Echo & The Bunnymen

On the 1993 Judgement Night soundtrack, the producers decided to meld rock with hip hop, and we got some pretty dope tracks.  One of the best involves fellow Seattlities Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot, ‘Freak Momma.’ Towards the end of the track, Mix-A-Lot laughs and says, ‘There goes my street cred, y’all.’  I am about to lose mine.  Why?  Because Reverberation is a fucking killer album.  And had Will Sergeant and Les Pattinson had re-named their band after frontman Ian McCulloch left and drummer Pete deFreitas died, things would’ve turned out better.

The Bunnymen had toured the US with New Order in the fall of 1987, co-headlining, and were deemed to be wanting by everyone but their American fans.  When they played a few shows in the UK, the press savaged them.  In 1990, they appeared on Elektra Record’s 40th anniversary album (Elektra and Sire were owned by what was then called WEA), Rubáiyát, doing a version of the Doors’ ‘People Are Strange.’  The British press savaged that, too, Melody Maker called it ‘a rancid effort.’  And this, my friends, was with McColloch on vocals.  And so, he announced the band was done.

Meanwhile, his dad was back in Liverpool, dying, and this caused McCulloch to re-think his life.  By September, the band met, and he announced his decision to leave.  Pattinson, Sergeant and de Freitas attempted to convince him to stay, but he refused.  Meanwhile, Sergeant reported that their US label had told him they were a viable band there, so they other three Bunnymen decided to soldier on.  They needed a new singer.  First, they tried to convince the B-52s frontwomen, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, to join.  They politely declined.  And so, the remaining Bunnymen put out an advert for a new singer.

Meanwhile, McColloch was off recording his solo début, Candleland (which is pretty meh).  First, Brockman was made a full-time member on synthesizers, but they still needed a singer.  Somehow, they heard of this obscure, defunct, Belfast band, St. Vitus Dance, and were convinced its frontman, Noel Burke, was their man.  Upon meeting them, Burke was concerned that they wanted a McColloch clone, which he was not.  After Sergeant, Pattinson and de Freitas assured him that was not the case, Burke put aside his doubts and joined the band.  But then, on 14 June 1989, on his way to the first rehearsal of the newly reconstituted Echo & the Bunnymen, Pete de Freitas crashed his motorcycle and died (as a macabre aside, Brockman died in a motorcycle accident 14 years later).  It was at this point that Sergeant and Pattinson should’ve renamed their band.  Instead, they recruited drummer Damon Reece and set out on the road to bring the band together.  McColloch was unimpressed, calling them ‘Echo & The Bogusmen,’ though he lated claimed that was Jonny Marr’s term.  Pattinson admitted they kept the name as a swipe at McCullogh, to show him that the band was more than the sum of its parts.

And so, the new Bunnymen retreated to Ridge Farm Studio in Surrey to record what became Reverberation.  They employed Geoff Emerick to produce.  Emerick’s claim to fame was as the Beatles’ engineer.  He brought to the band sitars, tabla, as well as backward guitar loops.  And he teased out all of Sergeant’s psychedaelic influences, which had largely been buried deeper and deeper on the band’s last few albums.

Reverberation lightened up Echo & The Bunnymen.  Their albums had always been dense, almost claustrophobic, as the bass was high in the mix and Pattinson and de Freitas formed one of the mightiest rhythm sections of the 1980s.  Here, Pattinson was buried in the mix, as Sergeant’s guitars and their various effects took centre-stage, along with Burke’s deep, commanding voice.

I had a dubbed tape version of this, I honestly don’t remember who gave it to me.  It was the fall of 1990, I was in Grade 12 (or, in American, I was in my senior year of high school). I had all the Bunnymen’s albums, but I have to confess, they were never really my cup of tea.  I thought them rather dreary and predictable, and their last album, the eponymous one, was just a collection of songs that sought to be #1 singles.  This, on the other hand, grabbed me from the getgo.

‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ kicks in, originally sounding rather Bunnymen, at least until Burke begins singing, his vocals layered and split between left and right channels.  Burke sings of a certain world weariness, though, today, my Irish historian’s brain hears him sing:

My arms are like two shipyard cranes
That may not work again

He is referring to the closure of the mighty Harland & Wolff Shipyards in Belfast, one of the main employers for the (Protestant) work force of the city from its opening in 1881 to its closure in 1989.  Those shipyard cranes still tower over Belfast to this day.

‘Enlighten Me’ starts off in a haze of sitar before exploding into a druggy, heavily psychedaelic track, and one that was very much of its time and place in 1990, at the height of the psychedaelic revival in British music.  Burke sings about enlightenment, but, really, this is just a great track.  Emerick uses similar tricks with his vocals and the two channels, though not as overtly.  But, really, this song wouldn’t have been out-of-place on a Happy Mondays or Farm album of the era.

‘King of Your Castle,’ begins with an insistent bass riff, some sitar, some backwards guitar loops, and then slowly develops into the song it seeks to become.  This is a song about domestic violence:

Nature abhors a vacuum
I have read
Tell me how’d you explain
Your empty head
You hurt the one you love
Because you can
As if violence was a virtue
In a man.

The mad, glad days of romance
Were the best
When you kept your cards pressed tight
Against your chest
But soon, soon, all too soon
She’d understand
And she’d see and feel
The back of your right hand.

This song, even in 1990-91 hit me hard.  In part that was because I grew up in a violent household, where my Old Man, when he was on a bender, was a terrifying presence.  He was a tall and wiry man, 6’4″ at least, ripped, long hair, and this glare that could melt ice.  But he was also a coward, only attacking those he could, most notably my mom.  I had also occasionally his target.  But by this point, I was a big, muscle-bound football player.  The playing field was more even.  But songs about domestic violence always caught my attention.

But I was also struck by the line ‘As if violence was a virtue/In a man.’ Noel Burke was 7 years old when the Troubles began, and in that Second Irish Civil War, violence became a form of virtue in a man, as Belfast was overrun with the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, the police) and the British Army.  Violence was a way of life in Belfast proper.

At any rate, I was always partial to ‘Freaks Dwell,’ a chugging psychedaelic meditation on manhood and masculinity.  ‘Flaming Red’ is also a killer track, with a guitar riff emerging out of a clap of thunder before the bass begins to bounce back and forth and then Sergeant’s guitar is drenched in reverb.  Burke is meditating on class and the drudgery of life:

Failure’s child is weak and mild
Wide-eyed and sad and strange
A moment is the most
She’ll hang her day upon
Others plan a life
Without the faintest hope of change
And belay all her knowledge
Of where hope has gone.

In these ugly times
An ugly mind will have its say
And your betters would not
Have it any other way.

The album ends with ‘False Goodbyes,’ which became rather prophetic, in the end.

Like I said, Reverberation was not well-received.  Most critics shat upon the Bunnymen for having the temerity to carry on without McCulloch.  Burke was continually outright mocked for, well, not being Ian McCulloch. And therein lies the rub, this was the fatal mistake of Pattinson and Sergeant, they kept the name.  Under any other name, as some reviewers noted, this would’ve been a killer début album.

They were dropped by their record label, and by 1993, this version of the Bunnymen packed it in.  Burke went back to Belfast, where he reformed St. Vitus Dance a few times in the 00s for gigs.  McCulloch continued a solo career of ever-diminishing returns.  It turns out he needed the Bunnymen as much as they needed him.  They eventually reformed in 1997.

At some point in the late 90s, I lost that cassette in a move.  And I could not find this album anywhere.  I was greatly saddened, as I love this album.  It is sacrilege, I know, but not only is it my favourite Bunnymen album, it’s really their only one I really like.  I searched high and low for it.  I went into record stores in Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Toronto, Montréal, New York City, Boston, and Seattle.  I couldn’t find it.  I went to more record stores in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Amherst (MA) and Northampton.  I tried every bit torrent, Napster, and file-sharing service.  Eventually, I found most, but not all, of the album on YouTube, and converted the tracks to mp3s.

And then, one day, bored, I wandered into a record store in Greenfield, MA.  This was around 2009, and Greenfield was in hard times, the 2008 Recession pounded all of Western Massachusetts.  Greenfield hadn’t yet recovered from deindustrialization when the Recession hit.  But there, in this obscure record store, in this obscure town in New England, there was a copy of Reverberation!  It was 8$.  I bought it, I was almost giddy buying it, the guy behind the counter, an enthused hippy, when I told him I had been searching for this album for over a decade, said, ‘Whoa. I’m real happy for you, man.’  I think I played it everyday for the next 6 months or so.

I think I love this album more now than I did then.  I don’t give a fuck what critics and fans say.  This is a killer album.  And, of course, in the 30 years since it came out, critics and fans have slowly, somewhat, warmed to the album, deciding it wasn’t so bad in the first place.