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Friday, 13 November 2020

I Have Changed But Still My Heart Remains Intact

For the last four Fridays I've written about the unstoppable force of Echo And The Bunnymen and the albums they released in 1980 (Crocodiles), 1982 (Heaven Up Here), 1983 (Porcupine) and 1984 (Ocean Rain), four records charting the Bunnymen as they headed out from post- punk Liverpool into the world. By 1985 they'd reached a dead end of kinds. Bill Drummond had resigned as manager at the end of '84 and they were never quite the same after. There was a state of tension between some members- Will thought Mac wanted to be a rock star and Mac would probably agree that a solo career as a rock star was in his mind. Les compared huge tours of the USA to  national service and hated being away from home for lengthy periods. There was a year off planned and then cut short half way through with a tour of Scandinavia where they performed as their own support act, covering the songs of their heroes, Bowie, The Modern Lovers, The Doors, The Stones, The Velvets and Television. They played Glastonbury, a filthy, muddy year with Mac wearing binbags on his legs while walking to the stage to prevent his trousers getting dirty. There were money problems. 1985 finished with a Best Of album (the brilliant compilation Songs To Learn And Sing but a cash in nonetheless), and a standalone single (Bring On the Dancing Horses) that some felt wasn't up to scratch. Then Pete de Freitas went AWOL. 

Pete had spent part of the six months off travelling across Europe on his motorbike. In December 1985 Pete and some of the road crew took the pay cheques from Songs To Learn And Sing and set off for New Orleans on a drug- fuelled road trip and extended drinking binge. He would phone the BUnnymen up in the middle of the night asking for more money. He talked about forming a new group, The Sex Gods, and how they'd change the world. He was, many people thought, losing his mind. He resigned from the Bunnymen in a transatlantic  phone call. Eventually Drummond would stage an intervention and bring him home. Pete was never the same again and the three Bunnymen were unsure about whether he was in the right frame of mind to re- join the band. When he did it was on a weekly wage rather than as a full member, another sign that things were most definitely not right in Bunnyworld. In the time Pete was away Mac, Will and Les had started again, touring and recording, trying Blair Cunningham (ex- Haircut One Hundred) out on the drums and Dave Palmer (ex- ABC) and there were some sessions with Now Order's Stephen Morris moonlighting. On top of all of this, all unpromising background for recording an album, the group had been summoned to Rob Dickins office at WEA and told to listen to Peter Gabriel's latest album and to emulate it. According to Will, Dickins was lucky to escape with his life. 

The grey album as it has become known eventually appeared in 1987, cut adrift from the trajectory that took them from Crocodiles to Ocean Rain. The album, self titled (they couldn't even be bothered to give it a name) has a murky, monochrome front cover shot, the group in black against a grey sky. On the back the four Bunnymen are merged in silhouette, eight arms coming out of one long coat. Compared to the drama, deep colours and natural beauty of the earlier sleeves this album is already saying that what's contained within doesn't compare with what came before. McCulloch was lording it, drinking heavily, lackeys running around after him. He alienated himself from the rest of the group and was happy to do so, an act of self sabotage. They had done some sessions with producer Gil Norton but ditched the recordings once Pete was back and instead hitched themselves to Laurie Latham, who drained the life out of the songs. Will and Les wanted simplicity. Latham would spend a month getting a song 'right', brought keyboards further up into the sound, pushed the drums down and gave everything a sheen. They recorded in Conny Plank's studio in Cologne, in Belgium, in London and back at Amazon in Liverpool, a lot of effort for an album that all appeared to dislike when it was released. It is a Bunnymen record with the jagged edges smoothed off, the hot and cold dynamics rendered flat, the magic and mystery covered with a layer of soil, the songs smothered with the hopes of an FM hit. Will said it was overcooked. Les liked the songs but hated the mixes. Mac said it was crap. Who knows what Pete thought of it, or if he even cared- his mental state was a concern to everyone around him. McCulloch quit in 1988 and the rest of the group raged about him and his solo career and attempted to keep the band going without the singer. The next time they would be together was at Pete's funeral. He came off his motorbike on 14th June 1989 at a crossroads in Staffordshire aged twenty seven. 

That's a lot of words without even getting to the songs and Les is right, the songs, or some of them, are good. This is partly because they picked the wrong producer. If Gil Norton had stayed on board they could have made a much more energetic record out of the same material, simple structures, stripped down to the four instruments, with a bit of dash and menace. Album opener The Game has always sounded good to me, a four square song with Mac in charge, a song with a flow and irresistible rhythm and Ian singing of the seasons and the planets. Bedbugs And Ballyhoo is another sweet spot. The version on the grey album isn't as good as the earlier take, the Bring On The Dancing Horses B-side, it doesn't move as much, but it still works well. Lips Like Sugar, side two's opener, is another highlight, led by a nagging guitar riff and Mac's croon. It was designed for US radio and arenas and Will said that if judged by that alone it worked- when they played the USA in 1987 a younger generation of fans wanted to hear Lips Like Sugar. An Anton Corbijn video helped sell it to MTV. I like the song, it reminds me of being seventeen and it doesn't need saying that that's a powerful age for a song to hit you, and it stands up alongside the band's earlier songs. New Direction is a minor joy too, a ringing Will riff with some urgency and pace, and Mac sounds engaged as he sings 'Out on a limb/ look what the cat dragged in... I'm looking for a new direction/ where in the world am I?', before the drums double up and the 80s keyboards swell and he is 'higher and higher and higher and higher/ kissing the spires'. Later on he goes all confessional- 'I have changed/ but still my heart remains intact/ and true love stays'. It's almost  a letter to the rest of the band, a Dear John written but not sent yet. Will's guitar solo over the final minute soars like he's found a connection with the spirit that made them great, if only for a minute or two. 

New Direction

There are a couple of others that should be good in the right hands, recorded more quickly with a different producer or by a group who didn't hate themselves and each other. Lost And Found is heartfelt with a lovely melody but sounds a bit drained. Bombers Bay wants to reach the heights but again sounds overcooked. Once again though they knew what they were doing when the sequenced the album and when they chose what had to go last. Just as with the songs that end Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain, the closer here is a sweeping, majestic piece of Bunny magic with Mac crooning, ringing guitars, military drumming and some stabbing strings, a ballad with an eye on the way out and everyone worn out by the experiences that led them there. 'God's own miracles/ lost in circles' Ian sings before the chorus, 'all my life/ revolves around/ laughter and crying/ as my life turns/ round and round' and then the string quartet re- appears, and the guitars build. Fade and out. 

All My Life

What does this album sound like? It sounds better now than it did then. It sounds like a Bunnymen album that has echoes of what made them great but the gap between this and Ocean Rain- the actual gap of three years, the relationship gaps between the members of the group and what they wanted- is a gap they couldn't get over. It also sounds like a record that the grapples with the old struggle of art v commerce and the group's specific struggle of rock stardom v being able to show your face in Liverpool and never quite resolves them. 

RIP Pete de Freitas. 


Nick L said...

Indeed, RIP.Pete. A very sad loss.
The "Grey Album" should have been so much better, but as you very correctly hint at, the DeFreitas saga caused problems and I thought it meant that the crucial "band" element had lost too much ground. His return, in reduced status as a waged member, meant they were never quite the same again.
The album does have its moments though and the songs you pick out are right up there. I'd add Satellite too, which is an angular, twangy delight. A year or so before the album came out though, the band were on a Whistle Test "Rock Around The Clock" special, and the raw versions of The Game and Lips Like Sugar were much better to these ears. They had occasionally been opening shows with Lips Like Sugar in late 85 on the short tour promoting Bring On The Dancing Horses. I saw them at The National in Kilburn at that time and it seemed like business as usual, plenty to look forward to. But then in 86 things started to unravel somewhat. Such a shame.

Swiss Adam said...

Yes Nick you're absolutely right, those Whistle Test versions are really good, much more how the album should have sounded.

Echorich said...

"God Damn Rob Dickens and Laurie Latham." Those were my thoughts back in 1987. Latham had already done things to The Stranglers that I didn't understand, and now he was let loose on my favorite band.
Just looking the unimaginative cover and the move to "uber photographer Anton Corbjin", I knew something was wrong.

Yes SA, Latham overcooks everything he touched on The Grey album. A song like Over You, could have had some of the magic of Seven Seas or Silver, but Latham puts the keyboards infront of the strong guitar work of Will. The version of Bedbugs and Ballyhoo sounds is more about Ray Manzarek and has some off-putting, chimes that reminded me of U2 a the time and still do. Lost And Found has it's roots in Heaven Up Here and Porcupine, but it's recorded way too thin and timidly. I have always thought that Side Two could have been an epic side of Bunnymen songs had they been in the hands of Gil Norton or even just The Bunnymen with Norton holding up the fences to keep them focused. The proof starts with the beauty that is All My Life, which ends the album. It has a sound that McCulloch and Sargent would revisit on the 1999 Bunnymen album What Are You Going To Do With Your Life.
For proof I give you the B-Sides that accompanied the album's singles...
Ship Of Fools from The Game 12" is sublime. If The Bunnymen had a new sound, this was, in my mind, what they had in mind. Play it right after Lips Like Sugar ( a song Latham couldn't even mess up) and you can hear what I mean. Rollercoaster, from the 12" of Lips Like Sugar, is one of the greatest Bunnymen freakouts of their entire musical canon. It's recorded with a level of pure abandon that had to have been kinetic in the studio. Ian always sounds best when he is on the edge of his vocal energy and abilities.

In the end this is all part of the Bunnymen Legend and History. For all the upheaval and loss of form that may have been the focus of this time, I wasn't deterred as a fan and have stuck by my favorite band to this day.

Swiss Adam said...

Rollercoaster is a superb B- side which along with Over Your Shoulder shows that even at this later stage they were capable of kicking up a noisy ruckus. You're right about Ian's vocals too Echorich, when he sounds best when he's pushed to the edge. On much of Heaven Up Here he is right at his vocal extremity.