“All at sea again.”
McCullough, the Duke of old, would do this set piece where he`d move centre stage in the darkness and light a cigarette. It`s glow would be the only illumination in the theatre. His singing lips in its shadow.
The song comes out of the cassette-player. A dirge my Mum would have called it. Despite her Scott Walker records. It fills the silence. Four of us are squashed into the back seat. Debb Lello being groped by whoever`s turn it was tonight. In the post-midnight blue, Gary, driving, mimics McCullough and sparks up. Seventeen and heading back on empty roads from Leicester Square. A Saturday night spent making amateur passes at strangers in The Empire Ballroom. Passed out between tables at Cinecitta Roma. Drunk and in search of excitement in the alleys off Oxford Street. Sporting shined shoes, jacket and tie. Trying to look twenty-one. Red embers. Tomorrow`s papers the only prize.
On the drive into town we`d have drag-raced in and out of traffic. Once a guy we`d cut up caught us at the lights by Streatham Hill Station. As Dave had frantically tried to wind up his window, the guy`d just opened the door and thumped him. We`d meet in a pub in Norbury on a Thursday to make plans for Saturday, and it was always the same. Gary was in charge, but wanted a consensus. Johnny C the milkman would claim to be skint and refuse to go anywhere. Matt & Dave would be clowning about at the pool table. Neil would be pulling faces – his tongue pushed Steptoe-like into his lower lip – behind Gary as he pleaded for new ideas. Johnny “Trenton” Fenton would say, “I don`t know Gary”, and me and Paul would say nothing. Nick, a Cheshire cat at Gary`s right hand. The only lasting loyalty here was between Gary & Nick. Gary and Johnny C, who was older, would argue and Johnny C would fuck off.
Gary was a “diamond” who called everyone a “spanner”. Smiling, winking, a stud in his ear. A chipie with his Dad`s shop-fitters. A cross between Adam Ant and Matt Dillon. Oversexed, and possibly bi-. There had been Epstein-Lennon like rumours about a teacher at school. People claimed to have seen Gary behind the wheel of this teacher`s car. G knew how to use his charm to manipulate. Johnny C and Neil were two of the biggest cunts I`ve ever met. Mean, spiteful cowards. Neil later became a copper. Paul was Neil`s brother, a couple of years his junior, and too smart to be hanging about with his sibling. Johnny F was a simple innocent. Fool enough to sometimes bring his younger sister out. That left me and the clowns at the pool table.
Dave & Matt were a comedy duo. Like Rik & Viv from The Young Ones. Except Dave looked like James Dean and Matt looked like a Greek God doing a fine Mick Jagger impression. These two were my best friends. Matt was working a site-foreman`s apprenticeship. Me and Dave were about to fail our A-Levels. Matt`s smart mouth, lip, and need to push things as far as they would go, would often back us into trouble. They came from slightly more affluent backgrounds. They lived in bigger houses. Their dads ran their own businesses. They hadn`t developed a sixth sense for aggravation. So as Matt jollied with any local toughs that we came into contact with, Dave verbally riffing and sparring, carried along and away, they would never see, the pool cue`s weight being shifted for a swing. The enemy moving to their flanks and rear. Friendly with Dave at school, I`d attached myself to these people. As they`d go where girls would go. I`d walk from Norwood to Norbury. An unpleasant, incident-ridden course once the pubs had shut.
Debb was blonde, half-Italian and in love with Gary. She`d stick around for any scrap of him that she could get. He`d treat her like a thing. It was shameful. He`d pass her over to Neil and Johnny C whenever she was getting in his way or on his nerves. Though she would shrug off Nick. If feeling playful he would parade her underwear in front of us. Dangle her bra and panties out of his bedroom window as we waited in the street. I was in awe of her because she was the only girl I knew. An unpracticed sword believing in fairy-tale. In search of a princess, a damsel in distress. I didn`t like it when they made her cry.
Gary once asked me,
“You`re a good-looking bloke, why do you never pull?”
Clueless I guess.
Tired. Spent. Silent. Red embers. Blue against the window. Narrow horizons pushed a little broader. At least in terms of what was out there. The spur to move a little sharper, in the knowledge that “this is shit”. Not disappointed, because I had no expectations. I don`t remember what would be playing on the car stereo on the way up there, but Ocean Rain seemed to soundtrack every failed journey home. I was young. When McCullough sang of “the blackest thoughts” I had no idea what they were.
I`d seen The Bunnymen on Tops Of The Pops. Doing Seven Seas. Either ripping off, or taking the piss out of The Cure`s Caterpillar. But Gary would play the whole of Ocean Rain in the car, and I came to know it by heart. Yo-Yo men and Vegetables never coming out of the fridge. Those big 35-piece, orchestral arrangements. Celesta and harpsichord. Recorded in homage to Jaques Brel and Scott Walker. Sat in the back I Imagined looking out over expansive, clear, optimistic horizons. Then nightfall and campfire crackle. Ghost stories and legend. Ritual and shamanistic visions. Christ inverted. A Thorn Of Crowns. The Killing Moon. A symphonic song of midnight-hued, vampiric lust. Adventurers we, setting out on those seven seas strapped to the prow. Bravely and proudly. On a course for unchartered lands. Ocean Rain itself was a re-reading of Tim Buckley`s Song To The Siren. Lovers likened to hurricanes. Souls lost to destructive love. Tender frames screaming from beneath the waves. My Kingdom soared, but my favourite was Crystal Days.
“Looking for hope and I hope it`s you.”
There was an obvious debt to Jim Morrison & The Doors. The lyrics also owed something to LSD and Arthur Lee. But I hadn`t experienced either of those yet.
Singer Ian McCulloch was a Bowie obsessive from Liverpool`s Norris Green housing estate. Nicknaming himself “Duke” after the thin white one. Playing Starman`s chords backwards for The Killing Moon. He was part of the scene centred on Eric`s. A basement club on Matthew Street run by Roger Eagle, Ken Testi and Pete Fulwell. Opposite The Beatles` Cavern it was responsible for fostering Punk and Post-Punk in the city. Regulars included future manufactured “hit-makers” of the 1980s like Holly Johnson and Pete Burns. McCulloch was once in a bedroom band, The Crucial Three, with two more “scene-sters” Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. Conceived on Cope`s eighteenth birthday. After catching The Clash at Eric`s. The Crucial Three never got beyond talk, and Cope subsequently sacked McCullough from another band, A Shallow Madness. The fore runner to The Teardrop Explodes. McCulloch instead forming Echo & The Bunnymen with guitarist Will Sargeant, Les Pattinson on bass and a drum machine that history has incorrectly assigned the name Echo. Sargeant was into Eno and Dadaism. Wasn`t worried about being proficient. Just wanted to sound like no one else. Feeding his strings through broken amplifiers and radios. Inspired by The Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol`s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and `60s psychedelic happenings. It was his idea to play Gregorian chant before The Bunnymen took to the stage. To create a sense of otherness, occasion. An event. His older brother had exposed him to the Heavy Rock of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, The Who and The Pink Fairies. While his own playing lent towards Eastern tunings, and The Beatles` tripper moments. Pattinson had a past in performance art and went alternately by the names of Jeff Lovestone and Neon Poet. Trinidadian, Peter De Freitas stepped in to replace the drum machine. The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes were both signed to Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe`s Zoo. Intended as more of a multimedia Arts collective than a record label.
Even before signing The Bunnymen, Drummond had been seeing rabbits. A bloody big one. A rodent / man creature. A mystical, elemental beast drawn from the hours he`d spend in the public library studying folk lore. Possibly malevolent. He saw the band`s name as more than coincidence, and sketched his monster on the sleeve of The Bunnymen`s first 45, Pictures On My Wall. Drummond was convinced that this was Echo. A disciple of Pan. He set out to invoke Echo. Conceiving album artwork based on the elements: earth, sky, snow white, and ocean blue. Organising tours that followed ley lines from Reykjavik to Papua New Guinea. Tracing Echo`s outline around the U.K. Taking in Scotland`s Outer Hebrides and The Royal Albert Hall. Telling no one, of course. Drummond`s involvement with the band peaked one week after the release of Ocean Rain, with A Crystal Day. A day of activities held on May 12th, 1984, to promote both the new record and the city of Liverpool. The schedule including a meal at the band`s favourite cafe, Brian`s, a haircut at their favourite salon, Victor`s, a ferry ride across the Mersey, the Anglican cathedral, and blue and yellow balloons. There was a cycle ride around the city. The route again drew a giant Echo through the streets. The band played three sets at St. George`s Hall, near Lime Street Station, with Chinese dancers as support. As the day closed with the sounding of the Last Post, Drummond gave The Bunnymen the rest of the year off. De Freitas set out on his Ducatti. For Spain, France and a bender in New Orleans. Pattinson bought a boat. McCullough launched a solo career. Sargent sat at home. Doing nothing.
Ocean Rain took me back to the bargain bins of Croydon`s record shops. To discover The Bunnymen`s debut, Crocodiles. Acid poetry and leather trousers. Oblique truths and dark Pop. The End, say, if The Doors had been more Garage Punk than Las Vegas lounge band.
“Rolling round on the carpet, mixing up the medicine.”
Doing it clean.
Psychotic reactions and Pebbles, like The Litter`s Action Woman. A track The Bunnymen would cover live. Riffs, sharp, shining, blades. Solos trebly and psychedelic. Burundi rhythms and raga drone. Often gloriously all over the place. They`d later employ ECM artist, Shankar, on double-necked violin. The girl I was seeing lived across the street from a house where The Bunnymen would stay when in London. My first real girlfriend. The one I lost my virginity to. I`d have said with, but that information was never offered. The house was home to a divorcee with two daughters our age. They all worked for some TV / video chart show. Beautiful to look at, the two siblings were psychos. Called themselves The Fugs. The weekend for them was about kicking off a pub fight. Start an argument, stand back, and watch it escalate. Wild West style. Furniture and glasses flying. Tear gas in their handbags just in case. A couple of guys I knew, that went out with them, ended up inside. Done for GBH while defending their honour. Gayle. I forget the ginger one`s name.
The Bunnymen fought with The Teardrop Explodes for Zoo`s scant resources, and, according to Cope, stole songs and ideas. As an ex-B-Boy, to me they all looked like fey Pop stars. But for tales of treachery and excess read anything written by Cope or Drummond. In `85 The Bunnymen spilt with Zoo. Very likely due to their singer`s desire for fame. Under new management they broke America. Doing co-headlined “shed” tours with New Order. Living Rock and Roll lifestyles of booze, girls and cocaine snowstorms. Their rider allegedly bigger than The Stones`. Courting Hollywood, they got a song, Bring On The Dancing Horses, included on the soundtrack for John Hughes` Pretty In Pink. Covered The Doors` People Are Strange for Joel Silver`s Lost Boys.
When it came to record a new album, their now major label had them listen to Peter Gabriel`s So. Set them up with producer Laurie Latham with the aim of reproducing it. The resulting bankruptly titled Echo & The Bunnymen was the band`s initial swan song. They didn’t record together again for ten years. Latham would spend as long as month on each song. Overcooking it. While McCullough had lost it. An entourage surrounding him. Wiping his arse. Convincing him that he was the star. Distancing him from the rest of the band.
His lyrics were negative. Of No Dream Towns and
“Black, black days, here to stay.”
Sounding bored, he was definitely pissed. The songs sung at a rush, rather than with purpose. Lifting soundbites from literature and popular culture.
“Measure for measure.”
“Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.”
And regurgitating himself. The opening and closing tracks are practically the same. Stuck on a handful of images. Life as a circle. God`s one miracle a game. Latham`s production swapped Ocean Rain`s strings for keyboards, and straightened everything. Aiming for College radio hits. The Bunnymen no longer eccentric, occupied a neutral, neutered space. Without the weirdness, McCullough appeared to be making it up as he went along. Rather than cryptic and mysterious. Pete`s drumming saved Satellite. Ray Manzarek`s guest keys doing the same for Bedbugs And Ballyhoo. It`s the record they`re best remembered for in The States. But only All My Life – the sole track on the album with strings – really connected. Got repeat plays from me.
“Oh, how the times have changed us.”
Nostalgia and hindsight. By then I`d moved to Leeds.
At University I fell in love with a girl from Liverpool. When she took me to meet her folks, we visited the city. Where the hang-outs were coffee shops and cafes, like Brian`s. Full of long-fringed chaps. Art students in overcoats. Dry, dour and Bunnymen-like. Merseyside`s “cool” and “fashionable”. At odds with London`s plasterers and gas-fitters in Gautier and Westwood.
*Extracts from a few of these pieces have appeared elsewhere. But they`ll now run in full.