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Friday, 6 November 2020

I Chop And I Change And The Mystery Thickens

There's a lot of back story to Echo And The Bunnymen's 1984 album Ocean Rain, famously declared by the adverts in the music press and by Mac as 'the greatest album ever made'. We'll come back to that opinion.

After the difficulties they encountered writing and recording Porcupine- internal strife, record company rejection and press reviews- the Bunnymen retreated a bit and then came out fighting with the standalone single Never Stop, a majestic, anti- Thatcher post punk/ dance record with a superb 12" mix. Significantly it featured an expanded sound with violins, cellos and marimbas. Strings had been a feature of Porcupine and its pair of hit singles and on Ocean Rain sweeping orchestral strings would come to dominate the sound. They'd also been using acoustic guitars more and more, as seen in the Channel 4 documentary Play At Home (Life At Brian's) performances. For some Bunnymen fans these steps further away from the urgent guitar led sound of their earlier albums was a misstep. For others, it was anything but. The group once again used a Peel Session at Maida Vale to test out some new songs- all four songs played for John Peel would end up on Ocean Rain (Nocturnal Me, the eventual title track, My Kingdom and Watch Out Below, which became The Yo Yo Man). They played four of Ocean Rain's songs on a live edition of The Tube, the title track now an acoustic ballad. All this road-testing of the songs, working versions up, developing them, changing lyrics and arrangements, meant that the songs were fully realised by the time they came to record them, in Montmartre, Paris, with a 35 piece orchestra in tow. Ocean Rain is supposed to be big, lush and grand, four men standing in the face of the storm. The gloom of Porcupines and the night terrors of Heaven Up Here have been replaced by something lighter. On the sleeve Brian Griffin shot them in a boat, on a lake, in a cavern, the crystalline blues and silvers forming a dramatic but lit up backdrop. Les and Pete stand with the oars, Will sits in the middle and Ian stares into the blue, his hand dipping into the water. They decamped to Paris to record it but most of the vocals were re- done back in Liverpool, Ian unhappy with his voice (although The Killing Moon was recorded in Bath but again Mac did his vocals in Liverpool, this time because of a cold). 

I love Ocean Rain, I love its scope and flow and the playing is superb. Compare it to the scratchy post- punk of Crocodiles and then the fluid, powerful songs on Heaven Up Here and it is a band moving on. They didn't want to repeat themselves and the experience of Porcupines sounds banished. The optimism of the songs on Ocean Rain contrasts with the earlier songs and now Ian is decorating his lyrics with the natural world- the weather, storms, rain, the moon, tidal waves, day and night and vegetables. Sometimes he crosses the line, singing portentous nonsense or stuttering his way through the names of salad ingredients, but he also sings songs that define him and the group- The Killing Moon's time shifting romance and theme of fate and destiny- 'under blue moon I saw you/ so soon you'll take me' and 'he will wait until/ you give yourself to him' coupled with something approaching poetry, 'your lips a magic world/ you sky all hung with jewels'. The 12" contained a longer mix, the All Night Version, maxed out effortlessly (just as Silver was with its 12" Tidal Wave mix). 

The Killing Moon (All Night Version)

This version, from the Life At Brian's session, was filmed for The Tube, part of Bill Drummond's madcap plan to have a day of Bunnymen activities in Liverpool- a bike ride on a route that traced a pair of giant rabbit ears, a trip on that ferry across the Mersey, a visit to the city's Anglican cathedral and a celebratory gig at St George's Hall in the evening. The Life At Brian's sessions were filmed for the Channel 4 documentary a year earlier, the band playing in the cathedral and a film based a greasy spoon café owned by Brian, a former boxer.

The Killing Moon (Life At Brian's Version)

Whether it is 'the greatest album ever made' is open to question- MacCulloch claims he said this jokingly to the head of Warner Bros Rob Dickin, who then went and used it on the posters, but MacCulloch is capable of saying it seriously too. The songs are almost all single material, strong verses and rousing chorus, Indian scales, sea shanties and pirate songs, built on Sergeant's Washburn acoustic guitars and Pete playing his drums with brushes, the orchestra sweeping in and around on top. Opening song Nocturnal Me sets the tone, blasting out of the speakers, loud and quiet dynamics with Mac singing of ice capped fire and burning wood. Crystal Days swoons and rushes by, a song that wines you and dines you and then leaves you wanting more. The Yo Yo Man channels some weird central European vibe, the words telling you of Igloos and Ian's own headstone. The Killing Moon is a peak, the chords of Space Oddity played backwards and Will's balalaika- inspired guitar solo, a song any group in 1984 would have killed to have written and one that is shot through pop culture, turning up in Donnie Darko, Grosse Point Blank and numerous cover versions. Seven Seas is a glorious romp, the third single from the album, a singalong enigma. MacCulloch has since debunked some of the mystery of his lyrics, the tortoiseshell in Seven Seas apparently the head of an erect penis after an session on cocaine. Not for nothing by this point were some people close to the band calling them Echo And The Buglemen. 

Maybe the drug use accounts for the album's one serious stumble, the over- the- top nonsense of Thorn Of Crowns. It's not terrible but it is silly, Ian's stuttering delivery chucking in cucumbers, cauliflowers and cabbages along with crucifixion imagery. Incredibly, the two chord, Velvets inspired genius of Angels And Devils was left off Ocean Rain, turning up as a B-side when it really should have been on the record instead of Thorn Of Crowns. 

The two songs that close the album are stunning. My Kingdom is an organ led delight, 1960s garage rock crossed with mid- 80s scouse mysticism, Ian stuttering deliberately on the words for effect- 'b-b-burn the skin off and climb the rooftop'- while switching in the verses to stories of the heart, soldiers at war, dancing and whatever else he dreamt up. Will plays twin guitar solos on his acoustic through an old Vox valve amp, soaring, elevating guitar lines from a man who definitely didn't see himself as a guitar hero but playing as if on one of Love's classic albums. As My Kingdom finishes Ocean Rain's title track fades in, a song that is both the calm and the storm. 'All at sea again', Ian croons before his love ends up 'screaming from beneath the waves'. Like on Heaven Up Here and Porcupine they finish with a song to sail away to. 'All hands on deck at dawn/ sailing to sadder shores/ your port in my heavy storms/ harbours my blackest thoughts'. This alternative take, stripped back and acoustic, is a beauty too, showing how the songs easily stand up in different versions.

Ocean Rain (Alt Take)

Ocean Rain may not be the greatest album ever made (and what album is?) but it is a masterpiece of kinds, a fully drawn set of strong, powerful, beautiful songs by a band who at that point had made four albums in four years, plus numerous singles, sessions, versions and B- sides. It left them in a quandary though, of where to go next. In some ways Ocean Rain sounds like a final statement, an encore, a last flurry of magnificence. Ian was already dipping his toes into a solo career. Pete was about to go travelling, with serious consequences for him and the Bunnymen. They would make one more album together as a foursome before a split and tragedy intervened. But that's all ahead of them. As it is, in 1984, Ocean Rain is where it's at. 


Nick L said...

Well I now know what I'll be listening to this weekend. Quite a while since I heard Ocean Rain in its entirity but on the strength of this it needs digging out again.
You're completely correct, Angels and Devils instead of Thorn 9f Crowns would make a it a 10/10 instead of a 9.5/10. But on the autumn tour in 1984, on which I went to 4 dates, people loved TOC. Takes all sorts I suppose.
Mac was on record at the time saying he thought it was the best album ever made. I wouldn't go that far but it is an amazing album from a time when watching a band develop was fascinating.
A great read, many thanks.

TheRobster said...

I'm loving these re-evaluations of Bunnymen albums. It's giving me ideas of my own that I probably won't do anything about. Ocean Rain is a quite brilliant record. Every home should have a copy.

Nick L said...

This reminds me that there was a half-decent box set of Bunnymen stuff put out in (I think) about 2001. It has songs from all their albums up to that time but the most interesting stuff on it is the unreleased/live/rare material. The legendary live Scandinavian tour songs are on there, and they sound electrifying, all harsh sound and stripped back in their approach. If memory serves this was from just after the Ocean Rain album, but others may know better.
Great band from a great time in my life. With the colder weather it could be time to get the overcoat out again...

Swiss Adam said...

The Crystal Days box set is great Nick, a really nice package. And the Scandinavian tour songs are a real highlight of it, 7 or 8 songs included. Live in April 85 I think.

Rol said...

My favourite Bunnymen album, though it's probably the obvious choice.

It's not the greatest album ever made, but I like that Mac said it was. What's the point if you don't believe in yourself?

Khayem said...

The recent series of E&TB posts has been the education that I didn't realise I needed. I'm familiar with the singles, less so with the albums but overall has made me appreciate Mac and the Bunnymen in a whole new way. I'm not sure that I've retrospectively decided which is my favourite album as I've found something to love in each/all of them. Another sterling post, Adam, I salute you.

Echorich said...

The Greatest Album Ever Made - Check. My favorite song of all time - My Kingdom - Check.
Ocean Rain is an album that won't let you relax, it's a magic carpet that straps you down and takes you on a journey you never imagined.
Ian know's his musical history, Songs with stuttering vocals ALWAYS appeal.
Silver opens the album with hopes, expectations and a stutteringly urgent vocal.
Nocturnal Me flies a bit lower and refects the darkness of the real world below and the strength it takes to navigate.
Crystal Days is a song about the power love and wonder. It's the most optimistic song in the Bunnymen Canon. Ian's fascination with religious love and faith permeate the song.
For me, The Yo-You Man is the final cast off of the mood and feel of Porcupine. It's a dip in the optimism that the album began to build. It's Ian reflecting on, well Ian - Ian as both Marley and Scrooge.

I have tons of time for Thron Of Crowns. It takes me back to the Bedsit Psychedelia of Crocodiles. It's the man in the story after he's spent way too much time at Villiers Terrace rolling round on carpets. And Live it was MASSIVE. A lighting man's tour de force!. Ian must have really known his Pop history as the line 'Wait for me on the blue horizon can be linked to that 30s song that was popular again in the 60s and 70s.

As amazing as Side One is, I think Side Two is the greatest set of songs ever programmed together.

SA - I can't contribute anymore to what you said about The Killing Moon. It is one of the songs that best exemplifies the best of 80s music.
If The Killing Moon is reaching the pinnacle of The Bunnymen's abilities, Seven Seas sees them building their residence on that peak. Once again, the band takes you on a ride filled with themes of perseverence, love, longing and triump. The way Will manages to make things feel nautical with his guitar is a testament to his understated Guitar Hero status.
My Kingdom is just EVERYTHING to me. To describe what the song means to me, how it speaks to me, is so hard I will just leave it as it is THE MOST MOVING ROCK + ROLL SONG I HAVE EVER HEARD.
And just as My Kingdom see the band taking off on a new flight of discovery, Ocean Rain brings everything back down to earth and reminds us how love and is, well, love. It bring joy, comfort, hardship, longing, sorrow and hope. The build up at the end of the song never fails to make my heart race.

If you asked me to make this A+ album even better, I would not remove Thorn of Crowns, I would insert Angels And Devils as track 5 on Side One.

Swiss Adam said...

Echorich- I'd have to Keep Thorn Of Crowns on Ocean Rain, I realise this now, it wouldn't be the same without it.