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Classic Album Review: Echo & the Bunnymen | Crystal Days: 1979 – 1999

The veteran British cult band get their due in a superb four-disc box set.

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This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Cult band. You hear the term all the time, but what exactly does it mean? And just how do you quantify it? Is it based on the size of an act’s fan base? Or perhaps their loyalty? How much does critical acclaim matter? What about the length of their career? Sales figures? Chart positions? Awards? Reunion tours?

Frankly, your guess is as good as mine. But I feel fairly sure in saying that by just about anybody’s definition, Echo & the Bunnymen qualify as a cult band. Perhaps even the ultimate cult band. At least in North America. Formed in the first post-punk days of late ’70s Liverpool, the quartet fronted by gloomy troubadour Ian McCulloch were a shining example of a band whose full commercial potential always seemed just beyond their grasp. Their swirling sound — a druggy fusion of goth, pop, rock, new romanticism and neo-psychedelia — made them stars at home and critics’ darlings. Their early ’80s albums Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain — dark, claustrophobic works constructed from hypnotically circular basslines, thumping tom-tom beats, edgy jangling guitars and McCulloch’s paranoid romanticism — were essential listening for music geeks and alienated youth everywhere. In rock anthropology terms, the Bunnymen are the missing link between The Velvet Underground and Pavement, The Doors and U2, Television and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Yet I doubt anyone but a true believer could name five of their songs.

Maybe there’s still hope, though. This month, the ultimate cult band gets the ultimate tribute: Crystal Days, a lovingly prepared four-disc retrospective from the good people at Rhino. With 72 tracks that chronicle the Bunnymen’s history from their earliest demos to their most recent reunion — and, of course, plenty of rarities, pictures, liner notes, reminiscences and essays tossed in for good measure — Crystal Days is one of those box sets that can satisfy devotees and educate casual fans with equal success.

First and foremost, it’s a thorough best-of that leaves few stones unturned. The first two discs contain most of their must-have cuts from those terrific first four albums. (I won’t bother listing a bunch of titles; if you’re a fan, you can already guess ’em, and if you’re not, they won’t mean anything to you anyway.) Disc 3 has the later tracks and tunes from their recent reunion albums (except for this year’s Flowers). The expected rarities, B-sides, singles, live cuts and remixes are sprinkled throughout. My personal favourites are the first three tracks: A demo and an early single recorded by the original lineup of McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson and a drum machine — called Echo, naturally. Other highlights include their sitar-tinged version of All You Need is Love (with McCulloch tossing in lyrics from Bob Dylan and James Brown) and their only U.S. hit, a cover of The DoorsPeople Are Strange, featuring Ray Manzarek on keyboards.

And if it’s covers you’re after, the fourth and final disc will be the one getting the most airtime on your changer. A collection of odds and sods, it’s anchored by a live set of cover tunes from their 1985 Scandinavian tour when the band served as their own opening act. Hearing McCulloch and co. apply their unique touch to the likes of Dylan (It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue), The Doors (Soul Kitchen), The Rolling Stones (Paint It Black) and The Velvet Underground (Run Run Run) is about as good as it gets.

Are there gaps in Crystal Days? Of course. No box set is perfect, and this one’s compilers admit they intentionally ignored some tangential works — like McCulloch’s solo CD, his and Sergeant’s ’90s outfit Electrafixion, and an ill-conceived album the band released without McCulloch in 1990. Leaving this stuff off is either sacrilege (if you’re a completist) or a welcome bit of editing (if you’re not). Either way, by anybody’s definition, Crystal Days is nothing short of superb. It should be a cult favourite.