Growing up in Liverpool in the 1960s and ’70s, when skinheads, football violence and fear of just about everything was the natural order of things, a young Will Sergeant, later of Echo and the Bunnymen, found the emerging punk scene provided a shimmer of hope amongst a crumbling city still reeling from the destruction of the Second World War. His memoir ‘Bunnyman’ is just-published by Constable. Daniel Scott reviews.
Of all the mythologised scenes in popular music — punk in 76, acid house in the late 80s etc — I always felt that the explosion of bands in late 70s Liverpool still remained a little unmapped. What did The Crucial Three actually do? Why didn’t Pete Burns end up as a globe-straddling megastar? Will Sergeant’s wonderfully vivid biography of those years might not answer these specific questions but it brings to life an ordinary suburban existence and how music can offer new dreams and visions. The book focuses on Sergeant’s early life up until when Echo and the Bunnymen established a place on the foothills of fame and success — first single release, Peel Session and, miraculously, getting signed to US label Sire, home of the Ramones and Talking Heads.
The years preceding this are the most fascinating. Sergeant was born into a spectacularly uncommunicative family, where neither parents nor the three children enjoyed the benefit of being able to show emotion. Not desperately unusual for the era but, in this case, so extreme that following his mother’s departure when Will was thirteen, he barely mentions her again. His father’s wartime ordeals clearly left their mark on the whole family.
His early years include a roll call familiar to many in this era: calamine lotion, margarine, British Bulldog, skinheads outside the chip shop and, the ultimate fear, pissing yourself. The odd inspirational teacher and the warmth — physical and emotional — of friends’ houses provide much needed solace on this rather solemn journey.
Sergeant’s discovery of music proves the light he was in search of. He gets off to a promising start: his first single is Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ and first gig is Slade supported by Status Quo. It’s Quo’s minimalist boogie which immediately comes to mind when he hears the Ramones a few years later. He sees music as a way to insulate yourself as a teenager and with Bowie, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed as his guide, whole new worlds rapidly open up. He sees what the otherworldly lead singer can bring to a band but, right from the off, learns a lesson which will prove useful in years to come: ‘It is when singers start to believe their own hype that the trouble starts.’
His pre-Bunnymen musical experiences are hilarious and self-deprecating. He felt being in a band was a good distraction from teenage acne and, as should always be the case, access to a van and speakers determines most line-up discussions. His rendering of the Transformer cover on the back of his leather jacket requires his Mum’s nail varnish to give Lou Reed’s lips their decadent sheen. What soon becomes clear is Sergeant’s love of psychedelia mixed with the disillusion of growing up in deprived 70s Merseyside gave his guitar playing the swirling melancholy which has always been at the heart of his music.
The opening of Eric’s club near the site of the already demolished Cavern is when everything accelerates. Quickly meeting Julian Cope (‘posh’), Holly Johnson, Pete Burns and other future Top of the Pops regulars, he has to take his band seriously as everyone else he knows is doing the same thing. Les Pattinson and an unruly drum machine soon join up with Sergeant.
By this stage in the book, you are awaiting the imminent arrival of Ian McCullough, and when this happens…he doesn’t make that much of an impression. Sergeant isn’t dismissive or negative at all but simply sees McCullough (Macul to his friends) as one of those milling around the Liverpool post-punk scene. McCullough’s reputation is that he’s a bit of a handful and unreliable. He also doesn’t sing in all their early rehearsals. Sergeant clearly saw something in him which made him worth persevering with.
The odds are not in their favour in the lead up to their first gig. Nobody likes the band’s name, foisted on them by alpha male Cope, Pattinson has owned his first bass for all of four days and McCullough has never sung on stage before. Supporting The Teardrop Explodes at Eric’s, it’s clear from the start that they have something.
Sergeant’s name might be misspelt on their debut single, ‘Pictures on my Wall’ (on Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe’s Zoo Records) but they are soon appearing on amazing line-ups with Joy Division, The Fall, Cabaret Voltaire and The Teardrop Explodes. Bill Drummond’s managerial inexperience enables him to take them on the fearless escapades that become part of the Bunnymen story. By this stage, Pete de Freitas has ousted the drum machine, and the line-up is complete.
It’s a great story, neatly balancing the self-belief of youth — with hints of how this may reach troublesome heights with McCullough — and the harsh realities of DIY post-punk. Sergeant paints a vivid picture of the thrill of walking up to the Zoo office to see their debut single (and, inevitably, to mail them out): ‘From here, Echo and the Bunnymen will take on the world.’ Entering the office, he sees the shiny new singles, housed in sleeves which have all been glued the wrong way round.
‘Bunnyman’ is out now and available here (£20.00).
Will Sergeant appears in conversation with Bill Drummond at our sold out event at The Social tonight.