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.
"The musical landscape -- I don't know what it's like in America, but here it's really crap," Sergeant says. "There isn't one, you know what I mean? It's a flat landscape with all this manufactured rubbish. [But] it's more the people: People are kind of apathetic now. People will just accept dross and go along with it. When we were coming up, getting into punk rock, it was important to us. I don't think the passion is there so much anymore."
With Flowers, McCulloch and Sergeant seem to be working more closely and collaboratively than they have in years. It sounds like they're having fun again, even at the expense of their own image. The opening track, "King of Kings," for example, contains darkly messianic lyrics that sound like tongue-in-cheek references to McCulloch's legendary egotism: "Met Jesus up on a hill/He confessed I was dressed to kill." The record's primary strength is that it feels like a cohesive, coordinated effort.
"We actually put in like ten hours, I think [writing the songs for Flowers]," Sergeant recalls. "Ten hours in a year is enough to be stuck in a room with Mac. I'm sure he feels the same.
"I'm only joking," he says. "It was just that quick, that natural. It wasn't a problem, really, because we just know what we're doing a bit. We had come in with ideas that we both developed. It's just that when we bring the ideas together, the actual time we spent hammering them out into the form of a song was like ten hours. The next one might even take longer."
That newfound ease and sense of teamwork may also have something to do with the band having signed with SpinArt Records, an indie label out of New York. In addition to Echo and the Bunnymen, SpinArt represents such other eclectic and talented weirdos as Frank Black, the Apples in Stereo and Vic Chesnutt. Indeed, according to Sergeant, part of the blame for the painful experience of recording 1987's Echo and the Bunnymen lies with the heavy-handed involvement of Warner Bros., their label at the time.
"I think big labels...put their oar in too much," he says. "They're too concerned about the money that's being pumped into a thing. And [the way] they end up, they keep pumping money in so you end up ruining a record that probably goes through a period where it gets kind of good, but they keep messing with it. It's good to just put it down quick and move on.
"They all have too much say. They're not, like, looking over your shoulder, but you know what's kind of expected of you; you're always headed toward the 'hit singles.' I don't think it's relevant anymore."
The reception for the new album has been enthusiastic, garnering positive, if overly convenient, comparisons to the band's early material, especially its 1980 debut, Crocodiles.
"That's kind of a lazy way of doing it," Sergeant says. "I've done it myself -- I said it's more like a psychedelic Crocodiles -- but it's an easy way. It's got guitars on it, and when we started out, we had guitars. To me it's just...rock music, just slightly trippy here and there."
Flowers emerges like its namesake, springing up between the cracks in the gray sidewalk of today's bland music. Sergeant, especially, shines, laying down numerous rhythms and random splashes of aural color that range from the dark and creepy feel of "King of Kings" to the funky and sunny title track, which plays like a stoned, careless river-raft ride: "I've been laying down the flowers/I've been waiting in the sun/I've been counting down the hours/One by one." And while such sentiment may seem incongruous coming from McCulloch, the music and the lyrics fit together so smoothly -- so very much like the Bunnymen, only different -- that you don't really care whether or not the singer has started using Prozac. On songs like "Buried Alive," McCulloch retains enough darkness to keep the old-school gloomy girls and boys happy (or, rather, unhappy): "Hey now, hey now, don't you cry/It's just the dying of the light/It's time to say our goodbyes/I'll look for you in that good night/Good night." Mysterious waverings of sound continually trickle in, subtly sliding into the listener's ear like tiny electric eels penetrating through to the brain. And while many of the songs definitely fall under the broad category of "pop," there is not an annoying, clunky hook among them. Aside from a certain off-handed simplicity toward the end -- a sense that the boys were saying, "Aren't we finished yet?" on the last two songs -- the CD is a complete work, well thought out and spontaneous at the same time.
McCulloch's lyrics still go to the darker places he is known to traverse, but these days he does so with more of a sense of resignation or acceptance. In the title song, there is even a feeling of humility, something wholly unexpected from someone like McCulloch: "And I, as it came undone/Knew that I'd lost everything/Everything I'd won." And though he may not have the range he once had, that full-lunged blast he once fired off like a Klaxon on songs such as "The Cutter" or "The Back of Love," McCulloch has adapted his songwriting style handily to the new limits of an additional twenty years of cigarettes, whiskey and life. His new, yet somehow still familiar deep-throated growl is intimate and open, and it feels much more personal.
While McCulloch and Sergeant are in a vastly different place today than they were twenty years ago -- who isn't? -- they have stayed true to their aesthetic. Their creative progression is nicely encapsulated on Crystal Days, which contains more than seventy tracks and traces the band's development from the obligatory early demos through alternate versions of its best-known songs. On disc four, we are treated to a series of live covers and originals, from McCulloch doing his best postmodern Jim Morrison impression and the goofy, slightly hilarious "All You Need Is Love" -- complete with sitar -- to the vocalist shambling his way through snippets of a dozen different '60s anthems. There are also Velvet Underground covers, a Dylan song, and a completely surprising version of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour."
Welcome and overdue as Crystal Days may be, Flowers is the most heartening of the Bunnymen's recent releases. With the latter, it is apparent that McCulloch and Sergeant have maintained their cool, most of their dignity, and their songwriting skills: Flowers makes it easy to forgive the band for some of its less-than-stellar outings of the past. Perhaps most important, it shows that this creative twosome has found a way to continue the musical experiment begun more than twenty years ago.
"When we were kids, there was nothing to do," says Sergeant. "Punk rock -- that was it. Music. Nowadays, there are too many distractions. It's stifling creativity. You have to break out of that. Punk definitely broke out of that: 'We've got nothing to do -- let's invent something to do.'"
Luckily for us, the Bunnymen continue to reinvent themselves.
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