Echo & The Bunnymen - Biography
Formed in Liverpool in 1978, Echo & the Bunnymen began as a middle weight post-punk band, became UK best-sellers during the new wave and college rock eras, and have carved out a respectable niche for themselves as late-career alternative pop-rockers. Along the way, they've scored five UK Top 10 albums and have charted numerous singles in their homeland, while maintaining a strong cult following in America.
Vocalist Ian McCulloch was born in Liverpool on May 5, 1959. His first involvement in a band was a six-week tenure in the spring of 1977 as singer for The Crucial Three, a group most notable for also including Julian Cope on bass. The following year, McCulloch met guitarist and fellow Liverpudlian Will Sergeant, born April 12, 1958. The two began recording demos, using a drum machine for rhythm tracks. They soon joined with bassist Les Pattinson, who was born a mere six days after Sergeant, in Ormskirk, West Lancashire, also in northwest England. Contrary to popular mythology, the "Echo" in the band's name wasn't inspired by their drum machine. Rather, the group simply chose their name from a list drawn up by a friend.
Early the next year, the trio recorded two tracks at August Studios with producers Bill Drummond and David Balfe. On Ian McCulloch's 20th birthday, Echo & the Bunnymen issued their first 7" single, "The Pictures on My Wall" (1979 Zoo), backed by "Read It in Books." On August 15 of 1979, the band recorded four tracks for the John Peel show. Balfe played percussion and keyboards for the session. The four songs laid to tape that day — three of which would be re-recorded for the group's first album — were aired one week later, but wouldn't be released as an EP, The Peel Sessions (1988 Strange Fruit) for another nine years.
In 1980, Echo finally found a replacement for their drum machine and guest percussionist. Joining the group early that year was Pete de Freitas, born August 2, 1961 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The band wasted no time getting back into the studio. The Ian Broudie-produced single "Rescue" (1980 Korovo/WEA UK), recorded at Eden Studios in London, again hit the streets on McCulloch's birthday. Released on the newly minted Korova Records, the song peaked at #62 on the UK singles chart. At Rockfield Studios in South Wales, Drummond and Balfe again teamed up as producers for the band's debut album, Crocodiles (1980 Korova/WEA), which reached record stores in July. The LP was decidedly post-punk, but The Bunnymen's sound was immediately warmer and less claustrophobic than many of their peers. On "Do It Clean," they displayed an obvious indebtedness to the late '60s garage rock sound of bands like Them. "Pride," on the other hand, relied on twisting guitar phrases and McCulloch's Jim Morrison-esque baritone. The fast-paced title track, meanwhile, showed that the band had come of age during the punk rock era. A strong and well-reviewed debut, Crocodiles peaked at #17 on the UK album charts.
In March of the following year, Echo & the Bunnymen returned to Rockfield Studios, enlisting former Simple Minds engineer Hugh Jones to produce. While remaining true to their original sound, the band broadened their range with the resulting LP, Heaven Up Here (1981 Korova/WEA). Combining the grittiness of post-punk with an expansive atmospheric sound, the album saw the group's popularity grow, landing them at #10 on the UK charts. They also cracked the USA's Billboard 200, edging in at #184. With its panoramic chorus, lead single "A Promise" was a #49 UK single, but its more challenging follow-up, "Over the Wall," missed the charts. Heaven Up Here was reviewed quite positively at the time by NME and has continued to impress, earning an 8.0 from Pitchfork Media and a spot on Rolling Stone's tallying of the 500 greatest albums of all-time.
Despite the group's increased success, they became plagued by internal strife and writer's block. They spent the better part of 1982 working and re-working ideas. Sergeant took time off to record Themes for Grind (1982 Happy Customers), a solo album of instrumental soundscapes. In May, the band released an advance single, the charging "The Back of Love" (1982 Korova), with Indian musician Shankar adding strings. The single was their first to go Top 20, peaking at #19 in the UK. Produced by the returning Ian Broudie, Echo's first attempt at their third follow-up LP, however, was rejected by Korova's parent company, WEA, as not being commercial enough. The group re-enlisted Shankar, whose strings helped raise the album above the level of their prior guitar-centered LPs. The result, Porcupine (1983 Korova), became the band's highest charting album, shooting all the way up to #2 on the UK album charts. They also improved their standing in the US, reaching #137. It has received a wide range of reviews over the years, initially getting panned by NME, but making the magazine's year-end list of best albums. Rival music rag Melody Maker liked it considerably more. In August, the group issued a non-LP single, "Never Stop" (1983 Korova) that landed at #15 on the British charts.
In May of the following year, Echo & the Bunnymen released the album that is now considered their masterpiece, Ocean Rain (1984 Korova). Mostly recorded abroad in Paris, the LP found the band leaning toward more accessible pop sounds with the "la, la, la" refrain on opener "Silver" and the sunny and strumfull "Seven Seas," both of which charted as singles. On "Nocturnal Me," however, they delved deeper into the chamber orchestrations of Crocodiles, as dramatic strings swayed and pricked against the song's sad Spanish melody. The more skeletal and Eastern-tinged "Thorn of Crowns," on the other hand, recalled the group's post-punk roots. Ocean Rain's high point, though, is Top 10 advance single "The Killing Moon." A bruised and beautiful classic of the era, it was featured in the film Donnie Darko and was given a '90s indie rock treatment by Pavement. The album performed almost as well on the UK charts as its predecessor, peaking at #4. In the US, Echo's star continued to slowly climb, carrying Ocean Rain to #87 on the Billboard 200.
The next year, Echo & the Bunnymen issued their first hits compilation, Songs to Learn and Sing (1985 Korova). The record was a simple chronological presentation of the ten singles they'd released, plus a new song, "Bring on the Dancing Horses," which hit #21 in the UK. The album reached #6 in England and a modest #158 in America. The inner strife that had plagued recording sessions for Crocodiles resurfaced during the band's 1985 worldwide tour, resulting in Pete de Freitas quitting the band for a brief time. He was temporarily replaced by Mark Fox (ex-Haircut 100), but then returned in 1986.
Because of this inconsistency on the drum throne, it would be two more years before the band released their fifth album of all-new studio material, Echo & the Bunnymen (1987 Korova). By this time, a new generation of music had taken hold. New wave and post-punk had been replaced by synth-pop and college rock. Echo's new LP fit generally in with the latter, offering a more straight-ahead style. McCulloch's vocals were more laid-back, the melodies less challenging, and Will Sergeant's guitar parts more conventionally tuneful. Reviews for the album are usually positive, but it has never evoked raves from critics. Lead track "The Game" and "Lips Like Sugar" were both Top 40 UK singles, although the latter has proved by far the most enduring, becoming a staple on American alternative radio. Like Ocean Rain, their self-titled LP topped out at #4 on the British album charts. In the US, the band grew more popular still, and the record reached as high as #51. Despite this initial push up the charts, sales weren't as sustained as with the two prior studio albums. Crocodiles and Ocean Rain both went gold in the UK, Echo & the Bunnymen only managed silver. That same year, the band contributed a cover of The Doors' "People Are Strange" to the soundtrack for The Lost Boys (1987 Atlantic).
Yet more internal rumblings led to Ian McCulloch embarking on a solo career in 1988. During his time away from Echo, he released the quite strong Candleland (1989 Sire) and the lukewarm Mysterio (1992 Sire), both of which continued in the same sonic vein of Echo & the Bunnymen. Meanwhile, on June 14, 1989, Pete de Freitas died in a motorcycle accident. Despite the loss of lead singer and drummer, Sergeant and Les Pattinson elected to keep the band alive. They promoted touring keyboardist Jake Brockman to official member status, recruited Liverpudlian drummer Damon Reece and new lead singer Noel Burke, a Belfast-born vocalist formerly of St. Vitus Dance. This new five-man incarnation of Echo & the Bunnymen released just one album, the Geoff Emerick-produced, yet decidedly underwhelming, Reverberation (1990 Sire).
Fortunately, the real Echo & the Bunnymen lived on with a series of live concert and compilation releases, the most notable of which was Ballyhoo: The Best of Echo & the Bunnymen (1997 WEA UK), a 17-track updated compilation for the CD age that included cuts from the self-titled LP and "People Are Strange." By 1994, Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant had reconciled and formed a side project, Electrafixion. With an appropriately harder-rocking, grunge era feel, the duo issued just one album, Burned (1995 Elektra). It earned meager reviews and reached only #38 in the UK. More important, this laid the groundwork for the 1996 regrouping of Echo & the Bunnymen, when Pattinson returned to the fold. The following February, the revived group (including drummer Michael Lee) issued Evergreen (1997 London). The album continued in the style of the band's self-titled album and McCulloch's solo records. Critical praise was modest, although the album did get Echo back into the UK Top 10, with Evergreen peaking at #8. That year, Sergeant, working under the monkier Glide, issued a live solo album, Space Age Freak Out (1997 Ochre), which combined electronica and psychedelia.
Les Pattinson left the band again, this time to care for his ailing mother. He contributed to only one track on Echo & the Bunnymen's next full-length, What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? (1999 London). Lee played drums on a pair of tracks, but, by this time, the band had become the duo of McCulloch and Sergeant, and all other instrumentation in the studio or on the road would be handled by session musicians. A sweet and sunny LP, What got more tepid praise and saw the beginning of the band's slow decline in popularity, topping out at #21 in England. Later that year, Sergeant recorded another live Glide album, Performance (2000 Ochre).
The more electronica-heavy and densely produced Flowers (2001 Cooking Vinyl) surfaced two years later. After two decades signed to various labels within the Warner Music Group, Echo & the Bunnymen had signed to indie label Cooking Vinyl, a hip boutique house for cool, aging artists such as The Charlatans, Mekons, and Richard Thompson. Pitchfork awarded the grittier and more contemporary sounding Flowers an 8.0, but it nonetheless failed to chart in the US and reached a mere 56 in the UK. The band went on hiatus while McCulloch assembled his third solo album, the stripped-down Slideling (2003 Cooking Vinyl), which reached #61 in England. In 2004, a studio-made Glide album came from Echo's other half, as Sergeant continued his explorations of sample-heavy electronics and guitar excurions with Curvature (2004 Cooking Vinyl). Echo returned the next year with Siberia (2005 Cooking Vinyl). Though their influence on the UK scene continued to sink (the LP hit #83 there), the Bunnymen won mostly solid reviews for their latest and even slipped back onto the US charts, reaching #161.
Although Echo & the Bunnymen's days of releasing groundbreaking albums are more than two decades behind them, the legacy of their first four LPs remains influential, coloring the tonal palettes of many young bands of the mid-2000s. Those albums, plus the somewhat lesser self-titled record, have been lovingly remastered and appended with bonus tracks. Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant continue to forge on, creating worthy new works. As of summer 2008, the band were scheduled to release a new LP, The Fountain, in September 2008.