Similar to many other fans, from the very first listen, I knew Echo and the Bunnymen were special. Their sound had the edginess of punk and early US garage rock, but with a pop sheen and regular forays into rock – it was hard to categorise but easy to like. The crucial word in the title of this autobiography, however, is not “Bunnyman” but “memoir”. The author will eventually become lead guitarist with this brilliant and influential band, but it doesn’t get going until page 228, Will Sergeant having been introduced to its future singer Ian McCulloch only 30 pages earlier.
The first two-thirds of Sergeant’s book resembles the kitchen-sink mundanity of Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain rather than Mötley Crüe’s scurrilous biopic The Dirt, as Sergeant grows up in squalor in the village of Melling, eight miles from the heart of Liverpool. Most of the adult population seems to work in the local electrical cable factory, while Sergeant and his pals play and fish at the canal or try to dodge brawls with neighbouring gangs.
He fails his eleven-plus and watches as his mother leaves his father, the 13-year-old Sergeant telling her: “I won’t come and see ya, you know” – a heart-piercing moment and one he doesn’t understand to this day. Instead he opts to stay with his cold and uncaring father, who has had the living-room windows welded shut, turning it into “a very cosy cell in a Victorian psychiatric hospital”.
Sergeant jokes that his own first job in the music industry was as a choirboy, something he enjoyed because the cassock doubled as a superhero cape. He does get into music eventually, as a teenager, enjoying the likes of Led Zeppelin and Status Quo, and attending gigs at the Liverpool Stadium (the music venue rather than the sports ground). He even buys a guitar, but never learns to play it. His passion is reserved for his motorbike, until on one trip to a beach he gets stuck and watches the tide rise inexorably. The bike is rescued eventually but will never quite be the same.
On leaving school, Sergeant secures employment in the kitchen of a department store’s restaurant, though his prospects look decidedly forlorn when the store is sold and he is relegated to the staff canteen. The first time he listens to the Velvet Underground is something of an epiphany, and he goes on to revere bands who seem to be about more than mere commercial success.
Punk, however, is a short-lived part of his life. He hears “Anarchy in the UK” over the PA system at a Dr Feelgood concert but doesn’t bother buying the album. Post-punk has already arrived, and he is introduced to it when he first sets foot inside the fabled Eric’s Club on Liverpool’s Matthew Street for an XTC show. Here, he rubs shoulders with regulars such as Julian Cope, Holly Johnson and Pete Burns. At this time, Burns (of the band Dead Or Alive) worked behind the counter at Probe Records and would toss LPs across the room if he didn’t agree with the prospective purchaser’s taste. Sergeant was not the only customer who waited until Burns was on his break before dashing forward to pay.
Sergeant’s old schoolmate Les Pattinson is another Eric’s regular, helping the leather-clad biker fit in with the burgeoning scene. Sergeant is soon replacing his crash-helmet and gloves with second-hand suits. As he writes, this is “the real beginning of my adult life”. Things are further improved when Paul Rutherford (later of Frankie Goes To Hollywood) gives him an electric guitar in exchange for some “plastic” trousers.
[See also: How I learned to love the Rolling Stones]
Sergeant buys a how-to-play book and some tuning pipes, and gets serious about practising, taking over one room of the house while his dad stays busy with his own hobby (defacing newspaper photos of famous people) in another. Eventually the Rutherford guitar is replaced by a Telecaster. A drum machine is a further welcome addition, even if it turns out to be as temperamental as any rock star. And then McCulloch (known as “Macul”) enters the picture.
McCulloch is at a loose end, a band he had formed with Cope having failed to ignite. Sergeant invites Macul over to his house to jam. They have two guitars and the drum machine, but no vocals or lyrics. What they do have, however, is an invitation to play at a private party, supporting Cope’s new band. Pattinson offers to play bass, having never played before. The instrument he sources has only three strings – which only makes it more punk and therefore more agreeable. Macul misses the sole rehearsal, meaning Sergeant and Pattinson both hear him sing for the first time on the stage at that initial gig, reciting his lyrics from a notebook.
They didn’t even have an identity until Cope introduced them as Echo and the Bunnymen, a name plucked from a list someone else had made. As Sergeant recounts, it could have been worse – other possibles included the Daz Men, and Mona Lisa and the Grease Guns.
The band’s rise is giddying, fuelled by being in the right place at the right time. The label Zoo Records (run by Bill Drummond) offers to release a single. This garners rave reviews. Soon there are support slots across England, aided by Pattinson’s van. Alongside media interviews and appearances comes the holy grail of a John Peel session. Then one night they are supporting Joy Division and the Teardrop Explodes in London when Seymour Stein, boss of Sire Records in the US, happens by. He tells Drummond he’d like to sign the band, on condition that they lose the drum machine and employ a human.
Which is pretty much where the book ends, with drummer Pete de Freitas joining the ranks. Only the first year of Echo and the Bunnymen’s existence is covered – it was not until 1983 that they had their first top-ten hit, with “The Cutter”, followed in 1984 by “The Killing Moon” – which may be frustrating to some fans. But Sergeant’s genial memoir about growing up poor in the 1970s is an engaging coming-of-age story. It certainly resonated with this reader, who found himself nodding along at mentions of awkward snogs, boot boys, and Adam Faith’s “Budgie” on TV. Maybe the rock ’n’ roll will be accompanied by sex and drugs in a future instalment.
Ian Rankin’s novel “The Dark Remains”, co-authored with William McIlvanney, will be published by Canongate in September
Bunnyman: A Memoir
Constable, 336pp, £20
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special