I had followed the rise of Echo & The Bunnymen since their earliest days in Liverpool, and in 1979 wrote their first NME interview. But this (far larger) article appeared in MOJO, July 1997. Based upon interviews with all the group’s then-members, and several of their collaborators, it was pretty much the sort of piece we’d invented MOJO to accommodate. I drew upon the material here a few years later, for my book Liverpool: Wondrous Place.
In the beginning they were like a little clockwork band. Just three young Liverpudlians and a drum machine called Echo. The Bunnymen played their frail, tick-tock tunes in little rooms, and looked as if they might split up on the spot if you asked them to. But there was a definite magic being born. They got better by the day, and nearly became the biggest group in the world. For a time in the 1980s they were the darlings of the British rock scene, and perhaps its brightest hopes. Then they fell out. They couldn’t live with one another. Yet they couldn’t live without. It’s a dilemma they still don’t understand, but they’ve stopped trying to fight it. This thing is bigger than the three of them, and it won’t go away.
Almost 20 years have fled since Echo was perched on a plastic-backed chair for the band’s debut single, The Pictures On My Wall/Read It In Books. He was in turn replaced by a real live Bunnyman, the drummer Pete de Freitas, whose death in 1989 is the most sorrowful moment in our story. Now the survivors, the three original members, have re-formed. We meet them as they sit in separate locations around Liverpool. They recollect the time when all their glory turned to dust, their singer turned to drink, and they nearly forgot in their heads what their hearts had always remembered. When you’re a Bunnyman, you’re a Bunnyman to the end.
One of their early producers was Ian Broudie, later of The Lightning Seeds. He says, “Separately, what they’re playing didn’t seem that great. But somehow, when the four of them touched together, it ignited the blue paper. You could say to them, ‘Play A to D.’ They’d all join in and play A to D, and it would just sound great. The four of them created some kind of chemical reaction.”
The band’s attitude, which their overseers have found both enchanting and infuriating, is that failure and success are not what matters. It’s your dignity that counts. Your panache. They were always like that. In his teens the singer, Ian “Mac” McCulloch, was a lanky, short-sighted Bowie-worshipper, already a pop star in his own mind. Will Sergeant, the brooding guitar boffin, and Les Pattinson, the amiable bass-player who built boats for a living, had been at school together. During punk they haunted Erics, a basement club in Mathew Street, as legendary in Liverpool pop as its late neighbour the Cavern. A feverish hot-house of feckless dreamers, many Erics groups were no more than imaginary (Les had one called The Jeffs, whose members had to change their names accordingly), though McCulloch got as far as one gig with Julian Cope and Pete Wylie, styling themselves The Crucial Three. Never were three egos less destined to co-exist on a permanent basis. Eventually, Mac, Les and Will linked up. Their insularity was instinctive. “There’s a thing between us,” they told me back then, “that we do think we are Bunnymen. And another member, a drummer, he might not be a Bunnyman.”
But they acquired Pete de Freitas, who boosted the power of their sound. They found a manager in Bill Drummond, an eccentric Scot who’d played with Ian Broudie in the definitive Erics band, Big In Japan. This chaotic, almost unlistenable ensemble had also included a future music executive called Dave Balfe; he and Drummond formed the Zoo label, releasing debuts by the Bunnymen and their new rivals, Julian Cope’s Teardrop Explodes. Steered by Drummond, both bands signed to major companies and played many dates together. When they fell out, their slanging matches were epic.
It was Rob Dickins, now the MD of WEA, who signed them to that company’s new imprint Korova, having watched them play the London YMCA with the Teardrops and Joy Division: “The singer looked so charismatic,” he remembers. “He was beautiful. His voice had that Jim Morrison ring to it. The songs weren’t well formulated, but you saw ‘Star’ in neon above his head.”
For a while, nothing stopped the Bunnymen. They made important ’80s rock albums – Crocodiles, then Heaven Up Here, then Porcupine and Ocean Rain – each one grander than the one before. There was soul and drama in their music: celestial pretensions but a thumping, earthy drive; McCulloch contributed his looks, his low, plaintive moan and mistily poetic lyrics. In the argot of the day they were a “raincoat” band, harbingers of doom from the industrial North. But the Bunnymen’s sense of destiny was larger than fashion. On record sleeves they posed amid the splendours of the natural world: mountains, skies, glaciers and lakes. Nothing was cramped, or dingy or mean. Would-be challengers, from U2 to Big Country, were tongue-lashed in McCulloch’s interviews. He was Mac The Mouth, and very good at it. He was amazingly vain of his appearance, too, but became a genuine pop pin-up. And there were some magnificent hits, such as The Back Of Love, The Cutter and The Killing Moon.
Bill Drummond encouraged the Bunnymen’s self-mythologising. They revelled in majestic follies such as The Crystal Day, on 12 May, 1984, when fans joined the band in a 24-hour “happening” in Liverpool: apart from a choir recital in the Cathedral, and a gig in the city’s most exclusive concert hall, participants had to eat at the group’s favourite café, Brian’s Diner, take the Mersey Ferry, and attempt a mass bicycle ride in the streets, along a route that Bill had mapped in the shape of Echo, who was now re-cast as a mystical Rabbit God. Another time, bored with tour routine, he planned an itinerary for the boys that took them from New York to Iceland, from the Outer Hebrides to the Albert Hall. He joked they were following a global ley-line that ran through Mathew Street, and was widely believed.
In retrospect, the surprise resignation of Bill Drummond looks like the first wheel dropping off the Bunnymen’s bandwagon. “It was weird,” says Will of the manager’s departure. “He’d always been the one forcing us to make it more extreme. He took us on to a certain level, then he said, ‘I don’t want to be a manager any more.’” Drummond took a post at WEA, remaining as the group’s label manager, before recording a solo album for Creation and commencing a surreal career that brought him hits and infamy with The Justified Ancients Of Mu-Mu, The Timelords and The KLF. Of his decision, Drummond says that he’d “retired from persuading other people what to do… I’ve never been happy with the straightforward thing. One of the reasons for Echo & The Bunnymen not being U2 or Simple Minds is my attitude to things. If I’d been managing The Beatles, instead of playing Shea Stadium I’d have had them playing a week of dates wherever Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, to a few cows in celebration of Buddy Holly. Shea Stadium can wait…”
Bill’s adventures in the Hit Parade would coincide with the Bunnymen’s doldrum period, and his former charges looked on in awe. “There was some envy,” Mac allows. “But I was dead proud of the KLF thing. I just thought, ‘You sodding maverick genius bastard.’ He’s spent seven years managing a band and then he becomes a sodding pop star. Great pop songs. But the burning of the million quid, I don’t know where I stand on that. I thought it was funny at first, then I thought, ‘He could have given me half of it. I taught him all he knew…’” Care of the Bunnymen fell to a more conventional management team, Steve Jensen and Martin Kirkup. “They were really good managers,” says Mac, “but I don’t think they really got the band, or understood how fragile it was at that point. We were breaking apart. The entourage was splintering.”
All the same, observes Will, “that’s when we took off in America. We were hot on the heels of U2, we really were.”
The hard fact was that U2, the Dublin joke band of Bunny banter, were becoming hideously successful. The question was, Did the Bunnymen have the drive to even compete? As Mac recalls, “We’d become this rock band, having hits, where people said we were gonna be bigger than the biggest group of that generation. And I just thought, ‘Sod it. Let’s go out on a tangent. Let’s do something that these bastards wouldn’t think of in a million years.’ They were too busy trying to get to bigger stadia.”
The pressure to get global success manifested itself in the studio, where the band were caught in a crossfire of well-meaning advice. Says Will: “Half the time the budget went ridiculous, because the record company were putting their oar in: ‘We think that should be remixed, you should do this, or what about this?’ You’d keep changing things till you lost the original idea.” Les agrees:“ It got on my nerves. I got tired of arguing.”
Rob Dickins of WEA recalls several rows about the choice of producers, but remains philosophical: “They could be contrary, but I’m a fool for that Liverpool charm. As difficult as they can be, it was always funny… I was always trying to make them bigger than they perhaps wanted to be. Bill and I thought they would be the biggest thing ever, but I’m not sure they bought that. You can never be accused of selling out if you don’t hit the big time. U2 have got a million critics. But if you’re Mark E Smith, you’re cool. I’ve never really gone for that ticket.”
Mac was feeling his own brand of pressure: “It was verging on madness, I was losing me sodding mind. I flew a lot in the last few years, just to get away from the tour bus, get a bit of space for meself. But I was feeling more isolated.”
“It would always start with these little divisions,” remembers Les. “Even going to the bar Mac needed some eyes, he needed someone who could see, cos he wouldn’t wear glasses. Which was quaint in a way, but it got a bit much. He was always getting drunk and talking about how we were going to make the greatest thing ever – and the next day he just had a hangover. It was that Jacques Brel kind of romantic look at things, but I’m sure even Jacques Brel didn’t get that pissed that he couldn’t think what he was doing the next day.”
A married man, Mac was the only Bunnyman not sharing the band’s communal flat in Liverpool. When he made a single of the old standard September Rain, it looked to the others like a blatant bid to sniff out his solo prospects. “I think he had big plans,” says Will. “A case of ‘Let’s try this out and if it kicks off then we’ll knock this off.’” A second sign of trouble came when Pete de Freitas temporarily absconded, throwing himself into a doomed group called The Sex Gods, on a lurid American “lost weekend” of rock’n’roll debauchery and regular car crashes.
Will and Les resented Mac’s media profile. “But,” he protests, “I thought it was inevitable. Jim Morrison was seen as the leader of the Doors and he got all the press, but I’m sure Ray Manzarek just thought, ‘Yeah, go for it, Jim.’ I think they’d forgotten, one reason we’d got to where we’d got was because I fronted it. I did the great interviews and it made us a lot bigger than we might otherwise have been. That can be conveniently forgotten when you’ve got a bit of a moody on. I didn’t enjoy doing tons of interviews on me own. I was under the cosh, workwise. It got to me, and I complained. But they didn’t want to get involved. I think we misunderstood each other’s roles, and jealousy does creep in.”
Will: “Mac’s a very jealous person. If he thinks people aren’t chipping in, he freaks out. But there was a lot of ‘I’m more important than you.’ People banging him on the back all the time, and just forgetting about us. We’re getting that even now. After doing this LP and everyone loves it, it’s all ‘Oh Mac, you’re great.’ And we’re just sat there.”
By mid-’87 a penitent de Freitas was back on board – without full member status – for the final record by the old line-up, Echo & The Bunnymen. It proved a hit in America. But as Sergeant recalls, it did nothing to ease the tensions with Mac. “It became horrible, a real us-and-him situation. It was fuelled by him being out of his head all the time. He’s two completely different people. Sometimes he’s totally brilliant, another day you just know he’s going to be a turd.”
McCulloch simply recalls the ’80s as a grim time on Planet Bunnyman: “It just felt like we were losing our grip. It was a difficult decade to keep your integrity in. We never lost ours, but we lost our grip on what was cool. 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 & The Bunnymen in the press, even though it was complimentary, I felt had lost its potency. It felt like we were part of that brigade of U2, Simple Minds, The Cure, and we’d been swallowed up. I didn’t know that The Stone Roses were coming, but I felt that something had to…”
New bands of the late ’80s, led by The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, overturned the sound and the aesthetic of British rock music. McCulloch had sensed the scene was due to undergo a sea change.
“Yeah, and I thought we’d be drowned in it. We weren’t unified enough to do what U2 did. Of all the bands, I never thought that mob would have the nous to get Eno in. They got better by seeing the sea change. They were tight-knit, so they could ride it. But I didn’t think we had the strength between us, or the trust, to ride whatever we had to ride.”
Their last shows together were played in Japan, on a visit already ill-starred: McCulloch’s father, to whom he was close, had just suffered a heart attack. “Mac was very dubious about doing the gigs,” remembers Les. “Before the soundcheck of the final show, I asked one of the road crew, How’s Mac’s dad? ‘Oh he’s really bad, he’s had another attack.’ What I didn’t know was, they weren’t going to tell Mac. So when I see Mac I ask him how his dad is. He goes, ‘What?’ I say that I hear he’s had another heart attack, he’s in hospital. So he phones home and finds out it’s true. But he was pissed off that nobody was going to tell him, for the sake of the show. We did the show because there wasn’t a flight until later anyway. Everyone was trying to chill him out, but it was weird. He got on a plane that night, and just about 20 minutes from touchdown his dad died…”
Mac: “I knew it was going to be the last gig, I knew anyway. Six months earlier I’d said to Will, ‘At the end of this touring schedule it’ll be the end.’ To get the news about my dad was just double weird. I saw it, in a kind of poetic way, as more than a coincidence – he died the day after the last Bunnymen gig.” (By a morbid irony, the re-birth of the Bunnymen has coincided with the death of McCulloch’s mother – again while he was on a plane, en route to a US business meeting.)
In mourning for his father, McCulloch deferred his next move for a few months. Then he called a band meeting. “I said, ‘Let’s all get together and get totally bevvied-up one afternoon. I wanna talk about things.’ And I basically said we should knock it on the head. We’d sold more records of that last one that any other album by far. And I thought, ‘That’s perfect.’ I was getting phone calls from Rob Dickins saying, ‘All you’ve got to do is make one more record, it’ll sell millions in America alone.’ But I couldn’t be arsed. Maybe with Bill Drummond around I’d have been talked out of it. But I just didn’t have the energy any more. I was probably being dictatorial, but I felt everything was getting so flabby that someone had to say, ‘This is what we do.’”
Will Sergeant took the news without enthusiasm. “We were riding on the crest of a wave then. I think we would have broken through. At that point he was my least favourite person in the world. But I tried to convince him not to go, because I thought it was a crap idea… Mac leaving really cheesed us off. We’d done a lot of work to get to that point.”
To Mac’s surprise, the pub summit did not spell the end of the Bunnymen. The obstinate Sergeant would not let it lie: “I decided to carry on. I felt really let down. When you know the inside story, it’s not all him. A great deal of it is him, but not all of it. And we thought, ‘Well, the Bunnymen always do things you don’t expect, so let’s do this.’ Rob Dickins was the one who put it into me head. I wasn’t going to do it but he said, ‘Why don’t you just get another singer?’ This was Rob Dickins saying this! It’s like something your Mum would say: ‘Oh, just get another singer.’ If he thinks it’s feasible, maybe it is. When I told Mac about it, he went beserk. Ha ha!”
Mac: “We’d left that pub that day all pretty much agreeing that was it. So, a few months later when they said they were gonna carry on, I just thought they would change the name. He never actually told me they were going to get a new singer. When I worked it out I was really hurt, and that’s why we didn’t speak for a very long time. It’s hard to say to three other people, everything you’ve been used to for the last seven years is over. But I think they should have changed the name.” (Group policy was that any majority of members would have rights to the Bunnymen title.)
Les assumed that no Mac meant no Bunnymen. “But then Will rang me: ‘Rob Dickins and WEA say it doesn’t matter that the singer’s left.’ I’d been quite content to let it go. That was it, end of an era. But Rob convinced Will just to get a new singer. Which is strange when you look back – our past record is that we can’t do without each other…” Rob Dickins: “When Mac went solo I was pissed off. We were so close to breaking big. He thought he could be bigger without them, but the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Will and I weren’t the closest, but I said, ‘You can’t let Mac do this, fuck up all this work you’ve done.’”
Auditions were held; a replacement for Mac was found in Irish singer Noel Burke, of St Vitus Dance. For Sergeant, Burke’s chief virtue was that he sounded like Scott Walker, but most onlookers noted his similarity to Ian McCulloch.
From misfortune, the fragmented Bunnymen stepped to tragedy. A rehearsal was arranged for the new line-up, their first session together. But the drummer never made it. Riding his motorbike up to Liverpool from the South, on 14 June 1989, Pete de Freitas was killed in a crash at Rugeley, Staffordshire. There is a sense in which the various members had never separated, and his death stunned them all. As Pete’s partner in the rhythm section, Les the bassist felt a special affinity: “It was like we were into another language together. On stage, I knew every little move he was going to make… We named my little lad Louis, after Pete’s middle name. We’d been trying to think of names but then, when Pete died, that was the first thing we said: ‘Well, he’s got a name now.’ He was born three months after Pete died.”
Even so, Pete de Freitas had sometimes seemed an outsider in the Bunnymen.
“He was in a way,” Les concedes. “But that was only because he was a public schoolboy. He thought we were the Three Stooges. He was from a totally different background, totally different part of the country. 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! We lived together for two years… I still think of him. 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. 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, from Australia and back.”
Bereavement only stiffened their resolve: “It seemed like a just cause now. We’d gone so far into it that, when Pete died, there was an emotional need to carry on. Otherwise, Pete coming up here would have just been a waste of time.”
An album, called Reverberation, duly appeared in 1990. With its overt psychedelic leanings, and distinct lack of Ian McCulloch, it sold poorly, and the band was finally dropped from WEA. It was a third blow for Will Sergeant, after Mac’s desertion and Pete’s death. “We were against the world. I thought, ’60s bands like The Yardbirds were swopping personnel all the sodding time. Big deal, y’know? But I suppose Mac was such a strong figure… And the psychedelic thing, I suppose that’s where we needed that other element. Mac was always listening to Radio 1, he knows what’s out and about. But people just weren’t going to accept it and that was that. We were stupid enough to think they would. And what else could we do? All go off and end up as A&R men?”
Now without a deal, Echo & The Bunnymen re-grouped in Liverpool, issuing singles through their own Euphoric label to an ever-fainter degree of public excitement. Their old singer, meanwhile, was finding freedom tougher than he hoped.
“For the first year I felt fantastic, and also I felt that me dad was with me all the time. I was writing proper songs, with middle bits and more chords. That was an important process, because the Velvets had been our favourite group, and if they did a lot of their stuff on two chords then it was good enough for us.”
Mac’s solo debut, Candleland, was favourably received but did not sell spectacular amounts. A follow-up, Mysterio, fared even worse. “I got demoralised,” he now admits. “I thought that people wanted Ian McCulloch come what may, and then Mysterio sold sod-all. I couldn’t work it out, and then one day I realised I just wasn’t writing songs properly. And I’d let myself go.”
Chiefly, this meant he was drinking heavily.
“Yeah, I was. I could always drink a lot. I was a great drinker. But the greater you get, the more you drink. And the more you drink, the more your head gets done in. My being pissed was coming out as belligerence. I think I started trying to be macho. Not in a rock’n’roll way, just… Probably because I grew up feeling like… I wasn’t the cock of the school, put it that way. Being able to drink a lot makes you feel you’ve qualified as a proper bloke. The sensitive side to me was getting lost. Instead of being proud of myself, which was how I’d always felt, there was self-pity. You can sell nothing and still be proud of yourself, and that will sustain you. But I knew there were certain songs where I just didn’t pay attention. So there was a lot of bev going down, amongst other things. It just became a spiral of sadness. I got scared and used drink to enable me to say, ‘I’m still right, I’m still great.’”
He tried recording with guitarist Johnny Marr, who’d just left his own band, The Smiths: “That was a real turning point. It showed me that by collaborating with someone you get to somewhere else. I’d spent ten years doing that, but because the Bunnymen were so instinctive as a band it was just natural. He got me singing again. I needed an ego boost at that point and Johnny said to me, ‘D’you know why none of these bastards sing like you?’ No, why? ‘Cos they can’t…’
“Apparently I’d met him once at Top Of The Pops, though I don’t remember The Smiths being on the same show. I didn’t notice anyone other than the Bunnymen. Apparently he came up to me in the corridor and said, ‘Fantastic record’. And I just said, ‘Nice choice of words’ and walked off. I probably didn’t know who he was. Plus I’m blind as a bat. I met him again just after our last gig, and he’d not long left The Smiths. I asked him, ‘What happened, then?’ I wanted to glean some info about why he’d leave his band. And he said, ‘I just thought we’d turned into a bunch of cunts.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds familiar…’” Tapes of the Marr/McCulloch sessions were reportedly stolen from a van, never to re-surface – a tale that Mac maintains is true, despite some whisperings to the contrary. What’s certain is that Mac’s solo ambitions were foundering, and his thoughts returned to Will Sergeant. Put in touch by mutual friends, the pair began talking again.
Sergeant took a hard look at the current Bunnymen situation and decided something had to give. Of stand-in vocalist Noel Burke, he now says: “He’s a great guy. We’d bludgeoned him into doing it. He enjoyed going on tour, but you could tell he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to let us down. In the end when I said to him, ‘Look, I think we should pack it in,’ he said, ‘You should have packed it in ages ago, Will.’ I said, ‘I’m talking to Mac about getting back together with him.’ He said, ‘You should have got back together ages ago.’ Which I thought was very good of him, considering.”
Ian McCulloch: “I agreed to meet up with Will to bury the hatchet. We got on really well. From that, me and Will started talking about forming this new group, called Electrafixion. It got us working again. But I didn’t like the name from day one… We’d gone through hundreds of names in rehearsal: but none of them were Echo & The Bunnymen and that was the problem.” To Will’s mind, “We’d been The Yardbirds, now we’d be Led Zeppelin.”
Les Pattinson, meanwhile, had set himself up with a sandblasting business in Lancashire. (“He’s always been a bit practical like that,” says Will.) The bassist made his own return to music after a call from singer Terry Hall: “He phoned me, but I didn’t click at first. I thought he wanted his house sandblasting. So I’m going, ‘Where d’you live?’ and he says, ‘What?’ ‘Give me the address, I’ll come out and look at it.’ ‘No, Ian Broudie put me in touch. Terry Hall, you know? Funboy Three and all that?’ ‘Oh right! Terry! How are you?’ He just wanted me to play bass. Cos I’d seen Ian a few times just driving past, with me sandblasting gear.” Pattinson sold the equipment and played on Hall’s 1994 album Home. “I was separating from my wife then, and I had the kids, so from 7 till 12 at night I was Mrs Doubtfire. It was getting a bit wearying.”
He’d kept in touch with Sergeant throughout – the pair invested in a Liverpool warehouse space, hired out for rehearsals – and he watched the progress of Electrafixion with mixed feelings: “I was curious. I would have loved to see them live. I’d have loved to see what Mac looks like in full pelt, from out front, cos I never have. And after all, I do love the guy, I’ve known him for 17 years and things like that run deep.”
Though Electrafixion made a promising start in America, Will soon perceived that what the audience really wanted was the old Bunnymen. “More and more Bunnymen songs were creeping into the set. Just as crowd pleasers. So, what were we doing?” He began to recognise the power of the brand-name: “As crap as it sounds, it’s like changing the name of Persil. To Smeggo or something. I mean, I still call Snickers Marathon. I enjoyed Electrafixion, but at the end it was getting disheartening. The record company weren’t particularly behind it. It was obvious we were going to get dropped. At the end of the day, if you’re not selling…”
Electrafixion were indeed dropped, after one album. But already, according to Will, there were plans in hand to re-launch the Bunnymen. “Everyone, other record companies, knew we were going to get dropped and we just went along with it. We knew that we would be a more valuable acquisition as the Bunnymen. It was not sneaky but an intelligent way of dealing with it. Mac was still humming and ha-ing over it, ‘It could be cheesy.’ But I don’t think there’s anything more cheesy than not selling any sodding records.”
“I took a lot of persuading,” Mac confirms. “Will asked and I kept saying No. Then we did a tour of America as Electrafixion and he said, ‘This is stupid. Basically we’re not Electrafixion.’ And we’d written new songs that sounded like classic Echo & The Bunnymen, but 1997. So I just thought, ‘Why send this off into oblivion, as Electrafixion?’ We decided to go for it.” Les Pattinson was invited back for an experimental rehearsal. “And from the first note,” says Mac, “I thought, that’s it. Not only do I need Will as a foil, we both need Les to keep putting the coal on. Otherwise the fire goes out.”
Les: “It was great to see him. And I said, ‘This is nice, isn’t it? Like putting a pair of old slippers back on.’ It had that snug feeling. Here were three lads that could have rocked the world. Ha ha! It was that weird camaraderie. No show business about it, just three lads who’d been dragged through tour after tour, and in common was us all missing Pete. Anyway, I’d heard some of the Killing Moons they did as Electrafixion. Terrible! The one thing we always had was ourselves. It meant something. When we got back, it confirmed it to me that it did. Born-again Bunnymen.”
Mac: “What I said to Will was, if we’re gonna do this, it’s got to be the best record we’ve ever made. That was the original premise. And he just said, ‘Of course.’ We don’t tour unless we write something great. I’d sooner go and be a hitman for the Mafia than sell myself out. That’s the essence of it.”
Now, in 1997, the band has a new manager, Paul Toogood, and a new associate member in drummer Michael Lee, who also plays with Page & Plant. (Thus Will Sergeant fulfils his dream of linking the Bunnymen’s family tree with Led Zeppelin’s: “All we need now is for Mac to leave, and we’ll get Plant in.”) A deal was signed with London Records (and Island in America), leading to the new album, Evergreen. There is also a new compilation of their best WEA tracks, Ballyhoo.
An early sign of their regeneration was the direct, emotive quality of McCulloch’s lyrical contributions: “It’s basically heartfelt” he says, “without the pseudo-whatever. I was everything from existentialist to metaphysical, I never knew what either of them meant. It just meant that I was bluffing: ‘I’ve got an English A-level so I’m gonna use it.’ This album is simple tales of someone trying to fight whatever downers come their way. We were guilty of taking the piss out of everyone. This so-called ‘irony’ that U2 say they started dabbling with, far too late, we were doing from day one. But I don’t want to go over people’s heads any more. My A-level was a long time ago. Since then I’ve grown to know that everyday language and emotions are better than imagined ones. I’ve had enough experience of emotional ups and downs to know what I’m writing about.”
He insists they have learned from their old conflicts (“I never want to get into that situation again. We’ve decided that whenever things do get weird we’ll talk about what’s bothering us”) and, in a novel departure, has only warm words for rival bands: “Radiohead are great. Oasis are a godsend. Liam can sing like bastard. Beck I like, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Cast, Space, Supergrass … I actually think U2 have done some good things over the last seven years.” It’s like a Kop diehard conceding that Manchester United have shaped up into a fairly successful side. But there are flashes of the old defiance: “Like our new crew. They’re people you wanna be seen around. I always felt that other groups had the worst crews, rock crews. But we had more intelligence – you don’t walk around with keys all over you and yer arse hanging out yer kecks. We were the dudes, and that’s what we’ve got again. I’m looking forward to playing on these bills with the so-called cutting edge, whose music sounds to me like sodding Atomic Rooster.”
Will Sergeant believes that the Bunnymen owe it to their own history to continue: “I don’t think the Bunnymen reputation got its due. It’s still too underground. It hasn’t got its just recognition.”
Les Pattinson: “The band never saw its true destiny. It never lived to its full potential. We tried to, we did things like the Wogan show, the Radio One shit. I think you can over-advertise things. With us, there has to be a bit of mystery in it.”
Panache intact, then. World domination an optional extra. The three born again Bunnymen conclude their separate interviews and step out into the Liverpool afternoon, looking for one another.
THE BUNNYMEN ALBUMS
A “proper band” at last by virtue of adding drummer Pete de Freitas, the Bunnymen made this storming debut, crackling with youthful energy. Populated by the shades of Bowie, The Velvet Underground and The Doors, Crocodiles earned a neo-psychedelic tag at the time, mainly because of its post-punk love for atmospheric strangeness, typical of the emerging Northern bands who’d managed to break the spell of the Pistols and Clash. It’s worn well, especially the re-worked version of their indie debut Pictures On My Wall, the booming Rescue and the dark psychodrama of Villiers Terrace: “You said people rolled on carpet but I never thought they’d do those things…”
Heaven Up Here
Never knowingly undersold on their own legend – favoured reference points included The Beatles and Bill Shankly’s Liverpool team – the group were now aspiring to magnificence. Boasting a vastly expanded range, Heaven Up Here won fulsome praise from true believers, but its relatively modest sales pointed to a more cultish place in national affections. True, there is a title track that rocks with some ferocity, and A Promise swings with hypnotic grace. But the dominant note is sounded by a track called All My Colours – “the first song where we proved we could connect emotionally,” says McCulloch – that suggested the Bunnymen’s strengths lay in dreamy abstractions, not in stadium-pleasing posturing.
Instinctively suspicious of outsiders, and the London music business in particular, they insisted on being produced by a local mate, the then little-known Ian Broudie, to produce their make-or-break third album. Cellos elaborate The Back Of Love, a coded attack on pop triviality that finally brought them a real hit, and there are synthetic trumpets, added at the record company’s behest, to brighten up The Cutter. The same track had a less predictable embellishment from Indian violinist Shankar, whose intro invokes the Cat Stevens song Matthew And Son. Elsewhere, though, are unwelcome signs of a certain fatigue in the songwriting department: ominously, the album took two attempts.
Taking his cue from the band’s own genius for self-esteem, WEA’s Rob Dickins chose to promote Ocean Rain with the slogan “the greatest album ever made.” History might judge otherwise, but the record remains as close as the Bunnymen ever came. Acoustic guitars and gorgeous string arrangements define its sound, key tracks including Silver, Seven Seas and their finest composition The Killing Moon. “Kissing music, songs to fall in love to,” proclaimed McCulloch of the record’s lush romanticism. It was recorded in Paris, after Mac decided he would sing better in the City of Light. But, with typical indolence, he ran out of time and had to add his vocal tracks back home in Liverpool.
Echo & The Bunnymen
Always referred to in Bunny parlance as “the Grey Album” after its monochrome Anton Corbijn sleeve: the use of a straight group portrait was itself a small victory for the new market-oriented management team. Songs are of mixed quality, though The Game, Lips Like Sugar, Ballyhoo and Bombers Bay are solid enough; the Grey Album amounts to a careful attempt to play the global rock game. Alas the group’s internal decay saw them traipse unhappily through studios from Cologne to the Old Kent Road, and several re-recordings. The attempt to consolidate a level of success only hastened their downfall.
Among his reasons for re-forming, McCulloch cites his wish to ensure Reverberation would not be the last album to bear Echo & The Bunnymen’s sainted name. By this time he’d been replaced with Noel Burke, while drummer Damon Reece succeeded the late Pete de Freitas and the group’s veteran assistant Jake Brockman came in on keyboards. Tablas and sitars are among the many Eastern decorations. But Sergeant’s psychedelic ambitions have been better expressed in his recent “tripscape” solo project Glide – on Reverberation there is an over-cautious reliance on old Bunnyman formulae. Burke has an impressive stab at replicating the McCulloch mystery, but few tracks hit the spot.
Effectively replacing the 1995 compliation Songs To Learn And Sing, and serving as an overture to next month’s come-back album Evergreen, this collection is the place to find their magisterial Bring On The Dancing Horses as well as the rest of the usual suspects. Notable also for a short, mordant sleevenote by original manager Bill Drummond, for whom the music summons up “memories of lies, deceit, hatred… loss of innocence, missed opportunities… petty rivalry and Pete de Freitas dying.” But also of: “a glory beyond all glories… this golden light shining down on you, bathing you, cleaning all the grime and shit from the dark corners of your soul.”