"We'd play small islands on the west coast of Scotland rather than stadiums": Echo & The Bunnymen wouldn't play the game, but that didn't stop them from creating "the greatest song of all time"

Echo & The Bunnymen group portrait
(Image credit: GEMA Images/IconicPix)

Everything seemed to open up for Echo & The Bunnymen in the latter half of 1983. Singles success with The Cutter and Never Stop and gold-selling third album Porcupine had elevated them above their postpunk rivals, at least in commercial terms. But instead of taking the prescribed route into vast arenas, the Liverpool four-piece instead kept it relatively micro, opting to play tours that supposedly followed ley lines from their home town to Scandinavia and the Outer Hebrides. 

“We were at the peak of our powers as a group,” singer Ian McCulloch told us in 2013. “Everyone else was wearing cowboy hats and playing stadiums, while we were rocking the cobbled streets. It was significant that we’d play small islands on the west coast of Scotland rather than stadiums.” 

That attitude extended to their music too. Rather than following the anthemic guitar bluster of U2 or Simple Minds – who would come to signify what became known as ‘big music’ – the band headed to Paris to make the lush, brooding Ocean Rain

“It felt like we were taking the whole guitar/bass/drums idea of the band further,” guitarist Will Sergeant told Classic Rock. “We were really into [Love’s] Forever Changes and Scott Walker records at the time, so we wanted to make some sort of grand work. That’s why we got all the strings in. We wanted to make a classic."

Released ahead of the album in January ’84, The Killing Moon was a perfect primer. The band were stretching towards the epic, with McCulloch’s rich baritone vocal addressing fate and a divine kind of power. “It’s the greatest song of all time,” said the frontman, true to his cocky reputation. 

Ocean Rain was conceived very much in the same spirit as The Killing Moon. McCulloch saw the album belonging to a European lineage of Jacques Brel and Édith Piaf – music with a dark and intensely dramatic reach. Bassist Les Pattinson scoped out his sound with a vintage reverb machine; Sergeant used various effects to heighten his textural brilliance; drummer Pete de Freitas tempered his usual approach with brushes and cymbals, plus xylophones and glockenspiel. 

Seven Seas and the equally sublime Silver feel like semi-symphonic raptures, the latter suggesting that the quartet had found some kind of creative release. Rooted in an eastern scale, Thorn Of Crowns feels like Porcupine-Bunnymen, only with renewed ambition and self-belief. Nocturnal Me is all Brel-like melodrama, with inky shadows of Brecht-Weill. The sumptuous title track is a twilit ballad worthy of Scott Walker. 

Ocean Rain divided opinion upon release in May ’84, but time has only deepened its supernatural beauty. It still stands as the Bunnymen’s greatest moment.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.