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Liverpool Boy With Cheek

September 06, 1987|RICHARD CROMELIN

Ian McCulloch slipped a toeless white sock onto each arm to keep his heavy black coat from scratching, adjusted his sunglasses and stepped into the sweltering Los Angeles sun for a ride from his West Hollywood hotel to the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown.

This is obviously a man who values appearance over comfort.

"Well, I'm conscious of how I look in the mirror," admitted the vocalist and highest-profile member of the English band Echo & the Bunnymen as he settled into the back seat of the limousine.

"It's nothin' to do with being a rock 'n' roll star," he continued in his thick Liverpool accent. "I think everyone is. Me haircut isn't because I wanted a haircut that suited a singer, I wanted a haircut that suited my face. People think I look weird like this, but I used to look really weird with flat hair, you know. E.T."

Weird, maybe, but McCulloch has been one of the major faces on the English rock scene since Echo & the Bunnymen--the name is partly nonsense and partly a nod to their old drum machine, Echo--released their first album, "Crocodiles," in 1980.

The Liverpool foursome--McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson and drummer Pete de Freitas--has had an erratic time of it in America: Their early tours weren't coordinated with their records, and the band once took a break that stretched to two years. But the current "Echo & the Bunnymen" LP, their first new recording in three years, is shaping up as their biggest seller, and their remake of the Doors' "People Are Strange" is the keynote song in the film "The Lost Boys."

Said McCulloch, "It's just sort of happened out of the blue. We suddenly seem to be more popular, and the record certainly wasn't designed for that. If we had designed it like that it definitely wouldn't have been more popular."

They're also on their most ambitious U.S. tour, combining their drawing power with that of their post-punk pals New Order and newcomer Gene Loves Jezebel to hit America's summer concert circuit. The bill's Southland leg includes shows Friday at the San Diego Sports Arena, Saturday at Irvine Meadows and next Sunday at the Forum.

It hasn't been just the band's music--originally dark, driving, Doors-like and moody, but now richer, loftier, more modulated and still moody--that's kept Echo & the Bunnymen in the public eye. McCulloch has developed into an iconoclastic presence on the British pop scene, and as the limo headed east he was as flip and irreverent as advertised--and also surprisingly thoughtful.

Known for his outspokenness, he needed no prompting to bring up the subject of U2, the massively popular Irish group that's widely perceived as a rival to the Bunnymen, and one that's absorbed some McCulloch broadsides in the English press.

The singer, sipping from a glass of wine on the ride downtown, was discussing the benefits of Echo & the Bunnymen's two years off, saying that a band needs that kind of break.

"Otherwise," he added slyly, "you start growing pony tails. And start looking like an actor from 'Hamlet.' Things like that can happen."

But his observations about U2 go deeper than quips about singer Bono Hewson's Shakespearean appearance.

"As much as I think they're improving, I find a little too much histrionics: 'Outside Is America!' I'm a different creature altogether. I don't believe in that," he said, raising his fist in the air, rock-fan style. "There's a danger at one point when 3,000 people are doing that. You start to think, 'I wonder what 10,000 people doing that, throwing the fist up, is like.' And then, 'I wonder what it's like being the biggest band in the world.'

"I don't think it makes you feel any better. I think that's where they had to go, but they're at zed now, and there's nowhere to go."

Zed--English for the letter Z--reflects McCulloch's vision of Echo & the Bunnymen's career.

"I want to go through the alphabet of being in a band and not try and cut corners," he explained. "You know, there was never any plan with us to be the biggest rock 'n' roll band in the world. It was to go from A to zed, whatever happened, and hopefully write a few great songs along the way. . . . Even when we know going (directly) from H to P makes a lot more sense, we want to go to every other letter."

McCulloch, 28, wanted to be a footballer as a child in Liverpool. "And then when I was 13 and I heard David Bowie's voice, I wanted to be a singer."

A fellow Liverpudlian also made a strong impression.

"I think if Beethoven was an artist, then John Lennon was more of an artist," McCulloch said. "He was dealing with so many more layers of reality. I mean, Beethoven had to write for a 36-piece orchestra, whatever he had to do, but he didn't have to use words and really say anything. He didn't have to say, 'Mother, you left me but I never left you.' Lennon was up there. One of the greats.

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