Leave it to the fad-happy British — the same people who brought you the 2-Tone ska craze, the refurbished mods and the heavy-metal revival — to teach that old dog psychedelia some new tricks.
In addition to sharing profoundly silly names, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes share managers, producers, a hometown (Liverpool) and even a song (“Read It in Books,” written by Echo’s Ian McCulloch and the Teardrop’s Julian Cope). They also drink from the same musical well, spiked with the bold if somewhat naive acid-age expansion of the Doors, the 13th Floor Elevators and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. But instead of coming up with a mere handful of Nuggets, both Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes strike solid rock by applying recent history — hard-core punk bash, the harmonic tangents of Public Image Ltd. and Joy Division, electronic pop à la Ultravox — to the sounds of yesteryear.
Echo and the Bunnymen dive straight into the mystic on their debut album, Crocodiles. Singer-guitarist Ian McCulloch specializes in a sort of apocalyptic brooding, combining Jim Morrison-style psychosexual yells, a flair for David Bowie-like vocal inflections and the nihilistic bark of his punk peers into a disturbing portrait of the singer as a young neurotic. Drugs are actually a sorry end, not a means, in “Villiers Terrace,” a stroll through a gallery of acid casualties. Instead of dope, McCulloch trips out on his worst fears: isolation, death, sexual and emotional bankruptcy. Behind him, gripping music swells into Doors-style dirges (“Pictures on My Wall”), PiL-like guitar dynamics (“Monkeys”), spookily evocative pop (“Rescue”) and Yardbirds-cum-Elevators ravers jacked up in the New Wave manner (“Do It Clean,” “Crocodiles”).
The chilling acoustic fragility of the band’s original versions of “Pictures on My Wall” and “Read It in Books” (both released on a 1979 English single) has since been jolted by the nervous, Byrds/Talking Heads-style jangle of Ian McCulloch’s and Will Sergeant’s electric guitars and the brittle snap of Pete De Freitas’ drumming (Echo was the name of the group’s first “drummer,” a rhythm machine). And it’s exactly this unnerving contrast between the colliding guitars and McCulloch’s tortured yelp that gives Crocodiles its dramatic impetus.
The Teardrop Explodes concentrate on poise rather than pain on Kilimanjaro. Under the de facto leadership of singer-songwriter-bassist Julian Cope, they dress up their psychedelic heritage in pithy pop arrangements and refined hooks. The results can best be described as avant-bubblegum: a cross between the kaleidoscopic chaos of early Pink Floyd and The Soft Parade-era Doors. Carousel organs, synthesizers, strangely muted horns and all manner of guitars burst in and out of such catchy numbers as “Ha, Ha, I’m Drowning,” “Treason,” “Sleeping Gas” and the hypertensive and futuristic R&B tune “Reward.”
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Compared to the soul-searching bleakness of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes’ melodramatic gloss seems more than a bit trivial. Whereas in their Crocodiles rerecording of “Read It in Books,” the Bunnymen heighten the tension with a jagged beat and a venomous Ian McCulloch vocal, the Teardrop opt for horns and a strident neodisco rhythm in their version (simply titled “Books”). As a singer, Julian Cope displays most of Jim Morrison’s pretensions but little of his passion.
Yet the immediate, almost friendly pop charm of Kilimanjaro makes it a good companion piece to the more forbidding Crocodiles. After Echo and the Bunnymen take you on their trip, the Teardrop Explodes may help cushion the fall.