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Echo & the Bunnymen: Heaven Down Here

Thirty years ago, Echo & the Bunnymen helped spark a Liverpool scene in sad decline since the Beatles broke up, rubbing black-clad elbows with the likes of U2 and Joy Division, and inspiring Coldplay and Arcade Fire. As they prepare to release their 11th album, Marc Spitz takes a walk on the Merseyside with post-punk's dark romantics.

This story first appeared in the December 2008 issue of SPIN.

The gods, being gods, have intervened. The autumn sky over Radio City Music Hall looks like the freaking album cover: wet, midnight blue, and barely lit by the moon.It’s perfect weather for a full orchestral performance of Ocean Rain, Echo & the Bunnymen’s masterpiece, 25 years old next spring and possibly the most romantic 36 minutes of nocturnal pop ever recorded. There are, however, earthly problems. Someone keeps calling out for the 1980 song “Do It Clean.” Forty-nine-year-old Ian McCulloch, lead singer, erstwhile guitarist, bearer for three full decades now of the dark high-rise hair, is losing his patience.”Yeah, ‘Do It Clean’ is not on Ocean Rain,” he snarls. McCulloch has already made it clear that he needs a cigarette badly. But he’s prohibited from smoking in the venue.

The band just played a greatest-hits set. Now, from shimmering opener “Silver” to the title-track closer, McCulloch, longtime partner Will Sergeant, the young quartet replacing founding bassist Les Pattinson and late drummer Pete De Freitas, and the 12-piece string section lovingly re-create the album as if they’re restoring a da Vinci. Watching McCulloch in his shades and overcoat from the third row, it’s hard to reckon with his irritability. It could be the nic fit, but more likely it’s that every perfectly played note, it seems, now serves to remind him of how brilliant this band was and how much of a legend he now is; and shouldn’t a legend be able to do whatever he wants, especially while entertaining? Would they deny Sinatra his ciggie, these Yanks? Or Lou Reed? Leonard Cohen? This hauteur has been the Bunnymen’s Achilles’ heel since ’78. It’s why they were one of the best British bands of the last 30 years—certainly the most important group from Liverpool since the Beatles—but also the reason they imploded before fulfilling the promise of their astonishing first four albums, acknowledged influences on the likes of Coldplay and Arcade Fire.It’s essentially the reason they are not U2.

Sergeant and Pattinson were schoolmates in Melling, in the countryside just beyond the city limits. “If you live outside of Liverpool, you’re called a Woolyback,” Sergeant, 49, says.” It’s a derogatory term. It’s like a sheep-shagger or something.” While they weren’t close, their paths from the pastoral to the urban were similar. As teens, both ventured into the city via bus to shop for records. Sergeant got a Höfner guitar at age 13, but rarely played it. He was convinced he could never hope to match the ability of then-heroes Jimmy Page and Yes’ Steve Howe. “We had this sort of elevated image of musicians,” he says. “You had to be trained and you had to be technically brilliant. I didn’t even know what a time signature was.”

The shadow of the Beatles, split only six years by ’76, cast wide and long and had intimidated many would-be Liverpudlian musicians.But that year, an October Sex Pistols show at Eric’s, a dank basement on Matthew Street (that, ironically, had been the original site of the Cavern Club, which looms large in Beatles lore), did away with the notion that rock was exclusive to virtuosos, and soon teenage bands like the Spitfire Boys were declaring themselves equally valid. “The Beatles didn’t really have that shadow over punk,” Sergeant says. “Remember, Glen Matlock of the Pistols said he liked the Beatles and everyone was shocked.”

“Eric’s itself was a basement,” says Pete Wylie of soulful post-punks Wah! (a.k.a. Wah! Heat, the Mighty Wah!, et al.), who was in attendance that night.”You walked down two metal staircases into a red-and-black room. And it stunk because it’s near the river and the sewage system is shit, and often the toilets would back up and flood the club.” Almost overnight, at the nexus of Eric’s, the Armadillo tea rooms, and the Grapes pub, a dozen bands were conceived and launched, many of which owed their very existence to heated arguments about what a band should be. “Everybody was thrashing about in the dark,” Julian Cope writes in his 1994 memoir Head-On, “trying to figure out what you should be into, what you shouldn’t be into, which people you could trust, and which people were saying things just to look good. “The arrival of an exciting new album at the Probe record shop, whether it was Television’s Marquee Moon or David Bowie’s Low, or the discovery of a perfect old Motown single, seemed like chemicals in the water supply.

“Tons of attitude,” Holly Johnson, then of the art-damaged Big in Japan, and later lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, says of the Eric’s sensibility. “There were lots of egos there.” While touring bands from London (the Clash, the Stranglers, Generation X) and even America (Blondie, Devo) played Eric’s, the scene in Liverpool (175 miles to the north of England’s capital, in the county of Merseyside) was determined to avoid relying on outside stimulus beyond Probe’s import bin. “We weren’t contemporaries of these people,” Johnson says, “and weren’t there to idolize them because they lived in London and got their faces into the New Musical Express. They had to be good to get a reaction.”

“Good” was hardly good enough for Ian McCulloch.

McCulloch, working class, six feet tall, pale and brooding, with screen-siren cheekbones and the kind of lippy pout that said ingenues routinely purchase in Southern California, spent much of his school days reading Silver Surfer comics and drawing pictures of David Bowie. “Bowie’s face, but with my lips on it,” he clarifies. “I only ever wanted, since the age of 13, to be the best singer of the best band in the world.”

***

If McCulloch was a natural, Julian Cope, two years his senior, middle class, and Welsh, was an equally potent academic. He happened onto the scene while attending City of Liverpool College and didn’t speak with a Scouse accent, but his knowledge of pop history and ardor for punk soon made him an insider. Cope declined to be interviewed for this story, and McCulloch will only say, “There’s a certain group and a person I don’t want to talk about. He’s a thief, and I always hated [his group] anyway. I thought they were rubbish. The initials of the group are T.E.” That’d be the Teardrop Explodes, Cope’s most famous band, and until the ascent of the Bunnymen, the Eric’s scene’s brightest hope for national and global stardom. In 1978, Mac and Cope were simpatico and actually inspired each other to greater songwriting heights, sharing original compositions like Cope’s “Robert Mitchum” and Mac’s “Iggy Pop” with one another, devouring books, records, and music magazines, and jamming with Wylie on rudimentary Nuggets tracks or the Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (sung in German) under the moniker the Crucial Three.

“It was about the practicalities of being musicians,” Wylie says of the period. “But it was also about the dream and the fantasy of it, and then letting that become real.” The Crucial Three eventually split, after Cope played Pere Ubu’s “The Modern Dance” for Mac on one of these afternoons. Mac, according to Cope’s memoir, coolly dismissed it. Cope informed Mac that he was “a plank” and used the incident as an excuse to get serious about the Teardrops. Soon Wylie formed Wah!, and before year’s end, Mac would cast his lot with Sergeant and Pattinson. But the ideas, song lyrics, and bass lines the Crucial Three created would become a source of bitter contention for decades.

Sergeant had watched McCulloch strut around Eric’s for some time, wondering if, as Wylie had insisted, he could sing. “He looked different from the start,” says Sergeant. “He was skinny, different-colored hair, all different colors ’cause he dyed it a few times.” Sergeant had recently purchased a new guitar and a drum machine. Inspired by Kraftwerk and Low, he’d spend hours experimenting with feedback, “holding my dad’s shaver over the pickup just to get a drone.” The pair finally connected at a party in a local wine bar. “Mac was just sitting there on his own,” Sergeant says. “I went up to him and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m waiting for the gift of vision.'” The quote, a paraphrase of the recent Bowie single “Sound and Vision,” sounded cooler than it should have.

“Yeah, I do vaguely remember saying that,” McCulloch says. “I thought I was a Scouse envoy of Bowiedom. I knew the way I looked, and I thought I could get away with it. Looking back, I must have looked like a million dollars.”

The pair practiced at Sergeant’s family house in the country, “I sat through hell to get to his house,” McCulloch says of the afternoons during which he’d lug his acoustic guitar, no case, over three bus routes. “For me, it was as hard a mission as it was for Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.” They’d turn on the drum machine and begin strumming, searching for a perfectly strange new sound. “I wanted my music coming from outer space,” McCulloch says. Band names were suggested, considered, and discarded: Mona Lisa and the Grease Guns, the Daz Men. Echo & the Bunnymen stuck. By the time Pattinson joined on bass, the drum machine was dubbed “Echo,” to discourage the notion that Mac was Echo and the Melling boys were his backing band.

The Bunnymen made their live debut opening for the Teardrop Explodes at Eric’s on November 15, 1978. They played one song, an extended version of “Monkeys,” which would appear on their first album, Crocodiles. Although McCulloch was nervous and sweating, they passed the Holly Johnson test. They were very, very good. Echo belched metronomic Suicide-style beats, Sergeant chopped out minor chords, Pattinson played rapidly and funky, like he was listening to Chic on invisible headphones, and Mac crooned neo-psychedelic poetry (“Boys are the same, brains in their pockets…”) in a baritone that was more Tom Jones than Bowie—shockingly masculine and self-assured, given his youthful and androgynous appearance. It was music from outer space. “It just sounded new, fresh, and interesting,” says Johnson, before adding, “They became just another rock band when they got a real drummer.”

Soon scenesters Bill Drummond and David Balfe—of Big in Japan and Dalek, I Love You, respectively—were managing the Bunnymen in addition to the Teardrops. Balfe recommended 17-year-old Trinidad-born drummer Peter De Freitas to replace Echo. Like Cope, De Freitas had seen the world beyond Liverpool, and his confidence and deeper reference pool, not to mention his speedy playing, fit perfectly with the band’s already roaming sound.

Mac shared a bohemian crash pad on Penny Lane with Wylie, among other Eric’s habitués, and, confidence bolstered, he and Sergeant began working up songs. Drummond and Balfe produced the first Bunnymen recording and released it themselves. In May 1979, less than seven months after their first gig, their debut single, the hallucinatory “Pictures on My Wall” with its vitriolic B-side “Read It in Books” (credited to both Mac and Cope, although both claim to have written it solo), was named NME’s single of the week and championed by influential BBC disk jokey John Peel. “Peel said, ‘We have another one from the mighty Echo & the Bunnymen.'” McCulloch says. “I was like, ‘Wow, John Peel likes us. That’s brilliant.’ We were a little bit intimidated by London, but we had that sort of swagger. Like we were just the coolest thing on the planet.” If there was an augur of the success the Bunnymen would enjoy in America, it came in the form of Courtney Love, then a vagabond in her late teens, who inserted herself into the Eric’s scene with characteristic aggression.

“I hated her,” Wylie says. “She came over because she wanted to meet the Teardrops and the Bunnymen. She just had that thing about her, and how dare she be American. She wasn’t one of us.”

The Teardrop Explodes were in the midst of celebrating a newly signed publishing deal when they were informed by management that the Bunnymen were being courted by Seymour Stein of the American major Sire Records. “The Bunnymen on a major?” Cope writes. “What about us? That’s all I thought. What about us?” Cope was told that Stein was drawn to Mac’s sex symbol looks, and management implied that the gawky Cope looked “crap” as a frontman; possibly part of some power bid to keep both bands in line. “Bill [Drummond] was in the middle of this great, exciting, independent, powerful scene,” Wylie suggests. “And he took out two of the significant acts. It soon became a divided scene, and we all became competitive with each other. We had always been competitive, but it was also friendly.” Into the gap came bands like A Flock of Seagulls, who failed to electrify the scene in the same way.

By the end of the ’70s, clubs in town were routinely raided by local police, who were skittish about anything that might have resembled punk. Eric’s managed to avoid getting busted until March 1980 when it, too, closed. Its brightest stars, Big in Japan, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the Teardrops Explodes, Dead or Alive, and the Bunnymen moved on or mutated. Eric’s never reopened.

It can be argued that U2 didn’t really become U2 until 1983, with the release of their third album, War, and their rain-swept performance at Denver’s Red Rocks that June. Only Manchester’s Joy Division rivaled the Bunnymen for out-of-the-gate charisma and a fully realized, unstoppable musical statement. The Bunnymen played on bills with both U2 and Joy Division while touring in support of their first singles, but only one of the bands mattered. Says McCulloch of Joy Division, “It was them and us.” He knew the Manchester scene well, having briefly roadied for the Fall. “I saw Joy Division as not even our competition. The two of us complemented each other.”

Joy Division’s albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer are full of resolution, as if Ian Curtis had accepted the hopelessness of everything, whereas Crocodiles, released in England in July 1980, two months after the singer’s suicide, is defiant. “I can see you’ve got the blues in your alligator shoes,” McCulloch sings on the propulsive title track. “I’m all smiles, I got my crocodiles.” He could easily be singing about the other northern, raincoated Ian. “Only years later, I thought, if he hadn’t killed himself, it would have been a totally different ’80s,” McCulloch says. With his death, the spirit of competition went as well. Vying with U2 seemed somehow beneath the Bunnymen. They watched impassively as the Irishmen ascended.

“They were always going to be the biggest band in the world,” Mac says. “We wanted nothing to do with success the way U2 saw it. It wasn’t to do with conquering the world; it was to do with those lads, like me and Ian Curtis, who liked the Silver Surfer and Bowie. At some point everyone seemed to go toward that Live Aid goal of being seen everywhere, in every sodding street, in every sodding nook and cranny in the world. I never wanted that.

“I never joined the Bowie fan club,” he continues, “because I didn’t want to admit there was another Bowie fan out there.”

Critical response to Crocodiles was rapturous in both American and England. “Whereas U2 are just copyists,” opined the NME, “Echo & the Bunnymen have absorbed and transcended their influences, moving on to an area where their music is totally of their own making.” The album cracked the U.K. top 20, and the band toured clubs in America, where Crocodiles was released in December, shortly after the murder of John Lennon, one of their hometown’s favorite sons.

***

Echo & the Bunnymen’s live shows packed melodrama and thrills, with Mac dancing at the mic on a stage draped with camouflage netting. They would eventually get crazy with smoke machines and enter to Gregorian chants. Ironically, they were useless as video stars. The 1981 launch of MTV, concurrent with the release of the Bunnymen’s sophomore album, Heaven Up Here, did nothing to break the band in America, where they remained critics’ darlings and superstars only among a contingent of brooding college and high school students. “we were never very good at the video scene, ’cause we were miserable,” says Sergeant. “I didn’t like the camera so much.” Heaven Up Here is as shocking an accomplishment as Crocodiles was and bettered its sales in the U.K., where it reached the Top 10.

While the other Bunnymen rented a 100-year-old Victorian mansion, Mac lived with his new wife and was already suffering from a particularly virulent strain of lead-singer syndrome. “By the time the Bunnymen had been going for three years, Mac was a different person,” says Wylie. “He went from being this shy, introverted, arrogant, monosyllabic goof to being the son of Jim Morrison.”

“The Back of Love,” another transcendent example of Sergeant’s ability to harness a stabbing Velvet Underground-style drone into a danceable post-punk riff, was issued as a single in ’82 and provided the band with their biggest hit yet. Warner Bros., which distributed Sire, was keen to capitalize on it. The third album, Porcupine, would be the one to break out, the suits on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to agree. The band entered Trident Studios in London, where Bowie made Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. While Porcupine contained “The Cutter,” another Top 10 U.K. hit, Warner Bros. initially deemed tracks like “My White Devil” and “Heads Will Roll” too obtuse and not very commercial. The Bunnymen were starting to resist the tremendous pressure to write hits, tour, and shoot flashy videos, although they did agree to rerecord some of the album and cut a club-friendly “Discotheque” version of the chugging, non-LP single “Never Stop,” but bristled all the way.

“We’re making records like Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, and Porcupine,” McCulloch says. “And the record company turned around and blamed us, saying ‘You don’t want to be sold.’ How can you not sell the first three Bunnymen albums? It’s like, how can you not sell the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch?”

Echoing the pop romanticism of Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg, and even Burt Bacharach, the material written for the follow-up, Ocean Rain, did away with the foreboding neo-psychedelic murk that marked its predecessors. In its place, there was room for magisterial orchestration: strings, horses, piano instead of garage-rock organ. Recorded mostly in Paris and released in the spring of 1984, the album certainly felt like an epic. The lyrics and basic melody for centerpiece “The Killing Moon” came to McCulloch the same way the “Satisfaction” riff entered Keith Richards—in a dream. “I shot bolt upright in bed,” he says. “I went downstairs and worked it out. It was like it was given to me in my sleep. It was like divine intervention.” The song, widely considered among the band’s best, has been covered by Pavement and Grant-Lee Phillips, and figured prominently in the opening scene of the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko.

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The Bunnymen’s Sire singles were collected for a 1985 best-of, under the characteristically arrogant title Songs to Learn & Sing. The band also recorded a bonus track, the ornate, druggy ballad “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” which appeared on the soundtrack to John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink. By then, the Bunnymen were a Brat Pack music supervisor’s dream, their sound the ideal punctuation for disaffected youth drama. After a sabbatical, they agreed to record a version of the Doors’ 1967 hit “People Are Strange” for the 1987 teen-vampire flick The Lost Boys. It became their best-known song in America, but it was a cover, and it pushed the band’s buttons. In ’86, shortly after the departure of their management (Drummond would go on to mastermind alterna-pranksters the KLF), De Freitas announced he was leaving. The band replaced him with former Haircut One Hundred drummer Marc Fox for the recording of their self-titled 1987 long-player, retroactively known as the “Grey Album,” for its lack of the gift of vision.

“Without Pete, it was a bit weird,” says Sergeant. “The lad who took over was a brilliant drummer. But when you’re in this sort of [fame] situation, your brain gets kind of twisted round and you start seeing things in a funny way.” The album, bolstered by the single “Lips Like Sugar,” also sold better than any of their previous releases, and a coheadlining tour with New Order found them playing major U.S. venues. But despite the thrill of working with the Doors’ Ray Manzarek on the record’s other bright spot, “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” the Bunnymen felt uninspired by the new material. “We thought, ‘We’ll just go for it, we’ll play the game a bit,’ because we were very at odds with the labels,” Sergeant says. “I think it was hard for us to do that transition-to-a-stadium thing. We were our own worst enemies. It was an amazing opportunity, and we’d think, ‘Let’s please say something to somebody to piss them off.'” Mac had had enough by 1988 and announced he was leaving following a tour of Japan. On the night of the last show, he found out his father had passed away in Liverpool. Sergeant and Pattinson were determined to continue with a replacement. The following year, De Freitas was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 27.

By ’89, there were younger, more passionate bands from the north—the La’s from Liverpool and the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays from Manchester—who’d connected with masses of British youth and thousands of American students in the same way the Bunnymen had at the top of the decade. Both McCulloch, who issued the solo album Candleland in 1989, and the Bunnymen, who released Reverberation with a new lead singer, seemed at sea. “When Mac left, he thought he could just take off whenever he wanted to, and we thought we could carry on without him,” Sergeant says. “We needed someone to say, ‘Wait a minute, wise up, this is what’s going on.’ But we never had anyone to say that, and we were probably too stupid to listen anyway. Everything had come so easy it was hard to think that things could be hard.” McCulloch performed solo material and Bunnymen classics in small clubs, while Warner Bros. saw the inevitable failure of Reverberation as an excuse to drop the group after a decade.

Humility did nit sit well with either Mac or Sergeant, and by 1994, they had reunited as Electrafixion—sort of a bridge to Echo & the Bunnymen 2.0. In 1997, Pattinson rejoined them for the first proper Bunnymen record in a decade. Evergreen seemed to pick up where Ocean Rain left off, placing a jangling hit, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” back on the U.K. charts. Since then, the Bunnymen have been recording, occasionally touring, and, as styles and business models change radically, sticking by their original haircuts and attitude with typical defiance.

Next year the band will release The Fountain, their fifth record since the reunion. “This new album is going to surprise people, everyone who’s heard of us,” says McCulloch, who insists it is as good as the Bunnymen’s best work.

“They’re still really relevant,” says Rab Allan, guitarist for the Scottish quartet Glasvegas, who opened the Radio City show. “There’s a lot of artists from that time who would just tour and not bother to do anything new. And Ian is just 100 percent rock star. I don’t think there’s a lot of them around.”

Thirty years on, photos from the Eric’s scene are part of a cultural heritage exhibit in a Liverpool museum, and the Bunnymen are considered favorite rock’n’roll sons, just like the Beatles. In November, they performed Ocean Rain at their hometown’s Echo Arena, McCulloch no doubt chuffed by the venue’s name. Sergeant is now based in Lancashire, England, but Mac has never left the port city where he was born and raised. “I’d hate to not be there,” he says ruefully. “I plan on not dying at all, but if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.”