It was in the early years of the new millennium when I attended the festival “Lokerse Feesten” in Lokeren, Belgium. One of the artist scheduled to perform was Ian McCulloch, promoting his new album “Slideling”. I didn’t know Ian McCulloch at all at that moment, but the concert pleased me a lot. When I told a friend about it afterwards, he told me that Ian was in a band called Echo & The Bunnymen. I thought it was a very odd name, it didn’t even sound serious. But, as it was once written in a review on Pitchfork.com, “they’re really quite good once you get past the name”. I decided to get past the name and give the band a try, after all Ian’s set at Lokerse Feesten had made me very curious. I went to the local library and rented a random album from the band’s catalog: “Evergreen”. From the first notes onwards, those of the opening track “Don’t Let It Get You Down”, I was very pleased with what I heard. As the album moved forward, I really got hooked on it, especially on tracks such as the already mentioned track, the title track, “I’ll Fly Tonight”, “Just A Touch Away”, etc. I decided to see the Bunnymen live in concert, in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, on tour to celebrate the band’s 25th anniversary. I also began to give the rest of their albums a listen and soon enough purchased the first 5 albums, who were at that moment re-issued with bonus tracks in order to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band. I became a huge fan and have followed the band ever since, seen them many times live, including in their home city Liverpool. So let me share my enthousiasm for this band with you, and present you Echo & The Bunnymen!
Echo & The Bunnymen were formed in 1978 in Liverpool by singer Ian McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, and bass player Les Pattinson. Before that, Ian McCulloch was in a short-lived band Crucial Three with Julian Cope and Pete Wylie, and after that in the equally short-lived A Shallow Madness with Julian Cope. When McCulloch had left the latter band, A Shallow Madness continued as The Teardrop Explodes. The initial incarnation of Echo & The Bunnymen was McCulloch, Sergeant, Pattinson, and a drum machine. The media suggested that the drum machine was “Echo”, which however was denied by the band. The band recorded a first single, “The Pictures On My Wall”. Soon enough the drum machine was replaced by Pete De Freitas. The classic line-up of the band was thereby complete. The debut album, “Crocodiles”, would contain a re-recorded version of their first single, now just titled “Pictures On My Wall”, with De Freitas on drums.
In 1980, the debut album “Crocodiles” was released. The album came with a first iconic sleeve picture. The sleeve picture, made by Brian Griffin, showed the band in a mysterious dark wood lit by artificial lights. The tree Ian McCulloch was sitting against even looked like a big evil-looking bunny with some imagination. The picture somehow fitted the music perfectly: dark, mysterious, moody, haunting. A perfect example of this is the title track, the hectic and angst-ridden “Crocodiles”:
“Listen to the ups and downs
Listen to the sound they make
Don’t be scared when it gets loud
When your skin begins to shake
‘Cos you don’t wanna look back
You gotta look tall
Gotta see those creeps crawl”
Maybe it is just my interpretation, but this could possibly be about mental health, anxiety for example: the ups and downs, the actual anxiety, but wanting to stand tall and come across as if nothing’s going on. Maybe this is just me interpretating it as such…
Other tracks on the debut album include “Going Up”, “Rescue”, “All That Jazz”, and one of the band’s classic tracks, “Villiers Terrace”. Some lyrics on the album are hard to decipher, something that would be the case in several other classic Bunnymen tracks recorded later on.
“Crocodiles” was a minor success in the UK Albums Chart, but none of the singles from the albums reached the top-20 of the UK Singles Chart.
Follow-up album “Heaven Up Here” was released in 1981. It came with yet another iconic beautiful sleeve picture by Brian Griffin, a picture that suited the album title perfectly: silhouettes of the band members on a rainy wet beach with dark clouds above while seagulls fly through the sky. The album was received with contradicting comments in the press, ranging from “darker” and “melancholic” to “uplifting”. The album opens with 2 great tracks that again have some hard-to-decipher lyrics: “Show Of Strength” and “With A Hip”, both amongst my favourite Bunnymen songs. The latter would become a regular in Bunnymen live shows and when played live, it has a great rock sound (listen to the version on the later live album “Me, I’m All Smiles”!). The album contains some dark songs and melancholy indeed, in tracks such as “The Disease” and the very sad “All My Colours” (the latter often named “Zimbo” after a word repeated in several parts of the song):
“Flying, and I know I’m not coming down
You’re trying, but you know you must soon go down
All my colours turn to clouds”
The song sounds like the soundtrack of a broken dream. A live version featuring the Royal Drummers of Burundi was recorded during a festival.
The album reached number 10 in the UK Albums Chart, and entered the Billboard 200 chart in the US without reaching any position worth mentioning. While appreciation for the band began to grow, the Bunnymen weren’t a mainstream chart act just yet.
In 1983 the band released “Porcupine”, again with an iconic sleeve picture by Brian Griffin, this time showing the band in a snow-covered landscape in Iceland by the Gullfoss waterfall. The album contained an iconic title track, as well as the song “The Back Of Love”, the band’s first single to reach the UK Singles Chart top-20, and the single “The Cutter” that brought the band its first UK top-10 hit. This, along with the album itself reaching nr 2 in the UK Albums Chart, brought the band mainstream success.
While “The Back Of Love”, one of my favourite songs by the band, is a very upbeat track musically, the lyrical content is far from that optimistic:
“Self-doubt and selfism were the cheapest things I ever bought”
“We can’t tell our left from right
But we know we love extremes
Gettings to grips with the ups-and-downs
Because there’s nothing in between”
“Porcupine” also contained strings by Indian violinist and composer Shankar, an idea of manager Bill Drummond (later in the iconic band The KLF).
It was in 1983 too that the band played the windswept Outer Hebrides islands off the coast of Scotland. Very few bands would go to such a remote place to perform, but it somehow fits with the music so far, and I would have loved to be there in such a special location for a concert. I can’t help thinking the album sleeve picture of the second album, “Heaven Up Here”, would suit perfectly for a concert there.
The danceable “Never Stop”, a non-album single release, further established the band as a chart regular. The band, throughout their career, have now and then used religious references in their lyrics, often expressing a negative view on religion, such as in this song:
“Deny that you were ever tempted by the lie
That there’s an answer in the sky”
In 1984, the band released what is still considered their masterpiece, the album “Ocean Rain”. The album contains strings once again, and was recorded with an actual orchestra. The album was the fourth in row containing an iconic sleeve picture by Brian Griffin, this time showing the band in a small rowing boat in a subterranean river. The picture was a perfect match with the music on the album: mysterious, sometimes a bit dark, pure and slightly magical. The music was also bombastic in certain songs. Also, some songs on the album were a lot more optimistic than what we were used to of the band.
“Nocturnal Me” is one of those bombastic songs with rich strings and orchestra ; it is somewhere in between a love song and a song about simply being up all night. It contains some great poetic lyrics, such as the opening lines:
“An icecap fire
Old burning wood”
Again some songs contain lyrics that have a negative view on religion, such as these lines from “Silver”:
“Bailed out my worst fears
‘cos man has to be his own saviour”
or these lines from “The Yo Yo Man”:
“You know when prayers all hit the ground
There is no higher hand”
Ian said, refering to the line “man has to be his own saviour”: “I found there’s no such thing as God. But it seems like this is Heaven, and we’re here, and it’s great. I don’t want to go to Heaven. Everyone’s got permed blonde hair … and there’s too many strings on the harp.”
The album contains one of the band’s most epic songs, and probably the best-known Bunnymen track to the mainstream audience, partially due to being used for the soundtrack for the cult movie “Donnie Darko”, “The Killing Moon”. The song contains some of the band’s best-known lines:
“Fate up against your will
Through the thick and thin
He will wait until
you give yourself to him”
Ian McCulloch said he “half credited the lyrics to God”, as he one day just woke up with these lines in mind. McCulloch said of the song “I know there isn’t a band in the world who’s got a song anywhere near that.” The song can be interpretated as a love song, but interpretations also exist that it is about someone who refuses to give in to feelings of affection as she is dedicated to God instead, hence she resists her human desires and gives herself to Him.
Ian McCulloch seems to somehow indicate that the interpretation that it has a religious meaning is at least partially correct, stating “I thought at least a couple million would understand “The Killing Moon”. I thought that, at the time, it was so obvious. It was about God, or, if you’re going downstairs, about the devil. And people thought it was a love song about two dudes under a lamplight.”
Ian also indicated the song is about predestiny. He did say “It’s as deep as f**k but disguised within the veil of a love song is a song about predestiny”, as well as “The chorus is the key; it’s about God rather than a woman, but it’s also about love. I fell in love with Paris.”
Ian called the song “the shining jewel in all of the 80’s songwriting”.
The video for “The Killing Moon” shows Ian singing while his face is lit only by what is supposed to be the moonlight.
Another song of the album I adore is “My Kingdom”, a musically very upbeat song however with lyrics that seem to express confusion but with an optimistic twist towards the end.
“I’ve lost and I’ve gained
And while I was thinking
You cut off my hands when I wanted to twist
If you know how to dance to bony moroney
He’s doing the ballet on both of his wrists
B-b-burn the skin off
and climb the rooftop
Thy will be done
B-b-bite the nose off
and make it the most of
The album concludes with one of the band’s most epic songs in their discography, and a fan favourite, the hauntingly beautiful ballad “Ocean Rain”. The title track, in concerts often kept till the very last song to save the best for last, sounds like a romantic ballad you’d listen to laying in the arm of your loved one, but it is very dark lyrically. Using nautical metaphors, Ian buries a long lost dream, howling and screaming of despair towards the end of the song:
“My ship’s a-sail
Can you hear its tender frame
screaming from beneath the waves?
Screaming from beneath the waves?”
The song contains more darkness in the lines
“Your port in my heavy storms
harbors the blackest thoughts”
A fellow fan once called the song “a funeral song”, and I can perfectly see why.
“The Killing Moon” gave Echo & The Bunnymen their second top-10 hit in the UK, while the album peaked at nr 4 in the UK Albums Chart. The album is considered by many to be the greatest work the band has delivered. Ian McCulloch often called “Ocean Rain” the best album ever (seriously or with a grain of salt, only he knows!) and often announces “The Killing Moon” as the best song ever written.
In 1985, the band released a non-album single “Bring On The Dancing Horses”, which was used for the soundtrack for the film “Pretty In Pink”, and a compilation album “Songs To Learn And Sing” which did contain the non-album singles “Never Stop” and “Bring On The Dancing Horses”. The latter too became one of the signature songs of the band, with its chorus
“First I’m gonna make it
Then I’m gonna break it
till it falls apart
Hating all the faking
And shaking while I’m breaking
your brittle heart”
with Ian’s voice almost aching while singing these lines.
Only in 1987 there would be a follow-up to the magnificent “Ocean Rain” album. The band’s label wanted more commercial material and wanted the band to reach for a bigger mainstream audience. The label played Peter Gabriel’s album “So” to the band, saying “I want you to sound like this!”, much to the anger of Will Sergeant. It was a difficult time for the band: drummer Pete De Freitas was struggling more and more with mental health problems and drug issues, and resigned from the band while he wasn’t in a sober state. The band continued performing and recording with new drummers, but this did not work out well. Pete De Freitas then requested to return to the band, and was brought back in, although as a hired member rather than a permanent member due to concerns about his state and dedication to the band. By then the new album was already recorded, but largely re-recorded with De Freitas on drums. Another issue was Ian McCulloch’s escalating drinking problem, and the star treatment he received (which didn’t please the olther members of the band).
The title-less album was released in 1987, the first album by the band to just feature a band portrait as cover art, but the band was not pleased with the record at all. It did become the only album with significant sales in the USA.
It does contain some fine songs, such as the poppy “All In Your Mind”, which once again has some lyrics that speak negatively of religion.
Off this album, “Lips Like Sugar” became another Bunnymen anthem, while “Bedbugs & Ballyhoo” also remained a song often occurring in setlists regularly.
In 1988, the band released a cover version of The Doors’ classic “People Are Strange” for the soundtrack for “The Lost Boys”. Ray Manzarek, original member of The Doors, did a guest appearance on this cover, and also provided keyboards for a re-recorded version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo”. In my opinion, the cover is too similar to the original to have added value.
This by the way wasn’t the first time the Bunnymen had covered a song by a very famous band, as they had also done covers of “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles and “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones.
Still in 1988, Ian McCulloch decided to leave the band to pursue a solo career. He said he wanted to make another record, but just not another Bunnymen record. The remaining members decided to continue Echo & The Bunnymen with another singer, and recruited Noel Burke as a vocalist, much to Ian McCulloch’s anger. The band’s ambitions to continue the band were severely harmed though when drummer Pete De Freitas died in a motorcycle accident on 14th June 1989. Shortly after his death, Ian McCulloch’s debut solo album “Candleland” was released.
In 1990, “Reverberation” came out, the first (and only) album recorded by the new Echo & The Bunnymen line-up: Noel Burke, Will Sergeant, Les Pattinson, new drummer Damon Reece, as well as keyboardist Jake Brockman (who was already a touring member for years and contributor to the self-titled album, and who was now promoted to a full member). “Enlighten Me” was released as only single from the album.
“Reverberation” sold poorly and there was little interest from fans and media alike, resulting in the band being dropped by their label Warner Bros. The band released 2 more unsuccesful singles independently, after which they disbanded in 1993. Will Sergeant later said that they should have changed the band’s name after all.
Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch released his second solo-album “Mysterio” in 1992.
In 1994 however, McCulloch and Sergeant decided to work together again, and formed a new band called Electrafixion. The line-up consisted of Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant, along with Leon de Sylva on bass and Tony McGuigan on drums. The sound was much heavier than that of the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch being in a period in which he was heavily into Nirvana. His voice had also changed somewhat. The band released one album, “Burned” in 1995, including songs such as the magnificent “Zephyr”.
However, while touring, Echo & The Bunnymen songs entered the setlist on demand of the audience. In 1997, Ian and Will were joined by Les Pattinson again to reunite Echo & The Bunnymen, which meant the end of Electrafixion. That same year, the comeback album “Evergreen” (which was the first Bunnymen album I listened to and start of my fandom) was released. The picture on the sleeve was shot in Morocco and shows the band in a tropical forest.
“Evergreen” is, in my opinion, a fantastic comeback album. It does sound quite accessible with some very fine rock songs, as well as a few beautiful ballads. Some of the finest tracks on the album (in my opinion) include the opening track “Don’t Let It Get You Down”, the title track “Evergreen”, the romantic “I’ll Fly Tonight”, “Just A Touch Away”, “Empire State Halo”, and “Too Young To Kneel”.
“Don’t Let It Get You Down” was the first song I heard when listening to the Bunnymen on record, and contains the, for the band somewhat unusual (but maybe intended sarcasticallly) line “God’s above us. And Jesus loves us”
The title track contains some very hopegiving lines:
“Keep the flames of your desire
always rising higher
Aim for stars and hit the sky”
“Aim for stars and hit the sky”, a motto we should all try to live by in my opinion.
The album also contains the song “Nothing Lasts Forever”, which Ian McCulloch named the best song he’s ever written (while he also said “The Killing Moon” was the best song ever written!). The song remains one of the few songs of the post-reunion albums to still feature in setlists in Echo & The Bunnymen concerts today.
That same year as “Evergreen”, a new compilation album was released, called “Ballyhoo (The Best Of Echo & The Bunnymen)”.
Les Pattinson left the band again in 1999, but Ian and Will were determined to keep going as Echo & The Bunnymen. The next album, “What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?” was completed with session musicians. The CD was described by some as a follow-up to Ian’s solo-album “Candleland”, as Will was hardly involved in the songwriting and the album sounded more like an Ian solo-album. Will called the album “the worst album I’ve ever been involved with”. The beautiful ballad “Rust” was released as a single.
The band also released an EP in 2000 called “Avalanche”. It contained 2 covers, 1 new song called “Avalanche”, and 3 re-recordings of older Bunnymen songs. A 2003 reissue further contained the Elactrafixion version of “Baseball Bill” and a remix of the same song. I love the cover version of Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang On To A Dream?”, renamed “Hang On To A Dream”.
In 2001, the band returned to a more familiar Bunnymen sound with the album “Flowers”. Some tracks off this album I particularly like include “King Of Kings”, “Hide And Seek”, and the title track “Flowers”:
“Still perfecting imperfection
Every no one
And I, as it came undone
Knew that I’d lost everything
Everything I’d won”
The same year as “Flowers”, a 4-CD box set “Crystal Days 1979-1999” was released. The box contained most of the band’s singles, several album tracks, remixes, B-sides, previously unreleased songs, live recordings and covers. The compilation does not include material from the era when the band was fronted by Noel Burke. Later on several more compilation albums would be released, such as the 2006 “More Songs To Learn And Sing”, an updated version of “Songs To Learn And Sing”.
In 2002 a live CD and DVD, “Live in Liverpool”, was released, containing some excellent versions of some of the best songs from their back catalog so far. “All My Colours” sounded even more melancholic than on album, and the live version of “Ocean Rain” was simply epic, with Ian howling the words “from the beneath the waves” as an absolute highlight to conclude the concert with. In my opinion those two songs sound even better than the album versions. As I already indicated, Ian’s voice had changed a bit over the years, but his “new” voice just suits these songs so well…
After this live album, several more live releases came, for example the 2006 release “Me, I’m All Smiles”.
After Ian McCulloch released a new solo-album “Slideling” (a word play on “sliding”) in 2003, the follow-up Bunnymen album “Siberia” was released in 2005. Ian McCulloch had just gone through a divorce, and that reflected on the album, which someone described as “a transplant of a broken heart”. A song such as “Stormy Weather” seems to deal directly with the subject matter of a break-up. “In The Margins”, another single, again deals with the subject matter of love and relationships, as does the beautiful “What If We Are?”.
In 2008, the epic “Ocean Rain” album was played live entirely with an actual orchestra. A recording of one of these concerts was released as CD and DVD.
In 2009, the band released the new album “The Fountain”, of which McCulloch said it was the best album the band has made apart from “Ocean Rain”.
Ian McCulloch released a 4th solo album, “Pro Patria Mori” in 2012.
In 2014, “Meteorites” followed, the last album so far made up of entirely new material.
The band released a new album “The Stars, The Oceans And The Moon” in 2018, which was an album made up of re-recorded versions of older Bunnymen songs such as “Bring On The Dancing Horses”, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, “Lips Like Sugar”, “Ocean Rain”, “The Cutter” and “The Killing Moon”. The band said they felt they had the duty to make those good songs even better. The album also contained 2 new songs.
The band continues to tour to this very day and is still very recommendable to see live if you have the opportunity.
If this didn’t spark your curiosity for the band yet, there is also a great book “Turquoise Days: The Weird World Of Echo & The Bunnymen” by Chris Adams (2002).
And in 2021, Will Sergeant himself released “Bunnyman: A Memoir”!
Will Sergeant also released several albums with his side project Glide, and regrouped with Les Pattinson to form the side project Poltergeist.
Echo & The Bunnymen are:
www.bunnymen.com (official website)
www.villiersterrace.com (fan website with lots of info and a fan forum, sadly enough not updated anymore in recent years)
www.ianmcculloch.info (official Ian McCulloch website)
www.willsergeant.com (official Will Sergeant arts website)
https://burningshed.com/store/92-happy-customers (Will Sergeant releases)
www.daspoltergeist.com/ (Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson side project)
“Turquoise Days: the Weird World of Echo & The Bunnymen” by Chris Adams