The Royal Albert Hall and the Bunnymen. July 1983.
This is where it had clicked for me. In the sixth form in the Black Country, my mates and I had played “Crocodiles” and “Heaven’s Up Here” and whilst I really enjoyed them, they were someone else’s records. I’d already visited the Albert Hall when my Nan collected an award for her fundraising for the Children’s Society from Princess Anne. For a woman from the Black Country, this was a big deal. I remember looking up at the inverted mushrooms connected to the ceiling and wondering what they were for. A few months later, I watched the Remembrance Day concert on the TV and saw the poppies tumble slowly from them.
Channel 4’s “The Tube” was essential Friday night viewing and the show were big Bunnymen fans, with frequent features. I tended to hit the record button on the old JVC video recorder whenever they were mentioned. Soon this next clip was to be played to death.
There was a lot to love. The girls in the audience looked cool. Mac was at peak Macness, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter. Les and Pete nailed down a fierce groove, whilst Will did that weird string bend whilst pushing his guitar downwards. There was a string section – post-punk bands didn’t do string sections. I was convinced XTC’s Andy Partridge was one of the violin players who pizzicatoed to the intro. This felt like the expanded version of Talking Heads that I’d seen on Whistle Test and loved. The editing was superb, fast jumps coinciding with the lighting changing.
The King is dead, long live Albert who aimed above
I’ve watched it again and it still feels like one of the most exciting live performances that I’ve seen on TV.
Fast forward a couple of years and I needed to choose somewhere do a degree. A combination of dull science A levels and too much fun was limiting my options but I managed to get into Liverpool. Whether I was absolutely swayed by the Tube showing the Bunnymen’s Crystal Day festival, I can’t say but it didn’t exactly dissuade me from going there.
Jools Holland in retrospect was showing all of the signs of smarminess that make him so annoying now but the band and the city shone through. It certainly informed my decision. Liverpool was for me.
35 years on, I’m glad I studied there. I loved my time on Merseyside and but for the lack of jobs at graduation, could have happily stayed in Liverpool. This was 1989 and the city was still on its knees.
The Bunnymen’s latest tour is promoting a forthcoming album which rejigs mostly old material into an acoustic and with strings format. There has already been some controversy when the band tried to reschedule a gig in Birmingham on the night of the Champion’s League Final to a couple of days later. Mac and Will as Liverpool fans apparently couldn’t concentrate on the gig whilst the game was going on in the background. Not surprisingly, social media was awash with angry fans who had booked travel and hotels. The band returned the gig to its original slot recognising what a bloody awful decision they’d made and again they were the focus of more ire from those who had rearranged their plans to the revised date. Quelle surprise.
So on a warm Friday night in June, the Bunnymen return to the Albert Hall. Only Will Sergeant and Mac remain from the classic line up.
And there’s the rub. Whilst the evening started well with urgent versions of “Rescue”, “Villiers Terrace” and “All That Jazz”, a few issues emerged.
Firstly and most importantly, the sense of unity and drive provided by the old rhythm section of Les Pattinson and Pete De Freitas was missing. Songs were taken at a notch below their recorded pace, especially “The Cutter”. It served to suck the life and drama out of the material.
Whilst it was the gig was billed as “with strings”, the ever-present string quartet was only occasionally given the space to take off. A toned down version of “Nothing Ever Lasts Forever” worked well, stripping away the bombast of the original.
Playing in the stately old venue worked beautifully visually but the audience was visibly twitching to get on their feet. Eventually, Mac cleared them to stand up but it coincided with later material which is more anthemic and mid-paced. It doesn’t have the sense of mystery that their earlier work has, lending itself to unsubtle lighters in the air moments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that the band only play the very old material for nostalgia’s sake, more bemoaning how much of the later material seems to be full of the sort of platitudes that thirty years ago, Mac would have been slagging Bono and Jim Kerr off for.
Mac’s voice is still in fine fettle though and the strength of much of the material shone through. The band were bathed in red light for “All My Colours”, David Lynch colliding with John Barry.
I’m still a huge Bunnymen fan. The run of material from their debut to “Lips Like Sugar” has a special place in my heart. “Ocean Rain” was one of those LPs that always got played when hanging around friends houses as a teenager. Part of me will forever be in Daz Blacker’s front room on a Monday evening whenever I hear the immortal “Cu cu cu cu cucumber, ca ca ca cabbage” from “Thorn of Crowns”.
I walked away feeling that this would be the last time I’d go out of my way to see the Bunnymen, save for them being at a festival that I was attending. I left yearning for Will and Mac to get themselves a permanent younger rhythm section who they could write and collaborate with and develop new material that could match the majesty of the old.
On Friday night, I saw a duo effectively. If I’m ever heading back, then I want to see a band.