Friday, July 21, 2017

And While We're Here...

From a  couple of years back on the blog. When I was more self-indulgent and wrote very long album reviews:

#13 Echo & the Bunnymen - Heaven Up Here

'Echo and the Bunnymen embodied all the archetypes of the classic band: a drummer who knew how to have a good time; a bass player who knew how to keep everybody else in time; a guitarist who was introverted, bitter twisted and fucking brilliant and a singer who had the lips, hair, voice, words and all that other stuff that you have to have from a Parthenon Drive front man.' Bill Drummond

This is one of the great romantic journeys. At least for me. Heaven Up Here by Echo & the Bunnymen is a full on, torrid, romantic ride across teenage emotions, bookshelves and British landscape. It's beautiful, dark, relentlessly emotional and quite determinedly, unashamedly intensely consistent from start to finish. If you don't like it within the first thirty seconds before McCulloch sings you certainly won't do by the end. For me it's great literature, great landscape a great statement and great art. If you don't agree, bear with me and keep on reading. I'll try and convince you.




The point when you cut yourself away from well-wishing, loving parental attention is a one off, transitional moment. Your parents, if they're enlightened, educated folk, probably want you to do it. They don't want you in their nest forever. You don't want to stay there either I imagine. But before you flee the coop you probably need a last extended, indulgent sulk. It's what the teenage years are here for. This moment has never been better documented except by the first three albums by Echo and the Bunnymen.

There's something resolutely defiant about the great Northern British guitar bands of the late Seventies. Just before Margaret Thatcher gathered force and cut her vicious swathe. The Fall, Joy Division, Blue Orchids, Buzzcocks, Comsat Angels, Sisters of Mercy, This Certain Ratio, Magazine, Wah!, Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen and finally The Smiths, the last in that line. There was also a wave of synth bands from the same neck of the woods at the same point in time but for the purposes of this review they won't be discussed. Because Echo & the Bunnymen is all about guitars.

This fact was quite evident before the release of Heaven Up Here. The Bunnymen had already released Rescue as one of their early singles which is one of the most muscular clanging, melodic guitar records you're ever likely to hear. If any doubt remained they released The Puppet / Do it Clean shortly afterwards to settle the argument. They had a mighty sound.


'Echo and the Bunnymen. The latter were blessed with a fierce drummer, Pete de Freitas  and a guitarist,Will Sergeant who wasn't afraid to play Hank Marvin-like single note guitar solos, minimal and lightly psychedelic. Then they saw Apocalypse Now and never recovered. Their pretty tousle haired singer Ian McCulloch now believed himself to be next in line to Brando and Jim Morrison. his new psychedelia and intense self-belief led to one of 1981's best albums Heaven Up Here, which hummed ominously throughout, like a distant overhead helicopter.'

Bob Stanley, as a pop fan gets the lightness and youth of the Bunnymen here but he doesn't quite capture the darkness. The Bunnymen's early records are brooding, poetic romantic statements in the great tradition of the Romantic Poets, The Brontes and the Industrial Revolution of the great Northern cities. They're resolutely Northern. The comment about their intense self-belief is spot on however. It's spiritual in its intensity. Heaven Up Here, just as Crocodiles before it and Porcupine which came after comes on as nothing less than a quest.


Whatever happened to Manicured Noise?

The shadow of The Doors over everything The Bunnymen ever did is indisputable. They never tried to deny it or played it down to my knowledge. Those turned off by Morrison's melodrama and affectations are unlikely to fall for McCulloch's. But for me their other influences are more interesting and flesh the Bunnymen out into something more substantial. 

I'd take issue with Stanley's description of them as 'lightly psychedelic' though. I don't think it begins to do justice to what they achieve on Heaven Up Here. It's a heavy, disorientating record from the start. An album that replicates, pretty authentically the sensation of substance intoxication, altered youthful states. Apparently guitarist Will Sergeant was very much the guiding force behind this album. He draws on a wide pool of sources.

Lots of the bands that I liked had an art school background or were seen as “art rock.” Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Pere Ubu, the Residents, Talking Heads, Syd’s Pink Floyd, the list goes on and on. Oh, I forgot Wire. This was not a conscious thing. It just turns out like that. A meeting of like minds, sort of.'

He says the list goes on. I'd add The Fall, Joy Division, Television, The Modern Lovers, Stooges, The Beatles, (especially Magical Mystery Tour) the sitar driven phase of The Stones, perhaps Beefheart, The 13th Floor Elevators and the first wave of British Psychedelia to it. As well as literature, art, poetry and politics much of this but not all fed in by McCulloch. It's a rich palette. And on here it produced a fierce mix of purples, reds, blues, greys and blacks. And erm turquoise.


The Bunnymen are often dismissed as a teenage thing. Something that might affect you deeply at sixteen, (or perhaps shallowly depending on your perspective), but something you'll grow out of. A sixth form phase. I'm not quite sure why this time of life should be disparaged. It's one of the purest states there is. Perhaps I'm not best placed to judge because the Bunnyman were exactly that for me. My sixth form band. I did grow out of them just as I grew out of The Doors after a six month period round about that age when I bought all six studio albums. I got into other stuff. But then with time I grew back into both.


I've posted this on here before but it's the only digital picture I've got from this point of my life and it's typical of my Bunnymen phase. I'm not even quite over it here though R.E.M. have taken over in my affections. Whenever a camera was pointed at me for a couple of years I'd shift to profile and gaze deeply to the horizon. I think like legions of others I was half-imagining myself as one of the four on the covers of any of the first three Bunnymen albums. Heaven Up Here would always have been my sleeve of choice.

'Things are wrong. Things are going wrong.'

Show of Strength kicks off and precedes to do exactly what it says it will on the tin. McCulloch doesn't launch his remarkable lungs into the fray until forty three seconds in. Those forty three seconds give the opportunity for the four Bunnymen to demonstrate what a redoubtable musical force they've become. Sergeant, then De Freitas, then Pattinson and McCulloch himself. No mean rhythm guitar player. This intro is etched on my consciousness.

 I can still remember the impression it made on me when I was seventeen. It takes me back to teenage parties. Putting it on record players trying to impress girls who were more interested in Squeeze. Singing the lyrics drunkenly to my friend Philip and a bloke called Frank as we staggered back to Philips folk's place in Kew after Friday nights imbibing on Richmond Green. Arguing with my mother that I was not revising enough when I would rather be listening to this.



They were made for impressionable youth. Safe, poetic, romantic, intoxicated rebellion. With Bunnymen atmosphere is all. If you don't care for the atmosphere they project than I imagine pretty much everything they do leaves you cold. They're quite a marmite band. For me when I was seventeen they offered exactly the atmosphere I wished to construct my identity within. More so than The Cure, The Banshees, PiL, even Joy Division who certainly outshadowed them in terms of the statement they were making. But not by that much by me as far as Heaven Up There is concerned. This album is right out there!

What Ian Curtis had to offer was a bit too much at this stage for a fairly contented but ambitious teenager who was building a persona slightly belatedly through records, literature, films and art. Bunnymen got pretty dark. They didn't pack their punches. But there was something about their belief and tight sense of unity and mission as a group that always led you to believe that however dark it got they'd somehow find their way back to the light


Watch this clip. It's a pretty remarkable demonstration of what four people focussing all their energies and thought processes on a common objective can achieve in terms of conveying an atmosphere and making a statement that will last. The Bunnymen have made some pretty sub-standard product over recent decades. For me they stopped making sense as a band when De Freitas died. Probably a bit before. I don't actually listen to the records any more. Don't want to. Still listen to the stuff that impressed me and shaped me between 16 and 19.

So often you see groups ceasing to have the meaning and power they've accumulated once one component is taken out of the equation. I'm afraid it eventually happened to The Bunnymen. Still they had a pretty good run. Four great albums and one outstanding one. The one I'm reviewing. Here for me they're at their absolute peak, a peak they maintained until they released The Cutter, one of the most gloriously off-centre, weird, wonderful and emotional records ever to grace the UK Top Ten.



Crocodiles, the band's first album is a pretty fine record, still one of the great coming of age debuts in British Rock history. But that's what it is. It's not fully formed and sounds like a garage band record to me despite it's peaks - Stars are Stars, Crocodiles, Rescue and Villiers Terrace which point the way to what they achieved on Heaven Up Here. It's still a process of joining the dots, a transition from the early concerts with a drum machine before De Freitas joined to him becoming a fully integrated member of the band.

It's happened here. He gives his kit one fearsome walloping in this song as on almost every other track on the album. Still one of my favourite drummers. Pattinson's loping bass is incredibly propulsive and impressive too. With the twin guitar attack rattling and chiming and McCulloch's unprecedented vocals soaring over the top of it all  (who exactly sounds anything like him?)  it was all pretty overwhelming for a sea of British teenagers looking for someone to pick up the baton from the fallen Joy Division in the early eighties. No surprise that it won the NME Readers Vote for year's best album in 1981 when it was released.



If Show of Strength is a statement of intent, next song With a Hip is an embodiment of the name of the band itself and the mystique that was arising around it. To some degree as with much of this album it's the sound of Liverpool and Manchester talking to one another.

With the death of Ian Curtis and the vanguard band of Northern Post Punk gone a vacuum was created. While the other members of that band realigned as New Order the contenders for their long coated legacy jostled. The Bunnymen with their unity and sense of purpose had made a jump in terms of commercial and critical potential from the pack of similarly minded bands which numbered The Teardrop Explodes, Simple Minds, The Fall, U2, Birthday Party, The Psychedelic Furs and Bauhaus. More than any band amongst that number they had the looks and hooks.

Pictures on the Wall / Read it in Books sleeve


The Bunnymen had no peers when it came to self-mythology. The Bunny God that appeared on their first single stoked the sense that their name gave off of them as a cult. They consciously courted legions of long coated well-haired youths. I was just one amongst thousands. McCulloch's looks, lips and tendency to flirt around the subject of intense, romantic love meant they offered girl appeal too.

With a Hip, takes the myth further. It comes on like a frantic vision of the fascist warren in Watership Down. The band are so accomplished by now. The sound they work up so much thicker and realised than on Crocodiles.

McCulloch's lyrics have their critics. He clearly loves words for their own sake. The way that they clash and chime and conjure up their own magic and unity. It tapped into something that a certain kind of teenager, (dreaming of beckoning life in their bedrooms), recognised in the early eighties. A fierce sense of outsider-ness and the contradictory urge to belong. He lost me by the time of Ocean Rain by which point he had begun to veer too much to the Moon in June side of things, ('my face among them kissing the tortoise shell / my planet sweet on a silver salver' Yeah right Ian).

With a Hip though is a real peak. For me it burrows, (yes) deep beneath the skin to say something mysterious but telling about an adolescent perspective of life and society, pleasure and pain, conformity and control. McCulloch has long been suggested to have a condition which affects his behaviour and worldview. In his teenage years apparently he would stare long and hard into mirrors imagining himself in the rock star state he went on to realise through sheer self-determination, bloody-mindedness and talent. He himself says he has OCD. His lyrics and stage persona suggest something more. There are a couple of interesting takes on it, along with the superb lyrics here.


'Just because we get all this respect doesn't make me anywhere near the higher reaches of the human. I don't know why the term 'human race' was invented so soon. There really aren't that many 'human beings' knocking around. That's why I wrote 'Monkeys' which is about the limitations of people who don't begin to see yet are still arrogant enough to believe that they're well formed human beings. So many people seem undeveloped to me, not yet human and never likely to be. You should be contributing to the progress of the human race rather than staying the same as it's been for the last 5,000 years. Yet it seems that nothing's changed. We don't seem to develop. If this is the way the world's meant to be it's disappointing. With all this potential for being human we all settle for routines that don't make sense, like sitting in pubs or riding around in buses or going to school. People  accept these routines as the obvious way to live, but to me they're disappointing, they don't really make sense. If this is how the world's meant to be, it's probably the simplest thing in the world to understand but the fact is I don't'  Ian McCulloch


The Bunnymen were wrenched and agonised between albums one and three. But they rarely lost sight of the windswept, epic drama and romance that spoke beyond this from their combination of personalities. Never more so than in Over the Wall, surely the most ambitious song on a hugely ambitious album. 

They must have had such a sense of realised achievement once this was written. It was surely the moment they'd been working towards all of their career. They'd had songs which became tour de forces before live in Crocodiles and Do it Clean but Over the Wall was something else entirely. It was the track teenage devotees bought stamps, writing paper, envelopes and postcards with, with money which they might usefully have spent elsewhere, to hoist it up and over the wall into the higher reaches of John Peel's Festive Fifty for several years thereafter.





For some reason they chose not to release it off its own back as a single even though it had been part of The Shine So Hard EP prior to Heaven Up Here. It would surely have charted if they had and given them their  first great existentialist Top of the Pops moment as A Forest had for The Cure the year before. In any respect Back of Love and The Cutter did that for them over the next couple of years.


It would be an interesting parlour game to divide the great English bands of the '60s, '70s and '80s into two camps, Mods and Rockers. The Beatles were rockers. As were The Stones. The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Who of course were mods. I'd put Syd Barrett's Floyd there too. Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Mott the Hoople and most of the trashy part of Glam were rockers. Bowie, T.Rex and Roxy managed remarkably to straddle the divide between the two. The Pistols were rockers, despite liking the Small Faces as were most of the early punk groups with the noticeable exception of Wire who were Mods. The Jam go without categorisation. The Clash started as mods and became rockers. Dexys and The Specials were both mods. The Teardrop Explodes were mods. Echo and the Bunnymen were in my eyes most certainly rockers. Hence the hair!

Over the Wall is a remarkable marriage between Rock and Roll, Prog Rock and Post Punk. It's Del Shannon and Hank Marvin wedded with Nineteenth Century Romanticism, with Nietzsche and Camus bedding in on the rhythm section. Excuse my flights of fancy. It still stands up despite the risk it runs of being pretentious in that it's aiming so high. It's one of the rare moments on an album of s√©ances and nagging doubt and dread where The Bunnymen achieve exorcism and take flight.


 'One of their early producers was Ian Broudie, later of The Lightning Seeds. He says, “Separately, what they’re playing didn’t seem that great. But somehow, when the four of them touched together, it ignited the blue paper. You could say to them, ‘Play A to D.’ They’d all join in and play A to D, and it would just sound great. The four of them created some kind of chemical reaction.” '

To be able to review this album properly you have to live with it. I have for the last three weeks. It's a very, very strange album and one that needs repeated listens. It's an itch you can't scratch. From Over the Wall, which is a strangely huge and immediate peak to put on third track first side, the album wends on.

It Was a Pleasure is something completely different. It jars.I imagine it's Will Sergeant's track. There's certainly Talking Heads there. Gang of Four too. It breaks up the first side. The more I listen to it the more it impresses on me.


A Promise is the big pop moment on the record. At least as pop as the Bunnymen could get at this point given their general mood. It didn't break the Top 40 though it should have done. It has a very simple dynamic and remains buoyant  throughout, defying gravity remarkably from start to finish. Meanwhile McCulloch on vocals sounds like he's crying from verse to chorus. The hard to hear kiss off backing lyrics, 'We can sail on forever' speak a remarkable truth about the album. In darkness, sometimes complete blackness but heading gradually upwards towards the light. Like the sound of flapping wings.


Heaven Up Here, the title track and opening song on Side 2 is certainly not pop. There's a discussion going on, on the first four Bunnymen albums between Rock and Pop. Album one is Pop, album two and three Rock, album four pop. A discussion between The Beatles and The Velvet Underground. This discussion happens again between A Promise and Heaven up Here.

The big influence for this album was supposed to be The Velvets What Goes On. Heaven Up Here is addled and goes slightly beyond that. I can detect the fingerprints of mid-sixties pioneers The 13th Floor Elevators. Will Sergeant flipping through his psychedelic songbook

It's an unholy row. It's music for the asylum to my ears in that it seems to talk about how we keep ourselves sane in a world that patently obviously is not. It suggests that a temporary remedy might be found in intoxicants and medication. Many of us do it every weekend and if we're not careful during the week too. Groovy, groovy people.



From German TV concert show Rockpalast .Listen for the Scouse accent saying 'Nice one mate!' as McCulloch announces the song and McCulloch laughing and saying 'They're everywhere!' Nice moment.

The Disease continues the mood but there's no illusion of temporary heaven here. This is purgatory. The only song on the album that isn't a full on band effort, this is mostly McCulloch with Sergeant's rickety, cracked riffing and muffled ominous studio noise. The Bunnymen were masters of embroidering their recordings with moans, and  shuddering effects to pile on the atmospherics. It said all that I wanted music to say when I heard it first. In my longcoated teenage years

But in addition to this this is one of McCulloch's great lyrics in that he says what he wants, says it with his characteristic poetic grace but his meaning unusually is absolutely, apparently clear. A friend of mine, Stephen, commented on reading this review that the Bunnymen were just great on Roman Catholic imagery. He's quite right. Cheers Stephen! Never more so than here.

'My life's the disease that could always change
With comparative ease, just given the chance
My life is the earth, 'twixt muscle and spade
I wait for the worth, digging for just one chance
As prospects diminish, as nightmares swell
Some pray for Heaven while we live in Hell
My life's the disease, my life's the disease
If you get yours from Heaven don't waste them
If you get yours from Heaven don't waste them
If you get yours from Heaven'

The Disease is as bleak as the album gets. Side Two remains dark  but as with A Promise from this point on they slowly but surely claw their way upwards.



'One day someone will explain to Bono that pop is always more expressive when it is trying to mend a broken heart than when it is trying to save the world.' Bob Stanley (Yeah Yeah Yeah)

'What d'you say, When your heart's in pieces, How to play,  Those cards in sequence.' Echo and the Bunnymen All My Colours (Zimbo)

The Bunnymen understood the importance of mystery. McCulloch despised the obvious rock gesture. Hence he despised Bono like no other and was almost equally disdainful of Springsteen. And he was fated never to approach a shadow of their sales because The Bunnymen were always best standing on the margins, aloof, lofty and removed. When they moved centre stage for their self-titled fifth album, put a straight close up picture of the band on its sleeve and tried to appeal to America (with some success ironically), they lost the plot entirely for me.

At this point in the game however The Bunnymen were out-thinking and outplaying U2 every step of the way. In this year U2 released October which was a very hesitant, uncertain record, stumbling towards the epic widescreen sound which would eventually sweep all before them (commercially, if not in terms of artistic value I'd argue). But at this point it was The Bunnymen who were calling the shots. McCulloch said in various interviews that this was supposed to be a soul album. That idea is best realised here.


All My Colours is one of the Bunnymen's greatest moments. There was an extraordinary five minutes when The Bunnymen played the Womad Festival in 1982 and the Burundi drummers were brought on to add percussion and fully realise that track. I imagine everyone who was there will remember those moments forever. One friend of mine, Tim Jones was. I'm deeply envious. Peter De Freitas, You're missed.






With a lot of bands there's talk about an imperial phase. The Bunnymen had at least three years of these. No Dark Things is an incredibly thoughtful song. A struggle towards the light. The lyrics are fairly difficult reading because there's not a huge difference between Curtis's and McCulloch's mindset at this point. Maybe, with The Bunnymen there was just more pose involved throughout.

Turquoise Days is the one song that sticks within the Apocalypse Now fixation that Bob Stanley talked about earlier. It's surely set in the Vietnamese killing fields that Coppola documented. It tries to make meaning out of the meaningless and somehow does so. Like every other song on the album, it establishes itself  inside a tantric moment that never breaks. A hypnotic, semi-conscious state.




There are lots of stairs in the Bunnymen world and some more of them appear in All I Want. McCulloch seems to be sat at the bottom of them. It's almost a nursery rhyme song between waking states and dream. The lyrical and musical themes are similar to the ones we've experienced before; grief, failure, doubt, pain but ultimately redemption wins out over all of them. As with Marquee Moon and a few other dream state albums that I'm aware of, I'm tempted to just turn the record over to Side One and let the process start all over again.

So there you go, Heaven Up Here. A remarkable object. As I said it was voted album of the year by NME readers in 1981 and quite right too though there were a lot of other very fine albums released that year. The Bunnymen continued on the momentum and attention this great album gave them. 




For me Porcupine was a slight, though definite descent from Heaven Up Here despite its two glorious hit singles. I'm probably not the first person to feel it frozen in retrospect though I loved it in 1983.Those two 45s, Heads Will Roll, My White Devil, Higher Hell and In Bluer Skies are as good as anything on Heaven Up Here. The rest is not. Ocean Rain was a shift into baroque chamber music which never quite captured my heart the way their earlier efforts had, though Killing Moon and the title track were undeniable.

Having listened to this for the last three weeks for this review I just want to listen to it again pretty much right now because it's that good. It's nice to know you were right when you were sixteen. Echo and the Bunnymen knew for a while exactly where the treasure was buried!




Sat myself up in the chair!

'Within the soul of Echo and the Bunnymen there was a pure aspiration that transcended all those would be bragged up memories. A glory beyond all glories where the gates are flung open and all you can see is this golden light shining down on you, bathing you, cleaning all the dark grime and shit from the corners of your soul. You know what I mean.
Good.
I drink my tea.' Bill Drummond

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