Reviews

Echo & the Bunnymen: Dancing Horses [DVD]

Mac the Mouth provides a curious evening's viewing on this live Bunnymen DVD release.


Echo & the Bunnymen

Dancing Horses

MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Live at Shepherds Bush Empire
Contributors: echo & the bunnymen, ian mccolloch, will sergeant
Label: MVD Entertainment Group
UK Release Date: 2007-04-23
US Release Date: 2007-06-26
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The journey of Liverpool's other famous musicians is a somewhat incestuous and certainly messy one. After Pete Wylie and Julian Cope left Ian McColloch and their band the Crucial Three to form Wah! and the Teardrop Explodes, respectively, McColloch hooked up with guitarist Will Sergeant in 1978. Together, along with their drum machine, Echo, they formed the neo-psychedelic post-punk genius of Echo & the Bunnymen. After scoring varied successes on the UK and US charts in their first ten years together, McColloch left the band for a solo career. Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson, and drummer Pete de Freitas (who replaced the original Echo a year into the band) decided to carry on without McColloch, but before they could record, de Freitas was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Sergeant and Pattinson continued on under what is considered by both critics and fans as false pretense, releasing Reverberation as an Echo album in name only. McColloch released his first solo effort, Candleland, the same year to a deservedly better reception. After both sides languished for a few years, McColloch and Sergeant formed Electrafixion -- amping up the guitars to prove relevance in the throes of grunge. In 1997, nearly 20 years after first coming together, Pattinson rejoined the group and Echo & the Bunnymen had returned. Four studio albums and another ten years, we find the Bunnymen marking their 30th anniversary with a new DVD of two-year old material, Dancing Horses.

Showing themselves to be still relevant, if only as the elder statesmen of the post-punk movement, the Bunnymen pull out 15 classics from their catalog to complement the four songs off the then-new Siberia release at this Shepherds Bush Empire show recorded 01 November 2005. An uncomplicated stage creatively lit to accompany each song is all that adorns the stripped-down and raw pub sound of this latest incarnation of the band. Gone is the smoothed-out (overproduced?) gloss of 1987's self-titled pinnacle or McColloch's Candleland. Instead we are presented with a sometimes-ragged-yet-appropriate sounding McColloch, and trademark swirling guitar work from Sergeant.

Opening the show with a their dissonant early '80s Crocodiles' "Going Up" and segueing into Heaven Up Here's "With a Hip" sets the tone, but it surprisingly isn't until "Stormy Weather" that the band really feels like it's connecting. "Stormy Weather" is one of those songs that helped garner Siberia its "return to form" acclaim. It's the trademark Bunnymen combination of Sergeant's cascading guitar and McColloch's vocals all mixed in an '80s stew of keyboards and live drums. But the band quickly moves back to "classic set list" mode with another Heaven Up Here cut, "Show of Strength", with its post-punk, gothic roots of heavy bass and mid-song tempo changes on display. Atmosphere is the goal here. While "Bring on the Dancing Horses" gains a new lease on life via the creative intro, it's McColloch's scatting and emotional delivery (voice appropriately cracking during the "brittle heart" repetition) that allows the song to rise above what could have been a rote performance of an overplayed hit.

Things get a little sonically murky with the hollow-sounding rendition of "The Disease" functioning as a lead-in for Siberia's sub-par offering "Scissors in the Sand", despite Sergeant's engaging guitar and McColloch's menacing vocals. But the guys bounce back with a trio of early catalog notables: "All that Jazz", "The Back of Love", and "The Killing Moon". The former, another Crocodiles contribution, is a driving rocker for these guys. "The Back of Love" is a ferocious, sweeping display of post-punk power that is both sonically and structurally cut from the same cloth as "All that Jazz". This crowd pleaser off 1983's Porcupine finds the band reeling it in where appropriate by balancing the charging Space Invaders-like flourishes with quieter moments. The subdued approach to "The Killing Moon" (forever re-appropriated for a new generation as the lead-in for the original theatrical release of Donnie Darko) accurately captures the original composition and builds upon it in this live setting. McColloch's voice often sounded strained on these last couple of performances, but rarely to the detriment of the song or presentation.

Siberia's throwback strengths are again on display with "In the Margins" -- complete with ringing keyboards and classically themed Bunnymen lyrics about starting out someplace dark and having hope to move someplace better emotionally. "I see now / How life wins / When all that's left is love". Shortly thereafter, we come to the part of the show where Mac the Mouth's crotchety demeanor really starts to shine through. Near the end of the show, McColloch invites the crowd to shout any questions they may have, but "don't shout a song title!" And when they continue to scream songs titles, he gets more snippy and admonishes them further before blasting through a few more tunes.

The proper set ends with the show's highest point -- "The Cutter". Boasting McColloch's strongest vocal performance of the night and Sergeant's eastern-sounding guitar work, the song delivers on all counts. Then things get a little weird again. The break between the main set and the two-song first encore is real-time. So the presentation lazily cuts between an empty stage and the band standing around just backstage drinking, until they finally return for "Nothing Lasts Forever", the lone Evergreen cut, and an excellent rendition of "Lips Like Sugar". But before the band breaks in, McColloch makes someone wipe down the stage because it's apparently wet where he is (never mind that during the intro to "Lips Like Sugar", he dramatically kicks over a container of water, splattering the stage again). Then amid a smattering of f-bombs and comments like "it's always nice to be down in this neck of the woods" and "thanks for coming" he bitches that just once he'd like intelligent comments shouted from the crowd.

This whole affair is, of course, followed by more real-time faux encore posturing, before McColloch humbly offers that "if all goes well, this next song is the best song of all time." Then the band effectively nails "Ocean Rain", and McColloch leaves the stage with a "You've just seen the best band of all time." Need a shot of confidence there, Mac?

Both the 16:9 widescreen video and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio presentations are excellent, and the song selection favors the long-time fan with vintage song choices. The lone extra is a substantial set of interviews with McColloch and Sergeant that cover band influences through Siberia release questions. The two are obviously in different locations (McColloch appears to be outside, while Sergeant looks to be in a backstage room of some kind) and the questions appear on title cards before cutting between the responses. In all, Dancing Horses is a fine collection of songs, and probably the closest you'll ever really want to come to spending money on a Bunnymen show.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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