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In the vapid days of the early Reagan years -- that period when the musical world turned as gray and dreary as Margaret Thatcher's underthings -- you couldn't walk out the door without running into a Bangle or a Flock of Something. The first ballistic surge of punk had mostly flamed out by then -- subtly shifting from the wild, whiskey buzz of sheer aimless joy into the dull ache of a hangover morning, almost before anyone noticed. But in the vacuum left behind by punk, some talented (and lots of not-so-talented) acts sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic: Bands like Joy Division and Talking Heads provided a few bright spots amid the bleakness before eventually combusting and calling it quits. During this time, Echo and the Bunnymen appeared on the fringes of the musical consciousness, where they have stayed -- in one form or another -- for more than two decades.
The Bunnymen have always approached things in an unorthodox manner. Taking a perverse pleasure in their outsider status has become a way of life for founding members Will Sergeant and famously egocentric vocalist Ian McCulloch, who have navigated a notoriously tumultuous creative relationship and have once again partnered up in a brand-new Echo.
"I don't think we've ever fit in, really," says Sergeant from his home near Liverpool. "We've always sort of gone our own way. When we started trying to fit in is when we started to make crap records, I think."
The first incarnation of Echo and the Bunnymen lasted about seven years -- in the end, not exploding so much as disintegrating slowly in a backwash of boredom and tedious squabbling. There was more than a little cocaine and alcohol involved, especially for singer McCulloch, but his penchant for self-medication only magnified problems the band was already having. Toward the end of the original Bunnymen's career, the perpetual struggle for dominance between McCulloch and guitarist Sergeant -- friends and adversaries since childhood -- proved insurmountable, like a marriage gone rotten.
For seven years, the group enjoyed moderate chart success in England and cult status in the States. (It found a larger American audience after the release of a widely played cover of "People Are Strange" for the soundtrack of the film The Lost Boys.) The band was collapsing, though, just as its first bona-fide stateside hit, "Lips Like Sugar," was climbing the American charts. The players had grown so disinterested, they hadn't even bothered to name the album that contained the song (their followup to 1984's Ocean Rain, widely considered their greatest effort) and had waited three years to release it. The less-than-inspired Echo and the Bunnymen finally came out in 1987.
McCulloch's decision to officially leave the Bunnymen less than a year later was followed by a number of angry, silent years between him and his former mates. The three remaining members -- Sergeant, drummer Pete De Freitas (who died in a motorcycle accident in 1989) and bass player Les Pattinson -- were legally entitled to carry on the Echo name -- albeit without the band's original fire, or its legitimacy. It took several years for the sting of that affront to wear off to the point that McCulloch would even speak with Sergeant. During that time, McCulloch released two solo efforts (including the well-received Candleland), while the new Bunnymen released one not very good album, Reverberation, with singer Noel Burke, in 1990.
Eventually, McCulloch and Sergeant took the first steps toward a reconciliation, recording under the name Electrafixion in 1995. In 1997 they reclaimed the Bunnymen name and released the moderately acclaimed Evergreen. While miles above the projects the two had attempted separately, the album was tentative, seeming almost apologetic on songs such as "Don't Let It Get You Down." But while Evergreen leaned a little too far toward the pop side of things, it hinted at the good works the duo was still capable of producing together. The songs were not the pair's best, but the blending of McCulloch's voice and Sergeant's guitars was welcome and well balanced. Unfortunately, after that effort came an unspeakable collaboration with the Spice Girls on a World Cup soccer anthem, followed in 1999 by the pretty but rather flat and muted What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?.
But like a fly that insists on bashing itself against a screen door over and over, Echo and the Bunnymen are back -- again. Fourteen years after the demise of the original band, McCulloch and Sergeant are touring behind the May release of their new album, Flowers. Also, Crystal Days, a four-disc boxed set, is being released on July 17 by Rhino Records. Unlike the heavily McCulloch-influenced What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?, Flowers is delicately weighted between McCulloch's morose, fallen-prince lyrics and Sergeant's swirling, neo-psychedelic guitars. The two seem to have tamed the youthful demons that caused them so much strife.
"We kind of give each other a bit of distance, you know?" Sergeant says. "It's been all right actually lately; we've been getting on all right. It's quite a bit of a joint mission."
Their mission, once again, seems rooted in the challenge to find their footing in an evolving musical world, one that's very different from the one they first encountered in 1980. The loose playfulness of their new album certainly stands out against the carefully calculated Britneys and Coldplays of the world.
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