November 28th, 2008


Unheard Vinyl 3: Echo and the Bunnymen's "Heaven Up Here"

Following Genesis and Fairport Convention, the next unheard album in my collection to receive the Gladwellian "blink" treatment (can ears blink?) is Heaven Up Here by Echo and the Bunnymen. I've never heard any Bunnymen albums all the way through, though I know what they sound like from the John Peel show. At this point in the 80s (circa 1985, right?) I was a lot more impressed by Prefab Sprout and Tom Waits. I remember noting the sexiness of Ian McCulloch's lips, though. (Superficial, me?)

The sleeve of Heaven Up Here is nice; it manages to impart to the band photo (one of the biggest challenges in photography) an epic, elegant, spiritual quality. The type is also nice and simple. This -- and later Bunnymen sleeves -- reminds me of the Associates' Sulk sleeve in its aspiration to a kind of sensuous luxury, a widescreen grandeur. Four silhouettes, sea birds, the horizon, the sea, a sense of cold northerly winds and deep emotions. So will the music live up to this image? Let's press the start button.

There's a delicate, Tom Verlaine-ish quality to the guitars which I like, they have a subtle, porcelain feel to them. I expected the production to be ruined by 80s reverb, but it's not too bad. McCulloch warbles in ways which make the words difficult to understand. "Your golden smile would shame a politician / Typically I'll apologize next time". A breakdown with a bit more space. I can hear some overlap, perhaps, with Orange Juice, though I find Ian's voice less engaging than Edwyn's. All these 80s guitar effects! Flanging, ebowing, choppy little tinny "funk" riffs! And lots of tom flourishes on the drums.

This first track is proving rather tuneless. The bassline lopes along, but there's a notable absence of melody; McCulloch is almost improvising, fitting in his lyrics any which way they fit. And it fades over an improvisation, leaving his voice right up at the front, quite an interesting effect.

Track 2 begins with some sound effects (the sea) but the bassline and Ian's vocals are worryingly similar to those in the first track, though there's a smidgen more urgency. The vocal is mixed in such a way -- and the singing is such -- that you feel as if you're at an arena rock show and can't really hear the words, though you can get a certain hystrionic quality. There's a nice little section with a funk rhythm guitar now. I'm remembering the epic Pete Wylie and his Mighty Wah! now. They were also from Liverpool, and shared this ambition at the time. And they also left me rather cold.

I'm enjoying the beginnings and endings of the songs more than what's in between. There are often subtle and interesting beginnings, sonically adventurous, which lead to disappointing, unmemorable songs. This one sounds so oblique it could almost be a song from the first Passage album. Until the chorus, which has a bit too much of a U2 feel. Oh, wait, it's Simple Minds! Fuck! Yes, that chorus is pure Jim Kerr!

It's funny, with hindsight, hearing how this fits between New Order and The Stone Roses. They bookend the style, at either end of the 80s. Generally, I feel it's trying too hard to be stadium rock, and lacks pop virtues like strong hooks and tightly-edited structures. And Ian warbles too much. I get the impression you would only love this band if you saw them live, in a chilly field of mud, and had some sense of cameraderie, and identified with Ian's whimpering ambition for some nebulous "beyond". "Come on and hold me tight, I can't sleep at night..." Or just liked his lips, I suppose.

Some of these tracks sound surprisingly black, though. There's that 80s rock-funk way of playing the guitar, and sort of African scales (one reason why the melodies aren't doing much). But funk licks don't sound funky when you put too much reverb on them; this is a major problem with quite a lot of 80s production; the attempt to be both epic and funky sees a certain short-circuiting happening. And it took Prince to halt the reverb madness with Kiss, the funkiest moment of the 80s precisely because it's so dry; when the instruments stop, everything stops. There's no reverberation blurring the edges of the notes, the beats.

Ian is continuing to fail to come up with anything approaching a memorable melody, I'm not sure if I can be bothered to listen to side 2. He tends to take the root note of the bassline and meander around pentatonic figures mostly involving thirds above it. And he sounds permanently hysterical. The bassist comes up with some nice internal harmonies, and -- like Hooky -- uses high strings effectively. The drummer also sounds like Stephen Morris, with robotic fills, but slightly less precise than the New Order drummer, as if the rhetoric had got more loose and Alan White-ish (which is to say, has returned to the 70s).

I'll flip it over now, just to see if anything radically different happens on the second side.

More yelping, monochromatic vocal riffs (though the guitars are in colour, I think the textures are quite well balanced). I don't think I'll continue, really. Ultimately this is rather barren and joyless stuff, as far as I'm concerned. The sleeve may look a bit like Sulk, but the gorgeous songs and structures of Sulk -- and Billy McKenzie's soaring, warbling, mimicking-yet-sincere voice -- are really missed here. It's not that I can't take rock -- I loved The Birthday Party, for instance -- but this doesn't have the filthy extremity of the best rock, nor the seductive quality of the best pop. There's a moment of sonic excitement at the beginning of each track, but it tends to go nowhere.

Actually, as the songs get sparser, they get better. This one sounds like something off Side Two of Joy Division's Closer. A little too much, actually; it's Decades, isn't it? But with more yelping and less definition. There's some quite good dynamic contrast in the last song -- the arrangement pulls power in the quiet bits only to push it in the loud ones, something House of Love (and Nirvana, of course) later perfected. But for me, this album was singularly joyless to listen to.

Consults reference materials: Okay, this is much earlier than I thought, it's their second album, and came out in 1981. It went to number 10 in the UK album chart, which is pretty incredible. Obviously those arena gestures, and the Simple Minds and U2 feel, impressed Joe Punter and got him forking out his three pounds at Woolworths. My own three pounds went, that year, to Nick Cave, Dick Witts, Green Gartside and Billy McKenzie.