Like I said before, The Smiths had more of an impact on me than Echo. It wasn’t until E&TB released their compilation “Songs To Learn And Sing” that I actually took notice of the band.
About a year or two later, a friend in college who remains a huge musical influence on me today, introduced me to the back catalog of Echo. I’m sure the exposure seemed tepid to him, after all he was preaching the brilliance of Sonic Youth’s “Bad Moon Rising” to me around the same time, but he did rediscover a few of the key nuances of Echo’s third release “Porcupine” after my repeated plays.
Keep in mind, I went through a huge Doors phase in middle school, so I was pretty comfortable with Ian McCulloch’s Morrison replication. But prior to the band’s 1987 single “Bedbugs & Ballyhoo” (which perfectly lifted a Doors keyboard sound) and their version of “People Are Strange” (which did nothing except overshadow the band’s original material) Echo had a stronghold on combining 60’s psychedelia with Britain’s fruitful post-punk output.
Echo’s 1987 album totally turned me off as 1.) it appeared that the band was verged on becoming hugely successful (and big no-no for me at the time) and 2.) I had fallen into the band’s creative counterpart Julian Cope. Julian writes eloquently of the rivalry in his autobiography and I viewed his drug intake during the time as something intriguing. Of course, Mr. Cope was himself catering to the mainstream with the release of “St. Julian" and "My Nation Underground,” but I had just been exposed to his earlier material with The Teardrop Explodes and the acid-fueled solo release “Fried.” He may have followed a linear path with Echo & The Bunnymen, but to me the discovery made it fresh.
It’s been almost two decades since I’d heard “Porcupine” but Sire re-released it with nice packaging and bonus tracks. A recent surge of nostalgia prompted me to fork over full retail price for it and the luxury of hearing the album properly mastered. Listening to it again with several years removed has brought me back to the idea that maybe they were indeed the shit that Cope envied and a pretty stellar group in retrospect.
At first listen (again), I was a little put off by the 80’s production values, but then considered this to be a cop-out as I didn’t feel the same way about dated material from the 60’s and 70’s. I mean, this shit is “hip” now, right? With Yaz on commercials and leg warmers being reconsidered as fashion statements, people are paying top dollar for the sound and vision of 80’s culture. A few deep breaths later, I understood the entire 60’s via 80’s revival and how understated the performances in “Porcupine” were. This band could play and, at times, truly rock. It’s underneath the sheen of the mixing board, but it’s there if you listen close enough.
Each song is awash in reverb and other textures. Lyrically, McCulloch reaches high but falls somewhat short of anything truly significant, unlike say Morrissey, Robyn Hitchcock, or Andy Partridge. But you’d never guess what he’s singing is a tad shallow; he approaches much of the album with an emotive bombast that’s missing in a lot of his 60’s influences. Try to decipher a bit of the song “Clay” for me:
Am I the half of half-and-half
Or am I the half that's whole
Am I the half that's whole
Am I the half that's whole
Are you the wrongful half
Of the rightful me
Are you the mongol half
Of the cerebral me
What the fuck? Thank god the music saves us from this kind of pretension…
I never considered Will Sergeant to be much of a guitarist, but the side two opener “Heads Will Roll” reminded me how clever a guitarist he can be. Sometimes you hear musicians mention how understated and complex Johnny Marr is with his fretwork, but I’ve got to confess that Sergeant is ripe for a rediscovery himself. Playing off effects and changing chord progressions flawlessly midstream, Sergeant is a master of tone and technique.
Admittedly, it was Ian McCulloch that got the band noticed. And while Will’s playing probably stood backstage to Ian’s boyish good looks and badass rooster hair, it’s really the music that transcends decades of fashion sense. But enough about Ian McCulloch’s pouty lips…
The alternative tracks that complete the “Porcupine” reissue are actually a nice edition that helps piece together some of the arrangement attempts that led to the final mix. The choices the band made for the final mix are the best, but the bonus material included is different enough to examine. You also get the nice “discothèque” version of the single “Never Stop” which is pretty cool.
From what I understand, Echo & The Bunnymen are still going at it and releasing new material just as they did a quarter century ago. I’ve also heard that the latest group is kind of bitter about aging and supplements a lot of live performances with Ian being retardedly drunk. I guess he’s fulfilling that Morrisson prophecy after all.