Before the Danger Mouse `Beatles and Jay-Z’ cocktail mashup, there was another ‘gray album,’ the self-titled fifth album from Liverpool’s Echo & the Bunnymen. In 1985, the stage was essentially set for Echo to implode. Having just come off their tour in support of Ocean Rain and its incredible single, “The Killing Moon,” Echo wanted to take a six month sabbatical. Singer Ian McCulloch released a solo single of “September Song,” leaving the rest of the members of the band to think that he wanted to leave the band behind. The singles collection, Songs to Learn & Sing allowed the band to pay the bills and allowed drummer Pete DeFreitas to tour with his side band, the Sex Gods. Yet after all of this, Echo did reconvene and produce one of the best albums in their careers, their last as the four original members as DeFreitas would tragically die in a car accident. The three other members would come back ten years later, but most hardcore fans would admit that it would never be the same, and that the self-titled gray album would mark the pinnacle and end of a wonderful era.
In order to re-energize themselves after their time apart, Echo & the Bunnymen became their own opening act. They would play covers of their favorite songs, which would ultimately remind them of why they were playing rock and roll in the first place. The songs of Jonathan Richman, Bob Dylan, the Talking Heads, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, the Stones, the Velvet Underground and Television, as well as the obvious Doors, were all present in those opening sets, some of them appearing as b-sides to the “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” 12-inch single (Television’s “Friction,” VU’s “Run, Run, Run” and the Stones’ “Paint it Black”). So, they went back into the studio and stripped everything down to the basics. Strings only appear on a few songs; otherwise it’s just guitars, bass, drums, vocals and keys.
The album would actually be preceded by one of their biggest singles to date (in terms of exposure) as “Bring on the Dancing Horses” appeared on the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink, and as an extra track on their singles collection album. Around the same time as the album release, another movie track started hitting the airwaves, Echo’s cover of the Doors’ “People Are Strange.” Those fantastic tracks were almost enough to tide over Echo fans for a while, but they would soon be clamoring for more. “The Game” was the first single released and the opening track on the album and would set up themes that would persist through the remaining songs. It also acted as a bridge between Ocean Rain and the new work with some nautical lines in the first verse, “Too many seekers, too few beacons / But through the fog we’ll keep on beaming.” Other McCullochisms are sprinkled throughout the lyrics such as “tinsel tears” and “glitter years.” “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” was so Doors influenced that they employed keyboardist Ray Manzarek to play on it! In the summer of 1987, alternative radio listeners could not escape from hearing the magnificent single, “Lips Like Sugar.” Will Sergeant’s guitar never sounded as jangly-sweet, and Echo had never sounded so ‘ready for radio.’ “Blue Blue Ocean” continued the nautical themes of Ocean Rain while “Satellite” built upon the more experimental tracks from that album. Whether signifying the beginning of the end of the first chapter of Echo, or merely a damn good song, “All My Life” closed out the album, a lyrical and musical partner song to the earlier “Bomber’s Bay.” “Bomber’s Bay” used the analogy of young soldiers going off to fight World War II to show their own battles of being in the band on tour, their `costumes changed to uniforms.’ “All My Life,” joined to the previous song by the couplet “God’s one miracle, lost in circles,” is more of a reflective song, again using the analogy of soldiers, but these are made of tin. McCulloch sings over DeFreitas’ inspired military drums, “Men not devils have claimed us,” and after a time, those men had taken their toll, effectively dissolving the band for ten years.
Echo would go on tour in 1987, once in the states with co-headliners New Order, my other favorite band of the late ’80s, and openers Gene Loves Jezebel, then later again in the US as a headliner with support by the Screaming Blue Messiahs. The difference between the two shows was obvious. The former found the foursome at the top of their `Game’ (pun intended), enjoying the limelight and playing to the best of their abilities. The latter found the band on their last legs, tired, stoned and at the ends of their respective ropes, the crying outweighing the laughter of all their lives. Echo purists will rain on the grey album’s parade due to its accessibility, but it remains a work finding the band at their creative peak. Oddly, it’s the third album I’ve reviewed from the year 1987 that featured photography from Anton Corbijn (the other two being U2’s The Joshua Tree and Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses), proving he had great taste in music. Just as Echo would trot out a bunch of covers to find inspiration, so too did Coldplay on their tour in support of A Rush of Blood to the Head, as they covered “Lips Like Sugar.” Their tour posters were all done in the style of the cover photo of the grey album as well. “God’s one miracle, lost in circles,” indeed.
The Doors – Strange Days
The Velvet Underground – Loaded
The Jesus & Mary Chain – Darklands