The singer’s claim of this being the best album ever and one made in 1984 no less, has had the curtains twitching in the BETWEEN THE CRACKS camper van. We’ve gone mobile journeying into the forbidden zone to the crossroads of time where the music of the 80’s actually began. Like stalkers from a Tarkovsky film we’ve tramped through derelict FACtories, ankle deep in oil skimmed pools, argued amongst ourselves and ended up with a few uncomfortable truths.
I admit I am out of my depth with all this. I was unprepared for the journey. The sweet strings of the perfect pop song “Silver” seduced me bringing back memories of “Top of The Pops” on TV and my intense teen-age years. But on each listen I keep getting stuck on that string hook and wondering where it comes from? My revivalist instincts bother me that it was lifted from something I should know and I keep wanting to say David Angel’s strings on Love’s “Forever Changes” but I don’t think it was. It’ll hit me much later on and I’ll quietly go in and amend this post …under the nose of Tamantha. But never the less it is a perfect pop single and a perfect album opener. But it may be made even better by the dirge like second song “Nocturnal Me” coming next. It sounds a bit like Julian Cope and Marc Almond's Scott Walker obesession but I like the sequencing contrast from one to the other and the long orchestrated coda and the singer’s tendency to suddenly lurch his vocal forward like David Bowie or Jim Morrison did.
In fact the band later covered songs by the Doors with that band’s keyboardist actually joining them at one point. But I musn’t keep referencing all that is good about this album back to the 1960’s must I? But…the Byrdsy-guitar sound by the Byrdsy-looking guitarist Will Sergeant is pure Byrds. On reflection The Byrds were probably the most significant influence on a whole generation of mid-80’s bands all the way into the next recession. Jangly jangly guitars, ponchos and tortuously blown-dry, bowl hair cuts. For mine I wore a very tight fitting woolly hat for about an hour every morning to flatten down the curls which probably made me look like a hip version of Benny from “Crossroads”.
Anyway the second side plays out very well after that. The sequencing is good and again I fondly remember the two melodic singles from those TOTP days. The previous year's "The Cutter" with it's faux Bollywood strings intro alerted me to Echo being a great singles band and they shone when they pushed for hits. Towards the end of "Ocean Rain" it gets moodier and stringier but it wraps things up to a very satisfying end. “My Kingdom” is a rousing peak and the album ends with a song that though it seems to think its better than it is, is nevertheless a very effective closer with it’s salty seaside portent. You can’t go wrong ending an album with ramblings and rumblings about the sea. It’s poetic meat and two veg.
So an album I tackled with some reservations and one much more enjoyable than I imagined it would be. Along the way there were some hairy moments, but it’s left me with tunes to whistle and that’s not a bad thing for an ‘owd bugger like me and it’s also quite nice because most of the stuff I heard in the mid-80s’was really quite irritating and I’m pleased that my contemporaries were at least having some fun.
I remember once accidentally seeing Echo and the Bunny Men on Top of the Pops, the UK television programme that highlighted the upper echelons of the then single chart that made or broke new bands. The programme was a mish mash of predominantly kitsch popular tunes with the occasional golden nugget of a serious musician such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe or Prince’s Purple Rain. In the main it was programmed to appeal to a surburban audience of eleven to sixteen year olds along with the occasional tune that had been promoted in the specialist clubs where DJs had a profound grasp of music and its histories. If one was lucky it was a soul or jazz funk classic that had irresistibly stormed the clubs and spread beyond to the discos and wider single buying publics. Its move up the singles charts allowed such records to force their way onto Top of the Pops. However Top of the Pops was also shamelessly manipulated by the record promoters so that endless novelty acts gained a ridiculous exposure that massively boosted their sales (and therefore was played in the less discerning clubs and discos where everyone was too drunk to care about what they were listening to). One also has to note that the music was mimed and some musicians purposely did not imitate playing their tune with sometimes hilarious results. The only reason for watching the programme was when a serious musician or band featured and highlighted the utter inanity of the rest of the programme - including bizarre sequences of dancers moving totally out of sync with whichever tune was being played and DJ’s whose enthusiastic prattle was clearly directed at the lowest common denominator of inanity. At its best watching this programme was a profoundly surreal experience.
Back to Echo and the Bunny Men. I have to confess I did not understand their music at the time and still don’t. Clearly on Ocean Rain the producer and the orchestrator have played a key role in the making of its sound(s). Moreover it is clear that their musical direction is directed at making a commercial success that could feature on Top of Pops and sell to the widest range of publics. To that end their tunes seem to select signature clichés of successful pop records including some of the devices of the novelty records to create a mish mash of effects without musical purpose. To my ears they are unlistenable.
There’s an anecdote that prevails around bus-stops in the North West of England that observes that when the bus finally does turn up it will be joined by two empty companions. So it was at the end of the seventies/early eighties post-punk Northern musical resurgence. Three bands spawned at roughly the same time and then spun in different directions. Glasgow offered the art school Bohemia of Simple Minds, Dublin launched the scrappy U2 and Liverpool offered the bewildering Echo and The Bunnymen. The Bunnymen’s initial sound was introspective jangle pre-shoe gaze. Songs of willful obscurity celebrating the banal and mundane as moments of intense introspection, their first two albums ploughed a furrow as idiosyncratic as the gulf between Liverpool and the Wirral. None of the key players McCulloch, De Freitas, Sergeant or Pattinson ruined their brains with the experience of higher education, instead they opted for a musical apprenticeship at Eric’s music club which was in a basement on Matthew Street opposite the more famous Cavern. Here the band mixed with future members of It’s immaterial, Wah, Shack, The Christians, Julian Cope, the Teardrop Explodes, Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Banshees, The Slits, Talking Heads, Stranglers, Ultravox, XTC and OMD. Their first album ‘Crocodiles’ won critical acclaim, their follow-up ‘Porcupine” earned them some commercial impact. Their third album began experimenting with the raw Bunnymen sound to expand the formula with string arrangements. After an extensive tour of obscure venues - the Hebrides, Iceland, Buxton (ED. Not the Iceland in Buxton) the band launched Ocean Rain. It was a record that retained the fierce introspection of lyric with brighter melodies and lusher arrangements. The album sold well and the band disintegrated citing that they couldn’t do any better. Obviously they tried to another seven times, but nothing quite ever recaptured the sad magic of Ocean Rain which is in a nutshell a collection of songs which celebrate a simple life in Liverpool. McCulloch is quoted about his work ethic in releasing Ocean Rain in 2008. He said “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. It’s the greatest album ever made” The music is simple to play, but almost impossible to copy, because of the subtlety of McCulloch’s vocal stylings. Sarges might be playing an E, G, F but he’s playing it in a tuning you don’t recognise all over the fretboard.
The sky is blue
My hands untied
A world that's true
Through our clean eyes
Just look at you
With burning lips
You're living proof
At my fingertips
Great guitar hook on verse and chorus, driving drum and bass, lush arrangements and McCulloch racing along trying to keep up with lyrics that could be pushed into a romantic interpretation by a jaded Cure or Joy Division fan.
Oh take me internally
Take me internally
A brooder much more reminiscent of the band’s early pre-poppy material, which eludes to a love hurts like drugs. Its distinctive and enlivened to sub operatic by the arrangements. Not all songs need to be happy but this is particularly dour.
Where are you
In shadows only I can see
Looking for hope
And you hope it's me
Tattered and torn and born to be
Building a world where we can
Purify our misfit ways
And magnify our crystal days
The jingle jangle of broken love in Liverpool where the rain tastes bitter. The baseline holds this one together, and the guitar is the cement.
The Yo-Yo Man
Collecting the bones of my friend tonight
Sowing the seeds in a fruitless land
You know when prayers all hit the ground
There is no higher hand
Another gloomster with a lovely middle 8, saved by the extra band arrangements. Dramatic but an unlikely choice to be whistled on your way to work, even if you work in Toxteth.
Thorn of Crowns
Wait for me on the blue horizon
Blue horizon for everyone
Wait for me on a new horizon
New horizons for everyone
A vocal tribute to the Doors. Again reminiscent of the bands earlier work, but with a little more shouting. I saw this live in Reykjavik in an early form and I can say McCulloch toned down his wig-out scat to the betterment of the song.
The Killing Moon
Under Blue moon I saw you
So soon you'll take me
Up in your arms, too late to beg you
Or cancel it though I know it must be
The killing time
An unambiguously creepy song of great atmosphere that is the band’s zeitgeist moment. Great structure, shape, development, restraint and poise. Any band would have killed to have this song. The Bunnymen almost didn’t include it, because it didn’t have the ocean theme. Pattinson recalls: “Me and Will had been in Russia for a holiday, and there was this band playing balalaikas in a hotel foyer, real cheesy cabaret. But it was so fantastic and we just started messing about and the next thing is we’ve got a chorus for “The Killing Moon”. It was just brilliant”
Stab a sorry heart
With your favourite finger
Paint the whole world blue
And stop your tears from stinging
Hear the cavemen singing
Good news they're bringing
A cheerful song about moving on. Greatly lifted by the orchestrations, and the bells…
I chop and I change and the mystery thickens
There's blood on my hands and you want me to listen
To brawn and to brain when the truth's in the middle
Born of the grain like all good riddles
B-b-burn the skin off and climb the roof top
Thy will be done
B-b-bite the nose off and make it the most of
Your king- kingdom kingdom kingdom
Sounds like its going to be a gloomy one but instead the jangle ascends upwards to be probably the best song on the album, all the elements in zen like balance
All at sea again
And now my hurricanes have brought down this ocean rain
To bathe me again
My ship's a sail
Can you hear its tender frame
Screaming from beneath the waves
Screaming from beneath the waves
The big ballad, gentle start to full orchestra, a lovely crescendo arrangement.
Angels and devils* (ED. This wasn’t on my version of the album?)
So, so happy
When happiness spells miser
And mister me hoping to be
Where ugliness meets beauty
Hope if you'll see
The demon in you
The angel in me
The jesus in you
The devil in me
MOR stomper for the American market that escaped them until Donnie Darko revived them.
Overall, it is not the best album ever made, but it’s a very good one, and when listened to in its proper context a special place is reserved for this record in my top 50. I think what I love about it is its undeniable simplicity, disguising a lush complexity. Its ambiguous lyrics well sung, and even though Ian Broudie’s production added a necessary lightness to the mixture (for sales) the efforts don’t sound misplaced and the band rise to the occasion. Whilst Simple Minds grew to dominate national stadium venues and U2 went on to fill global stadia, the Bunny men blew their assets chasing Ray Manzarek for their next album which didn’t perform as well. Their intense parochialism is what kept them honest but not global. Patterson illustrates this with his descriptions of the Paris phase of the recording of Ocean Rain.
“We were pissed every night and working in a studio with two guys who hardly spoke any English and we produced it ourselves. It only took three weeks and it was amazing, but for all that, Mac couldn’t sing on it. He was either too washed out from partying or just couldn’t get it together, so we ended up recording all his vocals in Kirby. That was typical, and I don’t think it would have worked otherwise”
I have a strange relationship with the 80s. On the one hand, most of my bequiffed, stonewashed teens were spent in it; but when I then heard music from the two previous decades, I soon buried myself in the second-hand racks, rather than the new releases.
Echo & the Bunnymen largely passed me by, save one single Bring on the Dancing Horses, released a year or two after Ocean Rain - and I think that's still their best song. There are a few decent ones on this LP (two of the singles, Seven Seas and The Killing Moon for example), but the rest - pretty much all of side one, in fact - seem too much like filler to me. The strings give warmth and depth to the sound when they're there, but when they're not McCulloch's voice seems too prominent in the mix, and I don't think it's strong enough to pull that off convincingly.
I suspect this was a hugely
inspirational album for some - The Mission, to my ears, spring to mind - but it’s
not my cup of tea.