One of Liverpool’s great breakthrough albums turns 40 years old this year, time for Getintothis’ Jono Podmore to revisit with 20:20 hindsight.
Echo and the Bunnymen‘s Crocodiles is quite a unique debut.
Often a first album is a distillation of the entire formative period of the band: songs tried and tested at gigs then honed down in the studio to a make a definitive statement.
Although Crocodiles represents the culmination of developments that had been fermenting in Liverpool for the previous 5 years or more, it’s extremely fresh and full of promise.
It was only a matter of months before the Bunnymen went into the studio to record their debut album, that their record label managed to persuade the band to ditch the drum machine that had obediently kept time on their previous single releases and engage a real drummer.
And what a drummer they found. Pete de Freitas had a fantastic authority behind the kit and his control of dynamics (an aspect completely missing from the drum machine days) became a hallmark of the band.
And those toms. Instead of using toms to run round every 16 bars as a fill in classic rock tradition, de Freitas instead used them as punctuation. Single hits in key moments of the tunes, great walloping gestures to remind to of the atavistic power of the drum (check Pride). There are no loose wristed jazz hands here.
Another aspect of gravitas de Freitas brought to the band was the long shadow of his dad, Denis de Freitas, a Caribbean world authority on music copyright law and cornerstone of the Performing Right Society.
Any musicians reading this should spare a thought for Denis every time they get a cheque from the PRS.
The sound of McCulloch (vocals and guitar), Pattinson (bass) and Sergeant (guitar) scrambling to explore the new world that de Freitas brought with him is the source of so much of the electricity in the fresh air on this album.
The concentration of talent on this album was always going to come up with something special. The alchemy in the names of the production team: Bill Drummond, Dave Balfe and Ian Broudie read like a spell cast at the heart of British pop music, a spell that’s still potent today.
Although still at a formative stage, many of the Bunnymen‘s characteristics that crop up time and again on the following 4 albums are here on Crocodiles.
The unusual song structure of opening track Going Up is typical of the band and a swaggeringly confident statement to start a debut album. A brief intro then a long effect drenched riff out with distant warbles rather than showcasing your singer’s star quality.
I imagine Drummond may have had an influence on that decision.
There are no solos on the album, just melodic instrumental breakdowns or edgy, effect laden rhythm workouts, All That Jazz for example.
The nearest we get to a guitar solo is the psychedelic freak zone at the end of Happy Death Men – in some ways the weakest track on the album.
It’s no surprise that we don’t hear trumpets again on a Bunnymen track until The Cutter 3 years later. But even here the guitar is just a colour, part of the texture of a 60’s acid reference rather than a lead.
Pictures on my Wall presages what became one of the most effective traits of the band’s sound in later years: strings. The synth line is OK as a counterpoint to the vocal melody, but as budgets increased as the 80s went by the part would’ve been rendered with the lush depth of a string orchestra.
A peculiarly, sentimentally Scouse theatricality and melodrama runs through the veins of this album too, exemplified by McCulloch‘s wails (extra drama provided by de Freitas) and baleful lyrics. There’s lots of isolation: “where did I put that box? It had my name in it” (Stars are Stars)
And catastrophe: “Faaaalllllll!” (Pride).
It’s easy to attribute these to a general adolescent self-indulgence but it all made a little more sense to me when I met and later worked with McCulloch at the start of his solo career – the poor guy is virtually blind.
He has the worst eyesight of anyone I’ve ever worked with. That far away look in his eyes, onstage staggering and lyrical focus on introverted dislocation are not a construct.
The performance gesture of him hanging on to the vocal mike is no show – if he let go he may never find it again.
Nevertheless Rescue has to be one of the ultimate hymns to juvenile suffering. Any teenager could identify with every line in this song:
“Don’t know what I want anymore, First I want a kiss and then I want it all”
In the same way the names of Sheikh Yamani and Haile Selassie appear, these are less quotes but more the sounds of childhood dredged up from the subconscious.
I remember my uncle berating me as a callow youth for having a copy of Crocodiles as he could point out where each reference had been “ripped off” from. “That’s Jim Morrison!”
With even a cursory listen to the title track, for example, you’d have to agree. But it didn’t really matter.
The actual source wasn’t Jim, it was the American TV culture McCulloch and the rest of his age group (me included) had grown up with, being replayed somehow out of whack.
Once coherent anti-Vietnam war protests returning as nonsense rhymes from the mouth of one who was a child at the time. It’s a surprise to me that Ho Chi Minh‘s name doesn’t crop up somewhere on this album – perhaps it does in some distant incoherent mumbling.
The closest we get to this thread appearing consciously is in the admonition of the 60s revolutionaries on All that Jazz: “See you at the barricades babe, see you when the lights go low, Joe”
Perhaps the bitterest irony on this album is the romanticisation of 60’s drug culture. The overtly psychedelic cover is just the start – compare that blast of colour to other dour album art of the period.
Villiers Terrace tells a tale of drug induced chaos and abandonment through musical reference to The Velvet Underground, effectively setting the tale in 60’s New York.
The sad truth is that Liverpool at the time was beginning to be flooded with heroin.
This was no exciting exotica of life on the other side of the tracks; this was the slow and ugly trudge of wasted lives and mainlined brick dust. No chance of romance here, so instead turn back to the TV and the 45s of childhood and experience it through the prism of memory.
The energy, promise and cultural paradoxes of Crocodiles will always be worth revisiting.
The 40 intervening years have stripped it of none of its quality. It’s worth reminding ourselves that much of what Crocodiles is about is coming to terms with the previous 20 years of 1960 – 1980: a short but utterly transformative time.
We are in need of another Crocodiles to sift through the helter skelter of change we’re living through now.