Friday, January 22, 2010

Feels Like Heaven


While most music fans would agree that Echo and the Bunnymen were one of the most important bands of the post-punk era with their moody, atmospheric songs helping to define the sound of the early 80s and influencing many other groups, there might be some discussion about which of their albums is the best. Many regard the lush, orchestral “Ocean Rain”, which includes the legendary single “The Killing Moon”, as their landmark release, and it is true that the PR campaign modestly claimed that it was “the greatest album ever made”. The glacial “Porcupine” has some supporters, especially as it contains the band’s first significant hits, “The Back of Love” and “The Cutter”. Others might point to the incredible debut “Crocodiles”, which blends innocence, humour, raw energy and tuneful melodies.

There is no doubt that these are all wonderful records, but for me, their finest work can indisputably be heard on “Heaven Up Here”, the group’s second album, which was released in 1981. The authoritative NME shared my opinion, naming it the best album of that year. Building on the youthful vim and vigour of “Crocodiles”, it marks a huge step forward by a young band happy and willing to flex their musical muscles and showcase their growing confidence and ambition.

"Not a happy bunny"

Darker and more passionate than its psychedelic predecessor, it added mysticism and power to the mix – truly heaven sent. Although it’s chock full of ideas, ranging widely across the aural spectrum, it’s probably still the Bunnymen’s most consistent album, coming across strongly as a cohesive whole. It’s the record where the band really arrived at their own sound, with the pounding drums and slashing guitar only accentuating the poetry of the glorious songs. The air of mystery was emphasised by the iconic album cover, featuring the band silhouetted on a beach, standing in front of a menacing sky.

This is where the band established the brooding, atmospheric sound that would dominate their most mature work. Deep, emotional, ethereal, even otherworldly, this is highly evocative music that manages to convey a mood and render a picture (on the wall). There’s an undeniable feeling of melancholy, which will satisfy those fans of gothic, glam (glum?) rock who like their singers to “paint it black”, but, to answer the question posed in the Bunnymen’s classic “Rescue”, it’s not just the blues they’re singing.

"Hair, there and everywhere"

Of course, the group’s focal point was the effortlessly hip singer Ian McCulloch, he of the pale skin, pouty lips, back-combed black hair, dark shades and long overcoat. Like a young Jim Morrison at the mike, he certainly looked like a rock star and boy could he talk. Nicknamed Mac the Mouth, the Liverpool lip was always his greatest fan (“Lairy across the Mersey”) and he was renowned for his arrogance.

As they say in the trade, he gave good quote, as quick to deride his contemporaries, as he was to extol the brilliance of the Bunnymen: “I wasn’t just going to be in a band, I was going to be in the best one. I was going to have the best voice and write the best words. And I was going to look great”. To be fair, this attitude is shared by almost all of his fellow Scousers and was almost certainly exacerbated in McCulloch’s case by the crippling shyness of his childhood, which made him “explode” when he realised that he could sing. In addition, his brash public persona is in marked contrast to the poetic sensitivity and sense of romance revealed in his songwriting.

"Stars are stars"

McCulloch’s great self-belief is more than justified when you hear him singing with soaring abandon and passion throughout the album. His voice is extraordinarily strong and emotive, dripping with drama and pathos, as he delivers mysterious, cryptic lyrics to spine-tingling effect, especially on the majestic “A Promise”, where his compelling, over the top vocal perfectly communicates the feeling of betrayal, as he vehemently laments, “You said nothing will change/We were almost near/Almost far/Down came the rain/But nothing will change/You promised”. His singing style can be found somewhere between the plaintive monotone of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and the flamboyant yelp of The Cure’s Robert Smith - with maybe a soupçon of U2’s Bono thrown in. Whatever – it works.

However, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the Bunnymen as a one man band, as the other musicians contributed at least as much as the brilliant singer. Indeed, according to McCulloch, “Heaven Up Here” should be considered guitarist Will Sergeant’s album, as he was such a control freak during the recording. Even if he drove the arrangements, this does not result in any ego-tripping guitar solos, but a swirling larger-than-life sound with Sergeant’s angular guitar shimmering above and cutting through the din like shards of glass. If anything, McCulloch’s relationship with Sergeant was akin to that enjoyed by Jagger and Richards in their early days.

"The corridors of power"

A lot of the songs also revolve around the circular rhythms created by bassist Les Pattinson and, especially, the awe-inspiring drummer Pete de Freitas. Every track on this album features inventive drum patterns that were de Freitas’ trademark signature. He casually switches from the hypnotic beat of “A Promise” to the explosive drumming of the title track. After his tragic death in a motorcycle accident in 1989, McCulloch described de Freitas with his usual understatement, though in this case the hyperbole was fully warranted, “It was the end of an era. He was the best drummer on the planet”.

A real strength of this album is the way in which the Bunnymen work seamlessly together to shape each song’s dynamics, the way they build to a crescendo in “Turquoise Days” (“Did you say knowledge?/Did you say prayer?/Did you say anything?/If not for good/If not for better/If not the way it is”) being a prime example with tight interplay between lead and rhythm guitars. The music is so powerful that it gives McCulloch’s vague, spiritual lyrics additional profundity, while the singer's words, in turn, reinforce the ominous nature of the music, though McCulloch typically mocked the idea that the band’s sound could be contained in a single genre, “We’re quasi-post-pre-punk, post-industrial, neo-psychedelic, angst croon, Sinatra punk, Dean Martin jazz. We’re just the greatest band in the world”.

"Cold comfort"

The album gets off to a vigorous start with a pair of mighty songs that are particularly effective in establishing the dramatic theme of restless, groovy energy that pervades throughout the album. The appropriately named “Show of Strength” opens affairs, immediately confirming that “Crocodiles” was no fluke, as Sergeant’s prickly guitar sets the edgy, paranoid tone. The band move easily through the gears with an avalanche of sound effects reminiscent of a strong wind howling through the trees, while the bitter words aren’t taking many prisoners either, “Your golden smile/Would shame a politician/Typically/I'll apologize next time/Bonds will break and fade/A snapping all in two/The lies that bind and tie/Come sailing out of you”. Equally urgent is the darkly humorous “With a Hip”, featuring funky guitar and machine–gun drumming, as McCulloch searches for answers, “Hold it in the light and see right through it/For God's sake, make a decision”.

This is music with a big heart. It’s about making you feel something more than making you think. McCulloch’s integrity consistently shines through, especially in “Heaven Up Here”, where all of his demons are exposed. Even as he tries to shake off his addiction to alcohol, he seeks relief from his pain and gives in to its dangerous pleasures, “The hammer on my chest was an abominable pain/The anvil on my belly was an abdominal strain/You got the bottle/Gonna take the bottle/Gonna take a sip”.

"Return of the Mac"

Many of the songs hint at a world about to collapse, though any despair is somehow offset by the sheer energy coming forth from the band, as they match compelling music with bleak lyrics, not least in the utterly magnificent “Over the Wall”, which many fans believe is the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a stunning tour de force, a triumphant epic whose magical music draws you into its web, with Reverend McCulloch singing with the dramatic fervour of a man performing an exorcism, “The man at the back has a question/His tongue's involved with solutions/But the monkey on my back/Won't stop laughing”.

The futility of life is further explored in “The Disease”, which walks along a truly desolate landscape, “As prospects diminish/As nightmares swell/Some pray for Heaven/While we live in hell”. Just as reflective is the slow-burning “All My Colours”, which sounds like a hymn, albeit one featuring tribal drums, as it considers the tragedy of being alive and vulnerable, “What do you say/When your heart's in pieces?/How do you play/Those cards in sequence?/That box you gave me burned nicely”. The Bunnymen even echo (see what I did there?) Talking Heads in “It Was a Pleasure”, as they address these problems, “Let's get rid of the shit/I know you like that, too/The stuff that undermines/The best of me and you”.

"Fade Away and Radiate"

The gloom and doom were influenced by the likes of The Doors and the Velvet Underground, but the Bunnymen put a very modern spin on any trippy 60s psychedelia, as they blended in the anger and aggression of late 70s punk. However, it is clear that McCulloch’s stage persona and even his singing voice owed a great deal to Jim Morrison and the talismanic chant of “zimbo, zimbo, zimbo …” in “All My Colours” started life as a tribute to The Doors’ legendary frontman (“Jimbo”). In the LP’s notes, McCulloch also admitted that he constantly had Velvet Underground songs in the back of his mind when recording the album.

While the overall mood may be one of sadness, there is also an uplifting feeling to the music that shines through the dark days. Any tragedy in the songs is always counter-balanced by a call to overcome, rather than wallow in misery. Even in the despondent “The Disease”, there’s a positive angle, “My life's the disease/That could always change/With comparative ease/Just given the chance”. Ultimately, this is a record that turns its face to the light, though maybe only an autumnal glow rather than full-blown summer heat, closing with the relaxed “No Dark Things” and the relatively euphoric “All I Want”, which is a celebration of desire for desire’s sake, hinting at the future upbeat sound of “Ocean Rain” with its sweet songs of romance and cinematic imagery.

"Sergeant Rock (Is Going To Help Me)"

Echo and the Bunnymen always seemed destined for greatness, but were never quite as big as their stadium-playing rivals, U2 and Simple Minds, at least in terms of record sales, even though they were acknowledged as a much cooler band with their maverick instincts, uncompromising attitude and decision to play gigs in the strangest locations. They were indeed a superb live band, and we can be grateful that their breathtaking presence was so wonderfully transferred to “Heaven Up Here”.

Although McCulloch’s pretty boy looks seemed ready made for the MTV generation, the charge of the long coat brigade was no more successful than the British cavalry in the Crimean War. However, McCulloch does not seem too bothered, “We never had a game plan. It wasn’t about the trophies or the yachts. We were very passionate about what we did and that’s what always set us apart. It was the record company who tried to make out that we were under-achievers. We were no more under-achieving than Jimi Hendrix or The Doors”.

"Lips Like Sugar"

Even though he never achieved world domination, there is no doubt that McCulloch was the most successful of Liverpool’s mythical The Crucial Three, a short-lived collaboration featuring McCulloch, Julian Cope, Pete Wylie. Apart from the fantastic name, the venture did not produce anything with Cope and Wylie leaving to form The Teardrop Explodes and Wah! Heat respectively. They enjoyed some modest success, but did not leave a lasting impression like Echo and the Bunnymen.

But nothing lasts forever and the Bunnymen split up in 1988. Although the group appeared to be going from strength to strength, there were tensions under the surface. While they enjoyed numerous triumphs, the Bunnymen were beset by torment, tantrums and tragedy with de Freitas’ fatal demise following close on the heels of McCulloch’s somewhat less permanent departure. The magic was gone baby gone, but their huge influence lives on in countless bands today, such as The Coral, The Verve, Franz Ferdinand, British Sea Power, White Lies and even Coldplay.

"Purple Haze"

Located somewhere between anthemic grandeur and acerbic Scouse wit, the spiky edge of the splendid “Heaven Up Here” still stands up today as proudly as McCulloch’s hairstyle, while time has not diminished one iota of its beautiful power. The Bunnymen would later reform, but this was the band in its glorious pomp. It was a show of strength, indeed. To return to the question of whether this is their best album, I can only agree with the Bunnymen’s own words, “This is the one called Heaven/And this is the one for me”.

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