The standard-bearers of Liverpool’s neopsychedelic movement, Echo and the Bunnymen’s moody, atmospheric music combined punk’s energy and edge with the Doors’ poetic theatricality. Self-consciously literary, outspoken, and sometimes arrogant (singer Ian McCulloch was known as “Mac the Mouth”), they never matched their popularity in Europe in the United States. Their influence can be seen in the attitudes and guitar textures of such ’90s English bands as Suede.
The Bunnymen were formed when McCulloch was kicked out of an early version of the Teardrop Explodes. (He had earlier played with Teardrop leader Julian Cope in the seminal Liverpool punk band the Crucial Three.) Recruiting fellow Doors fan Will Sergeant and Sergeant’s friend, Les Pattinson, they were originally a trio backed by Echo, a drum machine. An independently released 1979 single, “Pictures on My Wall” b/w “Read It in Books” led to a contract with Sire. Before going into the studio to record “Rescue,” Echo was replaced with the flesh-and-blood drummer Pete De Freitas. This all-human version of the band released Crocodiles (#17 U.K., 1980). Early press focused on the strength of the band’s songwriting, unadorned sound, and McCulloch’s teased, nearly vertical nest of hair.
Heaven Up Here (#10 U.K., 1981) was a darker album, more interested in textures than songs. It reached the bottom of the U.S. charts (#184) but was again widely praised in the press and topped many British polls. Porcupine (#137, 1983), which hit #2 in the U.K., signaled a new direction for the band, as did the singles “The Back of Love” (#19 U.K., 1982) and “The Cutter” (#8 U.K., 1983). Augmented by sitarist/violinist Shankar, the music took on an Eastern tint, with modal strings and droning bagpipes. Ocean Rain (#87, 1984), the band’s first entry into the U.S. Top 100 albums chart, continued this direction, with a full string section in evidence on the quieter, melodic “The Killing Moon” (#9 U.K., 1984).
The band toured during most of 1985, but tensions arose the following year while it prepared to record Echo and the Bunnymen (#4 U.K., 1987). De Freitas left the band, only to return later (Haircut 100 drummer Blair Cunningham filled in during his absence). The band also had to rerecord the album. A quieter, reflective work, it was the Bunnymen’s U.S. bestseller, peaking at #51 in 1987. That year, working with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, Echo recorded a cover of “People Are Strange” for the 1987 movie The Lost Boys. In 1988, following a tour with New Order, McCulloch left to pursue a solo career, releasing Candleland (#18 U.K., 1989) and Mysterio (#46 U.K., 1992), neither of which matched the group’s earlier success.
The band soldiered on, choosing St. Vitas Dance singer Noel Burke from thousands of audition tapes. In June 1989, during rehearsals for Echo’s first post-McCulloch album, De Freitas was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was replaced by Damon Reece on the Geoff Emerick–produced Reverberation (1990), which failed to make the U.K. or U.S. charts.
McCulloch was publicly offended by the new Bunnymen lineup and did not speak to his former band mates for four years. But a failed collaboration with former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr reignited his desire to work with a band, which led to McCulloch’s forming Electrafixion with Sergeant in 1994. They released one album Burned (1995), which was followed by a tour. While the album was not commercially successful, it did lead to a Bunnymen reunion in 1997. With Page and Plant drummer Michael Lee replacing De Freitas, the revived Bunnymen released Evergreen (1997). Following the band’s tour, Pattinson, who had become a successful businessman, decided he had enough of the rock & roll life and quit the Bunnymen, leaving Sergeant and McCullough to continue the band as a duo with hired hands backing them up.