I never got to see the band perform with their frontman Ian McCulloch, he of the wonderfully bombastic voice, and I’ve always regretted it. Echo’s run at the top of their form was relatively brief—1980-1984—which means that about the time I started going to rock shows again, they were heading into a caesura that meant no new album releases until Echo & The Bunnymen—which I always referred to as “Contractual Obligation”—in 1987. And anyway they were always bigger in the UK and not quite as likely to be found on these shores. They were upstaged by R.E.M., in my personal pantheon, and upstaged by Bono Vox and U2 in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure the latter state of affairs burned up the ambitious McCulloch to no end.
So I’ll just say I prefer Echo & Crew to U2, though they both released really good LPs in 1984. That was a good year for “hair bands” like Bucko, er, Echo. The Eighties were a time of coiffure affairs, of hair challenges given and received. I find it hard to look at the results quite often, but then I’m a Seventies creature, we’ve already established that.
“The Cutter,” with those sinuous strings cutting right in, is a great track, full of the rhythmic interest The Bunnymen bring to every song on this LP. As an opening track, it soars. That refrain is like rocket propulsion: “Conquering myself until / I see another hurdle approaching / Say we can, say we will / Not just another drop in the ocean.” So empowering! (Have to admit, though, I always heard “another hell approaching,” heh.)
Let’s get that down anyway. I got into this LP and the Bunnies mostly starting in 1983, when this was the new release. That was the year I moved away from Philly back to dreary DE. My friend Tim, who had his ear to many of the new bands on the up-and-coming, played an epic reel-to-reel tape for me sometime during my last spring in the city, and it was laden with Bunny tracks. They made their inroads with me along with other bands who became fixtures, like Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, Bauhaus, New Order, and others that didn’t, like Tears for Fears. Just to put it all in context. At the time, Porcupine had a slight edge on them all, partly because I liked McCulloch's voice so much, and partly because I was rarely sure what he was singing about, but it always sounded somber and poetic.
“What’s in the bottom drawer / Waiting for things to give?” Beats me, but it’s probably lethal or potentially so. And I know that, in Brit parlance, “spare us the cutter” means “give us some bread” (money) as we would say, but I always chose to think of “The Cutter” as the big one: Atropos, the third of the Greek Fates, the one that cuts the thread of life. So, y’know, though I’m “conquering” my urge to end it all (until I see another hell approaching) with whatever is in that bottom drawer, still, spare me the cutter. The other line “Couldn’t cut the mustard” pretty much sums up why he might want to be stepping out now. “We will escape our lives” (I knew it was either that or “we won’t escape our lies”—either way, he’s got the urge for going).
“Am I the happy loss”—I was reading a lot of Finnegans Wake in 1982-84 and there’s a recurring idea of “the happy fall” (felix culpa) which is what the fall of Adam and Eve is regarded as because it led to Christ and salvation (“Am I the worthy cross”), so that idea was neatly contained in Mr. McCulloch’s lyric, that you very much. And the great delivery on “Will I still be soiled / When the dirt is off.” Sounds like it might be a Christian worried about the taint his soul will receive by offing himself. Like: is there anyway to cleanse away life, even in the afterlife?
Doubtful. This song is one kick-ass suicide reverie, as well as a bit metaphysical. That’s the way I always heard the songs of Mucko and the Muddymen, full of longing for some great redemption, looking askance at the best this tragic farce, grim parade, flesh feast (carnival) has to offer, and keeping their eyes on some prize that might be more than even art could provide.
I’ll be turning to others of their songs, I’m sure, in the long year ahead.