My wife and I recently saw Echo & The Bunnymen along with The Violent Femmes in concert. I was really excited to go, as Echo & The Bunnymen have always been one of my very favorite post-punk bands. Somehow I missed seeing them in their early eighties heyday, and this was something I had wanted to rectify for a long time. As fans of the band know, their original drummer died in a motorcycle accident in 1989, and their original bassist left the band for good a few years back. The core of vocalist Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant have continued to press on with hired musicians to fill out the band.
Seeing them turned out to be a bittersweet experience for me. For one, it was clear from the audience reaction that most people had come to see the Femmes, which surprised me. I knew that they had a couple of what I consider novelty hits back in the day, but had no idea they retained this many fans (there were probably about 3,000 in attendance).
Presentation is (almost) everything
I was also disappointed in how The Bunneymen presented themselves. They were mainly cloaked in darkness, with McCulloch standing stock still in front of his mic. While the “hired guns” were all great, particularly the keyboardist and drummer, they didn’t come across as an integrated outfit. The bassist and second guitarist were stuck together on the far side of the stage and never deviated from their position. The sound of The Bunnymen has always been somewhat atmospheric, but the subtleties got lost in the wash of sound, and Sergeant never broke out into any real lead guitar, even though I’ve heard him do so on live recordings.
Bands as brands
All this got me thinking, strangely enough, about branding. The Bunnymen’s first album, Crocodiles, came out in 1980, the same year as U2’s first album, Boy. Through the eighties both grew in stature and had hits. Yet today U2 has become possibly the third most indelible rock brand in history, after the Beatles and the Stones. (I suppose I should throw Kiss in there as well as masters of branding.) Echo & The Bunnymen have fans and still make albums, with a new one coming in October, but they seem to exist more at the margins of the business. They may fare better in their home country of England and in Europe, where they always had their biggest fan base.
It struck me that one thing that differentiated U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen is that one band took care of their brand and one didn’t. U2 has been boringly consistent, somewhat like McDonalds, but that’s key to McDonalds success – you know what you’re getting. The original four members of U2 have stayed together for almost 40 years, a rarity among bands, and they never broke up or took a long hiatus. They even recovered when they made the occasional branding misstep – remember PopMart?
Echo & The Bunnymen have taken a much more variegated path. McCulloch quit the band altogether to make a couple of solo albums in the late eighties, rather then doing them as side projects. The remaining members then decided to release an album with a different lead singer and brand it as a Bunnymen album, a disastrous decision. Even when the three members who were still alive reunited in the late nineties, the band has never gotten back to where they were in terms of popularity.
It’s just emotion that’s taken me over
Another aspect that hurt Echo & The Bunnymen, at least in the concert my wife and I saw, was made clear in the contrast between their presentation and that of the Femmes. While they stayed in the shadows, McCulloch with his shades on, the Femmes were brightly lit. The fact that the live cameras were on for the Femmes undoubtedly helped them connect with the audience, but they made more of an effort to get the crowd involved.
They also stayed on brand. What do you think of when you think of The Violent Femmes? “Blister in the Sun”, awkwardness, geekiness, quirkiness. Gordon Gano’s and Brian Ritchie’s personalities, which they revealed through their between-song chatter, the choice of instruments (violin, acoustic bass guitar, snare drum, and countrabass sax), their choice of songs – everything delivered on the brand promise that you were going to experience something quirky, a cockeyed view of the world.
Consistency, delivery on a promise, emotional engagement – it’s funny to think how much the music business is very much like any other business.