By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY – There’s really only two things that you need to know about Echo And The Bunnymen:
Fact #1: The lead singer isn’t named Echo and his band isn’t “The Bunnymen.” The singer is Ian “Mac” McCulloch, his band has one stable member, guitarist Will Sergeant, and a rotating cast of bassists, keyboardists and drummers. The name was grasped at in a fit of panic after the two Liverpool boys found themselves with a gig they were unprepared for.
Fact #2: They have songs that aren’t “The Killing Moon.” I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out: a band that was been around for since November 1978 has recorded songs that aren’t the one from the opening sequence of Donnie Darko, and which stand up better over time than everybody’s favorite film when they were fifteen. In fact, unlike Donnie Darko’s director, they’re still out there doing their thing, and their most recent songs are pretty damn good.
Like a lot of bands that emerged from mid-to-northern United Kingdom in the ‘80s, boredom and the desire to escape grim industrial towns seems to have played a factor in their formation: “There was nothing to do except be into music,” Sergeant says. “It was football, music or motorbikes, you know? There wasn’t much to have as a hobby, so the music scene was important—and a lot of it was trying to pose or look cool or know about the next band, that sort of stuff.”
Their band was born, as so many British things are, down the pub:
“There was this pub in Liverpool called Eric’s where everybody played—the Damned, the (Sex) Pistols, the Clash, Devo, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads—everybody played there in the early days of punk,” Sergeant says. “Punk sort of inspired everybody to think that they could be in a band. I didn’t have any sort of musical ability… I bought a guitar off me friend, learnt a few chords, and I just said to Mac, who I’d seen just floating around, ‘do you want to come to my house and start writing songs?’”
Sergeant bought a drum machine into the mix and they became, functionally, a band. They were listening to “a lot of Velvet Underground, The Doors, Bowie, Lou Reed.” Sergeant mentions a particular fondness for Wire, the angular art-school punks who made a significant contribution to the sound that would come to be called post-punk. It’s a label often applied to Echo, and is definitely applicable to songs like “The Cutter,” from their third album, 1983’s Porcupine, but it doesn’t capture much about the band except that they emerged and evolved from the late ‘70s punk scene. They’re a band with broad enough appeal but big enough scope that “rock” is really all you can do so far as genre is concerned.
Although they were relatively unknown in the Americas, in the UK they were huge for a dark, complex rock band on a small label (Warner Music subsidiary Korova, who also put out albums by Airhead, Dalek I Love You and Strawberry Switchblade.) The music press loved them: Rolling Stone awarded their debut album five stars out of five and a writer in the NME, up until very recently the taste-making magazine in the UK, called Crocodiles “probably the best album this year by a British band.”
“The Killing Moon” was on their fourth studio album, Ocean Rain, and was released as a single in January of 1984. Its chorus (“Fate up against your will/Through the thick and thin/He will wait until you give yourself to him”) appeared to McCulloch in a dream; the chord progression is David Bowie’s Space Oddity played backwards with the peculiar inflections of the Russian balalaika music that Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson heard on a vacation. It was a great song, one that Sergeant and McCulloch are rightly proud of, but it was one great song amongst many in the band’s repertoire until it was played over Jake Gyllenhaal cycling in a film that was initially supposed to go straight to DVD, but wound up becoming one of the best performing independent films of all time.
“It’s a great song, don’t get me wrong,” says Sergeant, “but now its got its own special charisma now, and back when we were doing gigs it was more “The Cutter” and “Over the Wall” that the crowd were going for.”
Despite their success, McCulloch left the band in 1988 to pursue a solo career. Sergeant and Pattinson tried to keep the band working, but the death of long-time drummer Pete de Freitas in 1989 and the critical savaging their McCulloch-less album Reverberation got caused the group to fold in 1993. Then McCulloch and Sergeant got talking again and formed the new band Electrafixion. When Pattinson joined up with them in 1997 they had all of the surviving members of the band’s original lineup, and Echo and the Bunnymen officially reformed. Sergeant says now that Electrafixion was a “stepping stone back to where we should have stayed.”
Twelve albums into their career, they have released just as many albums post-reformation as they had before they broke up, with more coming. Pretty soon the band whose music is used as musical shorthand for the nineteen-eighties will have done the majority of its work in the 2000s. Their most recent album, Meteorites, didn’t chart as highly as their ‘80s records, but it was reviewed as well. As a band they are still capable of great things, and songs like the album’s title track just need to be marinated for a few decades until people feel the same way about them as “Bring On The Dancing Horses.”
Echo are currently touring and recording, doing the work of a working band and still sounding like themselves and nobody else: “We never followed current trends, ever. We were always trying to make records that were timeless, so we wouldn’t try and do some of the sounds that were going around in the eighties—that horrible synthesizer sound—we never used any of that, we always kept it real.”
Echo and the Bunnymen perform August 3 at the PNE Amphitheatre (Vancouver), August 5 at Union Hall (Edmonton), August 6 at the MacEwan Hall Ballroom and August 8 at the Burton Cummings Theatre (Winnipeg).Burton Cummings Theatre, Echo and the Bunnymen, MacEwan Hall, Music, PNE Amphitheatre, Union Hall