Tuesday 25 June 2019

Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch lets rip

Ed Power

Even by his usual standards, Ian McCulloch is in a scurrilous mood this morning. For the past 20 minutes, he has been making highly libellous assertions about 'Nobbo', his pet name for Bono. He has also taken a pitchfork to Liam Gallagher, Louis Walsh and users of Twitter and Facebook. This from a man recovering from a bout of swollen glands so severe he found it difficult to talk for several days. What he must be like at full tilt, with a few lagers inside him, you shudder to contemplate.

Over the course of a 35-year career in music, the Echo and the Bunnymen singer has come to hold certain truths as self-evident. The first being that, whatever critics and punters may feel, the Bunnymen are, no argument, the greatest rock band to ever walk planet Earth. Secondly, had they played the game -- by which he means brown-nosing their way across America -- they could be easily as big as U2 today. Thirdly, if anyone embodies everything that is cynical and self-serving about the record business it's -- and surely you saw this coming -- Mac's old mucker, 'Nobbo'.

"I've always thought he was a c***," offers the singer. "A real proper one. Had he been in Liverpool, he would have been laughed out of the place. U2 have never been liked in Liverpool. We know a fake when we see one."

Universes apart today, in the early 80s, U2 and the Bunnymen were on similar trajectories. Both had emerged from the late 70s new-wave scene, with an epic, earnest sound that felt custom-crafted for the arenas of America. But while U2 strove tirelessly to make an impression in the US, the Bunnymen took a single, withering glance at the land of opportunity, sank into their trench coats and mooched back to Liverpool.

"Everybody else was trying to crack America as though it was a golden egg or something, which it turns out to have been for a lot of those people" says McCulloch. "To us, it was wrong. Apart from The Velvet Underground, I have no interest in American music really. So many British groups -- and kind of British groups, if you know what I'm saying -- thought Springsteen and stadium rock was the way to go."

In one infamous incident, the Bunnymen were paraded before the cameras by CBS News as the hottest new band from Britain. Instead of flourishing in the spotlight, they visibly shrivelled. "We were sitting on a settee and the guy asked us, 'well, what do you think of America?' There was a pregnant pause and then Will [Sergeant, Bunnymen guitarist] says, 'I hate it'. So I say, 'no you don't'. And he says, 'actually I do ... I'd rather be back home'. Wow, that was our first big interview in American. So there was no telling us."

He recalls being taken aside by Bono on an early trip to the East Coast. The U2 man's advice was straightforward: the Bunnymen could break America but only if they toured until they dropped.

"'You gotta come out here for three months', is what he said to me. Three months? I can't spent three minutes in Birkenhead without going daft, let alone America. I'd already smelt a rat. I thought, 'hang on -- is that what you have to do?' I thought if you were brilliant, people just knew. And that was 30 years ago. Christ knows what you'd have to do to get anywhere now. You have all these wannabes always on the Facebook, always Twittering someone. I don't have a computer. I didn't need one to write The Killing Moon."

Although the Bunnymen decided U2-scale popularity was not for them, they have nonetheless left a deep imprint on popular culture. As frontman, McCulloch's cocksure stage presence was, in particular, enormously influential. You could see his swagger in The Stone Roses' Ian Brown and, especially, in Liam Gallagher, whose early moves suggested he'd been up all night watching Bunnymen live shows on VHS.

"I like Liam, but, to be honest, Beady Eye are crap," says McCulloch. "I think he's in trouble. I don't know -- we've always got on. I liked Oasis. Champagne Supernova is a classic. At the moment, he looks like a fish out of water. He should have bided his time and thought a little bit more about lyrics that might be worth writing. 'The roller -- I'm the roller'? I feel for him. He's never been the greatest frontman in the world. That's bollocks because there's so much of me in him."

McCulloch is giving this interview to promote the Bunnymen's performance in Dublin tonight of their 1984 LP Ocean Rain. Released when Springsteen-shaped stadium rock was taking over, the band conceived of the album as the ultimate artistic gesture. Rather than putting their shoulders to the wheel and setting off to conquer America, they shrugged louchely, dragged on their Gitanes and flew to Paris to work with an orchestra. You wouldn't have seen U2 doing that -- which, you suspect, was part of the motivation.

"There was never going to be any cow-towing to America," he says. "No wearing cowboy hats and cowboy boots. With Ocean Rain, we went to Europe and made a more European sound. I was always into Jacques Brel and Abba -- anything that had decent lyrics and a great tune and was foreign, as in European. I was one for Marlene Dietrich rather than Doris Day."

The singer's hyperbole aside, Ocean Rain is unquestionably a classic. After all, it did yield The Killing Moon, arguably the Bunnymen's most enduring moment. With its swooning strings and dizzying orchestration it also, as McCulloch points out, proved rock and roll could be epic and emotion-drenched without descending into flag-waving portentousness.

"It was a blast to make, though the whole thing might have been easier if I hadn't been in the boozer every day in Paris," he laughs. "I remember being on the phone to Rob Dickins, who was our boss at Warner Records. He was the only one who dealt with us and he loved us, thought we were the best group in the world. He was always saying 'why can't you just go and shake someone's hand, play the game a bit?' It wasn't the way we were."

"Anyway, he phoned me at the pub across the road from the studio in Paris and says 'what's it like?' And I said, 'Rob it's the greatest album ever made'. He must have written it down because when we came back and saw the poster, that's what he'd written on it: The Greatest Album Ever Made. For us it was never a career. It was an emotional thing. We thought we were the best band on the planet. To prove it, we went and made a masterpiece."

Echo and the Bunnymen perform Ocean Rain at The Olympia, Dublin, tonight

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