Bedbugs and Ballyhoo 

Proof a rock band can age without becoming an absolute embarrassment

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By the time Echo & the Bunnymen wrapped up its most creatively fertile period more than 30 years ago, it seemed highly unlikely that the band's creative—if not so much commercial—fortunes would prosper into the next century. The neo-psychedelic Liverpudlians had many peers—Joy Division, the Teardrop Explodes, even U2—who were among the first generation of British post-punks to open up the sound and vision of early monochrome punk rock like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, with new sounds, instrumental textures and lyrical concerns.

The Bunnymen, who had come together in '78 with a drum machine they named Echo, most notably looked back to the psychedelic '60s for source material, but the layers of sitars, frantic orchestration and Ian McCulloch's storied Jim Morrison-like baritone were so intensely baroque that the music seemed ready to collapse under its own weight at any time.

Echo had been replaced by human Pete DeFreitas early on, and the quartet set about making four of the greatest and most influential records of the new wave era: Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain. Though Porcupine was easily the most dizzying of the bunch, with classics like "The Back of Love," "The Cutter," and "Heads Will Roll" reaching a frantic climax that is rare even in the entire history of rock 'n' roll music. It's also unsustainable, leaving the comparatively calm lushness of Ocean Rain with the longest legs. Anchored with Echo's most famous (and best) song, "The Killing Moon," Ocean Rain would provide a way forward for the group.

In the decade or so that succeeded the 1984 release of Ocean Rain, Echo had some hits and even made some inroads in the increasingly British-shy U.S., but by and large, the group floundered, with the death of DeFreitas and temporary departure of McCulloch in the late-'80s. The band was effectively done by the time grunge changed the face of alternative rock in the early-'90s, but strangely, Echo emerged as a hot influence, with bands like Hole and Pavement covering its songs and endlessly namechecking them in interviews. Around this time, McCulloch and Echo guitarist Will Sergeant released a surprisingly strong album under the name Electrafixion, and with the 1997 return of bassist Les Pattinson and the album Evergreen, Echo & the Bunnymen were fully reformed.

Evergreen and subsequent records like What Are You Going to Do With Your Life? (1999) and Flowers (2001), mostly mined Ocean Rain and its poppier 1987 self-titled follow-up for a template, while making small concessions to contemporary alternative rock.

These records were solid, well-crafted; the overwhelming intensity replaced by nuanced variations on the now classic Echo sound. And by '05 or so, Echo's influence was pervasive throughout British and U.S. alternative rock. The '01 cult-hit film Donnie Darko had launched "The Killing Moon" into the canon of modern standards, raising the band's profile even higher, especially stateside.

Since then, Echo has issued albums about every five years or so, with 2014's stately Meteorites appearing most recently. These latter-day albums are good, sometimes great. They aren't likely to win the band new fans—they're for people who grew up with Echo's classic period, parallelling life experiences, now middle-aged and like Echo, don't always have to scream or wail to get their point across anymore.




More by Joshua Levine


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