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Crystal clearings
Echo & the Bunnymen get boxed


Echo & the Bunnymen may be a preposterous name, but if you were a high-school music geek in the early ’80s, that hardly mattered: this overcoat-clad quartet from Liverpool were the quintessential guitar band for sulky romantics. Enigmatic, aloof, headstrong, and irrepressibly cool, the Bunnymen ruled the smoke-laced underworld of hip priests and Siouxsie Siouxs, never hiding their disdain for (mostly) everybody else on the charts. They aspired to be the cult equivalent of the Fab Four. Long before Oasis’s Noel Gallagher wrested the crown of rock-and-roll arrogance from Paul McCartney’s graying head, puffy-lipped singer Ian McCulloch was holding forth in press interviews, slagging rivals like U2 and declaring the Bunnymen to be the greatest rock band of their day. The Brits dubbed him " Mac the Mouth. "

The new Rhino four-CD set Crystal Days 1979-1999 traces the group’s evolution from post-punk press darlings to atmospheric pop craftsmen with a mix of album tracks, B-sides, alternate takes, and previously unreleased live material. (Its release coincides with the Bunnymen’s world tour in support of their kaleidoscopic new Flowers, on spinART, their third CD since re-forming, after a 10-year absence, in 1997.) Extensive liner notes by long-time Bunnymen publicist Mick Houghton and gushy confessionals by Pavement’s Spiral Stairs and the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne make a strong case for the Bunnymen’s influence on latter-day alterna-rockers.

Even back in ’78, when McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, and bassist Les Pattinson began recording demos with a drum machine named " Echo, " there were inklings of future stardom. After just one single, " The Pictures on My Wall/Read It in Books " (Zoo), the Bunnymen — though primitive-sounding at that point — were fawned over as the next big thing in the bustling Liverpool scene. In 1979, they were signed to Korova; a few months later, they ditched " Echo " in favor of drummer Pete de Freitas. On their 1980 debut, Crocodiles (Sire), which they recorded in a mere three weeks, they put a primal spin on ’60s-era psychedelic rock, balancing punk urgency and Velvets-inspired guitar frisson. " Overnight, " Houghton writes in his notes to Crystal Days, " it made the Bunnymen the biggest cult band in Britain. "

Well, there were others — Joy Division, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees among them — vying for that distinction. Even so, the album hit a nerve with its raw propulsiveness. By contrast, their 1981 follow-up, Heaven Up Here (Sire), was a somber, almost elegiac, statement of existential gloom. McCulloch’s vocal swagger had melted into a plaintive wail padded with echo effects and gloomy synth textures; Sergeant had discovered the thrill of spacy riffs and phase pedals. " Over the Wall " and " All My Colours, " both included on the Rhino set, are gorgeously awash in despair and soul-wrenching themes.

If Heaven Up Here was a haunted effort, 1983’s Porcupine (Sire) was a bit lackluster. Despite charting in the UK with the jittery anthem " The Back of Love " and cribbing a bit of Far Eastern flavor, courtesy of Ravi Shankar’s supple violin playing, on " The Cutter, " it was unfocused and lyrically obtuse. When the band found their footing again on 1984’s majestic Ocean Rain (Sire), they’d finally crystallized everything that made them great to begin with. Tasteful string accompaniment on " Silver " and " Seven Seas " was the perfect foil for Sergeant’s Eastern-tinged noodling, and it gave an ethereal feel to the album’s spray-of-mist weightlessness.

Unfortunately, as Crystal Days reveals, that was their last gasp of greatness for a while. Part of the set’s third disc is devoted to their accessible but tepid swan song, Echo & the Bunnymen (WEA/Sire), which followed a three-year period of creative torpor, internecine spats, and paranoia-inducing substance abuse. Mac quit the band in 1988. De Freitas was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1989. The remaining Bunnymen tried to carry on with a different singer on 1990’s Reverberation (Sire) but eventually threw in the towel. Mac didn’t fare much better on his two solo albums, Candleland (Reprise, 1989) and Mysterio (Sire, 1992).

None of that post-break-up material is included here. The remainder of disc three spans two respectable comeback albums, 1997’s Evergreen (London), and 1999’s What Are You Going To Do with Your Life? (London); disc four is full of live cover songs ( " Run, Run, Run, " " Soul Kitchen " ) and Bunnymen standards ( " Do It Clean " ), plus two alternate takes of " The Cutter. " If the tourmaline pop of Flowers is any indication of how effortlessly history can repeat itself, then it’s fair to say the Bunnymen’s Crystal Days are far from over.

Issue Date: August 23 - 30, 2001

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