On 30th May 2021, that Echo And The Bunnymen masterpiece, Heaven Up Here, turns 40. Louder Than War’s Gordon Rutherford makes the case for it to be considered as one of best half a dozen albums of all time. Just because it is.
“It may be hell down there, ’cause it’s heaven up here.”
It doesn’t get dark in the Scottish midsummer. Not really. Unlike the gloom of December when it’s dark by three in the afternoon, in the height of summer you can still read a book without the aid of artificial light at 1.30 a.m. No dark things. In 1981, that hour belongs to teenage me and my innermost musings. Meditations in the gloaming. Both within the house and without, all is quiet. All is asleep. My bedroom is an impregnable sanctuary, a parallel universe in a galaxy quite autonomous from Thatcher’s dystopia outside and my haven has a soundtrack. Like rolling thunder, the drums of the late, great Pete de Freitas reverberate off the walls. At least, it’s as loud as I can get away with at this hour. “Flying/And you know I’m not coming down/You’re trying/But you know you must soon go down.” Teenage me has no idea what Ian McCulloch means. But teenage me gets it anyway.
Context: unlike the world we live in today, buying music was a gamble in 1981. An album cost approximately sixty-seven percent of my weekly disposable income. Six quid a week on the papers didn’t go far if you were into music. Therefore, before taking the plunge, you had to be supremely confident in that slice of vinyl. The pain of being burned by far too many albums bought on the strength of one good single had made me a punctiliously cautious purchaser. On reflection then, I have no idea why my hard-earned should have been splurged on Heaven Up Here.
Music was tribal in 1981 and my tribe were ploughing a different furrow. As regulars every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at a tiny club called Shades – not quite legal but close enough – we were schooled in the weird funk of Was (Not Was) and the electro/dance brilliance of Yello. Kraftwerk, Devo, Bowie and Roxy Music were staples, as were The Associates, Japan and (original) Human League. God is a DJ, one who played Talking Heads who had become a funk band and a band called New Order, who used to be Joy Division, but were now playing a form of electro-dance. We posed and preened, smoking More menthols and drinking Pernod and black.
So, why invest in a post-punk guitar-based album when there were so many alternatives more aligned with the stuff I was immersing myself in? Perhaps it was that New Order/Joy Division thing. Since the previous year, I had developed a deep love for Closer and it’s possible that I heard someone or read something that compared Joy Division with Echo And The Bunnymen. Maybe I heard a track from the album on John Peel’s show (always a solid source) or possibly, like some form of Chinese water torture, the seemingly weekly diatribe from Mac the Mouth in the NME wore me down. It was certainly nothing to do with the Bunnymen’s debut, Crocodiles, which, barring a couple of tracks, had passed me by. I wonder if the thing that swayed me was that wonderfully shot cover for Heaven Up Here? The Bunnymen always did have great artwork. An aside – I briefly took up painting with watercolours. The only work I finished was a replica of the cover of Heaven Up Here. I was quite proud of it, actually.
When the realisation that this year marked the fortieth anniversary of this sonic miracle, this piece began to form in my head. In particular, I was plagued by one question: how to justify my claim that today, forty years on, it remains one of the finest albums ever? Just as I am at a loss to explain why I bought the thing in the first place, I struggle to develop a compelling argument to justify why it is one of the best half a dozen albums of all time. Music is like that. It just is. You either get it or you don’t. The majority of people don’t even think of Heaven Up Here as Echo And The Bunnymen’s finest hour, let alone one of the greatest albums ever. Today, people talk about the commercial behemoth, Ocean Rain, or the youthful sparkiness of Crocodiles. In my mind, neither can lay a glove on Heaven Up Here. This an album that heralds itself as some kind of prodigious rococo conceit, one in which ambition seeps out of every groove. It smacks of grandiosity as it proclaims itself with uber-confidence. It is a chasm away from its predecessor.
More often than not, I can’t remember my password for this computer that I am typing this piece on. Yet, forty years later, I can remember the first time I dropped the needle onto my newly purchased copy of Heaven Up Here. Once I had got over the sense of relief that I hadn’t frittered my cash away on some turkey, the sense of wonder and reverence kicked in. I can recall being utterly transfixed by the majesty and mystery of this wonderful record. Heaven Up Here didn’t leave my turntable for that entire summer. That same piece of vinyl is spinning on my turntable as I type, surprising me that after all these years and all of those rotations, it still plays. Within days of obtaining it, I was telling everyone who would listen that I now possessed the greatest album ever recorded in the history of music. I think I felt that way right up until Prince dropped Sign O’ The Times in ’86.
The most notable totem of Echo And The Bunnymen was the much-profiled frontman. Naturally, teenage me was fixated by Ian McCulloch. Here was a man who was so much more than a pop singer. He was an icon and a poet, a spokesman for a generation. Sure, he was dripping in confidence, brash, arrogant and absolutely certain of his genius, but aren’t your heroes supposed to be? You sensed that McCulloch had taken himself away and immersed himself in the works of Scott Walker and Baudelaire. For him, this was about so much more than pop music. It really mattered to him, it was life and death, and because of that we bought into it. He was our Jim Morrison, our Lou Reed. He truly believed that The Bunnymen were the greatest band on the planet and, for a few short years, he was absolutely correct. Ian McCulloch was everything that me and my kind always aspired to, but never actually believed we could be. His lyrics, mysteriously enigmatic, were pored over incessantly and, just like Dylan, much would be made of his words. I mean, who or what is “Zimbo” anyway? The music press leapt to the conclusion that because his words were hard to decipher, they must be drug-induced. They were described as “psychedelic”, with a knowing nod and wink. This infuriated McCulloch, who railed at the lazy journalism and informed the world that if the lyrics had a dream-like quality that was possibly down to the fact that he based them on his dreams. You know, the kind we all have.
As a frontman, he was peerless, exuding magnetism; all eyes on him. But musically, Echo And The Bunnymen were a band of equals. I’ve already mentioned de Freitas’s powerful drumming, providing a rolling and pounding foundation to the beautifully atmospheric All My Colours. Listen too to how he propels A Promise, driving it on relentlessly. To think they had initially tried to get the band off the ground with a drum machine (the famous Echo) in the seat ultimately taken by de Freitas. In absolute harmony with those beats, we had the incredibly underrated bass playing of Les Pattinson. His brilliance slaps you right in the face in the first five seconds when his bass line kicks into the opening track, Show Of Strength. And then again, immediately afterwards on With A Hip, when his riff coils around the entire song, transforming it into a glorious sliver of sheer funk. Together, de Freitas and Pattinson formed a rhythm section that were the nonpareil of their era.
However, brilliant as de Freitas and Pattinson are, stunning as McCulloch’s singing and lyrics are, the star of Heaven Up Here is guitarist Will Sergeant. There are certain guitarists who you know immediately, the second you hear them. Johnny Marr is one, Wilko Johnson another. Will Sergeant fits that epithet perfectly. Apparently, he substituted his plectrum for a pair of scissors at one point in recording. Imagine Salvador Dali had been a barber? There’s the sound. At other times he is incisive, like Errol Flynn with a rapier. Heaven Up Here is comprised of a plethora of sounds and textures that materialise from Sergeant’s six-string. There’s no question that his playing has evolved since their debut the previous year. He is no longer playing songs. Instead, he is creating vivid soundscapes out of complex layers. He soars in Show Of Strength and Over The Wall; manufactures gorgeously simple, yet memorable, solos like the one in With A Hip. He flits from the jangling treble of It Was A Pleasure to the distorted buzzsaw of the title track. Such incredible versatility. He is at his very best though when the distortion is minimised and he makes his notes ring out with the clarity of crystal. Do It Clean, Will.
Theoretically speaking, as a band, Echo And The Bunnymen were yet to peak. The follow-up to Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, is technically more accomplished. But despite many more highlights, and several hit singles, they never crafted an album quite like Heaven Up Here again. As great as Porcupine and 1997’s hugely underrated Evergreen are, they cannot match Heaven Up Here in terms of being such a coherent and impactful collection. That’s all down to the songs. With A Hip is as bold and innovative as anything the band ever did. The pop sensibility of A Promise is the equal of The Back Of Love or The Killing Moon and to this day I am astonished that it wasn’t as commercially successful. The intensely smouldering Over The Wall is pure melodrama, whilst All My Colours is unadulterated spiritual, handed down from the heavens on tablets of stone. We have the sublime, shimmering swagger of Turquoise Days and the brooding portentousness of Show Of Strength. In total, there are eleven songs. Eleven jewels in a sparkling crown. No filler.
For forty years, Heaven Up Here has been a constant companion. It’s an album that has lifted me up and laid me down again, so many times. Over the years, it has been relegated down the ranks in my ongoing mental league table of albums. Once dominant, from ’81 to ’86 when it was unrivalled, it became a top three album for about a decade. Today it has stabilised. Most of the time I would place it top six, comfortably. Somedays, another great album will challenge it, but it never drops out of the top ten. I doubt it ever will.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.