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Fabulous Fourths: Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain 

Against all odds, Liverpool legends Echo & The Bunnymen are celebrating their 45th year of a rollercoaster recording career in 2024. This is a band whose bassist Les Pattinson jumped ship twice and drummer Pete de Freitas exited permanently after a fatal motorcycle crash in 1989. Along the way, the lads have survived drugs, despair and some fetching if cumbersome overcoats to produce a dozen original albums, one of which just happens to have been released forty years ago today.

A landmark of lushness, Mark Gibson has penned the latest in our Fabulous Fourths features. All hands on deck at dawn as we explore the heavy storms of Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain.

My father used to work for a fibreglass plastics company* that originated in Philadelphia called Rohm and Haas. I always liked his tales of the radio being on and the songs and bands the factory girls loved. One day in 1984 he came in and told us, “Oh, they don’t like Frankie Goes To Hollywood anymore, they’re into Echo And The Bunnymen. What kind of name is that?”

He had a point, although the Merseyside music scene did have a history of spawning bands with odd names, ie Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Teardrop Explodes, The Mighty Wah. And maybe even (I better whisper this), The Beatles and Moira & The Heart Failures. OK, perhaps I made that last one up, you divvys. 

Anyway, as luck would have it, that week on Top Of The Pops, I got to see what all this Bunnymen band was about. Alan Ginsberg called Liverpool “the centre of consciousness of the human universe”, yet I bet he never spent a day in Rhyl, because back then the city on the Mersey was in steep decline, with only the gritty realism of the Brookside Close soap some kind of shining light.

Mass unemployment, riots, drug problems, Derek Hatton, there were no end of issues scarring the city. To paraphrase the name of another local combo that broke through at this time, the place seemed more dead than alive.

Being a port city, the ships brought in treasures from the American continent, and Liverpool became a hotbed for music from across the pond — and often curios that would be classed as underground. 

Also, by virtue of that North by Northwesterly location, there was a considerable influx of immigration from Irish and Scottish families that settled on Merseyside, like the Bunnymen’s own frontman Ian McCulloch’s — Irish mother, Scottish dad. In other words, two Celtic tribes that, when the mood takes them can be passionate, obstinate,  and highly opinionated, with a variable work ethic to boot.

I can vouch for that, as I’m proud to fall with both Scottish and Irish roots. Indeed, what better example than Mac The Mouth himself. Ian McCulloch was the original rent-a-quote — braggadocio in an overcoat, telling anyone who’d listen that the Bunnymen were the greatest rock n’ roll band of all time, a whole decade before Gallagher-style self-aggrandisement became the order of the day for Oasis.

A one-man nest of vipers, Mac would famously pour buckets of scorn on anyone and everyone, but especially those doing better in the charts, such as U2 (“music for plumbers and bricklayers”) and Boy George and Culture Club. The rotund radiator-loving rag doll was still smarting about his putdown years later, complaining to Q magazine’s Tom Hibbert in 1987: 

“Some people in this business take themselves so fucking seriously. I remember when the guy from Echo & The Bunnymen said I should be given National Service. Fuck him. I couldn’t understand why he said it. Mind you, National Service would probably be the best thing that ever happened to me – I‘d probably get screwed by every soldier in England…”

I always thought Mac would have mellowed with age, but has he bugger? Ego-wise he’s never been a shrinking violet — take his recent brusqueness on everyone’s least favourite ginger, Ed Sheeran, for instance: “Why doesn’t he just fuck off.” 

Oh, that Liverpool lip.  

I always had the impression Ian’s indie leanings have a lot to do with his attitude, and his lambasting of certain acts, ie anybody like Bono or the Boy who clearly craved success at all costs are the ones to be wary of; the ones with a rotting portrait up in the attic. 

Do it clean, you know what I mean.

If the Bunnymen had their albums overseen by U2’s regular producer Steve Lillywhite – as Warner MD Rob Dickins had urged – it would have made no difference. Ian, Will, Les and Pete would always have taken part in an event like A Crystal Day, where they launched their fourth LP Ocean Rain on the day of release with “a day’s worth of happenings in Liverpool”, rather than trudge round America for three months getting on each other’s nerves and hating themselves for bowing to commercial convention.

So let’s get on to that majestic masterpiece then.

Aside from the self-produced lead single The Killing Moon, Ocean Rain was tracked in two studios in Paris — des Dames and Davout where everyone from Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday to Nico and Nina Simone had worked, although McCulloch wasn’t happy with his vocals and re-recorded most of them back home in Liverpool

Driven to blend the confessional and the gothic with that unmistakable hint of danger, much of the credit for the lush soundscapes goes not only to producer Gil Norton but also the great Will Sergeant, whose guitar work is on par if not in a lot of ways superior to his six-string cohort Johnny Marr, then only one album in with The Smiths, perish the thought. 

Mac is a great rhythm guitarist too, while the drums and bass are viscerally tackled by the handsome boy next door Pete de Freitas and the slightly less attractive Les Pattinson (thankfully not the Barry Humphries creation but not a great deal prettier either). Factor in the sweeping grandiosity of a 35-piece orchestra and the sonic tapestry is rich and beautifully baroque.

In pursuit of their Holy Grail, the band’s overall approach conjured up atmospheres and textures of what, say, Turner would have been doing on canvas: the romance of the working class, the interest in the occult, and a Crowley-like fascination with a dormant Britain as the Industrial Revolution hoovers up this green and pleasant land. 

Just like the heartache of the UK in a post-Brexit shitshow, the law of commerce had taken over the customs and fair play of traditional England.

The Doors’ axeman Robby Krieger said that Jim Morrison, that famously great baritone that was a major Bunnymen inspiration along with Leonard Cohen, Frank Sinatra and Bowie and Iggy, had been destroyed by reading too much of Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilism. But in the hands of cool crooner McCulloch his negative energy flourished —and Ocean Rain could be described as beautiful nihilism wrapped in a black velvet glove.

Following on from 1983’s experimental Porcupine, LP No. 4 fused majestic orchestrations with melancholy tales and endeavoured to live up to its creator‘s own billing as “the greatest album ever made”.

“Ocean Rain is kissing music, songs to fall in love to,” said the singer in 1984. “I liked Bowie for the same magical reasons.”

Indeed, Ocean Rain marked the point where the quartet embarked on a streak of beautiful balladry, which encompassed the trio of singles culled from the album in the first half of 1984, namely The Killing Moon, Silver and, issued in a numbered double-pack 7” thingmy that Steve Pafford guy bought from Virgin Milton Keynes, the sublime Seven Seas.

With its romantic middle eight, phantom-like strings and backing vocals that sounds like Gregorian chants, Silver is the perfect opener. Like the blood of Christ, it shimmers like a sail in warm and intoxicating Mediterranean waters while evoking rousing images of the latent Catholic. 

Ian said a few years back he once flirted with the idea of Rome. In truth it’s the pseudo religion of England anyway, as Henry VIII only broke away so he could cop a feel with Anne Boleyn. I have a feeling Mac would have loved Catholicism because of its high drama. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderfully optimistic and sumptuous start to Ocean Rain and one of the finest 45s in the Bunnymen canon.  

Nocturnal Me is an eerie Ravel-esque bolero with Mac’s strong vocal presence offering the intriguing mantra, “Take me internally.” Whether that’s sexually or metaphysically, who knows. Perhaps he knew more of the goings on at the Vatican than he’s ever dared admit. Either way, Will Sergeant’s varied and textural guitar work and a gorgeous string section make this a commanding cut. 

Crystal Days, which gave its name to not only a live special but also the Bunnymen box set our own Steve Pafford interviewed Mac for in the next post, is very much a latent pagan world of magical voodoo lurking behind the rough soiled shadow of the workhouse. 

The Yo Yo Man is bonkers, a vampire stalking the funeral bones of his friends. It’s very Siouxsie meets Bram Stoker and has echoes of that other great Liverpudlian Budgie, who was obviously the drummer with prime Banshees. In the words of Kevin Rowland it’s good but not great.

The edgy opium stir of Thorn Of Crowns is melodic with acid imagery and that wacky dub effect of the vocals piercing out random words. The words are cucumber and cabbage, and why not. 

It goes without saying that The Killing Moon’s eternal re-orbit has been aided in no small part by being placed on the soundtrack to Donnie Darko. Mac claims the lyric “fate up against your will”, came to him in his sleep, leading him to half-credit God for its compositio Hyperbole certainly, ambition, unquestionably.

Despite its greatness, Mac never quite reaches lyrically, say the savage black comedy of Morrissey, or the baroque Brechtian beauty of Scott Walker. But he comes close to it on this, the band’s superlative signature song. Sheer perfection. OK, it’s time for the one where Macette sends up Dame David’s Boy Keep Swinging in the video.

Never the bridesmaid but strikingly beautiful all the same is Seven Seas, a sublime ornate epic supplemented by thunderous tubular bells, and Mac’s rich double-tracked vocal. By now, the LP’s second side reaches a real home run, where this most glorious of third 45s is followed by the commanding wafer-like sweetness of My Kingdom and the vastly epic. title track Ocean Rain, which its author regards as the “second greatest song ever written.” 

It’s a remarkably confessional song, with nakedly wounded imagery conjuring up what Churchill termed “the black dog” — depression.

The ocean and rain metaophors are probably to do with being born near the Mersey, or is it water as redemption, emotional flood, healing, or just drowning? Either way, Ocean Rain was proclaimed by Ian McCulloch as the greatest album ever made. It’s not quite but it is a ruddy good try.

All at sea again.

Mark Gibson

*Bizarrely, also in 1984, the same year I became a Bunnymen boy, I did a work placement at Cole Plastics near Bletchley. 

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