An early Echo and the Bunnymen memory comes from when I was off school sick for a day and spent the morning re-reading an Omnibus Press history of the band. I listened to two albums on tape a couple of times as I read – ‘Crocodiles’ and ‘Porcupine’. They were on tapes prepared for me by some friend of my Godmother’s sister and her husband called Dave (The Rave – yes that was what ‘they’ called him but the reality was that he was just a bland former DJ kind of a bloke who needed a stylist – they all do).  He had some kind of home taping set up which led to music being pretty clear but the crackle of library vinyl being clearer than anything else. Why have a good sound system and then spend your time getting vinyl out of the library to play on it? However, this set up did create a happy accident as ‘Going Up’ starts off ‘Crocodiles’ with a fade in, I still find that I don’t get the same buzz from hearing it on CD as the ominous emergence of sounds of space or whatever used to coincide with the presence of a crackling vinyl mosquito storm and it doesn’t do that anymore on CD…because…dey don’t do dat do, do dey? Sorry!

These two albums weren’t even on the same tape. Siouxsie and the Banshees were on the back of one and The Smiths on the other. They rank as the 8th and 9th tapings listed in my little green folder but all metal and other rubbish was removed in a list redrafting session at some point in 1987 so they weren’t among the earliest tapes I owned. Prior to these Bunnymen albums, my only ‘cool’ tapings were either by The Beatles or…Red Lorry Yellow Lorry! That was on the back of something else – presumably more gothic and taped over. As to when I received them, it really is quite hard to remember.

So, Crocodiles…

‘Going Up’ starts like a broadcast from space with a myriad of strange Pink Floyd-moon landing sounds before a pounding bass and drum backdrop fills in the gaps proving why Les and Pete were essential to the Bunnymen and the band’s returns have diminished without them. Not that anyone would have known that then. I feel the song lacks an amazing production sound but strives for it. It also aims to be the opening of the career of a great band and yet the lyric seems rather throwaway. This is the ideal song to set things up for a big fall without ever really delivering. It’s all build and fade with very little middle. It’s not particularly typical of a Bunnymen song or certainly not one of their album openers, yet it sticks in the memory of anyone who has spent any time listening to this album. Only when the listener sits down to try to assess what they’ve heard will they realise that the answer is ‘not much’ and yet this is not meant as negative feedback. It just translates as meaning that the whole album or even career of this group is about ascending to a level ‘above’ even if most of the time that is obviously not happening. Failure is irrelevant but it does remain an option.

Lyrically, the song seems like classic Bunnymen, or McCulloch overreach – sounds deep but really doesn’t seem to know what it means. I am convinced that this evolved into the seemingly arbitrary grab and go lyrics of Oasis and other Britpop-era bands and yet the Bunnymen retain a sense of mystery, even if they do rhyme it with ‘history’:

Ain’t thou watching my film
Analyzing me
Rusty chalk-dust walker
Checking up to see
If we should pull the plugs out
On all history
And all the mystery  –  hmm…deep?

It’s a bit like ‘The Wall’ with a teacher as a ‘rusty chalk-dust walker’ controlling ‘my film’ or it looks at censorship blocking the past as well as ‘the mystery’ – could this be an attempt to retain the mystery of Christ which Graham Greene bangs on about at the end of Brighton Rock? Hmm…The next verse, if it can be called a verse suggests things are going up…above and that we need to ‘get the hell out of here’. There is a final refrain which claims that the problem is that people are walking around without flowers in their hair. So, in conclusion, a song that begins with sounds of the psychedelic and moon landing era ends with the idea that all that is gone, finished or ‘going down’.

By its conclusion, the song does seem a statement of the band’s position. The 60s were great, really psychedelic and all as well as linking with the Bowie/spaceman idea but things aren’t like that anymore and authorities are in control again in a somewhat Orwellian way. It’s a little immature to say the least, a little half-baked but it really seems to suit the beginning of the 1980s and the beginning of the Bunnymen, at least on album.

‘Stars are Stars’ could never really make quite the impression of the opening but it does reveal an open need for stardom and fame even if stars shine both hard and cold. I rather like the idea that catching a falling star will ‘cut my hands to pieces’ and feel that David Soul should have probably worn gloves and got his pockets reinforced. McCulloch seems very up front in production but the song opens with what seems to be a jam resolving itself into a more traditional song structure.

‘Pride’ begins with that wonderful hacking sound of Will Sargent’s before also introducing a xylophone into the equation after a few lines about families. Again we seem to have a song about ambition versus expectation. No problems with teachers and society here, now families seem to be to blame as they wait in expectation for their offspring to achieve something or ‘do something we can’t do’. However, they also seem equally satisfied with waiting for (Ian’s?) failure.

So far we have control from society or teachers, ambition and family pride or derision. I can’t honestly say that was what grabbed me about the opening few tracks when I was younger. I was more fascinated how the songs, their music, their content and their characters all seemed rather odd to me in my position. I took more from the music as I generally don’t tend to remember lyrics well but also, on this occasion, as it sounded both like an accessible way to do something different with pop. It still had a throwaway quality and didn’t seem particularly self-reverential but it could be. The sound effects at the beginning and the resolution of the jam on ‘Stars are Stars’ could easily be developed for a stadium audience. However, those effects also gave a slightly out of date and eerie quality to the music overall. Throw in the vinyl crackle and I was hooked. Ambition seems to be apparent in all 3 songs though we start with ‘going up’ before going down and then two songs seemingly focused on falling. Doomed, they was doomed I tells ya!

‘Monkeys’. There must be a better reason for the title than a one word chorus where ‘come on’ sounds like ‘key-mon’ but I can’t really find one other than the idea that small children may be described as monkeys. I certainly was. It is a song of the playground with ‘bagsy’-ing and boys and girls but why would this schoolyard narrator suddenly declare: ‘I’m not a holy man’? It doesn’t seem to fit. It can also be observed that ‘monkeys’ may be a very negative depiction of the human race as either going backwards or certainly not making progress. However, the song doesn’t really suggest any alternatives. This does seem like one of those songs which has its subject obscured but not avoided, just as ‘Please Please Me’ never mentions the oral sex it is really about perhaps. What also seems clear is a lyrical retreat from the potentially gloomy atmosphere of an entire album made up of the concerns and failures of the first three songs. Musically, the guitars are what make this song. That chiming sound has been appropriated by so many guitarists since this album appeared. I’m sure The Edge still plays it regularly before being summoned back into the studio. That’s a particular beef of mine: that U2 stole the Bunnymen’s thunder and never fully acknowledged the influence – a bit like trying to save Africa without paying proper taxes in Ireland, so it’s in their character.

The title track really does define that scratchy guitar sound and also shows that it may have come from Gang of Four’s Andy Gill too. Still, it’s a wonderful sound and appears regularly across my record collection except when previously smooth bands adopt it in desperation or in disillusionment. It’s bright, choppy and angular. It really brings things to life again after too much time reflecting on McCulloch’s self-supposed lyrical genius. Lyrically there are more references to ups and downs as well as ‘crocodiles’ being linked with crocodile smiles rather than tears. Also, Ian seems happier with his ‘crocodiles’ rather than someone who has ‘alligator shoes’ who – perhaps rather conveniently – has the blues. I’m not really sure that can be called an environmental message.

‘Rescue’ apparently begins with a musical version of Morse code for S.O.S. Do I really have to know how that works to write about music? I mean, it’s a fairly weak idea to throw into a song called ‘Rescue’. I obtained this information from someone called ‘Willywonty’ – which might not be their real name – writing on the wonderfully desperate sounding website songmeanings.net.* Willywonty reckons the song is about addiction and a desire for intervention. Maybe this song aims to write about addiction but from an outsider’s, or more likely a dabbler’s, perspective. Others might say that it’s about love as a form of rescue. We might also consider the idea of love as a form of rescue from potentially losing control. This certainly worked for Macca; at least it did for 20 years before his marriage finally collapsed. It is quite easy to notice that he may have been right if we look at his career since 2003. Lyrically the song has the classic Bunnymen hallmarks of reaching for depth but never particularly convincingly. This is what makes them great. A guy from the North-West trying to get something across using his intellect rather than simply letting words hang together for the sake of it and claiming the songs don’t mean anything like Noel Gallagher has done. However, it’s the middle ‘breakdown’ of the track where McCulloch does tend to slip in lines from bands he likes**. So are we to consider that music is his rescue and that’s why the tribute appears in this song? Following up a theme from before, it can also be noticed that we are invited to come ‘down’ to his rescue again. Yet more ‘down’ imagery but at least coupled with some hope of salvation this time. If ‘Rescue’ remains a song about love it does seem a desperate one as rescue cannot really be a sensible motivation for love if it’s going to work in the long run. However, to have a handsome guy like Ian was sing “first I want a kiss and then I want it all” could be perceived as tempting to anyone even if he sees it more as “give me an inch and I’ll take a sodding mile” (Ian McCulloch 1989, quoted in Turquoise Days)

‘Villiers Terrace’ is a more obvious drug song as people crawl around on carpets and ‘medicine’ is mixed up. The keyboards sound like vintage Ray Manzarek but don’t ruin the overall effect for me like Ray does for many a Doors tune. Once again, the guitars are understated but never absent and the rhythm section keeps everything pounding away in a slightly lumpen manner that might have been downplayed here to enhance the sense of mystery. The lyrics are all pretty obvious and point towards a drug den or Hitler’s bunker…yes, Hitler’s bunker. I can only quote this:

“I was 19 when I wrote that. A kid…it was about Adolf Hitler. That was an idea that I got from my brother, as many were on Crocodiles. He actually coined the term ‘Villiers Terrace’. ‘I’ve been up to Villiers Terrace/I’ve been in a daze for days/I drank some of the medicine/ And I didn’t like the taste’. I had nicked it slightly from Dylan, but it was actually about Hitler throwing a wobbler and chewing the carpet, although the song obviously hinted at drugs. Hitler had this meeting with all these Heads of State and he’d had to make a compromise on his position, which he wasn’t happy about. He was so cheesed off that he had a fit and started chewing the carpet. That’s what my brother told me and I built it around that, although I think I prefer the interpretation that it is about being off your cake on drugs.”  Ian McCulloch 1994

It’s hard to really add anything to the above interpretation of the lyrics and perhaps a shame too, except to say that it is a shame the song wasn’t used for Der Untergang/Downfall/La Caida. I would also like to meet Ian McCulloch’s brother for a pint or two and a story or three.

Essentially the album has become more mysterious and only now really brought in the idea of drugs being used – or Hitler or whatever. Previous songs aim for a more intangible quality in lyrical content as if to avoid censorship. Censorship would affect the album but apparently possible drug references were considered okay as opposed to possible swearing that wasn’t in two songs that were ditched for the British version of the album, ‘Do It Clean’ and ‘Read it in Books’. Personally, I feel the album has a stronger impact for their exclusion.

The debut single came next. I have always regarded ‘Pictures on my Wall’ as one of those false start debut singles that fails to make the impact that a group deserves. It does have that sense of mystery that pervades the album and perturbs the listener but the lyric seems a little under-developed to say the least. Musically it is quite easy to tell that this is a re-recorded song as the keyboards sound a lot smoother on this track which perhaps takes away from the mystery to some extent, particularly the little swirly fill they give before the final verse and continue through it. That Ray Manzarek influence would rarely irritate quite so much as this – not until the hideous ‘Bedbugs and Ballyhoo’ on the untitled album and the inevitable Doors cover that also helped to fill it.

‘All That Jazz’ fares better with Northern Soul being perhaps suggested by the opening drums – something that can be heard in a lot of Fall songs if you ask me. McCulloch says the song is about being led much like the simplicity of the monkeys in, err…’Monkeys’. The song seems to insinuate that a lot of people sound up for the battle but then retreat or hide when war comes, or it supposes that. However, the lyrics also admit to everybody being the same in this, even the persona: ‘No matter how I shake my fist I know I can’t resist it/No matter how you shake your fist you know you can’t resist it’. If the song does raise issues of groups both left and right sacrificing individual intelligence for a herd mentality, then the persona seems to be a part of it. The ominous aspect is that the sky will one day turn black and then I guess we’re all doomed.

‘Happy Death Men’ certainly sounded psychedelic to my ears; in fact it was one of the oddest songs that I loved in my early development of a musical taste. It was certainly weirder than anything I’d heard by The Doors or The later Beatles in my opinion. The NME of 1980 described it as ‘a rambling closer which goes nowhere’. They were wrong as well as a bit harsh on an album that doesn’t last much longer than half an hour.

Lyrically speaking, it is very simplistic – military types are happy death men and they keep on doing what they do – well, whenever there’s a war on, presumably. So, why the camouflage image Ian? Why lines like ‘Take ‘em to your heart’? Essentially, the Bunnymen show a fascination with war that seems far more pro-British than the Joy Division approach. In interviews and some abstract lyrical references, McCulloch may claim to criticise the herd mentality, fascists and war but the reality is an album which seems to be awaiting bombardment which also takes a peek at Hitler in his bunker. ‘Happy Death Men’ suggests yet another schoolboy who had his imagination stirred somewhat by the First World War poets. He was not alone, but he generally seemed to enjoy English literature as he used its influence on many occasions.

Musically, a psychedelic piano impinges on a fractured beginning that only seems to find its groove once Pete DeFreitas discovers his cymbals. For once, this does not mean a Doorsy keyboard riff. As momentum builds, the music heads for the overblown and epic yet seems to lack the substance. Could it then fully recreate the disillusionment of war that McCulloch previously thought he had nailed elsewhere? I don’t want to go into Shakespearian clichés of sound and fury signifying nowt but it strikes me as a happy accident at the end of a remarkably accomplished debut album.  The final climax of discordance allows Will Sargent to fully demonstrate his unique take on guitar playing and how self-taught will often beat away self-doubt. Prior to this the song featured his unique rhythm chop with a wonderfully enhanced riff over the top which also sounds like, with the right pedals, it might be as easy to play as a lot of this album. I can’t state that last bit from experience but can only be fairly sure it must be the case.

‘Crocodiles’ is possibly the most completely formed of the Bunnymen albums even if its limitations prevent it from being the best. It is not a concept album but going down a lot, people being a bit like machines and war and army and stuff seem to be the main themes. Essentially this is a working class poet taking the words of his upbringing and creating something intangible from them that becomes a higher art. One article I read in the build up to this piece suggested that McCulloch was like the Pre-Raphaelite poets but that too may be over-reaching. Essentially this album does what all albums should – it reaches for the stars even though it knows it can’t touch them…and their hard….and cold…la.

‘Crocodiles’ aims for depth but fools the listener. This is no bad thing and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to scoff at popular music. Rather, it is Echo and the Bunnymen in a nutshell and it is what makes them great. If I’d preferred U2 (as I did for a bit in 1984), I would have become utterly bored with them by now. Sadly, the Bunnymen comeback has produced diminishing returns which have cheapened the legend somewhat but 1978-1985 is what counts for this band and they should have never bothered after that point. Well, I like bits of that 5th album but it does have those terribly wanky Doors moments. I know I liked it then but I was only young and misguided. Now, I’m 40 and still misguided enough to spend a few hours putting this together. Maybe I could take it further at some point; maybe it needs considerably less in its content. Maybe I need to stop now and eat something.

*Whilst it may sound desperate, this website does produce some interesting responses alongside it’s less valuable material. Willywonty is definitely an example of the former whereas the people adding “This is a great song” are definitely the latter. I hope my efforts are the former in an attempt to get beyond the latter.

**He also does it in ‘Crocodiles’ and ‘Do It Clean’. Why the debut album tracks?

Bibliography

Well, I should credit the Omnibus Press book on the band but it’s at me mum’s house somewhere so I’m working from memory on that one…

Turquoise Days: The Weird World of Echo and the Bunnymen – Chris Adams (Soft Skull Press 2002)

I don’t actually own this book and it’s well over-priced on Amazon but you can flick through bits of it at Google Books and probably elsewhere too.

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