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Echo and the Bunnymen - Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Wednesday September 28th 2011

When Liverpool's most grandiose post-punk Scally-delicists released
their fourth album, Ocean Rain, in 1984, it was advertised as the
greatest album ever made. Despite the band's then manager Bill
Drummond's provocative hyperbole that he would later refine with the
KLF and the K Foundation, it wasn't, but it's collection of
string-laden epics was the sound of a band at the peak of their powers.
It was also the last time the original four members ever sounded so
special in a work that was both fragile and heartfelt.

To hear Ocean Rain live, then, complete with all-female teenage string
sextet The Cairns Strings bolstering original vocalist Ian McCulloch
and guitarist Will Sergeant leading a fine young band, should have been
an event on a par with The Crystal Day, the original all-day magical
mystery tour around the band's home town that preceded a three-hour
live spectacular by the band in Liverpool's St George's Hall. That
event, which included a bike ride, breakfast in a greasy spoon and the
inevitable ferry cross the Mersey, demonstrated just how far Echo and
the Bunnymen had come from cutting their teeth at Eric's, the cellar
club cum social experiment run by Roger Eagle, Pete Fulwell and Ken
Testi on Matthew Street a stone's throw from where the equally
underground Cavern club had been filled in and had a car park built
over it.

Eric's sired a million legends, and provided a shelter of sorts for
every freak in town searching for a voice. As well as Echo and the
Bunnymen, Julian Cope's Teardrop Explodes, Pete Burns' Nightmares In
Wax, and Pete Wylie's ever-expanding Wah! Project all graduated from
its sweaty interior to come blinking into the light with various
degrees of singular success.

Now, with Eric's itself a legend, immortalised onstage at the nearby
Everyman Theatre, once home to theatrical mad-man Ken Campbell, whose
Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool had also been based on Matthew
Street. Campbell did a crazed stage version of Robert Anton Wilson's
Illuminatus trilogy, which was a big influence on Bill Drummond, who
played in the show's house-band with future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie,
some-time Cream PR guru Jayne Casey and others who would go on to form
Big In Japan. Championed by Eagle, Big in Japan would go on to become
Eric's unofficial house-band, opening things up for all those named
above and a million more like them.

More than thirty years after Eric's was closed down following a police
raid during a Psychedelic Furs gig, a new, theme-park version has
appeared for the tourists who patronise the succession of gaudy theme
bars that line Matthew Street today, one of which is a similarly
rebuilt Cavern club, half a century too late. Would hearing Ocean Rain
played live twenty-six years after St George's Hall be similarly
grotesque? Or would it tap into something bigger than nostalgia, a
spirit, perhaps, of vindication for all the dole-queue dreamers of
Thatcher's Britain who found their own way to the stars?

As it was, despite the dramatic splendour of the music, in Glasgow, at
least, the city where the first-generation Bunnymen ended it all after
a show at Barrowlands, the same venue the band's second coming was
announced in 1997, a one-man car crash by a somewhat overly-refreshed
McCulloch gradually unravelled before an increasingly frustrated crowd.

Things begin with deceptive politesse. A charming opening set of
instrumental pop classics by the black-frocked Cairns sextet – bathed
in blue light and seated beneath twin mirror balls - includes
everything from Pachelbel's Canon (famously appropriated by the
Bunnymen's Scouse peers The Farm for their post-baggy hit, All Together
Now), George Harrison's Something, Craig Armstrong’s contribution to
Baz Lurhman's take on Romeo and Juliet, and Joy Division's Love Will
Tear us Apart. The effect is of a post-modern palm court tea dance.
This and a pre-show soundtrack of Kraftwerk and Bowie suggests a
well-thought out high-class concept.

Once the Bunnymen themselves hit the stage for their first 'greatest
hits' set before the main event, however, alarm bells begin to sound.
It isn't because of the band, who, on the opening Rust, with Sergeant
diffident as ever, standing to one-side and lit by a bedside lamp as he
carves gloriously minimalist solos from thin air, provide an
understated sheen to the generic melancholy of this second-generation
Bunnymen anthem. It's McCulloch who appears off-kilter, his delivery
faltering to say the least. Despite constant signals to the sound-man,
McCulloch even indulges in a rare moment of near humility when he
admits the previous performance to have been “a bit shaky...one point
off the ten.” Sadly the score is to get considerably lower over the
next two hours.

Rust is followed by a more bombastic Pride than appeared on 1980 debut
album, Crocodiles, long lost B-side Stars Are Stars (which they never
played live back in the day) amid more recent material. By this time
McCulloch is encouraging the crowd to stand up, threatening to sing
Donald, Where's Your Troosers and muttering how the Beatles were really
cockneys before doing unlikely impressions of Jim Morrisson
impersonating Sid James (?!?). Later we get stuff and nonsense on
birthday cakes (a lot about birthday cakes, which seems to have been
prompted by the sweet sixteenth of one of the Cairns set that day),
allotments, how Glasgow Barrowlands saved his soul in 1987, and setting
his hair alight at school.

Somehow the band also manage to get through an uneven pot-pourri of
Bring On The Dancing Horses and Bedbugs and Ballyhoo, as well as
several more recent, more predictably generic work-outs. All the while
through this, a steady flow of booze is never far from McCulloch's
lips, and, while the band sound ever more urgent on Never Stop and
Rescue, McCulloch ruins the latter with a barrage of verbal
diarrhoea that makes him more akin to Jimmy Tarbuck, Stan Boardman or
any other bad Scouse comic past their prime.

This is a long way from the revered holy trinity of Cohen, Bowie and
the Velvets who Mac once aspired to be on a par with, riffing with
snatches of lyrics that he made his own on the extended wig-outs of
Crocodiles and Do it Clean, neither of which are in evidence tonight.
Mac attempts something similar with Rescue, but even with a band so
energised, it stumbles, then falls flat on its already perfunctory
face.

As for the singing, when McCulloch's not missing the high notes, things
are pretty much left to audience sing-a-longs in a pretty much hit-less
forty-five minutes. The Cutter, The Back of Love, Nothing Lasts
Forever, Lips Like Sugar and all the rest will be saved for the
encores, one presumes. No such luck.

The Ocean Rain set itself starts well, ushered in by the triumphant
opening flourish of Silver, and for a few minutes the elegant majesty
of the album sounds reborn as it soars into the woozy drama of
Nocturnal Me, and later again on The YoYo Man, the words of which sound
sadly applicable to Mac's own current state of mind. By this time
McCulloch's been off on one several times over, and when he asks “Do
you know the next song?” of no-one in particular prior to Crystal Days,
you know it's only going to get worse.

The poppier tracks tether him in awhile, but the loose-knit fury of
Thorn of Crowns – the music of which, incidentally, sounds like a proto
Grinderman in waiting – allows him to indulge himself in an
increasingly infuriating fashion. Always one to believe his own
self-deifying bullshit, McCulloch's patter grows in turns tiresome,
self-indulgent, self-pitying and self-aggrandising. Then it becomes
aggressive, offensive and downright abusive. Things start getting
really ugly when he starts threatening hecklers with violence, perhaps
not getting the fact that the aggrieved objects of his derision might
feel somewhat short-changed by the debacle considering the forty quid
they've shelled out for a ticket.

Remarkably, it gets worse. Where what should have been a thrilling
experience (and which, musically, it still is) has become a disaster.
Even the laptop working the filmed backdrop messes up. Yet, all the
while the band power on regardless, through a botched opening to The
Killing Moon, which McCulloch blames on the audience clapping out of
time, and beyond. The full version of the song even more painful,
making one wonder why McCulloch introduces it as “the greatest song
ever written” if he's then going to talk nonsense over it about how
Liverpool and Glasgow have the best accents in the world.

Seven Seas is a mess, which, again, the audience do most of the vocal
work on while the band attempt to salvage something from it. There are
flashes, especially on My Kingdom, when the Mac of old comes into view,
but largely this is sad, self-parodic stuff. “Sorry about my appalling
behaviour,” he slurs, “but I can't remember what I did.”

Ocean Rain, the album's title track, and its most beautifully heroic
song of all, collapses before it starts. People are angry now, and
McCulloch, a sneering, nasty drunk, his voice shot, taunts them even
more. For a moment it looks like something might kick off, but after
assorted threats, McCulloch stumbles offstage, unable to get it
together, like it's everyone else's fault. He comes back on, but he
shouldn't have bothered.

If the bad news he mutters something about receiving is the
case, the show probably shouldn't have gone ahead. As it is, and with
what looks like a real life tear-stained breakdown going on through the
shades he's hidden behind for the the entire gig, and indeed pretty
much all his life, McCulloch attempts a second apologetic stab at The
Killing Moon. He barely sings a note of it, opting instead to furiously
try and explain the song's meaning, babbling about death in-between
sparring some more with the crowd, clearly hurting about something or
someone.

If all this wasn't heart-breakingly troubling enough to watch,
McCulloch, still looking for someone else to blame, ambles over to
Sergeant, berating him for something he apparently didn't know about,
but which the band – or was it the audience? - did. After lobbing a
bottle at his band-mate of more than thirty years, McCulloch leaves the
stage for the final time.

As things peter into a sense of disappointment and anti-climax,
Sergeant might do well to perhaps ponder joining former Bunnymen bassist Les
Pattinson, who came out of ten years of musical retirement to join a
reignited version of the Bunnymens' early eighties Liverpool scene
contemporaries, friends and support act, The Wild Swans. Currently
knocking them dead in the Philippines, it should be remembered that the
sole Wild Swans release during their original, all too brief life-span,
was bank-rolled and produced by original Bunnymen drummer, the late
Pete de Freitas, who crashed and burned in a motorbike accident in 1989
aged twenty-seven.

Sergeant has played live with The Wild Swans already in Liverpool, and
also features on the band's just-released album, The Coldest Winter For
A Hundred Years, a record which possibly says more about Liverpool than
any record ever made. As anyone who saw The Wild Swans own Glasgow show
recently in the far more bijou confines of The Captain's Rest can
testify to, here is a born-again Scouse supergroup discovering their
own belated peak. Somewhow, though, you hope Mac and Will will get
through all this, at least until the end of this current tour.

As far as McCulloch is concerned, like his shades and his Jacks and
Cokes, his gobby bravado has always been a front to hide his
back-street shy-boy vulnerability. This side of him only fully came out
on the band's 2001 Flowers album, an uncharacteristically
straightforward and reflective mid-life impasse. Whatever monkeys are
on McCulloch's back tonight, however, whatever angels, devils and
demons are hanging over his shoulder tormenting him, one only hopes it,
he or they are exorcised soon, because such a public meltdown is a
desperately sad display to witness.

If it's not serious, and is just a bad night on the piss, then shame on
McCulloch, who is old enough to know better. He needs to have a word
with himself and remember that all his rock and roll casualty heroes
were either dead or had long cleaned up their act by the time they were
his age. The posters in the foyer for a forthcoming sixties revival
tour featuring first generation Merseybeat groups Gerry and the
Pacemakers and The Searchers may look like incongruous cabaret compared
to McCulloch's display, but at least they know how to keep it
professional.

As for Echo and the Bunnymen, the band and the Cairns Strings were
awesome, and deserve medals. The band's singer, figure-head and
auto-didactic genius, alas, cut a tragic dash, however fascinatingly,
horribly watchable he remained. Like the man said, bring on the new
messiah. For now, at least, this one is seriously all at sea. Again.

An edited version of this appeared on The Quietus, September 2011

ends

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