Mad World: An Oral History Of New Wave Artists And Songs That Defined The 1980s

Next week, Abrams Books will release Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein’s Mad World: An Oral History Of New Wave Artists And Songs That Defined The 1980s. The book features interviews with 35 artists from the era, including Duran Duran, New Order, the Smiths, and Depeche Mode. We’ve got an excerpt from the book for you to read today. It’s Ian McCulloch discussing Echo And The Bunnymen’s classic 1984 single “The Killing Moon” — and with it, the history of his band and the scene in which they developed. He also calls Bono a “gibbering, leprechaunish twat.” Check it out.

IAN McCULLOCH: “The Killing Moon” came in stages. I had the chords and the verse and melody, then one day I woke up, and it was sunny, and I sat bolt upright—if you can sit bolt upright—with the words to the chorus, which I hadn’t known any of before. I think it was the Lord himself saying, “It would be fantastic if you said these words.” I woke up and there they were. It was the whole thing: “Fate/ Up against your will/ Through the thick and thin/ He will wait until/ You give yourself to him.” That is up there with “To be or not to be.” Whoever Him is, is up to you. For a long time the Him in the chorus was me, and then I realized, it isn’t me at all—it’s Him, the fucking higher power. It’s basically a hymn or a prayer. It’s probably my “How Great Thou Art.” It sounds like a love song, it sounds adult, it sounds European—like it’s got subtitles, and everyone’s got fantastic hair. I’ve said a lot of times that it’s the greatest song ever written, and the reason it is, is that it’s more than a song. It’s way beyond being a song. It’s about everything. It’s not about football or fucking celery, but it’s about most other things.

I loved the Pistols and the Clash, but a lot of the punks were just dodgy Cockneys. It was backwoods music. At [legendary Liverpool club] Eric’s, it was always a mixture. It inspired the likes of me, Holly Johnson, and Ian Broudie. It wasn’t a fashion, leather-studded thing; it was more about listening to pretty obscure records that I’d never heard—everything from reggae to punk to shit like Roogalator. It was a melting pot. It started because of punk, but it wasn’t drenched in that one-dimensional thing that the clubs in Manchester had. They all wore cloth caps with their hair sticking out at the back. And tank tops. [Editor's note: He doesn't mean tank top in the American sense of the filmy garment that clings to Kate Upton's curves. He means it in the grim, British sense of the shapeless, sleeveless, sludge-colored V-neck sweater that strained against many a British belly in the latter part of the previous century.] Liverpool was different. We had the Jobriath look amongst us with Pete Burns and Holly. It was a mad smorgasbord that I never got bored of. It was easy being in the same place as these … not weirdos, but lost souls. We couldn’t play any instruments, but it was only a question of getting a guitar off someone. The Crucial Three [McCulloch's much-written-about-and-discussed first band with Julian Cope and Pete Wylie] didn’t exist. The other two wanted it more than I did. It lasted for about an hour. We played one horrible song in my mum’s front room. Julian had a silver bass. He’d painted graffiti on it, like “I Am a Punk” or “Get Punkitude.” He was a dickhead extraordinaire. Wylie played some kind of Les Paul the color of fudge. I stood there with a bog roll [toilet paper] and a sponge on my head mumbling some kind of crap. It was an hour of abject bollocks. The other two still believe that we toured.

Then there was another group, A Shallow Madness. We rehearsed in my flat, in my bedroom, but I used to go to my mum’s down the road to have my washing done to avoid being there. I’d go and have egg and chips, processed peas, HP sauce, bread and butter. I’d have eaten fucking rat rather than rehearse with them. They were rubbish. I thought, I’ll never do that show at the Rainbow, that David Bowie show I dreamed about. I’ll never be Ziggy Stardust. I thought at best I was going to be the tambourinist in XTC.

But then I bumped into Will [Sergeant, Echo and the Bunnymen guitarist], and it was like, Fucking hell, this fellow has befriended me in one of the least-friendly ways possible. He was taciturn, and he was shy, but also he had an aura that could melt volcanic lava even more than it had already melted. He had a sneer—not even a sneer, just a kind of flick of his lip. I thought, Okay, you’re the cat for me. This fellow, he said, “I hear you’re a pretty good singer.” I said, “Who told you that?” I hadn’t ever sung in my life except when I was 14 in my bedroom to Bowie records. But I look like I’m a great singer. So he said, “Fancy doing some music? Come to my house in Melling.” I was like, “Where the fuck is that? Somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall?” It was not far off. It was a remote subcontinent outside of Liverpool. I took five buses to get there, carrying my Hondo guitar. I wanted all the people on the bus to look at me like I was a musician, but this was just a plank of wood with some strings on it. It wasn’t going to further my stardom.

When I got to Will’s, he had a drum machine and a guitar his dad made. I don’t know how he made it—he had no background in music or making instruments—but it bloody worked. I had my acoustic. We plugged in, put the drum machine on. He said, “What do you think: Bossa Nova or Rock 1?” I said, “Let’s try Rock 1.” The drum machine went boom-cha-cha-boom-chacha. I went ching-ching-ching on my acoustic, and he went ding-ding-ding on his guitar. I said to him, “Hang on, we are the best band in the fucking world.”

With my songs, I always like to push things and make them cryptic but also make them easy for moderately intelligent people to get. I always want to push on and make those lyrical delights that can stand alone outside the song. That, to me, is the longevity of it. I know there are people out there who appreciate it and love it. It might not be right for 100,000 people with cowboy hats on singing “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I suggest they get their fucking local sheriff on the case if their streets have no name. Bono—Nobo, that’s his fucking name. What a gibbering, leprechaunish twat. He’s up to no good. He’s more out of his mind than I’ve ever seen anybody, and that includes Mel Gibson on the David Letterman show when his head spun around 360 times. He’s the most banal, buffooneried-up, fucking leprechaun. He’s kissed more Blarney Stones than I’ve had hot dinners. I wish they’d been toxic so he’d fuck off.

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Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein’s Mad World: An Oral History Of New Wave Artists And Songs That Defined The 1980s is out 4/14 via Abrams Books. You can pre-order it here.

Comments (5)
  1. “I suggest they get their fucking local sheriff on the case if their streets have no name.” lol.

  2. Thank you for that predictably amazing read from Ian!

    One thing I always found strange about Pavement’s cover of Killing Moon is that they play the wrong chord in the chorus and it totally changes (misses?) the mood of the song. The Bunnymen’s chords are G major to C minor. Pavement plays a C major, which makes it seem like a typical song. The C minor is so crucial to the dark Bunnymen vibe. I was never sure if that was an intentional choice by Pavement or a mistake or just slacker insouciance in the extreme.

  3. Great read, up until the stuff about Bono.

    Calling him “leprechaunish”, “leprechaun”, and saying “He’s kissed more Blarney Stones than I’ve had hot dinners”. What does that last thing even mean? He has just picked something he has heard of to do with Ireland and then thrown Bono in with it. It makes no sense.

    As an Irish person I find this kind of stereotyping, and insults based on my nationality, to be extremely annoying and racist.

  4. Thanks so much, Stereogum! There’s more Ian where that came from! Our book comes out April 15: http://www.amazon.com/Mad-World-History-Artists-Defined/dp/1419710974

  5. Damn. I always thought “Him” was the Devil which made the song a whole lot cooler in my mind.

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