Echo and the Bunnymen at the Royal Albert Hall review *****

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Echo and The Bunnymen: The Stars, the Ocean and the Moon

Royal Albert Hall, 1st June 2018

  • Rescue
  • Villiers Terrace – (Roadhouse Blues)
  • All That Jazz
  • Stormy Weather
  • The Somnabulist
  • Nothing Lasts Forever
  • All My Colours
  • Angels and Devils
  • Bedbugs and Ballyhoo
  • Lips Like Sugar
  • Rust
  • In The Margins
  • Bring On the Dancing Horses
  • Seven Seas
  • How Far?
  • The Cutter
  • The Killing Moon
  • Never Stop
  • Ocean Rain

No real point if reading this if you want an unbiased opinion of EATB’s latest gig at the Royal Albert Hall. In their pomp they were, in the Tourist’s humble opinion, the greatest band of all time. And their pomp was so transcendently gorgeous that they still are. Even when they’re not if you get my meaning. And, the last few times, they haven’t been. Yet the songs still make up for it. Well most of them do.

I am delighted to report though that this time they were, actually, in pretty fine fettle and, to their credit, seemed to have got over the disappointment of the Champions League defeat. Mac’s voice seems to have settled down a bit. The soaring, crooning pyrotechnic baritone of the early days is long gone but so, it seems, is the gravelly booze and fags croak of more recent years. He still picks pointless verbal fights with innocent punters and mumbles incoherently in Scouse but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Will doesn’t get up to much as ever but can still turn on the licks when required. The rhythm section now has a bit of spring in its step; none of the lumpen pedestrian plod of the early noughties. Stephen Brennan on bass is no Les, but he now has his own way with the classics even if he can’t recreate the Pattinson trademark loops, and Nick Kilroe handling the sticks is more comfortable than any of his predecessors, especially in the middle period stuff. No-one has ever drummed like Pete GRHS, and I mean ever, so I will, all my life, remain bereft but best not to dwell on it. Jez Wing on keyboards is a fine musician and the Cairn String Quartet provided string arrangements as sympathetic as any I have ever heard.

The tour is billed as EATB with strings so it was as well that the sound mix here didn’t completely leave the strings high and dry as is so often the case. EATB could play Crocodiles and Heaven up Here back to back as loud as you like and I would, literally die and go to heaven, but any subsequent arrangements, the Ocean Rain material and the few decent songs from the grey album, Evergreen and WAYGTDWYL need a bit more care and attention. The addition of Kelley Stoltz’s guitar made a big difference vs previous incarnations though for this material.

The Albert Hall, with its imposing grandeur, suits the lads, as anyone who remembers the Ocean Rain revival, will know and the light show was spot on. Now then I always have an uneasy relationship with a EATB audience these days. A) it is old(ish) reminding me of me own mortality. B) there are wall-to-wall middle-aged couples, with a smattering of young ‘uns, making us single saddo blokes stand out. The SO has done her fair share of manoeuvres putting up with EATB (and other post punk legends) and no longer feels sorry for me, so she’s a no, and other chums literally couldn’t be less interested. C) There are way too many people only there for the “hits”, Cutter, OR and the post OR singles from the grey album. There are enough “first three album”diehards/”occasionally they’ve still got it” benefit of the doubters, like me but it still makes for a strange experience as the buzz focuses on stuff that, whisper it, isn’t really all that good (Bedbugs and Ballyhoo/Bring on the Dancing Horses being the worst offenders). When I say not that good I actually mean it is brilliant just not anywhere near Bunny sublimity.

So, dropping the sanctimonious “I was there from the start”, “it was all downhill from Porcupine” pose, what were the highlights I hear you ask. Well obviously the three openers, with the Doors tribute, from Crocodiles, the standard intro give or take. In an ideal world I’d open with Going Up and squeeze Do it Clean and Simple Stuff into the list but I get that a couple of near sixty year olds trotting out an album from 40 years ago might not seem cutting edge. BUT Crocodiles was, and still is, since it takes the best of post punk rhythms, with a bit of punkish attitude, lays on top Mac’s most personal lyrics (the low rent Homeric epic poetry was leavened with the everyday), most of Will’s best melodies ever and filters this through a history lesson of their coolest ever predecessors, Velvet Underground, Doors, Television, Bowie, Modern Lovers, and, for Mac at least, Scott Walker. Many have followed Crocodiles, none have bettered.

Still, even then, Heaven Up Here is the perfect Bunny. album Sadly all you get nowadays is the stripped bare version of All My Colours, which, lovely as it is, is no substitute for the thumping Zimbo/ original, or previous arrangements, and means nothing from Side One of the original album, the greatest side one of all time, period as you Yanks say, and no Disease or Turquoise Days. Just one of Show of Strength, Over the Wall or With a Hip would be a start. Broke My Neck as long they cared to play it, a life enhancer, but the sad fact is they can’t play any of them now. So none appears. Boo hoo.

So the Tourist has to sit tight before closing his eyes for Angels and Devils, Rust, of course, and yes since I am not a complete poseur, Cutter, a stunning Never Stop and an exquisite Ocean Rain, the last two as encores. And this Sinatra-esque version of Killing Moon is, just maybe, about the most emotionally intense ever. I would still pay good money to hear any of Clay, Back of Love, Higher Hell or King of Kings, Burn For Me, Everything Kills You, Scissors in the Sand, Shroud of Turin or Market Town, but I don’t get a vote and they have been playing this set moreorless for a decade now. I’d even welcome a bit of the Electrafixion experiment but I am probably alone in that.

As for the new songs, well I will have to wait for the new album to decide. Not possible on one listening with my crappy ears and all those people milling around. The Stars. the Ocean and the Moon seems a worthy title given that these three words alone make up probably half of Mac’s lyrical output and the album will mostly rehash and pimp up the classics above with the strings on show. Still if you are want wordplay, punning, sarcasm, heroic, monumental, natural, grand, doomy etc, etc then Big Lips and Floppy Fringe are still your men. And when you are a slightly odd, though by no means unpopular, late teenager THESE LYRICS MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE SPECIAL. They still do decades later. Though true enlightenment only comes with the original line-up and the panoramic production of the first three, OK four, albums.

Still best gig I’ve been to for a couple of years, excepting Wire, and partly because Dave Gedge hasn’t recently volunteered the Wedding Present back catalogue, and MES (tears welling up) wasn’t on top form for the last couple of Fall outings. On that note a reminder that the only rock ‘n’ roll heroes are a) the ones that deliberately f*ck it all up and thereby never go near a stadium and b) have a Peel Session. EATB fit that bill. Like a glove.

 

 

My top 10 greatest ever albums

Right. My cursory examination of the world wide web suggests that there are probably more top 10 album lists than there are certain kinds of sub-atomic particles. It seems that any bloke of a certain age, with too much time and access to Amazon and/or I Tunes, will have attempted to impose/show off his taste in music. and it’s obviously always 10 until he gets greedy, with 25 seemingly the next most popular integer.

Still undeterred by the utter pointlessness of the exercise, and keen to really show off my taste and knowledge, I am determined to add to the digital trash-heap.

Now regular readers will be aware that I am a) getting on a bit and b) fancy myself as a bit cultured. This will therefore colour what follows and the keen-eyed will notice there is a quite constrained chronology in my choices. This is because, in my view, the music that stays with you is the music that hits you in your most formative years when you have most time and when your are most selfish which surely is late teens/early adulthood.

Now I am talking about proper pop/rock/indie music not the chart shite that is an unfortunate by/waste product which has been there since the 1950s. I am also, in this blog, focussed solely on my pop/rock/indie identity. The classical side of my nature has been there from a fairly early age but has expanded apace in recent years. I am now pretty clear on the boundaries here and therefore continue to go deeper not broader into the classical world. And the only live music I listen to is classical. There are very infrequent gigs but it is all a bit loud for me now I fear.

Anyway back to today’s sermon. So the period of deepest engagement for me coincided with the rise of post-punk which happily for me produced most of the greatest pop/rock/indie music ever made and the best bands, a few of which soldier on to this day. I am not accepting any argument here – it is a simple fact. When it comes to musical taste I simply will not permit any collapse into some sort of hopeless, wishy-washy relativism. From this starting point I will no doubt bore you in future with stuff prior to these fertile period (it is called the 1960s and 1970s kids). But, having set my entrenched boundaries, it does mean that from the late 1980s through to the last few years I don’t really know what I am talking about, and have wandered around aimlessly trying to find exciting new stuff. And to be fair there have been some successes. Still I am grateful for any tips.

Right I have rambled on enough ahead of something no-one will ever read anyway. So with thanks to John Peel, the NME in its heyday and assorted independent record labels, here goes.

1. Echo and the Bunnymen – Heaven Up Here – 1981

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So Echo and the Bunnymen are the greatest ever band. Period. There are other contenders; Joy Division but there just isn’t enough material to draw on, the Fall, obviously, but there might just be too much (and it is impossible to draw out one album for this list), Wire, but maybe a bit too clever by half, the Wedding Present, but even I accept if you’ve heard one of theirs you’ve heard them all. and other contenders from other periods which will be revealed in time. But the reality is the Bunnies were, and remain, my first love, and the first 4 albums, Crocodiles, Porcupine, Ocean Rain and this, their masterpiece, are just what I know best.

I will keep buying anything the Bunnies create as there are still nuggets to be found and I will still try to see them on very rare occasions where I can tolerate the noise. But I know they will never again create the uplifting maelstrom of the heyday as Les’s loopy basslines and Pete’s (RIP) magnificently creative drumming propped up Will’s shards of guitar genius and Mac’s preposterous but utterly convincing lyrics (last night he played in a local theatre in Henley on Thames – mind-boggling).

It is therefore fortunate that I can listen to this – not every day but nary a week passes without a happy reminder. Thanks lads.

2. Joy Division – Closer – 1980

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So, if the Bunnies are ultimately a swaggering, anthemic post-punk rock band (Mac has observed that if they hadn’t been so lazy they could have beaten U2 to the prize), then Joy Division are the mournful antithesis. The father of innumerable progeny this really is music for late teenage boys to listen to in the bedroom whilst wallowing in a sea of self-pity.

The thing is though that this album goes far beyond that into some really dark places. This largely reflects Ian Curtis’s lyrics (I won’t bang on about this standing as the ultimate self epitaph – it’s nonsense) but also Martin Hamnett’s extraordinary production. The fact is that I don’t think any of the contributors to this album had any idea what they had created. No surprise really that when Curtis exited stage left the rest of the band sought sanctuary in dance rhythms.

Anyway I assume any self respecting fan of popular music of the last half-century or so owns this even if they may not always be in the mood required to listen to it. If not get on with it.

3. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love – 1985

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Right I know she is a genius. You know she is a genius. And this is still as amazing as it was on the day of release. There is not a musical idea, phrase, a note, a word, a sound that isn’t perfect. I get that Katie elsewhere very occasionally lets the side down with a misplaced idea but not here. This is Art.

“I’d make a deal with God”. Indeed. That can be the only explanation. Except there is no God. But you know what I mean.

I was too ill to stay for all of Before the Dawn so missed the Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey. No matter. Six songs. It was enough to last a lifetime. What a sentimental old duffer I’ve become.

4. Gang of Four – Entertainment! – 1979

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The discerning reader of this blog might have guessed this was coming. Funky, arty, post-punk replete with Marxist analysis. It’s like a focus group was tasked with delivering up the perfect soundtrack for the late teens Tourist. So tap the feet, engage the brain and turn it up nice and loud.

“He fills his head with culture …..”

5. Neil Young – Harvest – 1972

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Evidence that I am not completely tied to the music of my youth.

Now most of the individual creative giants of popular music (Bowie D, Morrison V, Bush K, Mayfield C, Franklin A, Prince TAFKA, Marley B, Harvey PJ, Wyatt R) have let themselves down on occasion, none so persistently or so wilfully as the irascible Mr Young. Yet on those albums where it all came together no-one gets closer to the emotional heart of the matter.

I get why you kids today might regard this as an embarrassment. Then again you listen to Ed Sheeran. No more witnesses your honour, I rest my case.

6. Human League – Dare – 1981

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I am so glad the synthesiser has made a comeback. It has restored my faith in contemporary pop music. But none will ever come close to the pristine perfection on offer here. I daresay there will never be an 80s party without Don’t You Want Me Baby on the playlist but for once familiarity breeds joy not contempt.

Normally when a band sells out (mind you I was happy with the prior incarnation of the Human League) it spells disaster; in this case Phil Oakley’s lust for lucre was the impetus for this classic.

These are the things that dreams are made of.

7. Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching for the Young Soul Rebels – 1980

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OK so there are times when Kevin Rowland gives the impression of being one Scotch egg short of the full hamper but his musical vision, at least what there is of it, is inspired. The first three Dexys albums represent the apogee of Celtic Soul which, on and off and in a different way, has proved fertile territory for another musical genius in Van Morrison.

There are those who believe Dexys were/are a novelty outfit. They are idiots and can be safely ignored. Please own and cherish this.

8. Talking Heads – Fear of Music – 1979

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Back to 1979 and perhaps the finest example of the period when punk/new wave met the funk of the 1970s against the backdrop of the New York art scene and with lyrics of real intelligence. Fortunately there are bands today experimenting with rhythmic structure but TH remain the masters to my ears.

“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around … ” though it sometimes sounds like it.

9. Wire – 154 – 1979

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You would think I would tire of this art punk thing. You’d be wrong. Most of my favourite bands are still making new music but Wire are probably the most vital. It is clear to me that my musical brain thrives on repetition. Wire understand this.

So stop reading about them being name-checked as a “seminal influence” on all sorts of white boys who have picked up guitars and go and actually  listen. In this case Granddad knows best.

10. Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth – 1980

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There isn’t much of this. Alison Statton’s ethereal voice over the bass and clipped guitar of the Moxham brothers and a bit of drum machine and occasional electronic organ chords. It couldn’t be simpler. But it will get to you. I promise.

This is all they ever did. It’s all they ever needed to do.

11. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II – 1969

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Hold up Tourist. You said Top 10.

Well I did but guess what. I’ve turned it up to 11. And what better what to do that than Zeppelin. Obviously the greatest heavy rock band of all time. And this for me was their finest hour.

Anyway if you are a serious student of popular music you already know this.

Knebworth 1979. Still one of my greatest memories.