Les Pattinson, Will Sergeant, Ian McCulloch and Pete de Freitas of Echo & The Bunnymen in 1982
When Echo & the Bunnymen first started out, back in the late 1970s, bemused youngsters would turn up at gigs, point to the stage and ask: “Which one’s Echo?” This used to annoy lead singer and frontman Ian McCulloch, as they all naturally assumed it was him.
In fact, the name was dreamt up randomly by a friend of the band long before the musicians became famous with hits such as The Killing Moon, Bring on the Dancing Horses, Seven Seas, and Lips Like Sugar.
“This guy we knew had a list of band names he’d made up, and Echo & the Bunnymen was on the list,” explains Will Sergeant, guitarist and one of the original Bunnymen, now 65. “But Mac [McCulloch] didn’t want to be called ‘Echo’, so he told everyone it was the name of our drum machine.”
Once the hit singles arrived, and the Bunnymen became a solid fixture of the 80s indie rock scene, everyone grew accustomed to their weird name, and stopped wondering who Echo was.
By the end of that decade, the Liverpool outfit had racked up four top 10 albums and 11 top 40 singles in the UK, while featuring on the soundtracks for the 1986 and 1987 films Pretty In Pink and The Lost Boys earned them a loyal fanbase in the United States. But Sergeant says he and the original band members were always deeply distrustful of commercial success.
Will Sergeant of Echo & the Bunnymen at Anfield Stadium
“We used to turn things down if they were too cheesy or too mainstream,” he tells the Daily Express, stressing how they would refuse to play a concert if they deemed another band on the same bill “uncool”. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot in a commercial sense,” he admits.
Sergeant is sitting at the back of a Victorian pub in Bloomsbury, central London, sipping a long, cold glass of Diet Coke. Originally from Liverpool, but now living in Lancashire, he is in the capital to promote his new, and second, memoir Echoes.
In it, he explains his decision to eschew all things mainstream. “My idea of success was creating cool, innovative, timeless music, not chart positions and becoming a household name kind of deal,” he writes. “I wanted very much to be given those most elusive of accolades: cool, underground or even hip.
“In my blinkered opinion, our band was not like the rest of the up-and-coming crop of Liverpool post-punk bands, some of which seemed to be doing it for fame or even money. This never entered my head.”
At the height of the Bunnymen’s success, Sergeant even tried to wriggle out of performing on Top of the Pops – an opportunity most young bands would give their eye teeth for. “I really didn’t want to do it,” he recalls. “When we went on, it was like a circus – there was some geezer on stilts. It made us cringe. I was thinking, ‘We’re not interested in your world. We’ve got enough fans anyway.’”
Although they were initially on the darker side of the post-punk genre, The Bunnymen – Sergeant on lead guitar, McCulloch on vocals, Les Pattinson on bass and Pete de Freitas on drums – nevertheless wrote and performed some very catchy tunes.
At the time, the music press tried to stir up bitter rivalries between them and their indie rock peers such as Irish band U2 and Scottish band Simple Minds – in a similar way to the infamous Blur vs Oasis rivalry 15 years later.
But Sergeant admits the Bunnymen “went along with it willingly”, always keen to stir up antagonism. “We were the worst protagonists. We used to call [other bands] names in the press,” he adds, recalling how, once while touring Australia, they randomly found themselves drinking in the same bar as Simple Minds. Bizarrely, the two bands chose to ignore each other completely.
“It was a strange rivalry kind of thing. We sat at the bar not more than ten feet away, without acknowledging each other.”
Another time, on London’s King’s Road, they happened to walk past Scottish rock band The Jesus And Mary Chain. “We clocked them, and they clocked us, and we just walked past each other, staring at the ground,” Sergeant recalls. “I can’t explain it. It was like we were rival gangs or mortal enemies, but we were just bands trying to out-cool each other. Pretty pathetic, really.”
Of all their 80s rock rivals, it was U2 who earned the most success, eventually becoming the biggest rock band on the planet. Which begs the question: if the Bunnymen had played the music industry game as cannily as Bono et al, could they possibly have been as globally popular?
Irish rockers U2 pictured in 1982
“I don’t know,” Sergeant says, pointing out how the question is impossible to answer as they were all so discomfited by money and fame.
He adds: “If you want to measure us on the U2 Richter scale, we were probably at one point fairly level. But U2 toured for 18 months in America in a converted Greyhound bus, and they just blitzed the place and played everywhere. The most we did [in America] was six weeks, and we’d had enough. They worked a lot harder than us and deserved what they got.”
In his memoir, Sergeant remembers how, in September 1980, U2 were supporting the Bunnymen at the Lyceum in London. During the soundcheck, the devoutly Christian Bono started talking to Sergeant about Jesus.
“I’m not the type to be preached at,” Sergeant writes of the slightly awkward encounter. “It is all a bit odd. We have heard about U2’s religious zealotry, and now here it is in action: young Bono is trying to turn a snotty heathen to the light. Even when I was in the choir, the vicar never bothered with that idea.”
Looking back on that period after all these years, he now says: “Bono was just big into Jesus. He was a really nice fella, and I thought, ‘We shouldn’t have slagged you off as much as we did’. But we slagged everybody off. It was sort of – attack is the best form of defence.”
Echo & The Bunnymen playing live on The Tube
Born in Liverpool in 1958, Sergeant was brought up in a village just north of the city called Melling. Even as a schoolboy, he was repelled by mainstream pop music.
“At school there were four of us who liked prog rock,” he remembers of his time at Deyes Lane Secondary Modern in the early 70s, where he first met future bandmate Pattinson. “We were the four freaks in the corner. Everybody else was into Chicory Tip and Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.” Sergeant naturally gravitated to more avant garde bands and artists such as David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Doors, The Kinks and The Who.
And he’s convinced one of the reasons Echo & The Bunnymen are still around today – albeit with a much-changed line-up – is because they refused to sell out to commercial pressure from their record labels.
“If we had gone down the cheesy route, I’m not sure we would have had the long-evity we still enjoy,” he writes.
“Music that is easily digested becomes boring and bland. I think the best music is the stuff you as a listener must work at enjoying. It becomes more engrained in your soul.”
Another way they rejected mainstream culture was through their choice of clothing. Not for them the flamboyant garb of their early 80s New Romantic peers like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club. Early in their career the Bunnymen wore army surplus combat clothing both on and off the stage.
Later they favoured what Sergeant calls their “Bleak Northern Overcoats”.
“You could get good stuff in charity shops: Grandad coats. They were dead cheap back then,” he recalls.
“We thought it looked kind of cool and a bit old-fashioned. It was anti-fashion.”
At the time, Sergeant and his colleagues had no idea of the sartorial influence they were having on the youth of Britain. Suddenly, grandad coats from charity shops became de rigueur among alternative and gothic youngsters.
In 1988, McCulloch decided to leave the band, replaced by Irish singer Noel Burke – a move that Sergeant says “still rankles with Mac”.
The following year drummer de Freitas was killed in a motorcycle accident. Following that, album sales were disappointing so that, in 1993, the Bunnymen finally disbanded.
Echoes: A Memoir Continued by Will Sergeant
But this wasn’t the end of the story. Four years later, Sergeant and McCulloch resurrected the band, and they have released seven albums since, alongside various solo projects.
This month, the old duo are playing concerts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Nottingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
They’re also working on a new Bunnymen album, while Sergeant has started writing his third volume of memoir. Interestingly, while the line-up of the Bunnymen has chopped and changed over the decades, Sergeant is the only member who has remained in it all along.
So perhaps it is he who should be Echo.
“I am Echo?” he asks, laughing. “Please don’t put that in the article.”
- Echoes: A Memoir Continued by Will Sergeant (Constable, £22) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25