Dead Letter Office
The Contenders



dead Letter Office is a column of letters written by Todd Hutlock to a friend named Jimmy, who may or may not exist. The column details real-life experiences regarding work, life, and how Hutlock's obsession with music runs them both.


Jimmy:

Got a question for you. Do you even remember the first CD you ever bought? I mean, if you’re my age (and you are, lest you forget) and you remember the days before CDs, you might not recall so quickly. Also, the fact that between the two of us we own more CDs than your average public library might have something to do with it.

Anyway, last week I had a face-to-face encounter with my first ever CD, and it’s because it just got reissued with a bunch of extra tracks: Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain.

I doubt you can think back that far, but when Ocean Rain was first released, there were no Bunnymen albums available on CD at all in America, and they didn’t turn up until a few years later. So getting any Bunnymen CD was a bit tricky at that point, as CDs weren’t super popular yet and there was no Internet to order from. But I remember thinking that I wanted that one in particular, because it had all those gorgeous strings on it and I figured it would sound good on CD. I managed to find it at the one store in Cleveland selling imported CDs at that point and promptly laid down a princely sum for it, at least twice what you’d pay for the vinyl. My friends thought I was insane, and I suppose in retrospect that they were right. They should see my basement.

At that period in time, the Bunnymen were right behind the Smiths (and just barely at that) as far as my favorite bands went, and Ocean Rain is a brilliant album, just outside of my all-time top 10 (and likely to step in at some point, as someone recently pointed out to me that the Flying Burrito Brothers are “yucky”). In an ideal Hutlockverse, Echo & The Bunnymen would have been the biggest band ever. The Smiths were always very indie, with their allegiances to Rough Trade and all that, but the Bunnymen, no. They wanted the world, and they weren’t shy about it either. They had a perfect frontman in Ian McCulloch, always quick with a quote and to put down a bunch of other bands (I remember Mac dissing U2 all the time, back when they still had some indie cred of their own and long before it was cool to say that Bono is a dork.) The songs and albums were brilliant, right down to the perfectly designed sleeves. They were clearly one of if not the best live band of the era, and onstage they trotted out covers of hipster influences like the Velvet Underground and Television, years before other bands thought it chic to do so. They had the image (camouflage!), the tunes, the rabid fanbase. Jesus Christ, they had Bill Drummond as a manager! They should have been bigger than anyone. “The Cutter” should be heard on the radio around the world now in the same manner that we hear “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the like. How the fuck did U2 end up so big while the Bunnymen became also-rans, coulda-been contenders? “The Killing Moon” pisses all over “With Or Without You” in my mind. Christ, even Simple Minds sold out arenas in America and had Top 10 hits. How did it all go wrong?

I suppose I know the answer to that already. They disappeared for two years or so at the height of their popularity, with only a greatest hits album in the racks and one new single. They came back in 1987 with their worst album ever (and coincidentally, their first and only U.S. hit, the godawful “Lips Like Sugar.”) A year later, in 1988, Ian McCulloch quit the band. Then, in 1989, the drummer, Pete DeFreitas, died in a motorcycle accident. I remember our man Scotty lambasting me that all of my favorite bands were breaking up all around me, making the shrewd observance that as soon as a band became one of my favorites, they were basically doomed (thanks, Scott) and I was cursed to like all these doomed bands. But I guess he was sort of right.

But here’s my question: are there bands around today that are “contenders” on the level the Bunnymen were? You know, that are poised to just explode, that are just so fucking good that one look and listen tells you that the only way is up and the sky is the limit? Maybe I’m just jaded, but I don’t see it. Who will people be talking about in 25 years the way I’m talking about the Bunnymen today? Who are people going to scratch their heads about, wondering why it just didn’t happen? I can’t think of anyone at all. But when you saw the Bunnymen, you just knew you were in the presence of greatness.

Of course, the Bunnymen finally did get back together, and I even went to see them (on my birthday, no less) a few summers ago. And they were every bit as good as I remembered them, even it was only Mac and Will up there from the original four. I walked outside of the club, high on life and Bunnyvibes, happier than I had been in months, to discover that my car had been towed away. I guess that curse lives on. Did I mention that it was also Friday the 13th?

Anyway, I just bought all these new expanded Bunnymen reissues (on import of course, because apparently domestics aren’t out here until next year—it’s never easy with them), so I’ll be sending you my old CD copies, as I know you never got around to buying them and I think you’d dig them, especially Heaven Up Here. All of them except Ocean Rain that is. I can’t seem to bring myself to cough that one up.

Your man in the Midwest,
Hutlock


By: Todd Hutlock
Published on: 2003-11-13
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