Del Shannon – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Runaway” and I am almost positive it took a little bit after that before I knew who Del Shannon was, but I was familiar with the song by the time I was seven. I didn’t think much about Shannon again until the news of his suicide in 1990. Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover, and after a stint in the Army, he worked a series of jobs in Michigan, most consistently selling carpeting, when he joined a local band as a guitar player, later taking over the unit when the leader was dismissed for drunkenness. He took the stage name Charlie Johnson and, most importantly, recruited local musician Max Crook into the band in 1959. Crook was a musical wunderkind who had invented an analog synthesizer he called the Musitron (based on the existing Clavioline). Crook also got the band noticed after he mailed out recordings, and after he and Westover signed to the Bigtop label in 1960, Westover was persuaded to adopt the stage name Del Shannon. Shannon had hits into the mid-60’s, and was particularly popular in England. He made some forays into country music and attempts at a rock comeback – he eventually worked with Jeff Lynne as well as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dave Edmunds, and the Smithereens, and was rumored to become the replacement for Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys – never quite succeeded. He wrote the Peter & Gordon hit “I Go to Pieces.” He was the first U.S. artist to cover the Beatles, in 1963. He also helped a young Bob Seger get his career off the ground.

What I Think of This Album

I can only hope that for many years to come, every week or so, some kid hears “Runaway” and becomes captivated and either contemporaneously or later, further explores the music of Del Shannon and helps to keep his memory alive. 

Rhino thankfully presents these twenty tracks in chronological order. It helps to appreciate what Shannon was up against, as “Runaway” was his first and biggest hit, a song he was never able to top even as he wrote and released several other excellent singles. And as the liner notes take pains to emphasize, Shannon should not be lumped in with the teen vocal idols of the 60’s because he was a rocker, from his songwriting abilities to his skills as a guitarist to his modern-looking thematic concerns of loss, rejection, and regret. 

“Runaway” is a monster track, immediately grabbing you by the ears with the dramatic, Latin-esque guitar and piano intro, the pumping sax, Shannon’s lyrics efficiently describing bewilderment and agony, building to his gritty prechorus vocal, and THEN you get to Shannon’s falsetto and THEN you get the space-age Musitron part, which is somehow both disorienting and perfectly complementary, and holy fucking shit! This is a masterpiece whose only flaw is that it is way too short.

“Hats Off to Larry” is a fantastically bitter and biting tune, which in seeking to repeat the success of “Runaway,” also features a critical falsetto part and the haunting sounds of Crook’s Musitron. The chugging “So Long Baby” is another surprisingly sophisticated tale of psychosexual drama, with easily the best kazoo solo in rock history. “Hey! Little Girl” rounds out the four Top 40 Hits Shannon had in 1961.

Other highlights include “Cry Myself to Sleep,” which is very obviously the basis for Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” “Two Silhouettes” is an excellent story of betrayal. “Stranger In Town” is compelling and creepy. “Show Me” has some hints of surf rock to it, while “Sister Isabelle” borders on lite-psych, with a surprisingly soulful vocal. 

As the liner notes point out, “Little Town Flirt” has the same opening lyric as the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” is the precursor to all those Springsteen songs about how we gotta get out of this town (though with a falsetto outro that Bruce could never have pulled off).

Max Crook’s story is interesting in its own right. Born into a musical family, he built his own recording studio by the time he was fourteen and the Musitron around the age of 23. In addition to working with Shannon, he recorded instrumental songs under various guises including the name Maximilian. He passed in 2020.

Fun facts: “Runaway” was recorded in A but the producer sped the recording up to juuuuuust below B-flat; Shannon recorded a new version of the song in 1967 with half of Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and Nicky Hopkins; the Misfits covered the song; Echo & the Bunnymen reference it on “Over the Wall” and Tom Petty references it on “Running’ Down a Dream.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Runaway” is the, you can guess it, runaway winner.

Release Date

1990

The Cover Art

I like the early ‘60s lettering and color scheme and the not-at-all-convincing smile on Shannon’s face speaks to the dark themes he explored in his songs.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Echo & The Bunnymen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

Ian McCulloch left the band for a solo career after this album, and the other three very unwisely chose to continue with a new vocalist. While that fiasco was unfolding, drummer Pete deFreitas died in a motorcycle accident. The resulting album, with no McCulloch or deFreitas (but with future Spiritualized drummer (and partner of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins) Damon Reece), tanked, and then the band was no more. McCulloch eventually regrouped with Will Sergeant in Electrafixion and then the two revived the Bunnymen name, roping Les Pattinson in on bass for reunion album Evergreen. Pattinson bailed after that and the other two have continued since then. Some of those albums are pretty good (Evergreen and What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?), but nothing compares to the classic era.

What I Think of This Album

So much about this is so different from what the band gave us before. Even the change in cover art speaks to it, as does the album title. Indeed, the band finally provides the Doors pastiche they were always accused of flirting with, giving in to the rumor instead of playing with it. Overall, this album feels like a concession to public tastes, and as mainstream bids go, it’s excellent – melodic and sumptuously produced. Much of the mystery and mood is watered down, though, and McCulloch delivers his most straightforward set of lyrics ever, while also dialing back the dramatic delivery that he so liberally employed previously. If you listen to this without any knowledge of the Bunnymen, then it’s easy to love. It’s only in context that the disappointment starts to seep in.

You know what? There is not a single bad song on here. Everything is appealing and it all sounds great. Producer Laurie Latham (who has worked with Squeeze and Ian Dury & the Blockheads) does a fantastic job of adding tasteful sheen. Due to the heavy reliance on keyboards (instead of strings this time), the album sounds less adventurous and more contemporary, which is in keeping with the songwriting.

“The Game” reins in deFreitas and Pattinson not well represented in the mix, but Sergeant’s guitars are excellent and the keyboards do the rest of the heavy lifting. Much the same can be said of “Over You.” On these tracks, McCulloch is almost subdued (he does dial it up a little on “Over You”), a shadow of his former, angst-wracked self. The melodies, though, are impeccable.

A good portion of the album follows this basic blueprint. “Bombers Bay” piles on the atmosphere, with an almost-dancey feel, which is definitely present on the sparkling “Lips Like Sugar.” Sergeant’s reverby guitar is very cool and McCulloch croons seductively on what ended up being a sizable hit. There is an undeniable appeal to “Lost and Found,” even as it sounds very much like “The Game,” “Over You,” and “Bombers Bay.” 

The one song that manages to break free of its shiny mold is “All My Life,” which while not being representative of the Bunnymen, is still a moving, stirring ballad. Notably, this is one of the few times that the keyboards sound like strings instead of keyboards. Anyway, McCulloch kills it with a whispered, rich, and resonant vocal, and the melody is gorgeous.

Three songs are standouts. “All In Your Mind” goes a long way towards recapturing the old Bunnymen sound, with Sergeant offering some welcome weird guitar sounds (including sweet dive bombs later in the song) and deFreitas hitting almost as hard as he did on Crocodiles. Pattinson gets a meaty bass part and McCulloch spits out lyrics with intensity and a sense of danger. This is probably my favorite song on the album. “New Direction” also hearkens back to the glory days, with a choppy guitar, percussion accents as well as energetic drumming, and a passionate McCulloch vocal. And a notch below these sits “Satellite,” which rocks very credibly (deFreitas does an excellent job) and McCulloch cuts loose. 

“Blue Blue Ocean” sounds like another attempt to get back to basics, but it’s less successful. Whether the band was trying too hard or somehow the seams showed no matter what, this song never becomes what it clearly was intended to be.

I hate the Doors, and so I have trouble with “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which goes so far into homage as to feature Ray Manzarek on keyboards. The lyrics are notably ridiculous. But for the first time on the album, Pattinson gets a prominent role and deFreitas gets a little funky. I don’t hate it, but I can’t listen to it a lot.

There are seven bonus tracks on my version. The most notable is the noisy “Over Your Shoulder,” which uncharacteristically traffics in white noise and primitive drumming. “Hole In the Holey” is simply a different version of “Over You.” There is an early version of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” as well as a dance remix of the same. There is an unfortunate Doors cover (“Soul Kitchen”) and the original version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which sounds much cooler minus Manzarek’s nonsense. An acoustic version of “The Game” is actually superior to the album version. The liner notes indicate that New Order’s Stephen Morris might have been the drummer on “Soul Kitchen.”

Gil Norton was involved in engineering, mixing, and production.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All In Your Mind,” for being a reminder of how special this band was.

Release Date

July, 1987

The Cover Art

Obviously an Anton Corbin pic. I much prefer the photo on the back cover, which would have been much more enigmatic and also funny. As it is, this is okay but nothing special. I do like the grey tones.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Songs to Learn & Sing

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

This was the first Echo & the Bunnymen album I ever bought. I was in Washington, D.C. the summer after my sophomore year of high school (so, 1988?). I was there for a two week program related to US politics; we were housed at American University. One day I traveled to Georgetown alone – I suppose I walked down Wisconsin Avenue, but that’s a long walk and I don’t remember it. Anyway, I know I stopped in at punk/alternative clothing store Commander Salamander (very intimidating to 15 year old me), bought a Smiths poster at a small shop under the Key Theatre, and I went to a record store, which I think was the Wiz (all of these establishments are sadly long gone). There, I purchased this CD. Later that night, the adults who ran the program interrogated us individually to determine who might have committed some vandalism (or something) in the dorm that day. My alibi was my complimentary Commander Salamander pin, and I offered to retrieve the receipt of my Echo & the Bunnymen purchase. I was released without further incident.

What I Think of This Album

I have no good reason to still own this. With four exceptions, I already have every song on here. This collection does give me “The Puppet,” a post-Crocodiles single from 1980; “A Promise” from Heaven Up Here; a live version of the “Never Stop” single; and “Bring On the Dancing Horses,” originally on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack. Also, props for setting the songs out in chronological order.

All these “new” songs are pretty good, and I’m glad I have them. There is a paranoid, angry energy to “The Puppet,” with a bunch of different guitars, a dark bass, and fine work from Pete deFreitas on the kit. McCulloch talks-sings his way through most of this, which only reinforces that this track is about the musical backing. 

That’s decidedly not the case with “A Promise,” on which McCulloch sounds absolutely anguished and betrayed. His soaring vocals and Sergeant’s multi-hued, subtle work on the chorus are fantastic. With this album, I own two alternate versions of “Never Stop” but not the actual single. Oh well. It’s a fun song no matter what form. “Bring On the Dancing Horses” is more pop-oriented than the usual Bunnymen fare, and so it sounds a little lightweight, but it’s a welcome bonus.

The Best Thing About This Album

It was my gateway to Echo & the Bunnymen.

Release Date

November, 1985

The Cover Art

An Anton Corbijn photograph. I like it but it’s not consistent with the art of the first four studio albums, which I think was a poor judgment call.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Echo & the Bunnymen, for all the surprising and welcome attention they received after Donnie Darko, are not as celebrated as they should be. Their musicianship was outstanding, they wrote excellent songs, they had the benefit of a born showman out front, and their sense of style was stronger than most bands’. I don’t know why they are not held in the same regard as the Smiths, the Cure, New Order, or even Depeche Mode.

What I Think of This Album

It is difficult to deny that this album, packed with hits and excellent songs, is the pinnacle of the Bunnymen’s career. At the same time, the album lacks much of the defining sound of the classic era catalog, with diminished contributions from 75% of the band and a total liberation of the other 25%. Indeed, the furious drumming of Pete deFreitas is completely absent, Les Pattinson’s bass is only fitfully present, and Will Sergeant has to make the most of what space the orchestra leaves him. Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch blossoms into a fully id-driven persona, embodying whatever emotion he is feeling and communicating it with his complete being. This album is in considerable part Ian McCulloch and His 35 Piece Orchestra, which provides palatable, conventional arrangements (far removed from what Shankar delivered on Porcupine) that are nonetheless exhilarating and sumptuous. Almost every track here is excellent, every single one adorned with strings and often more. It sounds amazing, for sure, but it feels a little diluted. 

Imperial and imperious, the snow-swept “Nocturnal Me” is the soundtrack to an alternate universe’s Doctor Zhivago. The orchestra delivers a grand and portentous score and McCulloch delivers the verse lyrics with baroque theatricality, before darkly intoning “Take me internally / Forever yours, nocturnal me,” like a seductive Rasputin.

I can’t even imagine what the plan was for “Thorn of Crowns,” but this is the weirdest song the Bunnymen ever wrote. It is also one of their most compelling. McCulloch sounds literally crazed, reduced at one point to simply barking like a dog, and at other times moaning, grunting, yelping, whispering, and then of course, famously stuttering his way through a list of vegetables:  “C-c-c-cucumber / C-c-c-cabbage / C-c-c-cauliflower.” Sergeant adds some clanging sheet metal clanging riffs and the orchestra swells with percussion flourishes (are those church bells?) at the right moments.

Obviously, the deeply romantic “The Killing Moon” is the highlight of the album. Considered by most to be the best Bunnymen song (though my allegiance is with “The Cutter”), it is shrouded in mystery and berobed in elegance. The guitars have a Spanish/Eastern feel, and Pattinson offers up a brooding bass line. Needless to say, the strategic string interjections amplify the drama, not that the impassioned McCulloch needed the help while he croons and cries about fate, religiosity, the heavens, and kissing. In high school, I half-plagiarized the opening line of “The Killing Moon” for a poetry assignment. 

Speaking of theft, McCulloch queries “Where is the sense in stealing / Without the grace to be it?” and I can’t help with that. What I can help with is telling you that “Seven Seas” is a gargantuan song that deserved to be a hit. It is expertly constructed, bringing together the pop sounds and the orchestral trappings, most notably a refrain of descending church bell tones. I am a huge fan of the atonal guitar sounds in the intro just before the drums come in, and among the many evocative lyrics (some of which seem to concern Salem-era witch trials) that McCulloch sings is the opener “Stab a sorry heart / With your favorite finger,” which I have to say, I love. The jangly guitar part is delicious and the rhythm section comes to life. Velocity Girl covered this song, which sounds like a fool’s errand, but actually turned out well.

I would not be surprised if Tim Booth of James studied the title track obsessively prior to the Laid sessions. A dark horse epic tucked away at the end of the album, “Ocean Rain” is drop dead beautiful and built from the ground up with tremendous artistry and skill, as it deliberately progresses from a stark, haunting opening to a moving, melodious ballad. McCulloch shines with his most subtle and tender singing . . . ever, and the strings are as lovely as any I have ever heard.

I swear that the keyboard intro of “My Kingdom” reminds me of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” (which came later, so I guess I have it backwards). This is another unusual song, with heavy biblical suggestions, a sweetly intricate guitar part from Sergeant (and then a stinging lead), and outstanding drumming from deFreitas. I very much approve of McCulloch’s non-sequitur reference to “Boney Maronie” (covered by John Lennon, Ritchie Valens, Billy Haley, the Who, and Dick Dale). “Crystal Days” is likewise very strange – deceptively so. The melody and orchestration sweeten the proceedings, but Sergeant offers up a bizarre lead part punctuated by industrial sounding percussion during an instrumental bridge. This one of the few songs with an obvious contribution from Pattinson.

It says something about the strength of the album that the excellent single “Silver,” which leans heavily pop (though lushly augmented with strings), is actually one of the less interesting songs here. Sergeant does a nice job (playing a sitar-like bit at one point), and McCulloch pursues grandeur with not a hint of shame (which is the only way to do it, I suppose). Spanish guitars introduce the blood-curdling but mannered “The Yo-Yo Man,” which is garnished with what I can only describe as tubular sound effects, creepy piano, horror movie strings, and some disturbing work from Sergeant. It is a forgettable deep cut, but when you hear it, you can’t help but take notice. 

The production credits are opaque (“produced by all concerned”) but it’s worth noting that Gil Norton (Pixies, Catherine Wheel, Belly, Throwing Muses, the Longpigs) had a hand in the engineering and mixing, if not more.

My disc adds eight bonus tracks. One is good B-side “Angels and Devils,” which sports a welcome insistence courtesy of deFreitas. Five more are tracks from the Life At Brian’s sessions, which are related to some sort of television series. Of these five, one is a Beatles cover, two are versions of album tracks, and the other two are versions of Crocodiles songs.

The cover of “All You Need Is Love” works much better than it has any right to. The orchestra does not recreate the original arrangement, instead stripping all the joy out of it; I would have believed it if Shankar had played a role in this, as it hearkens back to the Eastern sounds of his work on Porcupine. Notably, there is no brass in the arrangement, and Sergeant plays a harpsichord. Consequently, the song takes on an organic grey tinge that stops just short of irony. McCulloch sounds like he is having a blast, deadpanning the vocals with a louche casualness, and offering a delightful variety of lyrical ad libs at the end, quoting the Bunnymen’s own “Read It In Books” and then moving on to classics like “She Loves You,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Sex Machine” and . . . Englebert Humperdink’s “Please Release Me.” 

The live version of “The Killing Moon” is pleasantly wooly (still with strings and woodwinds, to be sure), featuring alternate lyrics, and “Silver” has a similarly shaggy quality. “Villiers Terrace” gets a ‘60s spy movie polyryhythmic percussion intro, which is strange enough, but then the jazzy horns come in to prove shit can always get weirder. Once the real song begins, it’s a skeletal version, though the percussion from deFreitas is impressive; I can do without the sax. “Stars Are Stars” is subdued and restrained.

The remaining two bonus tracks are live selections from the A Crystal Day live television special. “My Kingdom” is good, but maybe a little sloppy. I do like how Pattinson’s bass cuts through the mix. “Ocean Rain” develops more quickly in this live version, but is no less gorgeous.

The Best Thing About This Album

The band’s ability to execute its vision.

Release Date

May, 1984

The Cover Art

Not as good as Crocodiles or Porcupine, but still really damn good. Brian Griffin and Martyn Atkins collaborate once again, this time with Carnglaze Caverns as the setting.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Porcupine

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I always forget that Echo and the Bunnymen formed in 1978. Crocodiles was not released until 1980, so I feel somewhat justified in thinking of the foursome as an iconically ‘80s band. The Liverpudlian music scene then was rather incestuous, with the current and future members of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah!, and the Wild Swans all playing in each others’ bands. The (disputed) legend of the origin of the Bunnymen’s name is that prior to recruiting rich kid and Trinidadian Pete deFreitas for the drummer slot, the founding trio relied on a drum machine, and they named it Echo. While on the first two albums they went with “and” in the band name, as of Porcupine, they switched to the ampersand. And on Ocean Rain, they capitalized “The” for the first obvious time, which I think is stupid and refuse to honor.

What I Think of This Album

This is the Bunnymen album that is closest to my heart, though I must concede that, at least in some ways, it is not the best Bunnymen album. The qualification derives from the reality that the question of which is the best Bunnymen album is a difficult one. Am I biased because the first two tracks are absolute classics? In fact, is it not the case that I would love any album that contained “The Cutter”? Yes and yes. “The Cutter” is possibly the best Bunnymen song ever and “The Back of Love” almost reaches the same heights. And if that had been all to Porcupine, it would still be worth owning. But there are other very strong tunes here, with Ian McCulloch fully embracing his swooping, dramatic, almost histrionic presentation and the band – with the critical assistance of Shankar on strings – broadening their palate with aplomb. The second half of the album is admittedly weaker, as it meanders a bit and the songs lack a sense of purpose, but there isn’t a single bad or unlistenable song here.

The majesty of “The Cutter” cannot be overstated. The string arrangements by Shankar, in this song in particular, are gorgeous and heart-swelling. I will say the strings sound VERY much to me to be keyboard emulations, but there is no keyboard credit in the liner notes, so I don’t know. In any event, Shankar provides the Indian-influenced intro as well as embellishments in the first half of the song, but his most critical contribution comes in the second part, when he elevates the song into the stratosphere with an epic sweep of strings that redefines grandiosity and then surpasses this trick at the end. Complementing this emotional crescendo is McCulloch, who spends much of the song giving an impassioned, inspired performance before dropping into a more subdued mode right when the strings take over, and then amping things up again towards the end with a series of odd questions posed with striking fervor: “Am I the happy loss? / Will I still recoil / When the skin is lost? / Am I the worthy cross? / Will I still be soiled / When the dirt is off?” Les Pattinson’s bass is the song’s primary driver, with Pete deFreitas pounding away; Will Sergeant wisely takes a backseat, throwing in unusual and exciting guitar accents.

Pattinson also dominates “The Back of Love” with a repetitive rapid riff on the verses, and this time Sergeant plays a more prominent role with various tones and patterns. Shankar’s strings are more conventionally pretty, generally trading the breathtaking approach of “The Cutter” for more romantic shadings (except for the Bernard Herrmann Psycho homage partway through). McCulloch again yelps, declaims, and croons his way through a dark and unsettling set of lyrics, and DeFreitas must have been exhausted by the end of this demanding piece. The bridge is particularly florid and strange.

“My White Devil” has ominous string creaks and weird percussion accents (and if you ask me, a fucking keyboard), and is a pleasantly spooky track, and when the percussion speeds up to an almost comical degree, it’s pretty fun. It is inspired by the works of Elizabethan playwright John Webster. The foreboding continues on lush “Clay,” with a great vocal from McCulloch and additional contributions from Shankar. Things get even stranger, though, on the epic title track, which is basically the soundtrack to a stormy weekend in a drafty Gothic mansion on a seaside cliff. You get no respite on “Heads Will Roll” (as you probably could have guessed from the title). This track is of a piece with its predecessors, with McCulloch catastrophizing from his fainting couch, Shankar doling out the droney strings, and deFreitas going insane behind the kit. 

You can skip “Ripeness,” which never matures, and while “Higher Hell” seeks to approximate the mood and feel of the first half of the album, it doesn’t quite ascend to those levels (though Sergeant does some cool stuff). “Gods Will Be Gods” is fine – competently played and displaying good sonics – and of these final songs, it is the one that most closely recaptures some of the magic of the first side. The percussion and guitar sounds of “In Bluer Skies” are interesting, and this track too is worth repeated listens.

Ian Broudie (the Lightning Seeds) produced the album.

My disc adds seven bonus tracks: B-side “Fuel,” alternate versions of five album tracks, and the “Never Stop (Discotheque)” single. “Never Stop” is fantastic, with deFreitas’s polyrhythmic skills on display and Sergeant shearing off some fun twangy riffs, as well as another excellent McCulloch vocal.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Cutter.” In no way should you spare us “The Cutter.”

Release Date

February, 1983

The Cover Art

Another fantastic shot. This is also my favorite Echo album cover, again the work of Martyn Atkins and Brian Griffin. The green font is amazing. The location is Iceland, in case you were wondering

Echo and the Bunnymen – Crocodiles

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I saw Echo and the Bunnymen live just once, on a reunion tour in the late 1990s (in fairness they broke up before I started to listen to them) and the enduring memory of the show is how Ian McCulloch chain-smoked through the entire thing. He used the dying end of one cigarette to light a new one, over and over again. Never never never stop. At no point during the concert did he fail to have a lit cigarette in his hand. His voice sounded okay, too, though I’m sure it was better in 1983.

What I Think of This Album

It is difficult to judge the classic-era Echo and the Bunnymen albums. The exciting debut offered a sound that the band did not consistently pursue. Sophomore effort Heaven Up Here is terrible. Porcupine provides perhaps the quintessential Bunnymen experience, but it is a little uneven. Ocean Rain has all the hits, but it’s a bit removed from the sounds of the first and third albums. The final, self-titled album is glossy and poppy, and while very enjoyable, is definitely a blander affair. In the end, there is little point to comparing the records – you just have to enjoy each on its own merits.

On Crocodiles, you can hear some of the elements of the Bunnymen’s music that would gain prominence later, but this has a much more post-punk sound than the albums that followed. And in that respect, there are songs on this album that are unlike anything they ever tried again. What it reminds me of at times is Magazine, except with career goals.  

This is a striking, thrilling, disorienting work. It swells with darkness, pulses with emotion, persists with drama, and gleams with bravado. Each member of the band is indispensable. McCulloch transcends his occasional Jim Morrison-isms to deliver confident, powerful, and moody vocals. New drummer Pete deFreitas is a revelation, dynamic and skilled. Les Pattinson pumps out simple but creative bass lines that propel the songs through the mists of despair, and his high school classmate Will Sergeant adopts a painterly approach with his guitar.

The middle third of this album is golden. My favorite song here may be “Crocodiles” – I adore the line “I can see you’ve got the blues / In your alligator shoes / Me, I’m all smiles / I got my crocodiles” – with its energetic bass line and deFreitas’s fills; McCulloch sounds like he has a sense of humor for the first time. The “I’m gonna do it tomorrow” part is perhaps too Morrison-like for comfort.

Providing strong competition for favorite track is terrifying drug tale “Villiers Terrace,” where people are rolling around on the carpet. The drumming from deFreitas is outstanding – I can’t tell if the fill at the end of each line of the verse is a bass drum or toms (though I very much hope it’s the kick). Pattinson, Sergeant, and co-producer/guest keyboardist David Balfe battle each other to see who can create the most ominous sounds. Note the “mixing up the medicine” nod to Dylan.

And the third winning song is “Rescue,” with a classic chiming intro from Sergeant and a hypnotic seesaw bass line; Sergeant again displays a ton of versatility and McCulloch amps up the drama on this track, which was the band’s second single. It’s an odd choice, being one of the longer songs at over four minutes and with no consistent melody – the song mutates multiple times.

“Pride” sounds a lot like future Bunnymen, with soaring vocals and percussion accents, as well as a dominant bass sound, and Sergeant does about five million different things with his guitar. “Monkeys” follows the same outline, though Sergeant is much more present in the mix on this one. “All That Jazz” sounds a little like a retread of “Villiers Terrace,” though in fairness Sergeant and deFreitas do amazing work (even as the drum sounds on this track are very early ‘80s). I love the “see you at the barricades” line – but on the whole, something about this song just doesn’t gel for me. 

Much of the rest of the album is, for better or worse, unique in the Bunnymen oeuvre. Opener “Going Up” is icy, foreboding, and stark, even after the rhythm section erupts into existence. McCulloch’s echoed mumblings and Sergeant’s pinging tones (as well as keyboards by Balfe) weave a web of isolation, and Pattinson and deFreitas shove you towards the cliffs. The Morrison comparisons are valid on “Stars Are Stars,” but this is what Morrison fronting a pop-smart goth band would sound like. McCulloch comes across as enigmatic and mysterious, while deFreitas hits everything very hard. Pattinson’s bass is critical and Sergeant subtly shines again. “Pictures On My Wall” is less successful, again leaning into the Doors comparisons, though deFreitas does a nice job. “Happy Death Men” is the weakest song, sounding very contrived and manufactured. All of these songs are representative of an approach that the band left behind at least by the third album.

My copy adds what it enumerates as six bonus cuts, while also tacking on the Shine So Hard live EP, providing in actuality ten extra songs. Three of the bonus cuts are demos, basically, and one is a B-side. The other two – “Do It Clean” and “Read It In Books” – were supposed to be on the album (and were included on the US version) but were left off due to concerns about obscene lyrics (of which there were none). 

“Do It Clean” is outstanding, with McCulloch sounding alternately confused and commanding. Sergeant puts on a showcase, at one point playing in a style I would accuse the Edge of stealing if I believed the Edge actually listened to music. “Read It In Books” (great title) dates back to McCulloch’s time in The Crucial Three (with Julian Cope, who later formed the Teardrop Explodes, for whom Balfe played keyboards), and it’s fine but nothing special. B-side “Simple Stuff” belongs to the “Villiers Terrace”/”All That Jazz” subgenre of which the Bunnymen were specializing in at this time; the burbling keyboard line is fairly awesome, but overall it sounds a little rough even as it’s a good song.

The Shine So Hard Ep is a fun little document. There is a lengthy live version of “Crocodiles,” with some lyrical changes and Sergeant getting flashy and McCulloch hamming it up. Benefitting from the live environment is “All That Jazz.” Plus there are live recordings of two other songs:  “Zimbo” and “Over the Wall.” The former features a martial beat but never really goes anywhere, though Sergeant makes an effort at some stark skyscraping. The powerhouse drumming from deFreitas on “Over the Wall” is the best thing about it. 

The album was produced by Bill Drummond (later of The KLF) and Balfe (together as the Chameleons, though not to be confused with the eventual band of the same name). “Rescue” was the work of Ian Broudie (also known as the Lightning Seeds).

The Best Thing About This Album

Actually, “Villier’s Terrace.”

Release Date

July, 1980

The Cover Art

Outstanding. Created by the team of photographer Brian Griffin (he did Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame) and designer Martyn Atkins, the artfully staged shot is as foreboding as it is beautiful. The use of colored lights; the arboreal, quasi-Druidic setting; and the hyperbolically despondent and dismayed poses of the band members combine in one of the best album covers of the 1980s, if not beyond.

Echo and the Bunnymen – Echo and the Bunnymen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Ian McCulloch left the band for a solo career after this album, and the other three very unwisely chose to continue with a new vocalist. While that fiasco was unfolding, drummer Pete deFreitas died in a motorcycle accident. The resulting album, with no McCulloch or deFreitas (but with future Spiritualized drummer (and partner of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins) Damon Reece), tanked and then the band was no more. McCulloch eventually regrouped with Will Sergeant in Electrafixion and then the two revived the Bunnymen name, roping Les Pattinson in on bass for reunion album Evergreen. Pattinson bailed after that and the other two have continued since then. Some of those albums are pretty good (Evergreen and What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?), but nothing compares to the classic era.

What I Think of This Album

So much about this is so different from what the band gave us before. Even the change in cover art speaks to it, as does the album title. Indeed, the band finally provides the Doors pastiche they were always accused of flirting with, giving in to the rumor instead of playing with it. Overall, this album feels like a concession to public tastes, and as mainstream bids go, it’s excellent – melodic and lushly produced. Much of the mystery and mood is watered down, though, and McCulloch delivers his most straightforward set of lyrics ever, while also dialing back the dramatic delivery that he so liberally employed previously. If you listen to this without any knowledge of the Bunnymen, then it’s easy to love. It’s only in context of the albums that came before that the disappointment starts to seep in.

You know what? There is not a single bad song on here. Everything is appealing and it all sounds great. Producer Laurie Latham (who has worked with Squeeze and Ian Dury & the Blockheads) does a fantastic job of adding tasteful sheen. Due to the heavy reliance on keyboards (instead of strings this time), the album sounds less adventurous and more contemporary, which is also true of the songwriting.

“The Game” reins in drummer Pete deFreitas, and Les Pattinson’s bass is not well represented in the mix, but Will Sergeant’s guitars are excellent and the keyboards do the rest of the heavy lifting. Much the same can be said of “Over You.” On these tracks, McCulloch is almost subdued (he does dial it up a little on “Over You”), a shadow of his former, angst-wracked self. The melodies, though, are impeccable. A good portion of the album follows this basic blueprint. “Bombers Bay” piles on the atmosphere, with an almost-dancey feel, which is definitely present on the sparkling “Lips Like Sugar.” Sergeant’s reverby guitar is very cool and McCulloch croons seductively on what ended up being a sizable hit. There is an undeniable appeal to “Lost and Found,” even as it sounds very much like “The Game,” “Over You,” and “Bombers Bay.” 

The one song that manages to break free of its shiny mold is “All My Life,” which while not being representative of the Bunnymen, is still a moving, stirring ballad. Notably, this is one of the few times that the keyboards sound like strings instead of keyboards. Anyway, McCulloch kills it with a quiet, rich, and resonant vocal, and the melody is stellar.

Three songs are standouts. “All In Your Mind” goes a long way towards recapturing the old Bunnymen sound, with Sergeant offering some welcome weird guitar sounds (including sweet dive bombs later in the song) and deFreitas hitting almost as hard as he did on Crocodiles. Pattinson gets a meaty bass part and McCulloch spits out lyrics with intensity and a sense of danger. This is probably my favorite song on the album. “New Direction” also hearkens back to the glory days, with a choppy guitar, percussion accents as well as energetic drumming, and a passionate McCulloch vocal. And a notch below these sits “Satellite,” which rocks very credibly (deFreitas does an excellent job) and McCulloch cuts loose. 

“Blue Blue Ocean” sounds like another attempt to get back to basics, but it’s less successful. Whether the band was trying too hard or somehow the seams showed no matter what, this song never becomes what it clearly was intended to be.

I hate the Doors, and so I have trouble with “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which goes so far into homage as to feature Ray Manzarek on keyboards. The lyrics are notably ridiculous. But for the first time on the album, Pattinson gets a prominent role and deFreitas gets a little funky. I don’t hate it, but I can’t listen to it a lot.

There are seven bonus tracks on my version. The most notable is the noisy “Over Your Shoulder,” which uncharacteristically traffics in white noise and primitive drumming. “Hole In the Holey” is simply a different version of “Over You.” There is an early version of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” as well as a dance remix of the same. There is an unfortunate Doors cover (“Soul Kitchen”) and the original version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which sounds much cooler minus Manzarek’s nonsense. An acoustic version of “The Game” is actually superior to the album version. The liner notes indicate that New Order’s Stephen Morris might have been the drummer on “Soul Kitchen.”

Gil Norton was involved in engineering, mixing, and production.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All In Your Mind,” for being a reminder of how special this band was.

Release Date

July, 1987

The Cover Art

Obviously an Anton Corbijn pic. I much prefer the photo on the back cover, which would have been much more enigmatic and also funny. As it is, this is okay but nothing special. I do like the grey tones. The font is excellent; not sure why “The” is capitalized.

Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

When we were in college, my friend Justin would lament “you’re too smart to not like Dylan.” While I appreciated the implicit compliment, I’m not sure I agree with the formulation. One can be intelligent and not like Dylan. And one doesn’t have to be smart to appreciate Dylan, either. In other words, Dylan isn’t a litmus test for anything other than taste. After all, Justin and I became friends even though at the time, I was not yet a Dylan fan. It also bears mentioning that in addition to trying to convince me to like Dylan, Justin also sought to persuade me to take up smoking. So . . . who was too smart not to do something, hmmmm?

What I Think of This Album

Dylan’s fifth album is his deliberate move into rock, and in fact is a masterpiece. Bringing It All Back Home is near-flawless from start to finish, way more consistent than The Freewheelin’ and much better than the stark third album and the uneven fourth disc. It should be noted that those albums do contain some amazing songs:  “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “My Back Pages,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” and “All I Really Want to Do.” Okay, so you can make an argument that Another Side of Bob Dylan is worth owning. But Bringing It All Back Home is undeniably crucial.

On much of the album, Dylan is backed by session musicians playing electric instruments and rock drums. He also moves away from direct commentary on the social or political, instead indulging himself with a stream-of-consciousness approach that relies on surreal poetry and impressionistic imagery. This was 1965. No one else was writing songs even remotely like this.

Dylan met the Beatles in 1964 and probably came away with a new appreciation for pop (a genre that certain interviews, at least, suggested he viewed with disdain). But he must have always liked some of it, as he acknowledged the influence of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” on the verbose, rapid-fire “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is way too short at not even two and a half minutes. Anchored by harmonica and a sick little guitar lick, Dylan playfully unleashes a head-spinning torrent of words that surely must have impressed the Beastie Boys. And there are clear lyrical references to this song in tunes by the Jesus and Mary Chain (“Blues From a Gun”) and Echo and the Bunnymen (“Villiers Terrace”).

Dylan changes pace with the gentle “She Belongs to Me,” a love song to a woman of wide artistic talent. By 1965, the ravages of Huntington’s Disease meant Woody Guthrie probably was unable to communicate any appreciation of “Maggie’s Farm,” but I think he would have heartily approved of this proletarian song of principled refusal. Dylan refines the sentiments of “She Belongs to Me” and combines it with his new lyrical approach on “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” a thrilling, literary song that celebrates the object of his affection with unusual, unpredictable language.

More surreal yet is the bizarre, confusing, and frightful world of “On the Road Again,” which shuffles along with a sense of courageous good cheer. Dylan shifts from the personal to the historical for companion piece “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” in which he unspools a feverish, nightmarish version of American history. I really really enjoy the flubbed intro with Dylan and producer Tom Wilson (Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel) breaking down in laughter.

The exquisite “Mr. Tambourine Man” – helped along by the subtle electric lead guitar – is the most pop of Dylan’s surreal experiments on Bringing It All Back Home, with a warm delivery, a dreamy, hypnotic melody, and lyrics that call to mind the innocence of childhood, the comfort of trust, and the promise of escape and discovery. Obviously, the Byrds version is a landmark, but don’t overlook the original. Dylan reclaims the spitfire delivery of “Subterranean” and mixes it with the foreboding scenes from “115th Dream” on the stark and punishing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Unlike most everything else on this album, “It’s Alright, Ma” is a relentlessly bleak polemic that serves as a grim summary of everything that’s wrong in the world. After that, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” seems like a reprieve, and while it certainly has a pretty melody, the lyrics border on unkind. The only two weak spots are “Outlaw Blues” and “Gates of Eden,” and neither is terrible.

The Best Thing About This Album

I can’t pick any one song. I think Dylan’s simultaneous embrace of rock arrangement and surrealism is the best thing about this album.

Release Date

March, 1965

The Cover Art

Cluttered and pretentious and silly, though I do like the blurry ring.

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Look, the title is taken from an iconic Smiths song, and the album cover mimics the art of my favorite Smiths release, Hatful of Hollow. There is no way I wasn’t going to buy this MOJO magazine compilation. Of course, there is no real connection to the Smiths on the album – the liner notes shamelessly claim this to be “a snapshot of the scene they dominated for five years” and acknowledges that the album collects songs from the Smiths’ “contemporaries.” Which is fine, because this is a pretty good comp, and I have almost all the Smiths I need, anyway.

What I Think of This Album

I know for sure that I own four of these fifteen tracks already, and it’s possible I own a couple more on my indie-pop box sets. And in fact, I’ve already covered the Billy Bragg, Close Lobsters, and Weather Prophets songs found on this collection, and I will eventually get to the Go-Betweens (in a year, maybe?). So I’m going to skip over them, except I will point out that all of those songs are excellent.

The remainder of the album is just as strong. Highlights include Hurrah!’s “Sweet Sanity,” driven by emotional lead vocals. Hurrah! opened for U2 and Bowie and released two studio albums, with a “lost” third album being issued in 2010. I am sure I have a Woodentops song on more than one comp, possibly even the claustrophobic, paranoid “Well Well Well,” which sounds like a band caving in on itself (with a strong debt to Suicide; parts of Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” also remind me of this song). The bassist for the Woodentops was Frank deFreitas, who was the brother of Echo and the Bunnymen drummer Pete deFreitas; guitarist Rolo McGinty was in the Wild Swans and the Jazz Butcher; and, just to close the loop, Pete deFreitas played on the debut Wild Swans single (though I don’t know if McGinty was in the band at that time).

The Nightingales’s “Crafty Fag” is even more unhinged than the Woodentops song, replete with sharp corners, disorienting drums, and frenetic vocals. Perhaps the most fun song here is the Flatmates’ “I Could Be In Heaven,” which is a sugar rush of jangly guitars, rapid fire drums, cooing backing vocals, and a beach party/girl-group vibe; they never released a studio album. The awkwardly monikered Martin Stephenson and the Daintees offer the blandly enjoyable “Crocodile Cryer,” though I could do without the keyboard solo.

Interest returns in the form of the sardonic, bleakly humorous “How I Learned to Love the . . . Bomb,” by the Television Personalities. I never got into the La’s –  I never liked Lee Mavers’s voice – but “Open Your Heart” isn’t terrible. I also did not care for the Blue Aeroplanes and “Action Painting” doesn’t convince me that I was wrong.

I’ve already written about the Dentists, but not about song “Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (and It’s Wintertime),” which is from their earlier, more psychedelic days. Finally, the Chesterfields’ anxious and jittery “Completely and Utterly” is a nice, jangly tune with a great vocal at the end. The only song I need to skip here is the one by Felt.

The Best Thing About This Album

Oh, “I Could Be In Heaven,” for sure.

Release Date

October, 2012

The Cover Art

Like I said, it’s based on the Smiths’ compilation Hatful of Hollow, and it’s a decent homage but nothing more.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Rattlesnakes

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I bought this album twice. I figured I could get by with a Best of and sold my copy of the debut. The second time, I ended up with the West German release. The West German release will not play straight through; it pauses at the conclusion of each track and you have to push a button on the remote or your CD player to skip to the next track. Very annoying, West Germany. If you can’t properly manufacture CDs, how could you expect to keep up with the Stasi? Anyway, this was Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ debut, coming out of Scotland in 1984.

What I Think of This Album

Lloyd Cole either:  a) got beat up a lot; b) charmed the underwear off his romantic conquests; c) both a) and b); or d) is simply adopting the persona of c). I tend to vote d). Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I detect a sly wink behind all these ridiculous songs. And they are completely absurd. Cole comes across like the most annoying intellectual post-grad ever, oh so casually referencing Norman Mailer, Simone de Beauvoir, Truman Capote, and the New York Times; giving a nod to film critic Renata Adler; quoting Joan Didion; and rhyming “Eve Marie Saint” with On the Waterfront. Also, “She’s got cheekbones like geometry” is not the impressive lyric Cole thinks it is. All of this is fully deserving of a punch in the face. Yet Cole still comes across a smooth operator, with cool detachment and an appealing, rich voice. And the excellent guitar work of Neil Clark is a huge plus.

“Perfect Skin” is like Dylan backed by Richard Lloyd playing the Byrds, and trying to seduce every woman on campus at once. The soul-ish “Speedboat” is odd and entrancing, with a heavy keyboard presence. This song name-checks Leonard Cohen. Cole manages to make the string-drenched title track not insufferable, against all odds.

“Down On Mission Street” is somber and mysterious, with a vaguely Eastern melody in places. One thing the West Germans got very right was including the extended version of “Forest Fire,” which provides you with valuable extra seconds of Clark’s incandescent concluding solo. Cole approaches sincerity on the sweet “Charlotte Street,” with great jangle courtesy of Clark. Dylan is once again the touchstone on the folk/country “2cv,” which might as well have been a Nashville Skyline track. The country tack is further pursued on the sprightly “Four Flights Up.”

An insistent bass pushes against the silk curtains that the string section drapes over the stately “Patience,” in which Cole effectively grows more desperate (though the near-falsetto is not awesome) before remembering the title of the song and pulling back again. “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” is a fucking classic, with a deadpan delivery from Cole and nimble picking by Clark; the answer song “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” by Camera Obscura is a necessary listen.

The West Germans were kind enough to tack on four extra tracks, all B-sides to the singles from the album. Clark and bassist Lawrence Donegan carry the tuneful “Sweetness.” There is little to like about “Andy’s Babies,” and “The Sea and the Sand” could’ve been something more than it is. “You Will Never Be No Good” is a decent song, with a bassline that reminds me of Echo and the Bunnymen and some cool pyrotechnics from Clark.

This was a fairly democratic affair, with the songwriting being split between Cole, and Cole collaborating with each of Clark, Donegan, and keyboardist Blair Cowan.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am going to give Neil Clark’s underrated guitar playing the nod here.

Release Date

October, 1984

The Cover Art

This is a photograph by Richard Farber. I find it a bit morose. The text is also difficult to read.

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