In February 1983 Echo And The Bnnnymen released their third album, Porcupine, a record once again graced with a beautifully shot sleeve, the four band members walking on a glacier in Iceland (something they later said was incredibly dangerous, one false step and death by falling down an icy ravine awaited them). There are Echo And The Bunnymen fans who swear by Porcupine, the pinnacle of the post- punk Bunnyworld but for me it is a flawed and sometimes quite difficult album- despite this it also has at least two of their greatest moments.
Everyone involved in making it says it wasn't a happy experience. The four members were either arguing or not speaking to each other. Ian still had superstardom in his sights and at rehearsal sessions said as much even though they were clearly struggling to come up with new material. Les was unhappy with the music industry. Pete was producing The Wild Swans. Will was making an instrumental solo album. They used a Peel Session to debut and record some new songs including what would become The Back Of Love and Higher Hell, both with different earlier names. In an attempt to get their juices flowing and get them talking to each other Bill Drummond booked them a mini- tour of Scotland. They released The Back Of Love as a single in May 1982, their first top twenty hit, and then after a summer of gigs including the WOMAD festival they went back to the studio to continue recording the album. Pete de Freitas said this was still a horrible time, the opposite of the sessions for Heaven Up Here where everything flowed and they were confident and on the rise. He said that on Porcupine the songs 'had to be dragged out' of them. Then, when it was finished WEA rejected it. Will was mightily pissed off about this but eventually they agreed to go back and do it again. Drummond brought in Shankar to add strings to the songs, such a revelation on The Cutter (another hit). The sleeve, four young men in dark serious early 80s clothing, framed small in the icy landscape hints at the difficulties inside.
Porcupine opens with the two singles, frontloading the album with two of their absolute peaks. The Cutter is tense and dramatic, full of hooks and the kind of sweeping, effortless majesty they had at their best, Ian sounding like the post- punk vocalist, the stuttering he puts into 'm- m- m- m- mustard' becoming a calling card. Shankar's strings give it an Indian feeling and some real menace. Ian drops in some sheer McCulloch brass- 'conquering myself until/ I see another hurdle approaching/ say we can, say we will/ Not just another drop in the ocean'- and the question 'Am I the happy loss?/ will I still recoil?', proper Bunnymen stuff. There's a pause and then we're into the thundering, reckless adventure of The Back Of Love, a song that could define a career and a decade for any band. The drums and bass, produced by Ian Broudie but played with such power by Pete and Les, are phenomenal, continent sized rhythms. Over this Shankar's strings and Will's guitars add the melodies, layers of sound and texture, while Ian sings his heart out. He has described the lyrics on Porcupine as his most personal and that it's an oppressive album for that reason but on The Back Of Love he sounds set free, his voice swooping and diving.
After that anything would sound flat and the rest of album struggles to live up to the two singles. Too many of the songs are unmemorable and they sound overwrought and overcooked, the life sucked out of them by the process of writing and recording them. That's not to say Porcupine doesn't contain any other Bunnymen moments. Listening to it last week I enjoyed it far more than I had previously. After the dead stop of The Back Of Love Ian opens My White Devil in truly memorable style singing about a 16th century dramatist, 'John Webster was/ one of the best there was/ he was the author of/ two major tragedies/ The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi'. The band rattle in, off kilter percussion and sea shanty vibes. When Porcupine was re- released in 2003 the CD version came with alternate versions of many of the songs from Porcupine including My White Devil, presumably the ones WEA rejected as uncommercial. This take sounds better than the official Porcupine one to me, lighter and less oppressive, more like a step on from the group who made Heaven Up Here. Maybe Will was right.
The Duchess Of Malfi is a revenge tragedy. The Duchess marries beneath her class secretly but for love. Her brothers take revenge but destroy themselves. The White Devil, also set in Italy, satirises the corruption of the Italian court and makes comparisons with the moral and political state of England of the day and the difference between the way people characterise themselves as good or pure ('white') and their reality.
The rest of Porcupine lacks the same killer drama of the singles. Some of the songs try to reach it- Heads Will Roll, Higher Hell- but it feels like a group at odds with itself and songs that have been sapped. Album closer In Bluer Skies has it through, opening with waves and woodblocks and then Ian, 'I'm counting on your heavy heart/ Could it keep me from falling apart?', another question on a record full of them. Will's ringing guitar part is lovely and an accordion or pump organ joins in and the song, as All I Want on Heaven Up Here did, points a way forward from all of this. The waves return and everything sounds better, a band finding a way to hang it all together.
Three months later they'd release Never Stop, a 12" post- punk, dance record firing oblique bullets at Margaret Thatcher and her government, the magick and the light rediscovered, the Bunnygod reborn. Lay down thy raincoat and groove.