The Bunnymen - The Greatest Band Ever Made?
David Laurie has juggled his day job as owner of Something in Construction Records, home to bands including Air France and Memory Tapes, to bring us ‘DARE’.
His engaging study investigates the golden years between 1979 and 1982 when Britain's bands switched their guitars for newly affordable synths which enabled them to emulate the likes of Bowie and Kraftwerk.
These bands went on to reinvent Pop music and the idea of what 'being a band' meant in a way Punk hadn't quite managed to. At an otherwise quite grim time in Britain; colourful and inventive Pop flooded the Top Twenty. Smash Hits was the bible and Top Of The Pops was unmissable.
Joy Division became New Order, The Specials became Fun Boy Three, The Jam relaxed into The Style Council and even Neil Young made a Kraftwerk album.
Elsewhere The Human League, OMD, Simple Minds, Japan, ABC, Associates, Tears For Fears, Echo & The Bunnymen and about a hundred others blossomed into hugely successful Pop acts.
David said: “DARE looks back to the dizzying excitement of Pop music from 1979-1982. Punk and Disco had punctured the Seventies’ grey flab but the Top Twenty had stayed drab for the most part.
“Seemingly overnight, microchips were everywhere: in the home, bleeping and flashing on your wrist and powering the synthesizers and computers that changed everything in Pop. Bold and bright Pop ideas leapfrogged musical ability and even the most austere bands started cracking smiles.
“Music has been my life and this period changed everything for me. I was 14 in 1982, living in an endlessly damp, grey South Wales. This glittering New Pop music blew my mind week after week and the light from these distant stars led me down the rocky path to becoming an A&R Man and running my own label.
“I tell the story of this computerised revolution, examine the records and the effect they had and continue to have. I'm an "insightful Music Biz veteran" now, with a fresh perspective on the art and business of Pop, but still addicted to buying new records every week and still very much in touch with that wide-eyed teen.”
Here, David writes exclusively for Coney’s Loft about Echo & the Bunnymen’s role in this story.
The Teardrop Explodes’ great and often quite bitter rivalry with Echo & The Bunnymen drove each band on to try and outdo each other. Both bands railed against Rock’n’Roll’s clichés, its dumbness and the lumpen weight of its history, but I felt that Echo & The Bunnymen still wanted to make the efforts needed to lift audiences up, while still wearing their art prominently on their sleeves, while the Cope took his band on an uncertain and inward journey.
The Bunnymen were fronted by the uncommonly beautiful Gob-on-legs that is Ian “Mac” McCulloch. Spouting snatches of Blake, Bowie and Baudelaire and secretly channelling Jim Morrison and Sinatra from behind a perma-tumbling fringe and leather trousers, Mac was the epitome of Eighties Northern cool. He always had a savage word for other bands and anyone he regarded as lesser mortals than he (ie everyone but Bowie and Iggy) and gave truly excellent copy. His acid wit and cherubic lips guaranteed that girls and boys paid equal attention and it was always worth reading his scabrous and hilarious interviews. Still is.
The Bunnymen were a formidable unit, A Proper Band. Greater than the sum of their parts, thriving on chaos, and, as is often the case, subject to fallings out, drug paranoia, and massive arguments. Unified they were unstoppable, divided they were merely mortal, as made clear by some of the later or solo records. Will Sergeant was Mac’s songwriting foil on guitar and Les Pattison provided the punchy bass runs that drove these huge songs along. As per the fashion then, they started with a drum machine before taking Pete de Freitas as drummer before their debut album, 1980’s Crocodiles, was released. It was produced by Dave Balfe and future Bunnymanager-KLF-writer-guru-crackpot-iconoclast, Bill Drummond, and was a Top Twenty hit for the new label formed around the Bunnymen, the legendary Korova records. Everything about the Bunnymen was legendary, even if, especially if, they did say so themselves. Crocodiles is a sparkling debut album that channels the Pop peaks of Television, Bowie, The Doors and Iggy Pop into new shapes and tops them with Mac’s rich baritone voice, pouring lithe, visceral poetry into the mix. You could never be sure what the Mac’s songs were about. I have always hoped they were about something rather than just cutting up interesting phrases as per Bowie/Burroughs.
I dread to think what their breakthrough Top Twenty hit, The Cutter, is about. Its horrorshow imagery leads straight into “Spare us the cutter, couldn’t cut the mustard” and thence to “will I still recoil, when the skin is lost?” Could be circumcision fears (!), could be pressure to edit songs, could be about being held back by someone, could just be writing about the Cut Up technique. It could, of course, be about nothing. Who can say? I am drawn to things I don’t fully understand though and I was so very drawn to the Bunnymen. There was artistry afoot here, points subtlely out of reach, allusions to exciting things; dark romance, myth and sex. They were portentous, pretentious and arrogant and clearly thought that the simple stuff was beneath them. It wasn’t a puzzle to unravel like one of Bowie’s songs; these songs were wrapped up tight, their dark hearts obscured. Their songs were the seeds of dreams, dark screens to project onto. Like staring into the night, seeing shapes in the dark - one could sense that there were things in there but quite what was real and what was imagined was unclear.
The other thing that registered immediately about the Bunnymen was that Mac sang. Really sang. He might spend his spare time scowling, smoking and chatting up your girlfriend but once he got on stage, the arrogance/shyness would fall back as his instinct took over and his voice completed the band’s spirit animal. The Bunnymen were much greater than the sum of their parts and so were never quite the same after Pete’s death in 1989. A rare natural catalyst completed the band’s magic and released the feral feelings pent up in these songs to prowl the room. Too many bands simpered or muttered into the mike but these tunes were delivered with full conviction and no holding back. It’s something to behold, listening to Mac raising the roof, riding high on the back of these melodies.
Crocodiles is a fantastically nippy debut. Seven of the ten songs are under three minutes. Simple yet elegant songs like the excellent Rescue, Monkeys and Villiers Terrace are fantastic psychedelic pop, flavoured with the timeproof triumvirate of The Beatles, The Who and Pink Floyd, that have influenced Scouse bands for generations, while others, like Pictures On my Wall and Stars Are Stars, have a febrile feeling, needled along by Sergeant’s spiralling guitar play and Mac’s velvety croon, embroidered with yelping, howling and, well, showboating.
1981 brought another album, Heaven Up Here, which has the most beautiful sleeve, showing the band, writ small against the landscape of a deserted cloudy, infinite and oddly purplish Welsh beach. Whereas the mainstream bands had everyone’s faces as large as possible on the album sleeve, this tiny-band-pictured-against-a-natural-cinematic-backdrop became A Thing (and subsequently a signifier of The Big Music) for the Bunnymen and was appropriated by other bands, most notably U2. Duran Duran would never have been photographed like that. It just shouts “our music lacks artifice and is really fucking BIG”, doesn’t it? There is a soupcon of “this is all bigger than us” modesty in there too. No wonder it struck a chord with Bono.
It might have been their greatest sleeve and it graced the Top Ten on its release but it’s the least of their early albums and just a little rudimental. They’ve cut all ties with the Sixties and are pushing forward but, with the exception of the silken guitar groove of A Promise, and the proto-Goth tubthump of All My Colours, it is all a little flat and grey. After the taut pop thrills of the debut, Heaven Up Here feels a little satisfied and not in the mood to exert itself. I might be in a minority with this view but I am not alone: Bill Drummond said of it "The album is dull as ditchwater. The songs are unformed, the sound uniformly grey."
The leap between the second album and 1982 single, The Back Of Love is astonishing. Produced by Ian Broudie, it is teeming with life and colour and all kinds of odd little art-for-art’s-sake cul-de-sacs. It displays layers and layers of studio trickery, backwards bits, dubby breakdowns, fidgety horns and strings. A tight circular guitar riff kicks off the double time bassline and it hits the chorus after twenty five seconds. This is clearly a honed and determined attempt to write a (cool) hit single and one which came together quickly and easily in the studio in London. Strings subsequently became a totem of the Bunnymen after L Shankar had drenched them all over The Back Of Love, invoking a frisson of fellow Scousers, The Beatles in their 1967 glory. The term “hit single” doesn’t do this brilliantly weird mini-symphony justice however. People who had not heard of The Bunnymen loved this song and Bunnyfans were uniformly pleased with this bright and bruised, darkly colourful new single. It stepped out of the dark shadows of Heaven Up Here and into the light. Hero time. It also swaggered into the Top Twenty and brought the Bunnymen legions of new fans.
Its parent album, the magnificent Porcupine, was harder going to make and was initially rejected by Korova’s parent label WEA for being uncommercial. They subsequently re-recorded it with Shankar’s strings added all over it. The album was now so hugely commercial that it burst in at #2 in the UK in February 1983, aided by the lyrically and musically darker hit single The Cutter, which had cracked the Top Ten. Bunnymania.
Porcupine brought acoustic guitars to the fore, along with percussion, xylophones and the aforementioned Indian Strings from Shankar. It’s hard to understand why Clay was never a single. My word - that is a majestic song. No clue what is was about: feet of clay, Cassius Clay, a propensity to be easily moulded? All these and more, no doubt. Soaring and layered, there is something of Clay in a lot of Radiohead songs’ production. Nigel Godrich must be a fan. Who wouldn’t be seduced by the absolutely inspired counter melodies and harmonies resting casually in the mix, deftly woven jarring undertones, bursts of feedback, beautiful strings, tumbling drums and jazzy piano. It has peak after peak and drops back to its knees at least once and, just as it’s climaxing, it all washes away. No bogus bonus, no overkill. Perfect. Mac sings a masterclass, rising and falling with the song, never overstepping, breaking for cover on the choruses and then letting the music lead the way. It should have been #1. The greatest non-single ever? Maybe.
The title track is a monolith. Opening like some sort of frantic yet funereal Hungarian folk music and then slow marching to the halfway mark, whereupon it pulls out a gun, steps up and blossoms with angry energy and feels like…well, it always felt like revenge to me. A song on a mission. Heads Will Roll starts out picking away like Paul Simon before the band swagger in with another luscious and ever building terrace anthem. There is more light and shade, and WAY more colour, on Porcupine than on the first two Bunnymen albums put together. There were so many choices for another single from the album. Cool bands being cool though, these were all eschewed for something new.
Never Stop, from 1983, was the Poppiest single the Bunnymen ever made. The title of the 12” version Never Stop (Discotheque) was an unusual suffix for a mardy Northern trenchcoat-wearing bunch. If The Cure could have fun pop singles with xylophones, then so could the Bunnymen. It was another Top Twenty hit. It does feel a little slight now, sandwiched between the twin peaks of Porcupine and the imminent and mighty Ocean Rain.
Atypically for bands who stepped out into the poplight in the early Eighties, the best was yet to come with the Bunnymen. Ocean Rain, the album that they insisted was marketed as “The Greatest Album Ever Made”. It is their best and most well known record with Seven Seas and, particularly, The Killing Moon living on in multiple soundtrack appearances, notably Donnie Darko. If you don’t own this album, then you are missing something important in your life.