THE SONGWRITER AS POET:
IAN MCCULLOCH AND THE PRE-RAPHAELITE TRADITION
Kristin F. Smith
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Chapter 1: Of Ian McCulloch
Some things never die. Certain strains of thought, ideals and principles exist so deeply within the human psyche they will never cease to be part of what defines us. As do inhabitants at various points along a riverbank, like-minded people through different times and cultures draw from the same stream, be it philosophical, political - or literary and artistic. An outside observer, tasting the water they have drawn, will recognize a common source. So it is with that group of 19th Century British painters and poets known collectively as the Pre-Raphaelites and a present-day British singer/songwriter named Ian McCulloch.
PART I: WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE?
"If you think [U2's] I Will Follow is an anthem," Ian McCulloch once remarked to an interviewer, "'I Will Lead' is the song I would have written" [Zach]. Best known as the frontman for Liverpool rock band Echo and the Bunnymen, McCulloch began writing songs (and provoking thought, if not hostility) in the late 1970s. Strong statements of principle, often coupled with biting references to his less exacting compeers, largely define the McCulloch/Bunnymen ethos.
Along with Will Sergeant, a man who can make a guitar do anything he wants it to, McCulloch formed the Bunnymen in 1978, when he was nineteen. Bassist Les Pattinson and drummer Pete de Freitas completed the original line-up. After a saga with enough twists and turns, heartbreak and expectation to make Charles Dickens proud (amply chronicled in three biographies), the Bunnymen are now back to the songwriting duo of McCulloch and Sergeant. And over the course of eight Bunnymen albums, two solo albums, and a non-Bunnymen project with Sergeant called Electrafixion, lyricist McCulloch has amassed a body of work worthy of a serious poet.
One of many bands generated in post-punk Britain's heady 'Everyone can make music; everyone should be in a band' atmosphere, Echo and the Bunnymen quickly set themselves apart. "We never had any goals particularly," McCulloch reminisced years later, "other than to be seen as the coolest and the best, and the group that never sold out" [Jenkins].
Their songs - some hard-driving, straight-out rock and roll; some ethereal, moody concoctions as fragile as dreams; some sprawling, majestic epics; some plaintive and personal -- defied efforts to classify them as 'alternative', 'new wave', 'new romantic', 'surreal romantic' or 'psychedelic' (which they were not). "People ask us what sort of band we are, and I always say 'we're a rock band'. Because I'm proud of that...." McCulloch said simply [Reynolds].
McCulloch's lyrics on the first three albums [CROCODILES (1980); HEAVEN UP HERE (1981); PORCUPINE (1983)], though far from 'meaningless' or 'indecipherable', as some reviewers found them, were abstruse. They reveal an ambitious, quirkily brilliant young writer seeking his voice. Sometimes his images and phrases gleam like light on water; sometimes they run aground on the treacherous shoals of Metaphysics. They never bore.
Nor did the Bunnymen. Known for their fierce independence of spirit and determination to do things their own way, they created music with an equally strong point of view. At 1982's WOMAD (World of Music Art & Dance) festival, the Bunnymen's All My Colours (Zimbo), stood out as an unconventional song of mystical atmosphere and strange beauty. Evocative and enigmatic, both words and music speak more of inner vision than popular predilections. The Bunnymen were also the only festival participants to team with musicians from another culture -- the Royal Drummers of Burundi.
McCulloch/Bunnymen songs offer layers of rich musical textures and shades of lyrical meaning. Detail is everywhere - a particular guitar sound here; a bit of xylophone there; always the fresh and unexpected. "I think somebody had to fly the flag of taste with some dignity….We [did], and I'm proud that we did", said McCulloch with his usual candor [Powell]. Their work shows respect for the art of songwriting, and concern for craftsmanship. "In the '80s, we didn't want to use loads of synths that we knew would date very quickly", McCulloch recalled. "We went to Paris to do strings with a proper orchestra. That was what we had always felt was best." [Zach]
The result was OCEAN RAIN , Echo and the Bunnymen's signature album, and the benchmark of McCulloch's lyrical maturity. Powerful, dramatic and significant, the album stakes out coherently and cohesively the thematic territory McCulloch has explored ever since: love, Fate and the soul's journey.
Having scaled the heights, the Bunnymen promptly fell off the cliff. Their 1987 eponymous album proved bland and disjointed. Despite some good lyrics by McCulloch (and some jumbled ones as well, it should be noted), the band sound as if they have been beaten into submission by their producer. Smoothly varnished surfaces, pretty riffs and tinkly little bells abound. Ironically (or perhaps not), the album became their most commercially successful. Echo and the Bunnymen stood at the brink of major stardom.
But McCulloch, apparently deciding he did not wish to make another such album, however successful, left the band in 1988. The next year, he released the quietly beautiful CANDLELAND, arguably his best lyrical work.
CANDLELAND paints on a smaller canvas, with a finer brush and delicate colors. Lyrically, it is more transparent. It is watercolor, not oils. McCulloch's second solo album, MYSTERIO , is watercolor a little blotchy, the composition a bit confused, the lines more harshly drawn. But McCulloch finds himself as a writer in these two albums. Continuing along the path he chose in OCEAN RAIN, he moves from the abstract concept to the personal point-of-view. "Songwriting isn't hard work," he later noted, "but you have to commit to more than just words that rhyme and chords that sound OK. You have to imbue it with some personal longing or sorrow or whatever" [Jae-Ha].
In 1994, McCulloch re-teamed with Sergeant as Electrafixion, releasing one album, BURNED  and several singles. Electrafixion marries the Bunnymen love of oblique beauty, complexity and detail with a sound reminiscent of Nirvana and McCulloch's darkest lyrics. Painful, uncompromising and vivid in their imagery, they combine defiance and poignancy. McCulloch writes deftly, but with the genuine feeling which had come to characterize his work.
McCulloch and Sergeant, joined for a time by Pattinson (de Freitas died in 1989), reformed the Bunnymen in 1996 and have released three subsequent studio albums: EVERGREEN , WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE?  and FLOWERS . The second of these, and the most significant from a lyrical standpoint, forms a set with OCEAN RAIN and CANDLELAND; a progressively plain-spoken journey into private worlds demarcated by a love relationship. EVERGREEN and FLOWERS convey similar themes, but set them upon the Bunnymen's mystically evocative, sometimes quirky, sometimes majestic song landscapes. "All I ever try to do", McCulloch has said, "is write timeless music…." [ADHOC]
Table of Contents Next
An Annotated Discography: Works by Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch, Will Sergeant, Electrafixion and Glide (off-site link)
Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch and Electrafixion: Album Reviews (off-site link)
The Bunnymen Concert Log: A comprehensive, annotated listing of concert dates, venues and set lists for Echo and the Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch and Electrafixion (off-site link)
Bunnymen.info - The (Unofficial) News Source (off-site link, run by Charles Pham)
Aldems' Political Quotations: Apt and Otherwise
BlindFool and Scruffy Dog: Dilettantes-at-Large
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