Arranging to be at this gig has been a bit like Jenga. I originally got six tickets for me and friends back in 2020, but due to the pandemic, the date has changed so many times - consequently people have dropped out and then back in and out more times than could I keep up with! Every time I thought we were sorted, something changed - my Jenga tower was far from stable, much like when I play the game.
Now the gig is finally here, two of my companions have moved to New York (though one has made the trip back for this!), whilst two more are in Iceland.
But new companions have joined us and we are a full contingent once again. And ready to see one of the finest bands of the 80s (though certainly not one of the most modest). Beers are had, there’s lots of chat - I have not seen the lovely Linda in 4 years. Pesky things pandemics, they really are.
The Bunnymen took a while to click with me. I liked them, but with limited pocket money and a few quid here and there from caddying every Sunday, 15 year old JO’B had to be selective and New Order and The Smiths won out over Mac and the lads when it came to album purchasing. But they were on my radar – a lad a couple of years older than me at school loved them and I aspired to his cool, long dark trenchcoat and all black outfits (never got to be as cool as he was sadly). If he liked the Bunnymen, then they MUST be cool!
Weirdly, it was one of the most unloved albums, their 1987 eponymous fifth album, that caught my attention – The Game, its lead single is unfairly ignored when people list their greatest moments (sadly, they have been playing this on this tour, but it’s one of songs dropped tonight, which I am gutted about). Later it was Mac’s solo career that I really fell in love with (single Proud To Fall and his first solo album, Candleland, are just marvellous).
At University, Nick leant me some of the other albums, and I finally caught up, later taking him to see first gig in a tiny venue in London when they reformed in ‘97. I nearly saw the Noel Burke fronted version in Taunton in 1991 and regret not going (yet another gig I missed - my FOMO is easily understood) - that line-up and its album are much maligned and but I thought they were rather great.
Over the years since 1997, I have seen them many times, playing all of Ocean Rain, Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here. But they are not just a ‘chicken in the basket’ nostalgia act. They have managed to make consistently good, and occasionally brilliant, albums since reforming – Flowers and Siberia are very fine indeed.
The last time I saw the Bunnymen was Leamington Spa in 2014 - the show ended abruptly halfway through the encore as some dickhead threw a pint of piss at singer Ian McCulloch. He was, rightfully, mightily hacked off, stopping the show and calling the perpetrator up on stage for the kicking of a lifetime. Well, we think that’s what he said - McCulloch’s speaking voice is insanely deep and I usually have no idea what he is saying…but the body language was pretty f***ing clear that night. The miscreant bottled it and did a runner but the mood was shattered and the gig was over too soon, robbing us of Lips Like Sugar and Ocean Rain and a punch up. Tonight is a much belated chance to forget that.
There’s been lots going on in Bunnyworld in recent months - vinyl reissues of Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, Ocean Rain, Flowers, Siberia and more recently Songs To Learn And Sing. Plus Will Sergeant’s autobiography, Bunnyman is now out. The setlist reflects the recent reissues, with tracks from most of these albums, which makes for a splendid night.
Dry ice, purple hazed lights and various cinematic tunes, including the theme from Robinson Crusoe, herald their arrival as they nonchalantly wander on stage. Obligatory sunglasses are in place and Mac’s hair still looks magnificent if not the mahoosive haystack of his heyday. They kick off the set with the opening tracks from their first two albums – Going Up and Show Of Strength. It’s a strong start and it's followed by a genuine career-hopping set (though they miss their last three albums proper). My friend Paul thinks Mac looks like Liam Gallagher’s dad. He’s not wrong.
Great to have a rarely played track like Flowers from, er...well Flowers - it’s a very welcome addition. Highlights for me were Seven Seas, All My Colours (aka Zimbo) and Villiers Terrace (which includes a nod to The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues and Bowie’s The Jean Genie). Sadly the set has the one new song they have been playing dropped - Brussels Is Haunted. Bootleg videos suggest the song bodes well for new material, shame it was axed. Brussels was apparently the first place the Bunnymen ever played outside of the UK, so it's haunted not just with memories of youth, but their fallen band mate Pete De Freitas as well presumably – hopefully happy memories of both.
My only gripes? The sound during The Cutter as it reaches its humongous crescendo is terrible - slap the sound engineer as the venue is perfect for this sort of huge show. And the inconsequential Bedbugs And Ballyhoo is the song to drop, not the fabulous songs they denied us. Boo!
And as I said earlier, the 'in between song' banter is impenetrable. We know Mac is an obsessive Liverpool FC fan, so stories are told between songs, but we literally have no idea what he is saying - a rambling anecdote kicks off mid-song about Jan Molby - he theatrically uses a towel to illustrate his point (though we have no idea what that point might be) and he kicks the towel into the audience with his left foot (I definitely heard him say left foot so that MUST be important). All very strange.
But these are minor complaints, it’s a cool show, the band are tight and Mac’s voice can still soar. And Will Sergeant deserves more credit as one of the great 80s guitar heroes. The Edge definitely owes him a debt…
The obligatory encores arrive - first Lips Like Sugar, their big US hit of the late 80s, and one they clearly love. It's great, but not my favourite. But it's strong tonight (and mercifully, there's no repeat of the Leamington Spa beer-throwing incident).
The gig finishes with The Killing Moon (one of the greatest songs of the 80s or indeed ever – Mac’s arrogance is well placed here) - its resurgence back in 2001 as part of the soundtrack for Donnie Darko means it has a pan-generational classic reach and you look round the room and EVERYONE is singing. Suddenly people are on each other’s shoulders - it’s all gone very posh “new model army”. It's a brilliant moment and a fantastic ending to show by an amazingly resurgent Bunnymen.
As we shuffle towards the tube, we are surrounded by Monday night gig-goers, clinging their Bunnymen branded turntable mats, their t-shirts, their books...and smiling. Everyone is smiling.