Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on Echo & the Bunnymen

And now, from the How To Destroy the Blog Before It Ever Bloomed Department, I'm going to share some of my thoughts on Echo & the Bunnymen.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! you cry. Don't do it, Phutatorius! Vercingetorix is AWOL, Mithridates is absent WITH leave — on a two-week trip to India (we expect regular travel journal entries) — you're minding the store alone. There's absolutely no reason, at this point, for you to pester us with your overwrought musings on defunct 1980s wrong-side-of-mainstream British post-punk acts, the Stateside exposure of whom has been limited to soundtracks. For the love of God, Phutatorius, Blogger's post-label software won't even tolerate the band's ampersand!

Message received, Good Reader, and disregarded. It's E&tB Night here at Feigned Outrage. Bring the love, or take a hike. Here goes, then:

I'm going to challenge the orthodoxy here. I'm going to take the heretical position — at least in the mind of those of us who romanticize defunct 1980s British post-punk acts — that Echo & the Bunnymen probably weren't all that great a band. And, what's worse (and likely to get me flayed and fileted), Ian McCulloch was probably holding them back.

Dare I write these words? Dare I suggest that these Alt-Rock Elder Statesmen are more myth than substance? And how presumptuous is it for me, a mere sub-recognizable Internet Personality, to undermine E&tB's exotic, iconic frontman? Well, let's consider the evidence: let's play the records.

I'll be the first to admit that certain tracks are just gorgeous. "Crystal Days," "The Killing Moon," "Lips Like Sugar," "Bring on the Dancing Horses" — they're the complete package. Songwriting, instrumentation, lyrics, production: it's all there. When the Bunnymen were on, they were sublime. But they were never interesting. McCulloch's writings were modestly poetic. Sergeant's guitars were modestly psychedelic. These two were the core of the band. For crying out loud, the drummer, Pete de Freitas, replaced a drum machine (called Echo, by the way). He wasn't exactly breaking new ground.

(I don't mean to demean the memory of de Freitas, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident in 1989. This same de Freitas helped kick-start the Wild Swans' recording career, and for that he'll always have a soft spot in my heart.)

Contrast E&tB's contemporaries and greatest rivals in art rock, the Smiths. The Smiths were a no-frills four-piece, too. They wrote and recorded beautiful songs. They also had a signature sound and aesthetic, but these were distinctive and compelling. The Smiths had an artistic mission, and they took significant risks. Love him or hate him, Morrissey threw himself open for the world to see — and even if that wasn't his true self, he surely dreamed up and delivered a fascinating stage character. As terrific as some of the Bunnymen's work is, there's no edge there, no identity, no risk. Is it any coincidence that this band is best remembered in black and white, if not silhouette?

I have just two more bits of evidence to submit, before I hang McCulloch for these crimes. First, the band's cover of the Doors' "People Are Strange" for The Lost Boys soundtrack. Growing up in the time and place that I did, I heard the Bunnymen's version before I heard the original. I don't fault the Bunnymen for allowing the Doors to blow them away (although I regard the Doors as overrated, too). I fault them for doing nothing remotely interesting or interpretative with the song. It's a straight recording, without the organ. Second, I saw a reformed, reconstituted version of Echo & the Bunnymen play in Boston several years ago. They were touring with the Psychedelic Furs. The contrast between the two shows was striking. Echo was all smoke machines, dry ice, and back lighting. McCulloch appeared in silhouette the entire time (I wondered if he had been disfigured, or he didn't want fans to see his age lines). He barely moved as he sang. They were clearly trying to sell "lush soundscapes" and "mystique." I wasn't buying. The Psych Furs were triumphant. They seemed absolutely thrilled to be playing to a crowd of sleepy thirtysomething fans in the wee weeknight hours. The enthusiasm gap was dramatic, and it favored the Furs. The Bunnymen won on pretentiousness by a mile.

So that's my take on the band generally. On to McCulloch.

Now here's where I go completely off the reservation. I'm going to have to insist that Echo & the Bunnymen's best album is 1990's Reverberation — you know, the one the band recorded without Ian McCulloch. The one they recorded with a guy named Noel Burke (remember him?), the one that appears in AllMusic without a cover and is granted a non sequitur-ish 2.5 stars by the reviewer, notwithstanding his generally glowing writeup on the album?

As best I can figure it, the AllMusic writer docked the album points not on its merits, but because it differed from the rest of the Bunnymen's back catalog:

Reverberation would have been a great debut had Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson decided to operate under a different moniker. Who knows if Sergeant thought McCulloch would someday return to the band, but it would have made more sense for these ten songs to have been released under a new band name, because whether one likes or dislikes this album, Echo & the Bunnymen doesn't exist without the distinctive voice of Ian McCulloch, and it seems rather unfair that Burke had to go up against the enigmatic legacy of McCulloch.

Hell, yeah, it was different. It was better. The band actually did something interesting with its sound. Rather than continue plodding along with his usual nondescript, half-psychedelic guitar, Sergeant — the band's creative leader at this point, surely — decided to go the whole hog. Maybe he was responding to the trippy trends of the day; maybe McCulloch's absence opened up greater possibilities. The first line of the first song, as it happens, is "My head is like an unblocked drain." Reverberation is not necessarily dignified: the flipside of "distinctive" is "gimmicky," after all. But what should rock 'n' roll be, if not gimmicky? Reverberation might have been the sort of product that was beneath McCulloch's dignity to release (at the same time he was serving up his own solo album, the two principle characteristics of which were adequacy and dignity), but it's the closest this band ever came to rocking.

Burke had his lyrical excesses. For example, I have no clue what it means "To counterfeit my salad days/And split the difference." But he more than makes up for this with "Let me take you/to the hell where all the freaks dwell." I would put the likes of "Enlighten Me," "Cut and Dried," and "Senseless" right up in the canon with the McCulloch-issue tracks I singled out earlier. No doubt about it. "Senseless" in particular, with its repeated, defiant refrain — "I will not wait/I will not see/The things you claim/Are lost on me" — shows more of Burke's soul than you're likely to find in all of McCulloch's work. McCulloch's poetics just seem so distant. By the end of the track, Burke is ranting: "All our voices out of tune/All our graveyards full too soon/All your money in the bank/How it festered, how it stank . . . Stupid, senseless, make it stop!" Maybe all that's too much and too silly. I think it's terrific.

Full disclosure: I may have some ingrained biases here, based on memory associations. Probably the single most traumatic moment of my adolescence came when I crashed my car in the parking lot of the Eastwood Mall, ten days after I got my driver's license. One of McCulloch's songs, "The Cutter," was playing in my tape deck at the point of impact. Whereas I distinctly remember playing tracks off Reverberation in my dorm room on the night I met my future wife — in fact, I may have forced her to listen to "Freaks Dwell" when we stopped by my room after leaving the dance.

Still, I think that if McCulloch weren't so closely identified with the band (and the centerpiece of its marketing), if his lack-of-aesthetic didn't carry quite so much momentum — and, most importantly, if Burke had stuck around — there was the potential here for an AC/DC-style reawakening, with McCulloch and Burke playing the roles of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, respectively. McCulloch would have been fondly remembered, but Burke would have led the band to new heights. As it happened, and given the circumstances, the project was doomed to failure. It's just too bad that was the case. This band was better with Burke than it was with McCulloch.

UPDATE: I found the Reverberation album art on Amazon. Here it is in old-school CD "longbox" format.


Anonymous said...

Good, Lord!

Anonymous said...


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