“No one else has a song like The Killing Moon, not even Bowie. It’s more than just a song, it’s about everything in life.”
That’s Ian McCulloch, of course, with the typical immodesty that’s been a hallmark of his 40+ years fronting those spiky Scouse purveyors of raincoats, Echo & The Bunnymen.
Having seen the band in concert numerous times since they reformed with the glorious Evergreen in 1997, I know first-hand how highly Mac regards Ocean Rain and particularly The Killing Moon, its lead single, as the best thing they’ve ever done. Hell, he even actually believes it’s the best song ever written. Let’s indulge him for a minute.
Self-belief is never left in the dressing room with the Bunnymen in their pomp. It’s not always becoming when a band declares itself the best in the world, but that arrogant sense of entitlement can be intoxicating when embedded in the music – and far more palatable from Liverpudlians, I’d argue. It’s like the Bunnymen owned the road.
I’ve interviewed Ian just the once, for MOJO magazine in 2001, and was mightily relieved he more than lived up to his gobby Mac the Mouth status. No major revelations, mind, except that he’d recently decided his favourite singer was the newly dead Frank Sinatra and had plans to record a whole album of crooner covers. That idea obviously fell by the wayside after the redoubtable Rod Stewart exploited that for every last cent.
McCulloch confessed to having a hard time listening to early Bunnymen records because, being the self-critical artist that he is, he is less than fond of his rookie work-in-progress vocals. Ocean Rain marked the point where the Bunnymen embarked on a streak of lush balladry, and, he suggested, it was the record where he finally found his voice.
For his part, the singer goes goes big with his rich and resonant Bowie-esque baritone, invoking fate, the stars, love, and death. It’s the perfect synthesis of lysergic imagery and widescreen pop. In other words, classic.
“I would have loved Sinatra to have had a go at The Killing Moon. One of the great things about the song is that it still surprises me when I sing it live. I think it took me 25 years to realise that not only was it about pre-destiny, it was about everything. You can slice that lyric up wherever you like, but it’s as profound as ‘To be or not to be…’ It’s almost like a soliloquy delivered by a priest. That song is actually the answer to the big question. It’s got real power.”
Instantly identifiable from its opening mandolin doodle to its sweeping, upward modulating chorus, The Killing Moon is a reminder of the pride and passion the Bunnymen brought to their finest work, and a reminder of how imperiously strong they became in a relatively short time. The nine-minute Up All Night Mix on the 12-inch never outstays its welcome. But the majestic five-minute single version, which bursts at the seams with minor-chord grandeur and lunar melodrama, is more than enough.
Elegant, aromatic, romantic, sincere, torrid, spooky, luxurious, deep, wide and long, was a new day dawning. Luxuriant with sweeping strings, hushed with brushes, luminous with muted tones, this self-produced mini adventure knows how good it is, as its author never tired of telling everyone.
Posing the question of destiny vs. free will, the Head Bunny’s cryptic lyrics imbue The Killing Moon with the same sense of yearning as a Jacques Brel torch song sung by Scott Walker at his most evocative, posing the question of destiny vs. free will: “In starlit nights I saw you,” Mac coos, “So cruelly you kissed me.” It is, of course, his own lips that are “a magic world”, and the sky in the sleeve photo that’s “all hung with jewels.”
Sounds great in a movie too.
McCulloch attributed the use of astronomical imagery in The Killing Moon to a childhood interest in space, and it’s certainly no coincidence its chords were based on Bowie’s Space Oddity played backwards.
The band’s art was to make every foray seamless and utterly natural. Other songs of theirs – The Back Of Love, The Cutter, Over The Wall, Villiers Terrace – are rougher and readier, rockier and sexier, and much more demanding of the casual listener. Songs to learn and sing indeed.
1983’s Porcupine and then Ocean Rain the following year marked the point where the band embarked on a streak of lush balladry, encompassing the likes of Bring On The Dancing Horses, Silver and Seven Seas; the latter being my first EATB purchase, and a lovely double-pack 7-inch featuring a Beatles cover to boot.
The rum surrealism of Seven Seas is still a brilliantly bonkers pop perennial, and is the great restorative of the band’s illustrious catalogue. The jolly was a dive into a temperate ocean on a moon-shadowed night. The sound was rich and radiant with a depth that owed much to clever self-production. ‘Wedding bell’ chimes and upbeat drums led into a chorus, a piano accentuating the brightness.
Like many of McCulloch’s songs, the stream-of-conscience lyrics were open to interpretation.
Word has it that Korova, the Bunnymen’s record company, fought tooth and nail against paying for the Anton Corbijn-directed film, afraid its levity would compromise the band’s image as the Dark Romantic Serious Men Of Indie.
The delicious vision of McCulloch in startlingly persuasive drag (a knowing nod to Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, replete with lipstick-smearing denouement) could have been just what some of us, in the sexual malleability of androgynous adolescence, needed to see; some fresher feeling.
But it’s that haunting lunar masterpiece of epic proportions that is the sound of an underground band hitting the big time and playing to the stalls, not just the Gods. The dread and nervous energy of earlier work had been replaced by a new receptiveness to experience.
Fed by ‘Sir’ Les Pattinson’s ominous, airtight bass pattern, shards of distorted guitar pouring out of Will Sergeant, the late Pete de Freitas’ tribal exactitude, and sublime use of strings. McCulloch’s possessed incantations and killing croon is thick with portent: for the best part of five years, heaven was down here.
Released on 20 January 1984, The Killing Moon shot into the UK charts the following week at No. 17. The Mersey ‘Beat’ was enjoying something of a resurgence, with seven of the Top 20 coming from Liverpool acts, including solo singles for a pipe-loving Paul McCartney and a posthumous John Lennon. The chart-slaying Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood was sitting pretty at the top, thanks to the BBC’s ridiculous short-lived airplay ban, but, ultimately, it’s the Bunnymen who effortlessly occupied the highest echelons of cool.
I’ll get me coat.
Postscript: The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon is a recent album that sees Bunnymen re-recording ‘Transformed’ versions of their classic cuts. I have to say, I rather like the world weary beauty of the new Moon, which trades the original’s guitar and reverb for crisp, dramatic piano.