Engineered by Hugh Jones and Rod Houison (Tracks A4, B1)
|Side One:||Side Two:|
When I think of post-punk, my first thought is still pretty consistently of Gang of Four. It’s not fair, of course: one of the things I even like most myself is the insane variance of styles and approaches bands that appeals to me most about the genre (and its sometime-close relative, post-hardcore). Echo & the Bunnymen kind of exemplify one of the far bounds of what I think of–mostly because they aren’t a sound I think of at all. Much like The Boomtown Rats or the Talking Heads and punk,¹ I’m aware of the classification and even the justifications, but I think of them more as popular, familiar, readily grasp-able bands. Mainstream or pop, even–not in that bizarre, disparaging sense most use those terms in now, just in the sense of more familiar instrumentation and song-writing, even if with a clear identity. I can’t pin down what it is that makes my brain draw the lines where it does, except perhaps to say that here I think it’s the dominance of Ian “Mac” McCulloch’s voice, particularly over Will Sergeant’s guitar, but that’s just a guess, as it’s an instinctive thing.
As I think is probably increasingly common, my first (knowing) exposure to Echo and the Bunnymen was in 2002 (I suppose that won’t be increasingly common, for obvious temporal reasons) when I watched Donnie Darko, which quickly became my (still uncontested, for reasons that don’t belong here, as we’re talking about music, not movies) favourite movie. The theatrical cut² of the film opens with Echo’s “The Killing Moon”, which appeared on the later album Ocean Rain (the other I have on vinyl by true coincidence–I don’t see Porcupine or Heaven Up Here often, and the self-titled album is distinctly disparaged, so it was simply the other I ran into, not one pursued).
I’d actually already heard Echo in a similar but relatively peculiar context: released as a soundtrack the same month as their then final (if you will) album, the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lost Boys contained their cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange”. I first saw the film with young eyes and didn’t quite catch on to the variance in sound it had from the original track, which I also heard plenty of at a young age. Maybe it was the appropriate placement of a non-goth but goth-esque³ band with a movie reveling in both goofy camp and darker violent moments, rendering it too appropriate to stand out from its predecessor.
I began slowly collecting Echo albums two years ago, beginning with the 2003 expanded CD of this very album, and culminating with the comparable releases of Heaven Up Here and Porcupine. I was in the throes of my fascination with post-punk and earlier post-hardcore, so it only made sense. It did mean that an absolute torrential influx of music into my library prevented a lot of it from fully penetrating, but I got a feel for the sound of Echo, nebulous though it was.
“Going Up” is appropriate as an opener for the way it slowly winds its way into play, Pete De Freitas pushing it forward until Sergeant jams down a chiming set of chords that drop the band right in your lap. Les Pattinson’s bass is the one element that keeps itself even throughout both the opening rise and the splashing constancy of the song as it follows. One of my favourite moments on the entire album comes just after the midpoint of the song, Pattinson continuing on as Mac’s voice fades, Pete holding a steady beat, and Sergeant layering a coiled non-solo lead over an occasional spark of clean, clear individual strings. Mac’s voice occasionally wobbles back in and out almost unintelligibly until the song fades on this curious and unexpected twist of sound.
The next track on my copy was not on the original UK release (surprise, surprise…) and was most uniformly (non-limited-type) released as a b-side to the non-album single “The Puppet”, and I continue to be baffled at it not having been released as an independent single. “Do It Clean” is a charging song, Pete riding a hiss of cymbal over Pattinson’s climbing bass until producer Balfie drops an almost Steve Nieve-y key riff in to smash the song in. As he fades, Mac takes the song over, throwing in what is, no doubt, the catchiest chorus on the record (even if it wasn’t on the original record!). It’s a rush with a throbbing bass and a nice, fast drumbeat. I guess, though, the band eventually agreed–apparently the song is wildly popular now, and was even (in live form) b-side to “The Killing Moon”, which I’ve always understood was a rather successful single, independent of its usage in (a few, actually) movies.
“Stars Are Stars” drops the pace and tone down a fair bit–for all that there’s a downward curl (mixed with a sort of sneer) to Mac’s voice even in the uptempo “Do It Clean”, this is even more miserable, in its way. It’s something like an amped up version of the most morose moments from Robert Smith, slower for Echo, but still fast for its mood. Sergeant inserts a solo that’s simultaneously knowingly simplistic and acutely unnerving at each note, repeated a second time and seeming to instrumentally echo (ahem) the words and sounds of Mac that precede and surround it. Pete’s enthusiastic drumming, particular, a periodic, bass-heavy fill are what keeps the song moving.
There are hints of that Andy Gill-style jerky, angular, strike of guitar in Will’s opening moments of “Pride”, but they are smoothed and curved back in filter by the time of the verse. Momentary interruptions of a xylophonic instrument and the crash of that sharpened intro as chorus fill out the song’s sound and identity, one that’s primarily defined by those rounded edges on the guitar, murky like the water of a lake, but still clear enough to keep on.
There’s something of the early U2 sound (slightly pre-dating, but largely contemporaneous) in “Monkeys”, a moody, contemplative rumble with flights of wiggly, springy guitar. Les’s bass is the controlling force, though, except at the chorus, where Sergeant’s reverberating squiggles become clean, sharp, and straightened points of melodic focus. It’s perhaps the most recognizably “post-punk” of tracks on the album, and that’s a very good thing.
The title track is probably the closest match the original running order had to the energy of later insertion “Do It Clean”: Pete’s drumming and Les’s bass are both at their most frenetic, even when Mac’s voice drops along with the song, for a booming moment of low-end groove–which fascinatingly ends on a sudden chime at a bright and high pitch. But Les and De Freitas won’t let the song relax long, and shove it back into overdrive, letting Will’s lead moment turn to a rapid struggle of furious riffing on adjacent chords, turning to a broken record of jagged peaks of muted chords.
While extra songs were inserted, the running order is actually mostly intact–much like the original, the US Crocodiles opens the second side with the single “Rescue”, which was released before the album initially. Not riding the intense energy of a “Do It Clean” or a “Crocodiles”, it’s still a noticeably pop-inflected song, and an unsurprising choice for single. The high-point-low-point alternation of Will’s guitar is emblematic of much of the post-punk-y hits of the 1980s, nudging even at the edges of its cousin indie-rock and the more moody work of the Smiths when at its chorus, though De Freitas acts far more as a rock drummer in his force than Mike Joyce would–a natural difference in musical styles, but a noticeable one.
“Villiers Terrace” is unquestionably my favourite Echo track, bar none. I may not be alone in this, as the most extensive fan site out there shares the name. “I’ve been up to Villiers Terrace/To see what’s happenin'”, goes the chorus, and it’s catchy as all hell, yet distinctly ominous and shaky–Mac’s description encourages that feeling, though, as he continues: “There’s people rolling round on the carpet/Mixing up the medicine/[…]/Biting wool and pulling string…” David Balfie’s quiet return on piano perfectly enhances the weird, discomforting and hallucinatory, semi-horrifying observational feeling of the song, with a prettily rising but somewhat off riff. The song pulses and grooves, but is spiked with those incredulous descriptions.
Sonically, “Pictures on My Wall” is a very appropriate follow-up to “Villiers Terrace”. The intro is the still-hot but low-burning embers of that fire, bellowed up to steady, even flames by the verse, crashed into a thunderous bolt at the end of the chorus, droning keys stretching out behind it. Pete peddles mightily behind it, pounding up the snare to an all-ride hiss that breaks with a round-trip fill. It would be a somewhat spooky trip through a decaying, darkened hallway (lined, of course, with old pictures) if not for Pete and Les, who give it too much motion to be completely mired in spookiness, without completely interrupting that moody darkness.
Somewhat appropriately, the wide-release of “Read It in Books” was as the b-side to “Pictures on My Wall”, which means its placement here is perfectly logical. It’s a continuation of the subdued tempos and tones (but not moods) the previous tracks have started to establish, too. While there’s power and force in the song from the rhythm section, it never really gives the track the kind of oomph that would render it something beyond moody and darkened. Mac’s voice seems to be at its most unrestrained, even when it is low, quiet and breathy.
Stompingly rhythmic, “All That Jazz” is another nudge toward that Gang of Four-type aural aesthetic, the rhythm section carrying much of the song’s groove while Sergeant’s guitars strike across the top of it. It isn’t, of course, some kind of rip on the (semi?)famous Leeds band: a late break in the song for a melodic low end ripple over a pounding patter of percussion is unusual and unique in sound, especially as the rest of the song crashes back in on top of it, shoving the entire track and the album back to a kind of energetic peak that stops suddenly when the track ends, bringing us to the final track and a more wandering, experimental feel.
“Happy Death Men” is oddly appropriate for its odd title. It seems to wander in in a daze, sprinkling random key sounds across its length. Mac’s emphatically punctuated repetition of the title in the chorus is oddly endearing and also just odd, considering the words. At something like the first third’s end, his voice leaves the instruments behind, as they seem to jam or otherwise experiment, until a horn section (!) suddenly appears, repeating the slight melody and particularly rhythm of Mac’s vocal chorus. When his own voice returns, the song takes yet another turn toward the meanderings it saw just moments before, once again punctuated by those horns, but now joined by Mac’s voice. Pete gallops off toward the end of the song aggressively, wildly–Will lets loose a furious wail of sharpened, passionate soloing, the horns find tentative footing, and everything crashes and wanders off into a slow fade.
I feel as though I wandered into an awful lot of comparison here, but it is for me (as with most people) one of the easiest methods of describing musical sounds–language alone can only get one so far before the limitations of subjective description begin to interfere and cause a kind of divergence in perception. Still, it implies a kind of “secondary” status for the band, which is undeserved–comparisons should largely not be treated in that way anyway, but instead for the reason I at least intended above: familiarity via parallel.
The cover of Crocodiles is actually quite interesting, and I cannot leave without commenting to that effect: the boys are standing, leaning, and sitting in various less-than-happy ways (and, in Mac’s case, rather bewildered or shocked) in a forest in Hertfordshire, but one that is rendered bizarre, artificial-looking and even vaguely psychedelic in its forced, colourful lighting⁴. It’s a pretty striking image–I don’t know if I could call it evocative with regard to the music, but it is at least peculiar and darkened enough to suggest the unusual tones and bleak tones of the album. Credit goes to one Brian Griffin, who certainly deserves just that.
¹I’m of the mind that both left the genre pretty rapidly and wandered into entirely different territory, but the first album from each feels pretty firmly punk-y.
²The director’s cut version restores INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” to this place, which has a uniquely appropriate lyrical moment as it’s edited. I think it angers some people because of INXS’s obviously more popular (and more “pop”, often in that aforementioned disparaging sense) nature, and thus severely deprecated “cred”. Whatever. But then, I own an awful lot of INXS records.
³Mac’s lyrics and his vocals would not be too out of place in those circles, at the very least, and the dripping, downward crawl of that song (and the especially warbly sound of Will’s guitar, too) only enhanced this.
⁴Reminiscent, I feel, of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories