The John Peel Sessions 1979-1983 by Echo & The BunnymenRelease date: September 6, 2019
In seventies Liverpool the bloated corpse of the fab four slumped against the door of The Cavern, shutting out all life and light. Punk eventually kicked that door open, the city bulldozed The Cavern and Eric’s opened across the street. If in London, punk was some kind of scorched earth year zero in Liverpool it allowed in a wider musical world. Bowie and Iggy, Kraftwerk and Can. The 13th Floor Elevators, James Brown, Roxy Music, Donna Summer, The Modern Lovers, Television and more tumbled belatedly into the music of the bands forming at Eric’s. None picked up the torch of rock ‘n’ roll as hero’s journey quite like Echo & the Bunnymen did.
Other post punk bands engaged in theoretical experiments, arch concepts and the deconstruction of rock. The Bunnymen instinctively plugged into rock as a tradition, channelling an eternal search for transcendence. Romantic and poetic they face up to the darkness but, unlike goth, are not swallowed by it, they expect to pass through, to overcome. They made it, I think, and what you have here is a torn and battered set of field notes from the journey.
If you were just looking for an introduction to their charms, I’d probably suggest Songs To Learn and Sing, the impeccable singles collection covering this same period, but this album offers more than a completist fan’s release. The first session (Aug ’79) was recorded before they were persuaded to get a real drummer. Echo was the name of their drum machine. The beats are stiff, like someone hitting a sheet of A4 with a biro. It makes the songs thin and clanky, underscoring the swing and space Pete De Freitas’ playing would soon bring. Still, they turn in confident, well rehearsed versions of songs that would end up on their debut album Crocodiles. But it opens, perfectly, with ‘Read It In Books’. Let’s blow the dust off and crack the spine on that chapter shall we?
Origin myths tumble out. ‘Books’ is a cracking song, apparently written by Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope in the days before either The Bunnymen or The Teardrop Explodes existed. Mac claims he wrote it alone. Both bands recorded it but their shared manager Bill Drummond (yes, him) registered it as a joint composition and The Bunnymen relegated it to the B side of their first single as a result. This version introduces, right out of the gate, Mac’s fondness for interpolating lyrics from other songs into their own. Here it’s ‘People Get Ready’. These imaginative flights are mostly expunged from their studio recordings, perhaps for similar publishing reasons as ‘Read It In Books’ became the b-side, but there’s no shortage of live recordings where he veers into ‘Sex Machine’, ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ or whatever else is buzzing around his brain. Oddly, there are no covers included here.
A year after its release, possibly to show off how much better it sounds with a real drummer, they start their second session with ‘Pictures On My Wall’. They’ve already re-recorded it for Crocodiles but the album is not even out yet and the other tracks are new songs that will end up on Heaven Up Here. A sharp ‘All That Jazz’ is fiercer than anything so far and a wonderful version of ‘Over The Wall’ seems to feature both Echo and De Freitas pushing its dreamy atmospheric drift onwards. Mac weaves in lines from Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ apparently inspired by the fact Sire Records big cheese Seymour Stein was reminded of it by ‘Pictures On My Wall’ leading him to sign the band. They return in Nov ’80 with a vivid and commanding run through a set of Heaven Up Here tunes.
Jan ’82 finds the vision and unity of the previous session crumbling. ‘Taking Advantage’ is a drowsy early run at ‘The Back Of Love’, ‘An Equation’ an effective but more monochrome ‘Higher Hell’, before the song’s title section had been written. The real gem of this session is ‘No Hands’ a fine but lost song. It’s been available for years on the 4 disc box Crystal Days: 1979–1999 but is still a charming discovery for long term fans. If I was to make a guess about it’s disappearance I’d note the similarity of its propulsive clicking rhythm and bass sway to the closing title track of The Cure’s Pornography which came out later that spring. Or it could just be that the band were descending into their own year of hell, the album this session was heading towards, Porcupine, having a particularly long and difficult birth.
The struggle appears to have been worth it though, ‘The Cutter’ gave them their first top ten hit taking them to a new level of success. Riding high, they go on to create Ocean Rain. If not quite ‘the greatest album ever made’ as Drummond hyped it, Ocean Rain is the band’s crowning achievement. The two sessions from 1983 come either end of summer and feature 7 of the 9 tunes from the album, virtually a demo version without the dramatic strings. The first session runs through the three remarkable singles in a quite staggering display of creative confidence. ‘Seven Seas’ has some gloriously loose and drunken marimba and ‘The Killing Moon’ sounds amazing despite some unfinished or forgotten lyrics. ‘Watch Out Below (The Yo Yo Man)’ is the most unrecognisable, still a long way from its final igloo home. They run through ‘Ocean Rain’ at a busier pace, not yet embracing its full majestic sweep but it’s all there. The whole thing ends on a great version of ‘My Kingdom’, Will Sergeant’s guitar spiralling off into the ether, the band heading into the infinite…
Whatever state of grace they had reached proved hard to maintain and cruelly short lived. In 1985, De Freitas quit. He spent months in New Orleans drinking and attempting to start a new band but came back a couple of years later to record their self-titled fifth album. It would turn out to be a decent but slightly still born affair. Shortly afterwards they suffered the cruel indignity of recording a functional but blank cover of The Doors’ ‘People Are Strange’ for The Lost Boys soundtrack. A blatant, cynical, label move intended to push them onto steady FM radio rotation it was beneath them and didn’t really work. McCulloch went solo, then Pete De Frietas died in a motorbike accident on his way to Liverpool from London. It was over.
After a while they found they didn’t know what else to do with their lives and the band has conducted a steady second phase career releasing albums of melodic rock. It’s a little earthbound, like Icarus showing you his drawings of birds. They’ve not disgraced themselves as many others have but, feeling burnt, neither have they reached out to touch the skies and become a conduit for the mysteries of the eternal in the way they once did. The John Peel Sessions 1979-1983 illuminates that initial golden run in new ways. Some of it has been available before of course, but gathered together it reveals a secret history. A fascinating pile of sketchbooks and rough drafts for the greatest band to ever come out of Liverpool.