Echo and the Bunnymen
Echo and the Bunnymen
Echo and the Bunnymen have been called the most successful band to emerge from Liverpool, England, since the Beatles. Fronted by charismatic lead singer Ian McCulloch, their “taut, poetic brand of neop-sychedelia,” as Billboard writer Bradley Bambarger characterized it, yielded tremendous success in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, but the band’s sound failed to catch on with large numbers across the Atlantic. The group disbanded for a time after McCulloch took his memorable voice into a solo career, but they reunited in 1997 and signed with London Records.
The band formed in Liverpool around 1978 after McCulloch, the son of two automotive factory workers, had an unpleasant experience in a band called the Crucial Three. Julian Cope ejected McCulloch, already known for his obstinate and opinionated personality, and Cope went on to form the highly-regarded Teardrop Explodes. McCulloch claimed that much of his braggadocio and bluster could be blamed on his innate insecurities. He had grown up in a home where money was always scarce because his father gambled away his wages, and as a boy McCulloch even worried that authorities would place him in foster care. As a teen, McCulloch kindled a friendship with a local guitar player, Will Sergeant, over their shared passion for Los
Members include Blair Cunningham ( member, 1986), vocals; Pete DeFreitas (born on August 2, 1961, in Port of Spain, Trinidad; died on June 15, 1989), drums; Ian McCulloch (born on May 5, 1959, in Liverpool, England), vocals; Les Pattinson (born on April 18, 1958, in Merseyside, England), bass; Will Sergeant (born on April 12, 1958, in Liverpool, England), guitar.
Group formed in Liverpool, England, c. 1978; released single “Pictures on My Wall,” 1979; signed with Sire Records, 1979, released first LP, Crocodiles, 1980; disbanded in the early 1990s; McCulloch and Sergeant formed Electrafixion; reunited as Echo and the Bunny-men and signed with London Records, released Evergreen, 1997’.
Addresses: Record company —London Records, 57-63 Old Church St., SW3 5BS London, U.K. Website-Echo and the Bunnymen Official website: http://www.bunnymen.com.
Angeles rock icons the Doors. McCulloch was also a great fan of David Bowie, especially his moodier mid-1970s work, and envisioned a project where he might carry himself in the same way as the front man. He and Sergeant made some demos with a drum machine they referred to as “Echo”; when bass player Les Pattinson joined, they played their first show as Echo and the Bunnymen in Liverpool in late 1978. They recorded two singles for the Zoo label, “Pictures On My Wall” and “Rescue,” that created a minor buzz around the band in both Liverpool and London in 1979, a reputation boosted further by their outstanding live performances.
Also in 1979, the trio hired a Trinidadian drummer, Pete DeFreitas, and signed to the Sire label. They went into the studio to record the critically acclaimed Crocodiles in 1980. The record included the first two singles, as well as a well-received new one, “Do it Clean.” Crocodiles rose as high as number 17 on the United Kingdom album charts, and soon legions of fans were imitating the band’s army surplus chic look and McCul-loch’s steep, vertically coiffed hair. Early in 1981, the band embarked upon their first American tour, and returned to release a darker album that even managed to creep into the United States album chart at number 184. Heaven Up Here, which the band was allowed to co-produce, galvanized fans further with tracks like “A Promise.” It made the top ten in Britain, and “by the end of , the Bunnymen were acknowledged as the coolest rock quartet in the land,” noted Telegraph writer Neil McCormick.
McCulloch became known in the press for his overreaching statements, and was soon nicknamed “Mac the Mouth.” He loved to denigrate other bands, especially U2 and Simple Minds, and once even asserted that U2’s music was for “bricklayers and plumbers.” He claimed that Echo and the Bunnymen were the most unique band in England, and predicted massive future success. Their third studio effort, Porcupine, appeared to bear that prediction out. It climbed to the number two spot in Britain, and even did nominally well in the fledgling alternative market in the United States, charting at number 137. Singles released from it included “The Back of Love,” “The Cutter,” and even a politically-themed track, “Never Stop.” Allan Jones wrote about “Never Stop” for the British music journal Melody Maker, and called the song “scathing, vitriolic, loud, but not overburdened: it sounded mean, compact, to the damned point. The timing of its release set its outraged howl in the context of [British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher’s landslide at the polls.”
When the band’s fourth LP was released in 1984, its marketing campaign trumpeted Ocean Rain as “The Greatest Record Ever Made.” Critically acclaimed, it yielded the hit singles “Killing Moon,” “Crystal Days,” and “Seven Seas,” and cracked the Billboard Top 100 in the United States. Rolling Stone’s Parke Puterbaugh described the band’s sound here as “evoking a vast, white, arctic expanse that’s silent, unbroken and pure,” but criticized several elements of the record, including “a forsaken, tuneless chant of a vocal” and McCul-loch’s “Jim Morrison imitation that’s more blustery that gripping” on “Thorn of Crowns.” The reaction in the United Kingdom was far more positive. Jones, critiquing Ocean Rain for his Melody Maker article, called it a far less sullen work than their previous efforts. “Their old convoluted gestures were replaced by graceful arcs of melody, bright shafts of acoustic guitars, swirling strings…. The Bunnymen had lightened up—they still sounded epic, but they no longer sounded pompous.”
Echo and the Bunnymen enjoyed an excellent working relationship with their longtime manager Bill Drum-mond. “Capricious and easily bored, Drummond took management to surreal new levels,” wrote Glyn Brown in the Telegraph, “planning a tour schedule based on ley lines, having the band play to sheep in the Hebrides and holding the Crystal Day,” in which fans were invited to participate in a mass bike trek that followed the outlines of a higher being in the guise of a mythical rabbit named Echo. But Drummond moved on, eventually becoming part of the electronic group KLF, and a string of new managers found McCulloch difficult. The band also signed with a United States management company in order to position themselves better overseas, and embarked upon a heavy touring schedule in late 1984 and early 1985. They declared themselves ready to take some time off when they finished. “I just want to be a person again,” Sergeant told Jones in the interview for Melody Maker. “I don’t like spending, like, a month in America,” and the guitarist claimed he became homesick for Liverpool before they even left England.
Later in 1985, the band released a compilation of their greatest United Kingdom hits, Songs to Learn and Sing, which included a new single, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” that seemed to mark a lighter, more accessible sound for them. In 1986, tensions rose to such a point that DeFreitas quit, and 1987’s Echo and the Bunnymen initially featured replacement drummer Blair Cunningham, of Haircut 100, but had to be re-recorded. It would be their greatest success in the United States market, reaching number 51 on the Billboard album chart. Singles included “Lips Like Sugar,” “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” and “All in Your Mind.” Its success was also buoyed by a track they contributed to the soundtrack for the cult film The Lost Boys —a cover of the Doors tune “People Are Strange.”
Meanwhile, their archrivals U2 had managed to break the United States market more successfully. “There was a time when the fortunes of Echo and the Bunnymen and U2 ran neck-and-neck, both leaders of the same dark, incantatory pack,” remembered Brown in the Telegraph. “Around 1988, both reached the cusp of the big-time,” Brown continued. “U2—who refined their work from post-punk ideology to stylish mass appeal— stepped neatly across; McCulloch walked off stage in Japan, had a tantrum and split up the band.” The singer recorded a long-anticipated solo effort, Candleland, in 1989, but tragedy struck for the band members when DeFreitas died in a motorcycle wreck that June. Sergeant and Pattinson hired a new singer, Noel Burke, as well as a new drummer and released Reverberation in 1990. People writer Michael Small deemed Reverberation a success, even with the new line-up. “They still meld sonorous guitars and smooth harmonies to create lightly undulating rock,” Small opined.
In 1994, after McCulloch released a second solo effort that fared even worse on the charts, he and Sergeant mended ways and began working together under the name Electrafixion. After one album, the original three decided to reunite. “It dawned on me that Echo & the Bunnymen is part of who I am,” McCulloch told Interview journalist Alison Powell. “Without them, I’ve been a lost soul, and the second that I said yes, I felt whole again.” They signed with a new label, London Records, and recorded Evergreen. When it was released in 1997, it was the first collaboration from all three founding members in a decade. Bolstered by the successful single “I Want To Be There (When You Come),” the self-produced work earned enthusiastic reviews. “The songs are big, bold and ambitious, with thoughtful lyrics, sweeping melodies and classic arrangements,” wrote McCormick in the Telegraph. “Mc-Culloch’s singing, so tentative and uncertain solo, is brimming with confidence.” Reviewing it in Billboard, Bambarger called it “more pastoral than psychedelic. Yet the tensile atmospherics of old are still in evidence, with a sense of the band picking up where it left off.”
Evergreen, however, was not a nostalgic revisit of the Bunnymen sound of yore. “When I agreed with Will that we should do the Bunnymen again, the first thing I said was, ‘We’ve got to attempt to make the best record we have ever made, ’ and I think it is in a lot of ways,” McCulloch told Billboard writer Craig Rosen. “I think it’s the most consistent batch of songs we’ve ever made…. We didn’t want to come back and make it some sort of a revival thing. It had to have heart and soul.” McCormick believed the mellowed Bunnymen had struck the right note with Evergreen. “Somehow these legends in their own rehearsal time,” declared the Telegraph writer, “have recaptured the indefinable essence of greatness.”
The band’s records continue to do moderately well in the United Kingdom, but are hard to find in the United States. What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? was released in 1999, and featured, as always, songs McCulloch wrote in homage to his wife of nearly two decades, Lorraine. Children closer to the age of his teenage daughter sometimes mistake McCulloch for another famously cantankerous northern English rock star, Liam Gallagher of Oasis. But Echo and the Bunnymen remain indelibly associated with Eighties alternative music, though they refuse to mine their hits for a revival record or a nostalgia tour. Characteristically, McCulloch claims he and his bandmates were one of the more innovative bands of the era. “I think somebody had to fly the flag of taste with some dignity,” he told Powell in Interview. “Bands would do anything in the ’80s to get on television and have a hit record…. We fought it, and I’m proud that we did. I said from day one, ’Everything is s***’ —and I think that makes us not an ’80s band. We were ahead of our time.”
Crocodiles, Sire, 1980.
Heaven Up Here, WEA, 1981.
Porcupine, WEA, 1983.
Ocean Rain, WEA, 1984.
Songs to Learn and Sing, WEA, 1985.
Echo and the Bunnymen, WEA, 1987.
Reverberation, WEA, 1990.
Evergreen, London Records, 1997.
What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?, London Records (U.K. only), 1999.
Billboard, June 14, 1997, p. 11; July 12, 1997, p. 83.
Interview, August 1997, p. 38.
Melody Maker, September 29, 1984, p. 24; July 11, 1987, p. 27.
People, March 18, 1991, p. 16.
Rolling Stone, July 19, 1984, p. 107.
Telegraph (U.K.), July 12, 1997; March 12, 1999.