Rock: Rabbits run, run, run

Just another comeback? Not when it's the great Echo & the Bunnymen. Ben Thompson met them
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The Independent Culture
In his compellingly bitchy autobiographical memoir Head On, Julian Cope describes his first sighting of Echo & The Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch. At the Liverpool club Eric's in 1976, McCulloch - whose name Cope misheard prophetically as "Duke McCool" - cut rather less than the dash he would on countless common-room walls a few years later. "Thick glasses, long shapeless hair and huge purple lips," Cope noted uncharitably. "His baggy black pants were studiously at half-mast. His sleeves were a little too short, but just enough for him to have made it a conscious thing."

More than 20 years on, and McCulloch sits in a London hotel lobby. The face which launched a thousand pouts is impressively unmarked by the ravages of time. He is wearing sunglasses - vital protection against the dim artificial light - and a white suit that only someone with pop star written on their tax return could possibly expect to get away with. His speaking voice is pitched so low as to be barely audible, but his words resonate with a sardonic scouse twinkle. So what did McCulloch think of the picture Julian Cope painted of him? "My stock answer to that question," he observes drily, "is that I haven't yet got around to reading War and Peace, so why would I have read a book by Julian Cope?"

There's nothing surprising any more about broken-up rock bands re-forming - the solo careers go down the toilet, the mortgage arrears mount, and what other option is there? But something about McCulloch, virtuoso guitarist Will Sergeant, and boat-building bass player Les Pattinson (drummer Pete DeFreitas was killed in a motorbike acident in 1989) sets them apart from their second-time-around peer group. They have broken the mould of tour, live album, second break-up, series of interviews about how it was all a terrible mistake, by actually making a new record. And a new record, the aptly titled Evergreen, which can stake a solid claim to being as good as anything else they've done.

It's not supposed to happen this way. Pop music is all about celebrating the moment, and there is no greater sin in the critical catechism than trying to prolong or recapture that moment. The brief and not entirely inglorious reappearances of rock's two most legendary catalysts, the Sex Pistols and the Velvet Underground, have necessitated a bit of a re- think. Conventional wisdom decrees that music advances by way of 10-yearly upheavals: the birth of rock `n' roll, the summer of love, punk, acid house

The first line of "Nothing Lasts Forever" - the Bunnymen's swirling, stately comeback single - is a rousing statement of pop's love affair with the moment. "I want it now," McCulloch insists in that seductive, marbled croon, "not the promises of what tomorrow brings". The song wrestles with the reasons for not getting back together and comes out smiling. After all, isn't wanting more than you can get the reason people start bands in the first place? And what's the point sitting at home tending your myth when you can be parading it on stage in Washington (as the Bunnymen recently did) in front of 60,000 people? The public seems to have had no difficulty in grasping this: when the new charts come out today, there's a good chance it'll confirm "Nothing Lasts Forever" as the Bunnymen's biggest hit to date.

McCulloch has been a little upset by a picture in a newly published Mojo article, which shows the band without him (when McCulloch left, just after the death of his father in 1988, Will and Les rather ill-advisedly opted to carry on under the same name with a different singer). But he's not letting it get to him.The other two admit that carrying on as headless Bunnymen was "not a good idea", but having done so has, if anything, had a galvanising effect on their second coming.

First it's meant that no one's had to worry about the band dragging their name through the mud; that's been done already.Second, it's given them something to prove. One of the things that makes Evergreen such an unexpectedly exciting record is that it is lit up by a burning desire to make things right. There is a surprising directness in McCulloch 's writing - he describes the 12 new songs as "more soul than angst" - and if some of the mystery is inevitably lost in making explicit those things that the music used only to hint at, the band's retreat from grandiloquence has still been a spectacular success.

"It's natural for people to be a bit sceptical, but to me it's like with Liverpool Football Club," McCulloch muses tangentially. "They've kind of come back but they're still not quite all the way there: I want Liverpool to win the League again and I want us to make the best record ever made again, that's how I look at it. I've not stopped supporting them and started supporting Manchester United because they've been doing a bit better lately. And music's more important than football, so if you can be as loyal to a football team as people tend to be, then that should apply to a band as well."

The critical perception of the Bunnymen's late-70s beginnings was that after punk had broken everything up, they and the other bands (Cope's Teardrop Explodes, pre-stadium Simple Minds, pre-irony U2) with whom their name has tended - often to their immense chagrin - to be linked, were trying to put things back together. Was that how the band themselves felt about it? "Those are kind of the key things that make you want to start," McCulloch shakes his head, smiling. "When you start a band, it's not really to further anything other than your own ego, but the moment we got together we felt there was something that was different and special about it. What you do as a band becomes the way you express who you are - by trying to be a byword for cool in an age of shite".

The timing of their return could hardly be more auspicious. In America their songs are the subject of starstruck cover versions by alternative rock aristocrats such as Pavement and Hole. In Britain the unapologetically Bunnymen-esque epic rock leanings of the Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead carry all before them, and the streets are full of sub-standard, meat- and-potatoes guitar bands just begging to be put in their place by a gang of mesmerising old-timers. After watching Echo & the Bunnymen burn up the ether on Later and TFI Friday last week, all those booked above them on festival bills at Glastonbury and V97 must be looking to their laurels with considerable anxiety.

Echo & the Bunnymen will open the Glastonbury Festival (01458 834596) on Fri, and headline at the Hanover Grand, W1 (0171 499 7977), on 15 Jul. The new single, `Nothing Lasts Forever' (London), and a greatest-hits

compilation, `Ballyhoo' (Warner), are out now, and their new album, `Evergreen' (London), is released on 14 Jul.