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Crystal Days exclusive audio: Ian McCulloch on Bunnymen, Bowie and box sets

“I remember playing Eric’s with Echo And The Bunnymen. They were coming up just as we were coming down so there was a bit of a crossover. I really liked them in those early days, but they got rid of Echo, the drum machine, and I didn’t care for them after that.” — Adam Ant, Liverpool Echo, 2015

Fronted by gloomy troubadour Ian Stephen McCulloch, the Bunnymen’s black velvet rock — a post-punk fusion of goth, pop, new wave, and neo-psychedelia with a distinct romantic bent — made them indie stars and, to namecheck an equally coruscating Adam Ant curio, press darlings, particularly with Britain’s weekly inkies, the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker.

With varying line-ups yet uniform in their tribal intensity, the Ants played Eric’s four times between 1977 and 1979. The gig the insect warrior refers to almost certainly took place in the latter half of ’79, just prior to Pete de Freitas signing on to do the machine out of a job as Bunnymen drummer. The future in reverse then. Indeed in Bunnyman, the first volume of his engaging memoirs, guitarist Will Sergeant corroborates the chronology: 

“This is Adam pre-pirate-dandy chic. It’s all leather trousers and bondage imagery as the Ants turn up with uber punk mistress Jordan in tow. No one is going to mess with these gimps on her watch.”

With nascent visitors like Blondie, The Clash and Sex Pistols among the numerous names playing the venue on their way to stardom, Eric’s went on to carve out a unique position in Liverpool’s subculture: the birthplace for the city’s punk and post-punk scenes, and, fittingly, located opposite another iconic basement club, the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. Probably because All the Best Clubs are Downstairs, Everyone Knows That.

Echo & The Bunnymen’s debut public performance also took place at Eric’s, and it’s quite remarkable to think that in just five short years they had already produced their magnum opus, 1984’s lush Ocean Rain, a formidable Fabulous Fourth album reviewed in this blog’s previous post by Mark Gibson for its 40th anniversary.

Yet despite their black-clad austerity, the Scouse quartet were a shining example of a big cult band whose commercial apogee always seemed slightly beyond their orbit. Their previous trio of LPs — Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, and Porcupine — were dark, claustrophobic works constructed from hypnotically circular basslines, thumping tom-tom fills, jagged guitars and McCulloch’s paranoid romanticism. Edgy essential listening for indie geeks and alienated youths everywhere then.

In rock anthropology terms, I guess you could say the Bunnymen are the missing link between the Velvet Underground in the sixties, Television in the seventies and The Jesus And Mary Chain in the eighties. Yet I doubt anyone but a doomy disciple could name more than half a dozen of their songs.

Huzzah for me then, because in the following exchange you’ll see and hear — courtesy of the good folks at Soundcloud — yours truly running through myriad Bunny titles — some of them, as I remind their author with annoying repetition — I wasn’t familiar with at the time.

In my defence, several of the name-checked I was querying were either session tracks for BBC Radio 1 or yet-to-be-released curios unearthed for the first and still definitive Bunnymen box set, Crystal Days 1979 — 1999 — twenty years of recordings over four discs, and which was still some four months away from release. Naturally, for sentimental reasons I was delighted to see the bulk of the B-sides that came with the three Korova singles I bought between 1984 and 1991 were present and correct, ie the elongated EP editions of Seven Seas, The Cutter and People Are Strange featuring covers of Beatles, Stones and, obviously, Doors classics, in that purchase if not release order. The outtake from the Ocean Rain cover photography shot in a Cornish cave was a handsome touch, too.

In 2001 I was working as a News Editor for MOJO magazine in London and in order to put together a preview piece for the music monthly on 31 March that year I interviewed head Bunny Ian McCulloch over the phone to discuss its contents. At that point, said anthology was just a simple track listing faxed over from their PR. Still, as you can discern from this roughly one third of the exhange, Ian was illuminating and uncompromising company. 

They don’t call him Mac The Mouth for nowt. Happy birthday Ian…

IM: The actual picking of the tracks, I think we left that to Rhino. I’m still waiting for my Stooges box set they promised me a year ago, but the chances of me getting one of these Bunnymen ones are slim, I would’ve thought. But, again, I’ve forgotten all about that to be honest. But that could be a nice timely reminder of how great we are.

SP: I’ve got the track listing, so it’s probably a while before they put out the CDs to journalists and what have you. But just going by the track listing, really, there’s some obviously fantastic stuff; four discs in total starting with Monkeys. Mick [Houghton, the band’s Warner-turned-independent publicist] told me about a little known Liverpool band’s compilation that was originally on.

IM: Yeah, it was called Street To Street.

SP: So is that a different version to what was on Crocodiles?

IM: Yeah, it’s a drum machine version.

SP: The first thing you ever recorded then?

IM: I think so. Definitely if it’s the one off that album then, yeah.

SP: Do you know what other bands were on that album then?

IM: Big In Japan were on there. I think there was a band called Dead Trout. I’ve forgotten most of the names.

SP: Probably disappeared without a trace.

IM: Yeah. There was probably bands like the Malchix that were on it. It was pretty… not the most gregarious album of all time, that’s for sure.

SP: No Julian Cope or Pete Burns, or anyone like that?

IM: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think Wylie’s on there either. To be honest I can’t remember. Holly Johnson may have been on there with Jane Casey. Bill Drummond is probably on there. [In fact, The Id, an early incarnation of OMD, were also present — with a nascent take of Julia’s Song that would later appear on debut LP Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.]

SP: There’s a few Peel session tracks on here, Villers Terrace is the Peel version.

IM: That’s brilliant, that.

SP: Do you prefer that one yourself?

IM: Kind of, yeah. I don’t know really. It’s not as direct and rocky but it’s sexier than maybe average… it’s so long since I’ve heard it. If I can plough through four CDs I think it’d be interesting to listen to. Remember, there’s this thing… I know it took me til Ocean Rain or maybe Porcupine to really find the voice that I always thought was there. It got deeper and a bit less kind of plummy when I was singing. It puts me off sometimes playing things like Crocodiles, even though I know it’s a great record and loads of people say ‘I love your voice’ and all that stuff and it’s like ‘yeah right’, I prefer it now to be honest.

SP: That’s interesting. So, Ocean Rain, you think you’ve really found your voice.

IM: I think so yeah, and then onwards. Things like Nothing Lasts Forever is how I like my voice to sound — totally believable.

SP: That’s an interesting parallel with someone like Bowie, who it’s widely acknowledged on his earlier records his vocals were not that great. But around the time of Diamond Dogs he started to become a really good singer, and the voice deepened a lot.

IM: Yeah, I mean, I actually prefer his voice on Hunky Dory and Ziggy.

SP: Do you?

IM: Yeah, especially Hunky Dory, I love it. I mean it’s thinner definitely… but he started doing that — [sings] “Bee moy woife!” — which is fine on one song, but he started getting all a bit too [sings] “Tin Machiiine!”.

SP: Too cockney, yeah. Just going back to the box set then, and the Peel sessions again. There’s a track I’m not familiar with called No Hands. Was that recorded for an album or something?

IM: No Hands — bloody hell. Do you know what year it was?

SP: Doesn’t say but it’s among stuff like All My Colours, Broke My Neck, Fuel.

IM: I think No Hands might… it either became The Yo Yo Man or it stayed as No Hands… I can’t remember. There’s one… Yo Yo Man had a different title on the first session, I think it was No Hands.

SP: Also another track called Watch Out Below.

IM: That was Yo Yo Man, so No Hands, I’m not sure what that is.

SP: Also some alternative versions they’ve put on like Gods Will Be Gods, Porcupine session version. Not quite sure what they mean by that.

IM: Well, I think we did a version of, we just re-did it. The finished first version of Porcupine, some of us weren’t happy with half of it so we went back and re-did a few songs.

SP: And Heads Will Roll — they say it was an unreleased UK single. So is that a different version?

IM: An edit version, yeah. I don’t think it’s a remix, it might just be an edit. We stopped that coming out, and did Never Stop instead, in case we didn’t want another single coming off the album. That was another thing, Warners — and they had a point, really — ’cos they kept saying ‘if you let us release another single…’ We’d say ‘Nah we don’t want to do that. We’ll do a new song.’ It’s kind of weird that it’s taken for granted if you can get a record company to commit to three singles, you know, great. But we used to fight them over it… things that would benefit us in the long run. But I’m glad we did because we came up with things like Never Stop.

SP: So that done specifically as a one-off single with no new album in mind?

IM: Yeah, it was done because the record company was saying ‘we want to release this third one.’ And we were like, ‘No you’re not, we’re going to do a new one.’ 

I think they ended up… they were frustrated because I remember the MD, Rob Dickins, saying ‘it’s Top 5. You’re on the road. This is Top 5 just purely because this is your time.’ And I wasn’t convinced anyway it was going to do that well. Anyway…

SP: It was the era of Thriller and stuff, so I bet they thought that they could milk everyone’s albums for singles by that point.

IM: Yeah. It was Will mainly that was like ‘Nah, it looks crap if we put another one out.’ It’s good to have that kinda fortitude even when it doesn’t really benefit you in the long run.

SP: One track I noticed they haven’t put on is Pride which I always really liked. Do you rate that much?

IM: I do, yeah. I think it’s great but I suppose you have to leave certain things off. I do like it; it’s kind of different from most of the things we’d done, a very different production style, being done by Ian Broudie. Yeah, I would have thought they would have given the early stuff a bit of extra thunder.

SP: I’ll maybe have a word [laughs]. A couple of tracks from the mid eighties period I’m not familiar with – Lover, I Love You and Satisfaction.

IM: Me neither [laughs]. I think Lover, I Love You became something else, maybe Blue Blue Ocean on the fifth album. Satisfaction was just a little throwaway pop thing. Bloody hell, I’m surprised that’s on it.

SP: They give no details of where these things come from.

IM: There’s some things that seem mainly far too cute for their own good, and there’s probably some things that would embarrass the tits off me, but if you’re going to do a collection like this you’re gonna get all sorts, you know.

SP: Rather hidden on a boxset than on a greatest hits or something. 

IM: Yeah, deffo.

SP: On the fourth disc it seems to be manly live cuts and B-sides and stuff. But there’s also a studio recording of In The Midnight Hour.

IM: I don’t remember doing that in the studio. It might have something while we were warming up. But hopefully it’s as good as I remember when we did it live. We did a Swedish tour in ’85 where we supported ourselves. We would go on for 45 minutes and play covers, go off for half an hour and come back on and do the full Bunnymen set. It was sodding hard work but it was a great laugh, and that was one of the songs I think I picked just ‘cos I thought it was enough of a kinda tangent for us to go off on. So that would be interesting. I don’t know how that’s seen the light of day to be honest, but it might have been one of them when we had a spare half an hour in the studio, just warming up before doing our own songs. So it might be that.

SP: They’ve put a lot of the live covers on. I think most of them haven’t been out before, except three on the People Are Strange release wasn’t there? There’s other things like She Cracked and Start Again. Are they covers?

IM: Start Again? That was solo song, I think. Unless I… I’d probably already written Start Again during the end of the Bunnymen period so I don’t know what that would be. She Cracked is a Jonathan Richman song. That’s great, that.

SP: I’m familiar with the rest of the covers. There’s Dylan and Doors and a couple of Velvets things. Then it ends with a hidden track, apparently, which is The Cutter Porcupine session version.

IM: Oh, The Original Cutter, that’s mad. But that’s how the song began. It’s a bit of a racket going on. I don’t know how good it is but it’s a much weirder version. I stuck the vocal lines in a different order and it became the proper version. That’s kind of interesting all that stuff to see, you know, for fans, how the song might have originated. 

SP: Its development, yeah. What do you think about a former record label putting out a 4-CD box?

IM: It‘s Rhino isn’t it?

SP: I think it is, yeah, but aren’t they something to do with Warners?

IM: Oh, possibly, I don’t know. I think it’s OK. It’s been done in conjunction with Mick and probably with Cooking Vinyl so at least it’s not just a throwaway. They’ve spent a lot of time on it — well, Rhino have, so I think it’s fair.

SP: There’s bound to be lots of memories going through your head when you actually get to sit down and play this stuff. What ideas do you have there?

IM: I don’t know really. Over the last month with all the promo. In certain places, probably when I’ve been in a city it takes you back. Maybe Berlin, or when I was in Hamburg, it jogs your memory sometimes, of 50 years earlier in the same street. But I generally I try and not reminisce too much, so there is something to look forward to, you know, tomorrow night in Oslo. See what happens there. 

SP: Am I right in thinking that the recording process you don’t really remember too much about sessions?

IM: Not really, to be honest. I remember more the live side. Will’s probably got more memories; generally, I can get a little bored in studios. I think that’s why with this (Flowers) album being so quick it’s fantastic. Recorded it and a few months later and it comes out, instead of spending ages doing and then sometimes four months, five months goes by before it comes out, and you already want to move on. So this is good, it keeps it fresh all the time.

SP: Is gigging where you’re happiest?

IM: Yeah, on stage. Definitely.

Steve Pafford

With thanks to Colin Balmer, Dave Poole and Keith Cox

*Upon digging out some of these archive tape cassettes in the noughties, my partner remarked that it “sounds like your balls haven’t dropped”. He had a point. 

Still, it didn’t prevent me from taking said Leeds native to the Royal Albert hall in 2008 to see the Bunnymen perform Ocean Rain in its entirely for the first time, with the grandiose backing of a 16-piece orchestra. By then the testes had definitely descended, though he remained puzzled why we were there, remarking, “I didn’t think you’d like music like this.” Guess what… I still do. And it was a ton better than the next shambolic time I saw Mac, in MK.

Here’s to Crystal Days.

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