“Bunnyman: A Memoir” by Will Sergeant (published by Constable)
Early years of a showstopper and shopstopper guitarist
The important word in the title of this autobiography, however, is not “Bunnyman” but “memoir”. The Liverpudlian born in 1958 will eventually become lead guitarist with this special rock band formed in 1978, but that side of the story doesn’t get going until page 228, with Sergeant having been introduced to its future singer, Ian McCulloch, only 30 pages earlier.
The first two-thirds of Sergeant’s book find him growing up in squalor in Melling village, a dozen kilometres from the heart of Liverpool. Most of the adult population seems to work in the local electrical cable factory, while Will and his pals play and fish at the canal or try to dodge brawls with neighbouring gangs.
He fails his eleven-plus examination at school 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 works 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.
The late-1970s punk music movement, however, is a short-lived part of his life. He hears the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” over the PA at a Dr Feelgood show but doesn’t bother buying the album. Post-punk has already arrived, and he is introduced to it when he first visits the now-fabled Eric’s Club on Liverpool’s Mathew Street to see XTC.
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 buy.
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.
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 offers to release a single, in 1979. 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 says 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 in 1979, duly replacing “Echo”. 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” – an aspect of Sergeant’s autobiography that may frustrate some fans. But hopefully this genial memoir about growing up poor in the 1970s will be followed by a sequel. The exciting years lasted through to 1987, when things started to go awry for the band. They made four outstanding “post-punk/new wave” albums and then an iffy fifth one that temporarily brought things to a halt.