Shadows loom long at the backstage door. The crowd roar at the impending rock star event: is it him? It could be an arena welcome, for we are in the presence of rock royalty. Silhouetted against the light, Ian McCulloch strides out, tall, black-clad, sun-glassed cool. But this isn’t the O2 London. It’s not LA’s Hollywood Bowl. It’s a small club: Paard van Troje, in The Hague, Netherlands. Will Sergeant’s distinctive ringing guitar sound heralds an oldie: Going Up (in fact most of the set will be songs from the band’s first pre-1987, incarnation, perhaps to satisfy the predominately post-40 crowd). The band is Echo and the Bunnymen.
You might not have heard of them if the audience at this gig is anything to go by. Contemporaries of U2, REM, the Cure, and the Smiths, the Bunnymen once stood with them at the apex of cool, melodic, indie rock, and by 1987 were on the verge of the same international superstardom that the others (largely) went on to achieve. Instead through a series of self-inflicted miscalculations and missteps, they play today to small clubs with a rapidly dwindling audience. In the Margins—as their archetypical 2005 track suggests (from the equally aptly named album Siberia). Yet McCulloch has the voice; perhaps too American accented for a Liverpool native, perhaps channelling the spirit of Frank Sinatra, perhaps the greatest singing voice of his generation. Likewise, Sergeant should be ranked alongside Johnny Marr or the Edge—contemporary guitarists who took a generic instrument and make it sound like only them. His guitar playing, made up of melodic ringing notes, tremolo-bar twang, undulating riffs, awash in reverb and delay, never detracts from the obvious: Echo and the Bunnymen are a song orientated band.
I find something alluring about also-rans. About artists who do not quite achieve the enduring commercial success they “deserve.” There is something of the outsider about them. There is something appealing about a group or individual artist carrying on anyway, even though no one is really listening. You do it for yourself. For your art. Your legacy. Because you need to. Because what the hell else would you do?
Vincent Van Gogh whose work I also got to view for the first time in an expansive context on this trip—at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum, has a similar feel to me. The Red Vineyard was the only painting Van Gogh ever sold in his lifetime. It takes grit, self-belief, determination and equal measure of insanity to go on and paint another 900. Similarly, McCulloch often describes their 1984 epic Ocean Rain as “the greatest song ever written” and it is hard to argue with.
Commercialism today is fleeting. What is cool will not be cool next week. Everything is a product to be packaged and marketed to the masses by ad agencies in neat packages easily encapsulated in 15 second TVCs, single line GoogleAds, or 140 characters on Twitter. I do not believe I could sell Van Gogh to an unknowing public with a quick headline. “It’s like Monet, but a little rougher.” “Sunflowers look great on anyone’s wall.” “This artist made selfies, before selfies.” You cannot easily sum it up. It takes time to appreciate. It requires work and thought. Same too with McCulloch and Sergeant.
Echo and the Bunnymen imploded in 1987 with the motorcycle death of their drummer, McCulloch’s inflated ego thinking he didn’t need Sergeant (he did), and Sergeant’s belief that fans would buy the band with a new singer (they didn’t). Both reformed the band, essentially as a duo in 1997 (1994 if you count Eletrafixion) and quietly spend the next decade making 6 (or 7) of the best albums of their career. Sadly, no one was listening.
No one (new) is listening still.
While Morrissey (with his appealing catalogue of Smiths teen angst) still pulls teenage fans by the droves to his gigs, Echo and the Bunnymen face a tide of grey/balding fans who remember only their past. At Paard van Troje they play only one song from their comeback period. A lack of confidence in the newer (superior) material, or just going through the motions of playing what they think crowds want to hear?
I hope not, because outsider chic is doing whatever you want and not caring anymore for commercial considerations, or what people think or desire. Just doing what you want because you need to. Because you are you. Echo and the Bunnymen. Forever in the margins. Forever outsiders. Look them up. They could do with a few new fans. They’re on YouTube and the www. Tell them I sent you.
By Shane Filer
The Hague, Netherlands