I recently read Ged Duffy’s memoir Factory Fairy Tales, detailing his time in Burnage’s finest band (no not that one)… The Stockholm Monsters, the nearly men of Factory Records. One of the interesting things to come out of the back is that, yes, the late 1970s were a fecund time for pop culture in the North-West. In Manchester, Factory had started up its agitprop machinery with bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio, while down the East Lancs, the club Erics would play host to the three bands that emerged from one bedroom – Pete Wylie’s The Mighty Wah!, Julian Cope’s The Teardrop Explodes, and Ian McCulloch’s Echo & The Bunnymen. But far from pursuing the fierce rivalries that might have occupied a Saturday on the terraces when the two cities clashed, these bands were in and out of each other’s gigs, loves and lives. Factory Fairy Tales is worth a read for an alternative take on that time in cultural history, a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the alternative scene (where alternative stands, perhaps, for alternative to success).
Echo & The Bunnymen enjoyed great success throughout the 1980s, with albums like Porcupine (1983) and Ocean Rain (1984). Ian McCulloch left in 1987 and the band didn’t really come back together for a decade but the love is there… the echo remains. I have seen the likes of James and The Happy Mondays in recent months (in that all too short sweet spot that seemed to stand between the end of the zombie apocalypse, but before WWIII) and these bands of my youth are still vibrant and viable. And while my love – as a once cockney-now-many-years-Manc gent – will always veer to our city’s bands, I have witnessed first-hand the persistent power of Echo & The Bunnymen. I am involved with the Louder Than Words festival of music and literature and in November 2021 the festival brought Echo guitarist Will Sergeant to Manchester, now the only early member in the band, along with McCulloch. He was reading from his own memoir – Bunnyman – and the room was so busy you couldn’t even get in.
And it is McCulloch and Sergeant who are out stage front tonight, the newer members of the band – second guitar, bass, drums and keys – to the darker recesses of the rear of the stage. The band are tight as a Tory Chancellor but really, of course, it’s about the two old(er) timers in front. Sergeant – his hair still thick and dark, his body now sturdy and darkly-clothed, goes through a succession of gorgeous looking Fender Jaguar and what looks like Vox guitars, those shimmering arpeggios and jangling chords still beautiful over the top of the music. I’m not enough of a Bunnyman to really hop to lesser known (to me) tracks like the openers ‘Going Up’, ‘Show of Strength’ and ‘All The Jazz’, but as an emergent teenager in the early 80s, for me the night comes to life with ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’, McCulloch leaving it for the packed Albert Hall crowd to sing the choruses. And McCulloch himself is as iconic as ever. No Julian Cope mic gymnastics for him – the long black overcoat and dark sunglasses are the only requisite apparel, his movements restricted to his singing, or alternatively turning back to the band, or to Sergeant, a smile to the band in acknowledgement of a job well done; to Sergeant more, one imagines, at the fact that it’s good to be back on stage together, with a crowd like tonight.
Elements of tracks such as Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ creep into Echo tracks, while crowd favourites flow out towards the warm cuddle of the room, with your reviewer positioned at the end of one arm of that embrace: ‘Seven Seas’, their early hits ‘The Cutter’ and ‘Ocean Rain’ and the gorgeous ‘Lips Like Sugar’, its soaring chorus again sending the adoring crowd into Scouse raptures. And for me, it all comes together with the dark, haunting and mysterious ‘The Killing Moon’, as part of the first of two encores.
There was always something a little wonderfully wonky about Echo & The Bunnymen, that slightly unnerving, unhinged aesthetic that made ‘The Killing Moon’ such a perfect track for Donnie Darko, the bunny altogether more menacing in that movie. But beyond the dark of McCulloch’s sunglasses, tonight they bring only light back through the beautiful stained glass windows of The Albert Hall.
Echo & The Bunnymen were reviewed at Albert Hall, Manchester on 25 February 2022.