When his Liverpool-based band called the Crucial Three broke up in 1978, singer Ian McCulloch formed a trio with guitarist Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson on bass. Echo & the Bunnymen was among a list of preposterous band names suggested by a friend. The joke has turned into over 50 years of serious success.
Among McCulloch’s early influences was his Crucial Three bandmate Julian Cope, who helped define the sound and spirit of British post-punk music and culture. The first time Echo & the Bunnymen played in public, it was to open for Cope’s new band, The Teardrop Explodes. The Bunnymen just riffed on one song for 20 minutes, true to the middle-finger-raising musical tenets of post-punk.
Their debut, Crocodiles (1980), was the first album released on Warner Records-owned Korova Records, established specifically for this genre and appropriately named after the Korova Milk Bar in Anthony Burgess’ proto-punk novel A Clockwork Orange. The main producers were Teardrop Explodes keyboardist David Balfe and cultural iconoclast Bill Drummond, who was also the Bunnymen’s manager. One track was produced by Ian Broudie (of late 1970s British band Big in Japan). The influential British music magazine NME described the album as full of “sorrow, horror and despair.”
The title song “Crocodiles,” with writing credits to the whole band, ends Side A. The message seems to be that life is inevitably horrible, so you might as well keep pressing forward instead of worrying about what’s coming up behind you. Up to this point, the trio had used a drum machine, but for this album they brought in Pete de Freitas, and his drumming is the best thing about this track.
The band’s reputation grew quickly, and the next album, Heaven Up Here (1981), stayed on the UK charts for 16 weeks. And now America was starting to show some interest. This time the Bunnymen themselves wanted to be involved in producing, which they did under the guidance of Hugh Jones. Jones was making a name for himself in the post-punk scene, also working with bands like Modern English (“I Melt With You”) and The Damned.
The song called “The Disease” exists in a wobbly synth atmosphere with simple strummed guitar chords pick out the details of a sonic hellscape. As one commenter wrote on YouTube, “Very apt in 2020.”
In 1983, the album Porcupine reached the No. 2 spot on the UK charts and entered the US Billboard 200. But it had not been an easy album to make. The members of the group were not getting along, and once they finally thought they’d finished the album, Warner rejected it as unmarketable. Back into the studio they went, this time with a highly marketable result.
One of Porcupine’s distinguishing features is a guest appearance by Indian violinist Shankar. He plays eerie electronic string sounds on “My White Devil,” among other tracks. De Freitas contributes pitched percussion to the complex texture, and McCullough’s slow-moving vocal line cuts through the sound traffic.
Although they made it through the recording of Ocean Rain (1984), friction among band members had worsened by the time they tried to record Echo & the Bunnymen (1987). McCulloch’s drinking was out of control. De Freitas had announced his resignation, so they proceeded without him – and got nowhere. Fortunately, he returned; this would be his last album before being killed in a motorcycle crash.
On Echo & the Bunnymen, Laurie Latham produced, a man known for working with more mainstream artists like Paul Young and Squeeze. It was that mainstream background that caused problems with both critics and fans, who found the record tame and too sweet. Ironic that the album’s biggest single, and maybe the Bunnymen’s most recognized song, was “Lips Like Sugar.”
You can hear the smoothness of the sound in “Blue Blue Ocean,” quite reminiscent of Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, from the same year.
It wasn’t just the death of De Freitas that changed the Bunnymen’s personnel. McCulloch quit, thinking the band was about to break up anyway. But instead, they found a new singer, Noel Burke, previously of the group St. Vitus Dance. Insulted, McCulloch reportedly began referring to his creation as “Echo & the Bogusmen.”
Drummer Damon Reece and keyboardist Jake Brockman were brought on to record Reverberation (1990), which was produced by Geoff Emerick, known for his work with The Beatles and Elvis Costello. The biggest stylistic change with the new lineup was the influence of psychedelia. This is especially pronounced on the track “Freaks Dwell,” with its jangly timbres and minor modes.
The new group didn’t last. In 1993, the Bunnymen officially split. But that didn’t last either. The original three – McCulloch, Sergeant, and Pattinson -- reformed a few years later to self-produce Evergreen (1997). Their sound was supplemented by session musicians, including the solid and experienced drummer Michael Lee, who had recorded with Led Zeppelin. To enrich the sound (in a way that would have been unthinkable in their early years), they brought in the strings of the London Metropolitan Orchestra.
The album closes with “Forgiven,” which features an attractive cello line and a surprisingly introspective McCullough.
Pattinson was the next to rock to boat. They had just begun studio work on What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? (1999) when he quit. So, session bassist Guy Pratt -- a veteran of recordings with The Smiths, Pink Floyd, Tears for Fears, and many others – played on all but one track. The string orchestra returned, and now there was even a hip-hop element: The group Fun Lovin’ Criminals participated in the single “Get in the Car.”
McCulloch doubled down on his wistful songwriting phase with the quiet, stripped-down “History Chimes” for voice and simple piano accompaniment.
Every four or five years since 2000, McCulloch and Sergeant have put out a new album under the Bunnymen name. The most recent is The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon (2018), containing new arrangements of older Bunnymen songs plus two new pieces. The orchestrations are lush and easygoing.
One of the new songs is “The Somnambulist.” This poetic vision by McCulloch describes a fantastical sub-oceanic being, perhaps as a metaphor for finding one’s own path in life. The rage and defiance of those early post-punk years may have cooled, but the beacon of individualism that inspired those youngsters in 1970s Liverpool still has a strong pull.