Dancing Horses: Live at the Shepherd's Bush Empire
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Dancing Horses: Live at the Shepherd's Bush Empire

The beloved English college-rock band recorded live on November 1, 2005, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London.

‘You’ve Just Seen the Best Band of All Time’

3 Min Read

Vocalist Ian McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson co-founded Echo & The Bunnymen in Liverpool, England, in the late 1970s. Though the band certainly took inspiration from the seething post-punk bubbling up in the U.K. at the time, it was even more enamored with moody 1960s American bands.

Early Bunnymen albums such as their 1980 debut LP “Crocodiles” and “Heaven Up Here” (1981) echo both the Doors’ shambolic psychedelic rock and the Velvet Underground’s prickly rhythmic cool. These inspirations never went away as the Bunnymen started connecting with larger audiences; the Doors’ Ray Manzarek even contributed twinkly keyboards to “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” in 1987. The group also began pairing these darker tendencies with flashes of poppier lightness and beauty, as evidenced by the orchestral majesty of its landmark 1984 LP “Ocean Rain” and yearning alternative-rock classic “Lips Like Sugar.”

Cover art for Echo and The Bunnymen “Ocean Rain” album. | Martyn Atkins and Brian Griffin | Warner Bros. | Source: Amazon | 1984

The concert film “Dancing Horses,” recorded in 2005 at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire while the Bunnymen were promoting the then-new studio album “Siberia,” captures such complexities. A smoldering one-two punch of “Going Up” and “With a Hip” opens the show. McCulloch appears as a shadowy figure in sunglasses shrouded by deep blue lights, while Sergeant performs off to the side, alternating needling riffs with more evocative, undulating grooves. The band’s ability to balance sonic turbulence and prettier melodic fare leads to an era-blurring set full of dynamic ebbs and flows.

Sergeant unleashes squalls of psychedelic distortion in the midst of the then-new song “Scissors in the Sand,” which segues neatly into the older tune “All That Jazz.” By the same token, the breezy, chiming “Stormy Weather” leads right into a thundering “Show of Strength” and then veers into one of the band’s most beloved new-wave nods, the shimmering “Bring on the Dancing Horses.”

McCulloch exudes cool — check the way he casually lights a cigarette during “The Killing Moon,” fully aware of the song’s power even as he appears to underplay it. But the nicotine habit sounds as if it has taken a toll on the singer’s voice. While he still occasionally accesses a biting, youthful yelp — notably on a piledriving “The Back of Love,” which accelerates into frayed post-punk as it progresses — McCulloch often settles into a raspier lower register.

The Bunnymen have continued to release more studio albums and tour, but those pursuits lack the same intensity and nimble ingenuity on display here.

The singer’s lack of upper range hurts “The Cutter,” which sounds anemic and unsteady. The band also adjusts other songs to compensate for his changed vocal timbre. It places a swirling organ high in the mix of “Rescue,” and tacks on a swampy, extended guitar outro that calls to mind the Doors. In the years since, the Bunnymen have continued to release more studio albums and tour, but those pursuits lack the same intensity and nimble ingenuity on display here.

That inevitable decline makes “Dancing Horses” that much more crucial: Unlike with New Order and the Cure — Bunnymen peers that remain formidable live bands — it’s much easier to forget the ferocity and power of the McCulloch and Sergeant creative team, and its impact on decades of British and American indie and pop music.

“If all goes well, this next song is the best song of all time,” McCulloch notes before the concert-ending “Ocean Rain.” In a rare case where braggadocio isn’t hyperbole, the song unfolds with epic sweep: Dreamy, spare guitar augmented by orchestral flourishes eventually gives way to a wistful Sergeant solo. McCulloch matches the dramatic swells with a theatrical vocal performance; at one point, he even whispers lyrics. In this performance, you hear the seeds for the decades of ambitious, melancholy pop that followed the Bunnymen’s arrival: the Smiths, Galaxie 500, Coldplay.

“Thank you, you’ve just seen the best band of all time,” McCulloch says as the show ends, bravado intact.

Annie Zaleski is an award-winning journalist, editor and critic based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her profiles, interviews and criticism have appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Guardian, Salon, Billboard, Stereogum, The A.V. Club and more. Zaleski wrote the liner notes for the 2016 deluxe edition of R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” and contributed an essay to the 2020 Game Theory compilation “Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript.” Her book on Duran Duran’s “Rio” for the 33 1/3 book series comes out in May 2021. She is currently working on the book “Why the B-52s Matter” for University of Texas Press.

Annie Zaleski is an award-winning journalist, editor and critic based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her profiles, interviews and criticism have appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Guardian, Salon, Billboard, Stereogum, The A.V. Club and more. Zaleski wrote the liner notes for the 2016 deluxe edition of R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” and contributed an essay to the 2020 Game Theory compilation “Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript.” Her book on Duran Duran’s “Rio” for the 33 1/3 book series comes out in May 2021. She is currently working on the book “Why the B-52s Matter” for University of Texas Press.

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