In Memoriam: Ian McCulloch’s Voice

The ravages of time eventually claim everyone, but it’s a sad fact that some talents go before others. In light of the recent release of The Fountain, the eleventh album by the long-lived British post-punk group Echo and the Bunnymen, now is an appropriate occasion to ruminate on the premature loss of a great voice in rock music. While still very much alive, head Bunnyman Ian McCulloch’s vocal talents have unfortunately diminished in recent years. McCulloch long possessed a wondrous, powerful voice that rivaled that of U2’s Bono, but smoking, drinking, and age have clearly diminished what used to be an epic sound.

In the process of reflecting on the former greatness of McCulloch’s voice and its slow decline, let’s start with the full-bodied exhilaration of “Do It Clean”, as demonstrated in this early ‘80s performance. This is definitive McCulloch from his glory days, bursting with a boyish transcendence that also recalls the dark sexuality of Jim Morrison of the Doors:

But for truly epic Bunnymen, here’s McCulloch at the center of a fantastic 1982 performance of “The Back of Love”. McCulloch’s voice is nothing less than sweeping drama as he bellows lines like “EVENTUALLY YOU’ll SHACK THOSE SHACKLES OFF”. It’s simply glorious.

McCulloch wasn’t just grandiose bombast and bluster; he had a great lower register voice as well. Definitely one of the highlights of the band’s career is the 1987 single ”Lips Like Sugar”, where McCulloch sensuously croons the verses in his lower range before bursting into what is hands down one of the best choruses ever recorded. With a chorus that fantastic, it’s mind-boggling that the song only reached number 36 in the United Kingdom, and did not reach the pop charts at all in the United States.

McCulloch’s voice was still holding in there in the late 1990s when the Bunnymen pulled themselves back together after a period in the musical wilderness (which included kicking McCulloch out of the band, of all things), but in this 1997 performance of “Do It Clean” you can hear him audibly strain to hit key points of the song’s chorus:

By the time the 21st century rolled around, forget it; McCulloch’s voice was obviously showing wear. Sure, he can still sing; there’s no doubt about that. However, his power is diminished and his tone often sounds like he’s dreadfully close to wheezing the words out. It’s clear that the man has spent decades smoking cigarettes. These are not fatal flaws, though. McCulloch and stalwart Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant wisely favor the singer’s still-potent lower range in their newer compositions, instead of the sweeping histrionics of the past. By playing to McCulloch’s remaining strengths, the band can still turn out solid songs, as evidenced by the 2007 single “Stormy Weather”:

All would be fine if the Bunnymen focused solely on performing material that suits the aged sound of McCulloch’s voice these days. Unfortunately, the group has a back catalogue of songs—“Lips Like Sugar”, “The Killing Moon”, “Bring on the Dancing Horse”, and so many more”—that must appear in its concert setlists, lest the audience burst into revolt. The end result is performances like this one of “Lips Like Sugar” from 2007:

McCulloch tries his best these days, but he sure as hell can’t hit those notes anymore. Unless you’re a hardcore Bunnymen fan, best refrain from checking them out live and stick to the records.