“I’m lazy in every way apart from writing songs. I think I’m looking for the song that loves me back …”
Ian McCulloch // Mojo August 2018
Bands rarely ever arrive as the full package. Some manage to achieve that status through a lot of effort and a bit of luck; often though, there’s a magical element that sits just out of reach. Echo & the Bunnymen were the full package – maybe the first band of my youth to achieve that. They had amazing songs and lyrics that provoked and inspired; stunning wit and a look that was just perfection. There was no weak link visually, no bad leather jackets or mullets. And they had the ambition and the confidence to attempt unconventional ideas, whether it was heading to Iceland to do photos or getting their fans to do a group cycle ride around Liverpool for A Crystal Day. There wasn’t one piece out of place. This was a band to believe in.
The Bunnymen arrived in my world slightly later than they did for James, Sean and Richey. Heaven Up Here was totally James and Sean’s album; Porcupine was Richey’s – he used to play it to me all the time in university, Heads Will Roll and Clay particularly. I can remember being obsessed with the advert that ran in the NME declaring Ocean Rain as “the greatest album ever made”. It was such an incredible act of arrogance that was magnificently backed up by the record itself. That self-belief, the idea that you could create your own myths was hugely influential on me as a teenager. I can still smell the hairspray I was using at the point that Songs to Learn and Sing came out. Every kid who was interested in alternative music (there was no ‘indie’ music back then) had that album and Standing on a Beach by the Cure. It was an era when a greatest hits album was an actual landmark statement that really meant something to cherish and obsess over.
I’ve always thought of Ocean Rain as a cross-genre, cross-generational album, like ABBA’s Arrival or Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. The songs transcend styles or trends; they were records your parents could learn and sing. That’s something that applies to much of the band’s rich catalogue. The run of singles from that album – the Killing Moon, Silver and Seven Seas – were staggering. For me, Silver connected so perfectly – the flow of words is real poetry. It’s the track that made me realise there was a deep, ice-cold mystery to his words. Coming to the end of school years, I’d become immersed in poetry, working from a starter kit of Larkin, Eliot and Dylan Thomas at that point. Here was someone writing words for music that had a natural poetic rhythm to them. No one else was doing that at the time – arguably, not many have managed it since either. Even with the Bunnymen’s peers, it was never quite the same.
Mac’s lyrics felt more like they’d been lifted from a 19th century poetry book by someone like John Clare or even Edward Lear; a kind of Victorian psychedelia, something almost arcane. Often, they seemed as if they were quoting from a life I just couldn’t understand yet:
“Stab a sorry heart / with your favourite finger
Paint the whole world blue / and stop your tears from stinging
Hear the cavemen singing / good news they’re bringing
Seven seas / swimming them so well
Glad to see / my face among them / kissing the tortoise shell”
One of the reasons the Bunnymen have endured over the years is their untouchable ‘otherness’. As a listener, it never felt like you could quite penetrate or puncture the lyrics. That was always a huge part of the appeal – a reason for diving back in, time and again into the lyrical vortex that Mac had created at the heart of this complete sound. He’s always had an incredible way of rhyming odd words, and of using a mass of words to create unique rhythms. They’re a hard band to dissect in terms of how they wrote – the genius myth-making of the Killing Moon arriving in a dream makes it hard to work out how they actually sat as a four-piece and worked on songs. And I’ve never known whether they’re natural or whether Mac wrote reams and reams of lyrics and tried to shoehorn them into songs.
That otherness is a reason why the Bunnymen – although an inspiration on so many artists (including polar opposites like Liam Gallagher or Chris Martin) – aren’t a band that are easy to emulate. Their sound is so perfectly mercurial, it’s hard to imagine anyone trying to recreating it without falling flat. Even though we channelled a lot of orchestral sweep of Ocean Rain for Everything Must Go, the Bunnymen’s biggest inspiration on us was always more stylistic. We borrowed imagery from them so often, whether it was the scene in the video for Seven Seas where Mac rips the wig off and smudges his lipstick which I directly ripped that off in the original You Love Us video; the severity of the Apocalypse Now-look uniforms they wore around the Shine So Hard era for the Holy Bible or just the bleakness of a Welsh beach for a photo shoot [Porthcawl for Heaven Up Here and Black Rock Sands for This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours].
Somehow, on the Stars, the Oceans & the Moon the Bunnymen manage to brilliantly reset the lyrics to some of their greatest songs, changing context, adding a whole new depth. Gone is the arrogance and towering self-belief of youth; in comes a deeper significance – at once a backwards gaze at life and a forward look at one’s own mortality. Until I met Mac, I’d assumed there was a massive streak of self-confidence running through everything he did; when I met him, it seemed like it actually was a real warmth and a fair amount of insecurity – as he himself once wrote, “Self-doubt and selfism / Were the cheapest things I ever bought.”
It’s a feeling that’s carried on this record. You can hear the pain, smell the cigarettes, taste the alcohol. It’s never any less powerful in this new context, everything now seems so much more direct. Where before, it seemed as though he was gazing outwards, at turbulent waters or at some monumental glacier, now he’s gazing in the mirror, looking in on himself. That aloofness has faded, to be replaced by a brutal honesty. To be able to hear a band you’ve lived with for most of your life reframing some of their most loved songs – it’s a very special privilege.
Nicky Wire, July 2018