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Echo & the Bunnymen: British Punk and Psychedelics

When it comes to naming some of the greatest bands and artists in music history, you notice a trend of many who are listed hailing from England. Can it be that the greatest musicians of the industry are all British? Critics and reviewers’ debate whether The Beatles or Rolling Stones should be labelled as the sole holder of “greatest band ever”. But when you explore the shores of Liverpool, England you might find another gem that’s worthy of standing next to these giants. Echo & the Bunnymen were said to be one of the most successful British rock bands to emerge from the UK since their forefathers. Headed by hypnotic frontman, Ian McCulloch, the band showed how they fitted right in with their music scene. The early 1980s crept a dark, moody take on music as new subcultures expressed repressive feelings and anti-establishment opinions. The band capitalized on this trend with neo psychedelia and gloominess that could’ve left The Doors envious. While some can argue that bands who follow these trends to gain recognition are just mere posers. But if Echo & the Bunnymen proved anything in their life, is that they lived out some of the tragedies they expressed through music.

McCulloch is without a doubt the ideal frontman to have. For the millions familiar with his distinctive voice, critics noted how he signified charisma and taut poeticism. Something that he lived out every day in his life. Growing up in a working-class family, McCulloch expressed himself in other ways besides singing. Holding a strong, opinionated personality, McCulloch was never afraid of adversity. Even if it came with being ejected from your own band. After being kicked out of his first serious group, The Crucial Three, McCulloch began working on forming his own band. The journey led to meeting local guitarsmith Will Sergeant who bonded with McCulloch’s outspoken nature. The duo started recording demos with an electronic drum machine they named “Echo”. Reputable bassist Les Pattinson took a liking to the eccentric happenings the duo and their drum machine. His addition saw the band officially debuting in 1978 as the “first” lineup of Echo & the Bunnymen.

Raving live performances and an ingenious use of equipment steadily elevated the band into cult favorites. Their first single “Pictures on My Wall” drew plenty attention from record labels interested in signing the band. The band joined Korova Records and would end up discarding “Echo” in favor of adding Pete de Freitas to the lineup. Now a complete band, their first outing would be incredibly promising as their debut, Crocodiles, steadily climbed the UK charts. Reviewers were especially impressed with McCulloch’s emotional vocals and “attractive melodies” that stood out among contemporaries in the market. While the group edged on the coming of post-punk reveling, they displayed a driving beat that could become something more.

Confidence within the band grew after a strong appraisal from others which led to more expressive tones. These thoughts and feelings of ambition produced 1981’s ethereal album Heaven Up Here. NME described the album’s essential part in music as, “one of the most superior articulations of ‘rock’ form in living memory. McCulloch’s vocal pairing soared with Sergeant’s injected guitar wizardry. The passionate work of art flew to the top 10 in the UK as the group had momentum to continue their stretch. After some soul searching and obsessive undertaking of creating a memorable soundtrack, they would piece together the album that finally made them stars.

Two years had gone by since their last album release and rumors floated around on the band creating something huge. Porcupine appeared after much anticipation and was labelled as the band’s “definitive statement”. The record launched to the top of the charts and peaked at the number two spot. Hit single “The Cutter” was a large factor in raising the attention for the group around their native country. The album is continuously praised in retrospective reviews as an essential part of 20th century British music. As the album became their biggest hit, the band continued to follow-up with critical, if not commercial, success as master class songwriters.

While the group showed out with new material that peaked the interests of their UK audience, Listeners wondered if they could crack the US charts with a post-punk following. The band responded with a self-titled album release that overperformed expectations of becoming a hit across the Atlantic. “The Game” became their highest single on top of the US charts and an incredible “workout” of reaching American audiences.

The rest of late 1980s saw Echo & the Bunnymen start to approach a comedown as McCulloch never failed to embrace his opulent nature. The lead singer officially left the group towards the end of 1988 to pursue a solo career that reflected his standoffish appeal. But the band stuck together to continue without him. But tribulations were always close to the punk scene. For this band, it was nothing new as Freitas tragically died in an auto accident. McCulloch went on to have a moderately successful solo career. His former band, on the other hand, would struggle to find any traction now that they had without two essential members. But Sergeant and McCulloch had always shared a bond over music, albeit McCulloch always exhibited intense emotions for it. The duo collaborated over the years which sparked interest in reforming with Pattinson for a new project. The reunion brought a new LP but the real inspiring work would come from a “back to basics” release of 2001’s Flowers. The spring album captured what made the band so synonymous with dark, moody tension with compelling vocals. The effort brought a revival and for the next decade the band would remain active in live touring once again.

With their latest project, The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, now behind them, Echo & the Bunnymen have slowed down a bit since the age of COVID. But their collective affability is always close by as they chart out reissues of albums that have defined their generation. But looking back on how they were able to do it, McCulloch stated, “Bands would do anything in the ‘80s to get on television and have a hit record…we fought it, and I’m proud that we did—and I think that’s what made us not an ‘80s band. We were ahead of out time.”

Written by Trenton Luber


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