At one point or another during the first half of the Nineties, virtually every minor band that had a lightweight MTV hit ten years earlier reunited--and for the most part, I didn't care. Book of Love, Suicidal Tendencies: Sure, I liked them, but it was just as satisfying to sit home and listen to my old, scratched-up vinyl as it was to go to a gig and watch them attempt to clone the stuff live. Of course, I would have made an exception for Echo and the Bunnymen; they were one of my favorites. But I figured that I'd have to learn to live without more of their exceptional tunes, progressive videos and adumbrative haircuts. After all, the act's 1988 breakup was extremely caustic: When singer Ian McCulloch went solo, bassist Les Pattinson, guitarist Will Sergeant and drummer Pete De Freitas named innocent bystander Noel Burke as the act's new vocalist and attempted to carry on as if nothing had happened, to the disgust of McCulloch and many true believers. The death of De Freitas in a motorcycle accident the following year clinched it. I was as positive that the Bunnymen were through as I was that the Sex Pistols would never tour again and that the Beatles would not be releasing any new material.
Just goes to show how little I know. With this summer's London Records release of Evergreen, McCulloch, Sergeant and Pattinson are playing together again under their familiar moniker. And McCulloch, a man with absolutely no doubt about his talents, suddenly acts as if their reconciliation was inevitable.
"Even though I know I can write music without the Bunnymen, it doesn't make sense, really," he says. "Somehow, the Bunnymen is where I belong. I haven't gotten to that stage where I can live without it. It's epicentral to who I am." About the reunion, he concedes, "I never thought it would happen. But predestiny had other plans. That's what 'The Killing Moon' was all about: predestiny and the fact that even when you think you've made a choice, it was the one that you were always going to make."
"The Killing Moon," from the 1984 Bunnymen LP Ocean Rain, is only one of the group's classics. "The Cutter," "Rescue" and "Silver," culled from 1980's Crocodiles, 1981's Heaven Up Here and 1983's Porcupine, were just as good. Critics defined these tunes as neo-psychedelic, but the Bunnymen were too experimental to be so easily pegged. Belonging neither to the synthesizer-and-drum-machine camp nor the angry, guitar-banging-misfits crowd, they relied on flourishing melodies, complex instrumentation and strange lyrics whose acoustic values often took precedence over logic. For example, "Seven Seas" hovers around the lines "Seven seas/Swimming them so well/Glad to see/My face among them/Kissing the tortoise shell," and "Ocean Rain" finds McCulloch singing variations of, "I'm at sea again/Now your hurricane/Has brought down this ocean rain/To bathe me again."
Why are there so many aquatic references in the Bunnymen oeuvre? "Well, all the nice girls love a sailor, as the saying goes--though I'm no sailor," McCulloch answers slyly. More seriously, he notes, "I used to love taking the ferry to Europe instead of flying. I find that whenever I'm near water, it's just, I suppose, calming. And I totally refuse to sing about mountains. I always thought that was a U2 and Simple Minds attitude."
The rivalry between Echo and the aforementioned bands was a heated one: During the mid-Eighties, around the time that U2 released The Unforgettable Fire and Simple Minds was traveling the States in support of Once Upon a Time, McCulloch and company struck back with Songs to Learn and Sing, a compilation of previously issued tracks featuring "Bring on the Dancing Horses," a smash from the soundtrack to the John Hughes flick Pretty in Pink. Shortly thereafter, the Bunnymen began to wind down, but they went out with class: Their 1987 swan song, a self-titled effort known to fans as "the Gray Album," included "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo," the appropriately moist "Blue Blue Ocean," and "Lips Like Sugar," which could be either a romantic ode to an adored woman or McCulloch's valentine to himself. The singer, whose delicate, tousled appearance has a feminine aspect to it, provides an argument for the latter theory while relating a comment made to him during a recent appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.
"Some woman told my manager that I'm the best-looking man on the planet," he announces. "I disagree. There are a lot of better-looking people out there. But they're generally really boring, and they've got not only crap singing voices, but crap speaking voices." As for himself, he continues, "I look different. I know I look like no one else, and that's part of the trick. I've got two of the finest lips of any man on the planet. I've got confidence, and I love making people laugh, which is a sexy trait."
McCulloch's sense of humor, which only rarely pops up in his music, is self-aware and purposefully provocative. "The other night in a hotel in Aberdeen, I was in my room and I thought, 'This is so boring, I'm gonna get the Holy Bible out of my drawer,'" he says. "And I flipped it open. I forget what sodding chapter it was, but I must have seen what looked like about a hundred different names on one page that I was supposed to take in. And they were all in some mad language. Who knows what anyone was saying? And you're supposed to read that crap and believe it? I think it's wrong." Because religion is another of his recurring themes, "people think I'm religious," he acknowledges, laughing. "But I think that if Jesus is in all of us, then I am Jesus--and that's good. So I don't have to pray to him, because I am him. You know what I mean?"
On Evergreen, "Too Young to Kneel" is the cut that most clearly deals with matters of faith, but McCulloch makes sport of it, too. "It's about me having to go to Sunday school when I was five," he divulges. "And it's about me being 38 now and still being too young to kneel. I refuse to kneel. I used to call it my 'kneel young' song."
Although Neil Young doesn't appear on the disc, McCulloch, Sergeant and Pattinson receive plenty of assistance from others. Drummer Michael Lee and keyboardist Adam Peters, who are touring with the trio but have not yet been granted full Bunnymen membership, make their presence felt, and Oasis's Liam Gallagher lends some uncredited la-las and yeah-yeahs to "Nothing Lasts Forever." McCulloch's impression of the younger Gallagher brother was that "he's not the kind of stupid bastard that people make out. I saw him as kind of sensitive and a bit confused. He was never university material, but he never wanted to be. He's found enough knowledge and eloquence to do what he does. And people seem to be digging it. Plus, he looks fantastic. What's funny now is people come up to me and go, 'You're Liam Gallagher!' And I think, 'Um, I'm probably fourteen years older than him--so no, I'm not him. I'm the original. I'm also highly intelligent, can't you tell?'"
It's not hard to imagine that McCulloch's arrogance played a part in the band's original split. Today, however, he dismisses rumors about the tension between him and Sergeant, in particular, as overstated. "We're very different people, but we get on really well. We don't talk that much, because we both know that we go on stage and do our thing, and that's where we connect. Maybe it's good that we just save our chemistry for the stage."
Such magnanimity is in strong contrast to comments McCulloch made while promoting his second solo effort, 1992's Mysterio; he told reporters that he saw 1989's Candleland, his first offering after heading out on his own, as a stake through the heart of the Bunnymen. But even though he's currently downplaying sore feelings from the past, he can't hide his contempt for 1990's Reverberation, the pseudo-Echo album on which Noel Burke sang lead.
"I've never heard it and I never will," he insists. "Noel Burke was so untalented, so deluded. But I don't have any hard feelings for him--just pity. I did feel betrayed by the others, though. Will was the one who always hated the name Echo and the Bunnymen. So why didn't they use a different name? That's what I wonder. One thing I remember at the time was phoning Will when I realized what they were up to, calling him all kinds of names. I know he said things about me in the press then, too--that I was a greedy bastard. But I wasn't greedy. I split everything four ways, even though some of them didn't deserve it. I was writing the songs, singing...But anyway, I love him again. That's water under the bridge--under many bridges.
"Candleland wasn't a burial ground, obviously," he admits. "It was more like--what the hell is that thing they do when they put you on ice?--cryogenics. Or it was the boot room, where football players go in for halftime, chill out for ten minutes, get their shit together, change their shirts and then come back out. So Candleland was the boot room for the Bunnymen. It just took a lot longer than ten minutes."
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Also important in the scheme of things was Electrafixion, an act formed by McCulloch and Sergeant two years ago. A harsh grunge imitation that appealed to few old fans and even fewer new ones, the band made a lousy album (1995's Burned) that provided as good an argument as any for the return of Echo. Even McCulloch is embarrassed by his fried-rock-star vocals on the disc, although he takes little of the blame for them himself. "That was Will saying, 'Give it more! Sing with that gruff thing!' I had played him some Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins--just to show him what had gone on in the years that he was growing potatoes or whatever in his back garden. And he took that as me thinking that's what we ought to sound like. But it wasn't. I look back on it and think, 'What the hell were we doing?' But it bought us time to come back at the right time--because if that had been the Bunnymen then, I don't think it would have worked."
Work it does. Evergreen's title track and the single "I Want to Be There (When You Come)" sound as if they were filtered through the Electrafixion experience--and "Baseball Bill" and "Just a Touch Away" actually date from that period. But "Altamont" and "Empire State Halo" recapture Echo's magic more precisely than anyone could have imagined, thanks largely to McCulloch's still-majestic crooning. McCulloch agrees that he sounds as good as ever: With a minimum of humility, he declares, "My voice is indestructible, and it can do many things. And live now, it's the best it's ever been. It's just soaring up there with the gods.
"I needed to find my soul again," he claims. "That, for me, is my reason for coming back--and also to be the greatest band in the world. Which is a lot easier than finding your soul."
Echo and the Bunnymen, with the Long Pigs, 8 p.m. Thursday, November 4, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm, $15-$17.50, 830-