The Over/Under: Echo & The Bunnymen

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This Liverpool foursome made the ‘80s worth living through. I bought the band’s debut LP, Crocodiles, the day it came out July 1980 and dug the hell out of everything about it. From Ian “Mac” McCulloch’s vertical hairpile and drab overcoat (the latter’s suave affect was one I would slavishly copy, the hairstyle, less so; I’d eventually opt for a version of bassist Les Pattinson’s pompadour with short back and sides) to the group’s previously unimagined admixture of the Doors’ dark doomsaying and the Velvets’ one-note symphonies, Echo & The Bunnymen turned gloom into glamour, made sadness seem sexy and went on to influence a generation of guitar bands (Jesus And Mary Chain, Radiohead, the Verve) who heard an orchestra of possibilities in Will Sergeant’s weirdly accomplished tone jamborees. The latter-day Bunnies have, sadly, become something of a nostalgia act, but we still have those first five albums—released from 1980 to 1987—to shine so hard even through the darkest of our turquoise days. See you at the barricades, babe; here are the five most overrated and underrated creations from the indie era’s Post-Fab Four.

:: The Five Most Overrated Echo & The Bunnymen Songs
1. “Lips Like Sugar” (1987)

After slugging it out in camo gear on the club circuit for eight years, the Bunnymen still didn’t have much to show for their efforts in America. “We hated each others’ guts and I thought Mac would leave, but our attitude was, ‘OK, let’s sell out,’” guitarist Will Sergeant has said of the band’s eponymous fifth LP. “Let’s stop them shoving us around and go for it.” The band’s efforts to make it big in America involved bringing in big-name producer Laurie Latham (Paul Young, Squeeze), whose idea of bringing out the best in the Bunnymen was to fuss over a single track for as long as a month at a time. The grinding work schedule (coupled with McCulloch’s heavy drinking/drugging) resulted in the group’s patchiest album to date, yet the one that sold best in America and finally gave the band the hit it was seeking. “Lips Like Sugar” is emblematic of all that was wrong with the album and with the band at that point, too. Less than a year away from implosion, the Bunnies had produced a hooky, radio-friendly unit shifter that sounded little like their early, nervy post-punk and more like the big, thematic canvasses that hated rivals U2 were crafting with Eno/Lanois at the helm. “It still sounds crap,” McCulloch would sniff, years later. ‘Nuff said.

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2. “The Killing Moon” (1984)
Ocean Rain remains Echo & The Bunnymen’s claim to fame (if not quite “the greatest album ever made,” as the stickers accompanying it proclaimed at the time), the LP that got me through an otherwise dreary senior year of high school. “The Killing Moon” is that album’s centerpiece, containing all the band’s most romantic signature gestures: the underwater piano plinking, an orchestra of amazing, shivery guitar sounds, strings floating in as if on a moonbeam and Mac’s best Jimbo-meets-Sinatra-covering-Ziggy croon, with the sort of existentially sad lyrics (built around the phrase “fate up against your will,” which evidently came to him in a dream one night) the raincoat-wearing masses had come to expect from their doom-burdened heroes. But man, does it go on. It’s almost six minutes when it’s all said and done, and I’m pretty sure we get what’s going on here by about the three-minute mark, what with that whole “he will wait until you give yourself to him” bit. (Like their contemporaries Duran Duran, Echo had a thing for shrouding their sexual healing in a bit of Byronic burble.) Too much of a good thing, “The Killing Moon” is enough to make the Bunnycult yearn for the three-minute quickie-ness of “Do It Clean.”

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3. “Bring On The Dancing Horses” (1985)
A month-long studio adventure that took longer than the band’s first two albums to record combined, “Bring On The Dancing Horses” was another Latham misstep. It flaunted a few choice McCulloch catchphrases (“Bring on the new messiah, wherever he may roam,” “Hating all the faking, shaking while I’m breaking your brittle heart”) but buttoned them to cheesy synth lines, the kind of programmed drums that inspired the band’s moniker in the first place (prior to the arrival of drummer Pete DeFreitas, “Echo” had supposedly been the name of the group’s wheezing, undependable drum machine, although they’ve since denied this) and the sort of sweeping harps and reverb-heavy sounds more typically associated with the Cocteau Twins. The fact that it was recorded specifically for the John Hughes teensploitation flick Pretty In Pink devalues it even further, although it’s worth pointing out that these days the Decemberists do a pretty terrific cover version.

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4. “People Are Strange” (1987)
From the very first note of their very first album, everyone and their brother compared these guys to the Doors, so it was perhaps inevitable that the Bunnymen would eventually make a run at one of Jimbo’s compositions. Recorded for Coreys Haim/Feldman mock-horror vehicle The Lost Boys (by this point in its career, the band’s original lineup had nearly ceased to exist, anyway), “People Are Strange” is remarkably faithful to the original, neither adding anything particularly new nor challenging the structure of the song in any distinctive way. They had already done superior Doors covers: “Soul Kitchen” being the most obvious, although one might go so far as to say that their original song “Bedbugs And Ballyhoo,” featuring Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, is perhaps their best Doors pastiche. The Bunnymen would do even better by other ‘60s artists, including the Velvets (“Run, Run, Run,” “Heroin”), Wilson Pickett (“In The Midnight Hour”) and Minneapolis proto-punks the Litter (“Action Woman”).

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5. “Nothing Lasts Forever” (1997)
After their half-Bunnymen, toe-in-the-water reunion exercise known as Electrafixion in 1995, guitarist Sergeant had a realization: “Most people coming to those Electrafixion shows were Bunnymen fans. To me it seemed stupid to have Electrafixion when we could be the Bunnymen. [It] was the best thing we had ever done, so why not be the best thing?” Evergreen welcomed bassist Pattinson back into the fold after a decade away, and everything about the album seemed an obvious statement that good times had returned once again to the Merseyside, right down to the album cover’s homage to Crocodiles (inserting a car where late drummer DeFreitas should have been). But in hindsight, there have been better albums released during the Bunnymen’s second era, and “Nothing Lasts Forever,” flaunting a vocal contribution from McCulloch stylistic/attitudinal imitator Liam Gallagher, comes off more like warmed-over Oasis or the Verve than classic Bunnymen. Tired.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Echo & The Bunnymen Songs
1. “Never Stop” (1983)

For a band with a golden-throated heartthrob of a frontman and a guitarist who ranked among the finest of his generation (Sergeant’s inventive playing can easily hold its own alongside the Smiths’ Johnny Marr or R.E.M.’s Peter Buck for sheer influential durability), it was never obvious, until he was gone, that Echo & The Bunnymen’s secret weapon was powerhouse drummer DeFreitas. His relentless tempo—all post-punk sturm/drang one minute, tribal Burundi madman the next, and swinging like an MDMA-dropping metronome somewhere in between—was the engine that powered the group, and nowhere was that more evident than on “Never Stop,” the band’s play for the world’s indie-rock dance floors. Cribbing Shankar’s Eastern-flavored strings (the ones that made Porcupine’s “The Cutter” and “The Back Of Love” stand out from post-punk pretenders), Mac’s best Henry Fonda-circa-On Golden Pond imitation (“Good Gawd, you said, is that the only thing you care about?”) and a tremolo guitar drop that still makes my stomach sink like a 20-floor elevator drop every time I hear it, “Never Stop” sits at the top of the Bunnymen’s considerable stack of career-defining work.

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2. “Silver” (1984)
I’ve listened to this song probably a thousand times since it first graced Ocean Rain, and to be honest, I still have no idea what the hell Mac is on about here (“Swung from a chandelier/My planet sweet on a silver salver,” “Just look at you, with burning lips/You’re living proof at my fingertips”). But that all seems so trivial when you consider the track at the macro level. It’s the best melody on their best album, and what bits you can make out (a quickly administered dose of Mac’s existentialist philosophy: “Man has to be his own savior”) are aided by the equivalent of a rainbow-colored sonic circus going on behind him, from sweeping strings to yet another DeFreitas dancehall daze to some of Sergeant’s most inspired, lushly arranged playing. Awesome.

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3. “All I Want” (1981)
Heaven Up Here remains the Bunnymen’s most underrated album, a dark, terrifying textural tour that lyrically explored the shadowy parts of McCulloch’s psyche and set them to the least accessible Bunnysongs in the band’s jagged catalog. The record’s closing song travels a seldom-tread path to great emotional effect. “All I Want” has it all: loud/soft dynamics, tribal drumbeats punching up the impact of the choruses, delicate Sergeant guitar passages that force the listener to wait for the band to resolve the tension it’s created and some of McCulloch’s best lyrics, essentially a clarion call to break through the darkness and overcome. Along with contemporaries Joy Division/New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees and perhaps Public Image Ltd., this is the album that best defines what Simon Reynolds described in his book Rip It Up And Start Again as “dancing music with Gothic overtones”: a celebration of desire, for the sake of desire. Euphoria in excelsis deo.

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4. “Monkeys” (1979)
From the start, McCulloch resisted the “neopsychedelic” tag: “People always said the [debut] LP sounds druggy, but I think three pints would get us going in those days,” he said. “The lyrics were about us growing up.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t hard to grasp the meaning of songs like Crocodiles’ “Villier’s Terrace” or “Monkeys,” the most propulsive, spacey songs on their debut. The Bunnymen may have been young but were growing up fast, and sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were clearly on the menu (if perhaps dressed for dinner in slightly more elegant togs than most of their peers). The band’s superbly compiled Crystal Days 1979-1999 features the original single version of this song, with a preprogrammed drum machine chugging along lamely as guest keyboardist Julian Cope (the Teardrop Explodes frontman who, along with McCulloch and Wah! Heat’s Pete Wylie, formed the influential Crucial Three that preceded all three groups) adds some psychedelic spice to “Monkeys.” But the song became much more powerful in the hands of the Post-Fab Four, with Mac doing his best Mojo Risin’ impersonation as a group of wired, despairing Scousers tore it up behind him.

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5. “An Eternity Turns” (2001)
Now this is more like it: “Look toward me, I’m no hands on the wheel/Nothing can touch you when you can’t even feel/No one you can trust ‘cause no one’s for real.” Flowers is the Bunnymen’s latter-day Heaven Up Here, an underrated gem with attitude and verve to spare that demonstrates just how Velvets-like the McCulloch/Sergeant pairing could remain more than two decades after forming. “An Eternity Turns” is a speedy little sports car of a song that underscores the surplus of creative fuel these two had in the tank at that point. Here’s hoping their next planned release, The Fountain (supposedly due out later this year), can bottle a little more of that Bunnymagic before it’s all said, done and put back on the road for one final reunion tour.

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—Corey duBrowa

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9 Comments

  1. black francis
    Posted June 9, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I suppose you’re no fan of the nine minute version of the Killing Moon then?

  2. elf
    Posted June 9, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    These lists are sort of becoming pointless. Before looking at the list, I knew Lips Like Sugar would be #1 for overrated because it’s the only Echo song I could think of off the top of my head, which may be one more than most people. I may know a few other songs, but not their titles. If a person knows all five “overrated” songs, then they probably know a lot about music and don’t need to be told what is overrated. Maybe just stick to underrated.

  3. Posted June 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that this list is fairly decent. the overrated all deserve their place, (even Mac would probably admit Killing Moon is overrated, mostly because of his own hype), and I can buy the arguments for the under. And I agree that Heaven Up Here is the most underrated (and I think the best) album of their cannon.

  4. Ed
    Posted June 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    For the lack of anything else to say you’ve slammed the bands most popular and enduring songs while trumpeting other, slightly more obscure ones that fans would know about already. This kind of writing is exactly what makes Magnet a ridiculous waste of time; Pointless pieces written with sole purpose of eliciting some kind of response, any kind of response. It’s the journalistic equivalent of shit-flavored cotton candy. Not only does it taste terrible but the ingredients have no nutritional value.

  5. joe
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Yeah, you’re being really lazy with this column by just naming the most popular songs as over-rated and your personal favorites as under-rated. Killing Moon and NLF are both among the best Echo songs. You need to work harder at this. It could be a good column.

  6. Corey duBrowa
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Now “Ed,” surely you can’t mean it when you suggest that something as thin as “Nothing Lasts Forever” is “enduring?” That seems a ridiculously puffed-up/incredible statement (not to mention your “cotton candy” nonsense) meant to provoke more ridiculously puffed-up responses intended to somehow give your “outsider” stance more credibility than if you were to have done the research, put your own opinions out there and written it yourself? Oh, and if we’re a ridiculous waste of time, we thank YOU for wasting your precious time with US. Drive through, please.

  7. whaaa?
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    god i love this column. always makes my day a bit more, uh, funnier.

  8. Posted June 11, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I saw them front row at Mershon Auditorium on the Ohio State University campus in 1988. My friends and I kept yelling “Over The Wall” really loud after EVERY song….like a bunch of drunekn sots we were, anyway, Ian finally said
    “I think we can do that one…”, and they played it as an encore!!!
    That is my favorite Echo song and after also buying all of their albums the day each one came out, I am still a huge fan and hope it NEVER STOPS!!

    Oh yeah, what about the live version of Crocodiles from one of their many EPs? Now that’s entertainment…!

  9. Posted December 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    “blind sailors and prison jailors
    god tame us, no-one to blame us”
    – silver

    don’t disparage the song simply because you do not understand it … understanding is not a ‘given’. you may simply be too intelligent to understand the lyrics, or you may simply be too stupid. maybe neither. mabye you’re just too focused on your own self-worthlessness to be able to appreciate others …