Echo And The Bunnymen. Yet, while that record spawned two decent-sized hits in The Game and Lips Like Sugar, and also made significant inroads in North America, all was not well within The Bunnymen camp.

The final years: “It had lost its potency… We’d been swallowed up”

“We lost our grip on what was cool,” Ian McCulloch told Mojo in 1997. “From 1979 to ’ 85, we were the hippest band on the planet, and the best. Then it just got harder – the Howard Jones/Nik Kershaw decade battered us into submission. Whenever I read the name Echo And The Bunnymen in the press, even though it was complimentary, I felt it had lost its potency. It felt like we were part of that brigade of U2, Simple Minds and The Cure, and we’d been swallowed up.”

For his part, Pete De Freitas had enjoyed some much-needed stability after returning to Liverpool. Having previously financed, produced and played on The Wild Swans’ legendary Zoo Records single The Revolutionary Spirit, in 1982, he was again involved with the local scene, producing an album’s worth of demos for The La’s in 1987, in addition to getting married and welcoming the birth of his daughter, Lucie Marie.

Death and legacy: “I still think of him almost every day”

Despite his reduced status in the band, De Freitas remained with The Bunnymen and toured the group’s self-titled album into 1988, when Ian McCulloch quit after a fractious run of shows in Japan. He had also signed up to play with the post-McCulloch edition of the group, with Irish vocalist Noel Burke. De Freitas was travelling up to Liverpool from London on his Ducati motorcycle when he had that fatal crash with a motor vehicle, in Longdon Green, Staffordshire, which killed him outright on the afternoon of 14 June 1989.

In many ways, both bandmates and fans alike have never really gotten over De Freitas’ loss, and still feel this ultra-talented musician was taken from them at far too young an age, with far too much left undone.

“I remember the day he died, playing [Television’s] Marquee Moon and crying over the line ‘I fell sideways laughing, with a friend from many stages’,” McCulloch said in 1997, referencing the New York art-rockers’ song Venus. “Because that’s exactly what Pete was.”

“We named my little lad Louis, after Pete’s middle name… He was born three months after Pete died,” Les Pattinson told Mojo. “We lived together for two years… I still think of him almost every day. The longer you live, the more people die around you, and you can’t describe it to anyone.

“Heaven is a place in people’s heads,” the bassist added. “I’m always thinking of Pete, so that’s my heaven for him. When Pete died, I had this image of him, at the funeral, that he was bouncing from every star, like a satellite, to Australia and back.”

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

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