The vanguard foursome — at its late-’78 start, a trio plus Echo the drum machine — emerged from Liverpool’s new wave renaissance with a debut album stunning in its starkness and power. Unlike also-rans with the same idea, Ian McCulloch’s specter-of-Jim Morrison vocals are no mere pilferage; where Morrison would have ordered you on your knees, Mac does it himself, alternately writhing in resistance or slumped in resignation to the agonies of an entirely different decade. On Crocodiles, Will Sergeant’s scratchy, yet ringing, guitar and Pete De Freitas’ unhurriedly relentless pounding drums set the sonic scene for McCulloch’s sometimes ambivalently delivered existential crises. (The US album adds “Do It Clean” and “Read It in Books,” both originally UK B-sides.)
The four songs on Shine So Hard come from the soundtrack to a half-hour film of a specially staged concert (admittedly a logistic and musical disappointment), and mostly serves to preview the upcoming LP in lackluster fashion. But in its own right, the gloom engulfing Heaven Up Here seems to have smothered the band’s cogency, with McCulloch less a fist-shaker than a whiner. The old potency is still audible at times (mainly on Side One) but, like McCulloch, the guitars sound fragile, even brittle; overall, it’s a dreamy, depressed and depressing effort.
Echo’s third LP is far more enthralling, an invigorating collection of bizarre, challenging songs given surprising but fitting color by the addition of violinist Shankar’s offbeat wailings. Sweeping creations like “The Cutter” and “The Back of Love” are tremendously exciting; the rest of Porcupine, if not as consistently memorable, captures the band’s unique essence with grace and style. New-found efficiency dispatches past self-indulgent inaccessibility.
The even-better Ocean Rain exchanges Shankar’s unique contribution for more routine string accompaniment, but offers an amazing skein of great songwriting. “Silver,” “Crystal Days,” “Seven Seas” and “The Killing Moon” all achieve the ideal marriage of pop with drama, using McCulloch’s strong vocal presence and Sergeant’s varied and textural guitar work to imbue the songs with majesty and subtlety.
Concisely recapitulating the band’s first five years, Songs to Learn & Sing is a welcome retrospective: nine essential items, a fine new tune (“Bring on the Dancing Horses”) and “The Puppet,” Echo’s third single (from 1980), which had not been on any previous US release. The CD and cassette have four bonus tracks.
The all-great eponymous 1983 EP contains “The Cutter” and “Back of Love” (from Porcupine), “Rescue” (from Crocodiles), “Never Stop” (a 1983 single that also appears on Songs to Learn & Sing) plus a live version of “Do It Clean” from the Royal Albert Hall. The Cutter cassette, which contains the title tune plus four live Peel session tracks, was also packaged in with initial UK quantities of Porcupine. The Seven Seas EP is available as a five-song 12-inch (with LP tracks from Ocean Rain and Crocodiles) and as a seven-song doublepack 45. The Peel session EP predates the first LP, and contains live-in-the-studio renditions of “Read It in Books,” “Villiers Terrace” and two other songs.
De Freitas briefly left Echo (ex-Haircut One Hundred drummer Blair Cunningham took his place) in 1986 but was back in the lineup in time for Echo & the Bunnymen, a solid and mature album which gains momentum as it plays. Produced by Laurie Latham, engaging, reflective songs — “Lips Like Sugar,” “Lost and Found,” “New Direction” and “All in Your Mind” — show the Bunnymen’s ongoing refinement and consistent quality; the band acknowledges its debt to the Doors by prominently featuring Ray Manzarek, one of several guest keyboardists the record employs, on the distinctly reminiscent “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo.” That track (in its LP version and an elongated remix) was subsequently issued as one side of an EP, the flipside of which offers three spiffy live covers: “Paint It Black,” the Velvet Underground’s “Run, Run, Run” and Television’s “Friction.” (In a similar vein, Echo contributed a version of the Doors’ “People Are Strange” to The Lost Boys‘ soundtrack.)
In 1982, Sergeant self-released Themes for Grind, a noodly instrumental solo album originally created to accompany a film project that was never completed. In 1988, the Balcony Dogs (successor to the abortive Sex Gods, the band De Freitas formed with two members of the Bunnymen road crew during his sabbatical) released Trip, a surprisingly good record on which the drummer plays only a minor role. Putting an intermittent psychedelic ’60s spin on casual guitar pop (with strong nods to Echo, the Doors and other relevant referents), the Balcony Dogs — with genealogical connections to many Liverpool luminaries — sound a bit like Bunnymen fans trying to impress themselves, but the playing and singing displays such ingenuous enthusiasm that the LP is hard to resist.
When McCulloch left to go solo in 1988, the singer’s presumption about his band’s lack of a future without him was not completely accurate. Mixing a sour cocktail of defiance, spite and stubbornness, the other three opted to keep the name and get themselves a new vocalist. After De Freitas’ death, Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson pressed on with Irish singer/lyricist Noel Burke, longtime Echo adjunct Jake Brockman on keyboards and drummer Damon Reece. Unveiled in late ’90, the new-look/new-sound Echo and the Bunnymen — unable to preserve the past or create anything substantially original — weakly attempted to catch up with history on the Geoff Emerick-produced Reverberation. Suspended between the familiar and the unreachable, and seemingly motivated mostly by bitterness towards McCulloch, the album offers imaginative performances of dull melodies and obvious second-person lyrics, all sprinkled with familiar musical moves. (Burke comes closest to aping Mac on “Thick Skinned World.”) The sparkling “Enlighten Me” effectively kicks Madchester acid pop further into folky flower-power (with tabla and sitar for authenticity!); the rest of Reverberation is, as its title suggests, merely the decaying echo of an original sound. Sergeant subsequently joined the rest of the music world in characterizing his Bunnymen postscript as “an embarrassment.”
(Burke’s prior band, St. Vitus Dance, not to be confused with a similarly named American group, was a charming Belfast sextet with good, simple songs and an abundance of shaggy personality. Love Me Love My Dogma is no technical masterpiece, but the clever common-sense lyrics (“I was a stable boy who grew to be a most unstable man”) about Irish life, the jolly rock (credit Haydn Boyle’s colorful piano/organ playing) music and Burke’s lively vocals make this nifty item well worth finding.)
Four years later, in one of those turnarounds that give mudslinging a bad name, McCulloch and Sergeant made up and formed a new quartet dubbed Electrafixion. The premature Zephyr, however, made a poor calling card: four tracks of thickly textured (and terribly recorded) dance- rock. The fuzzy wash of buzzing, distorted guitar and indistinct beats — a bit like second-era Stone Roses, but nowhere near as good — renders McCulloch’s heavily reverbed voice (displaying none of its usual commanding presence) almost unrecognizable. If this was a new beginning, the end of the story was pretty easy to reckon.
Another surprise twist in the saga: Burned, which cleans up and preserves two Zephyr tracks (not, however, the one called “Burned”), sorts Electrafixion out, finding a purpose by siphoning off the essence of Echo to fuel a charged-up ’90s attack. As if the old band had just emerged from a time machine, desperate to release mega-watts of pent-up energy (and maybe rave a little on the dancefloor, too), Electrafixion sheds Echo’s lofty glamour by shifting the stylistic weight onto guitar, and the thickly textured album — by turns murky and clear — is largely Sergeant’s. While McCulloch sings in an unmannered, surprisingly vehement voice, the guitarist has a field day, throwing off layered washes of rock guitar energy: overlapping planes of rhythm, lead, distortion, effects and ostinatos. Burned‘s rush of disorienting mayhem could have proven unstable, but bassist Leon De Sylva and drummer Tony McGuigan nail it down with firm tactical support, giving McCulloch an anchor for lyrics — especially in “Feel My Pulse,” “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Head?,” “Lowdown” (co-written by Johnny Marr) and “Bed of Nails” — that are stripped back and self-consciously vague but full of catchy hook lines. Electrafixion takes a little getting used to, but Burned — which grandly sidesteps any current fads to keep its own creative counsel — proves a near-perfect union.
With Pattinson back in the fold, plus a new drummer and keyboardist, Mac and Will then closed the circle, reclaiming the Echo mantle for Evergreen, an album that easily revives the Echo sound. Sergeant’s signature guitar work is all over the album; McCulloch is in fine fettle throughout. The opening track, “Don’t Let It Get You Down,” bears traces of the pop friendliness of the band’s eponymous 1987 album, but with a more burnished, rough-edge appeal. The lilting, mid-tempo rocker “I’ll Fly Tonight” reflects mature sensibilities — strong songwriting decorated with gently psychedelic guitar, swooping strings (by the London Metropolitan Orchestra) and McCulloch’s typically enigmatic vocals. The band’s energy here sounds renewed, if somewhat muted: the exhaustion of “Forgiven” sounds as authentic and affecting as anything the band has done.
With Pattinson on only one track, What Are You Going to Do With Your Life? pares the Bunnymen core back to the Electrafixion duo of McCulloch and Sergeant, who deliver their finest work since Ocean Rain. The generally reflective mood provides further evidence of McCulloch and Sergeant’s elegant glide into middle age. While many of their peers have either gone silent or are living off nostalgia, the Bunnymen continue to explore their original inspiration, ’60s rock, with originality and passion. The French horn on “Get in the Car” provides plaintive support for McCulloch’s weary vocals and Sergeant’s restrained playing; it’s like hearing Leonard Cohen’s fatalism scored by Burt Bacharach. A similar mood pervades the entire album, the bittersweet blend of strings, horns and woodwinds with guitars and drums evoking the baroque pop beauty of the Left Banke. A contemplative and inspiring album.
Underscoring the fact that the Bunnymen have been as capable of heart-filling greatness as artistic indolence, rather than cull the band’s finest work onto a couple of unassailable discs, Crystal Days dives blindly overboard, filling four discs with highs (“Rescue,” “Seven Seas,” “Lips Like Sugar”), lows (an awful early version of “The Cutter”) and inbetweenies (covers, B-sides) —and still manages to exclude Mac’s gorgeous solo debut and the Bunnymen album he sat out. A lot of this music is extraordinary, but less would have meant so much more.
McCulloch and Sergeant shift gears on Flowers, referring more overtly to the ’60s with heavy organs and electric piano. Leaving behind the previous album’s sobriety, Flowers goes for more straight-ahead rockers with generally solid results. “Make Me Shine” comes across as ’60s feel-good pop, while the organ flourishes of “Hide and Seek” suggest the stately ennui of the Doors. On “Life Goes On” the invocation of the Byrds’ chiming guitar sound provides an uplifting antidote to the eerie (and less memorable) title track. “Everybody Knows,” a quick-tempo rocker, evokes vintage Velvet Underground. “King of Kings,” which begins the album and arguably belongs in the Bunnymen pantheon, features one of McCulloch’s best-ever couplets: “Met Jesus up on a hill / He confessed I was dressed to kill.” While the album dilutes such achievements with the slowed-down closer “Burn for Me” and the revved-up-with-nowhere-to-go “An Eternity Turns,” Flowers reinforces the value, and the validity, of Echo’s unexpected reprise.
The Very Best repackages the usual classics, adding a DVD of eight videos, a love letter from Paul Morley, three selections from Evergreen, one track each from Flowers, What Are You Going to Do With Your Life? and Siberia plus a non-album cover of Tim Hardin’s “Hang on a Dream.”