8
Mar 09

THE FT TOP 100 TRACKS OF ALL TIME No. 33: Echo and the Bunnymen – The Cutter

FT11 comments • 4,269 views

porcupine The wrong kind of rock and the wrong kind of snow….

“They do not like all that about ending and failing,” said Merry. “I should not sing any more at present. Wait till we do get to the edge, and then we’ll turn and give them a rousing chorus!”

It starts with the heart of the song; the bit not by the Bunnymen, the element allegedly foisted on them in remix, when the record company sent the first drafts back: the drone-clot of Carnatic non-rock violin, as played by Tamil sessionman Lakshminarayanan (more usually just L) Shankar. Respected composer and ethnomusicologist in his own right, Shankar had played on such (half-forgotten) outer-edge countercultural landmarks as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Amon Düül’s Wolf City, and — with Yorkshire prog-fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, the acoustic Indo-jazz virtuoso collective Shakti. Frank Zappa produced his first solo LP: he belongs, in short, to a world set aside; an era of swirlingly expansive transformational utopia shelved, and (in less than a decade) lost from view.

It was the early 80s, the age (as some of us excitedly imagined) of the Death of Rock: and what I liked about the Bunnymen (when I liked them, which was far from always) was that the rock they made seemed to come from right inside this territory of loss of belief; this sense of a catastrophic cultural ending. In the 60s and 70s, there had existed within rock culture — somewhat off to the side of its mainstream, true, but there and known and broadly tolerated as true to some notion of rock’s larger social purpose — a pan-cultural project, a proposed radical centre setting the standard rock quartet (vgbd) and electric production and dimensions of packaging and distribution and discussion as the state of the encounter with and acknowledgment of a global and pan-cultural colloquy of music tongues… as prog had brought blues and classical habits into naive exploratory contact, so it would widen (it was imagined and hoped) to embrace musics from Africa, South America, Asia, wherever… It would be the map of the entire field of play as well as a player on it, as daring as it would be stable (in content, shape, presence, social motion)… George Harrison’s pal Ravi Shankar (no relation as far as I know) was the early posterchild for this meeting of sensibilities; “Within You Without You”, its musicians uncredited, is the posterchild for what would come to be purged.

Punk of course had defined itself by saying no to a whole lot of things prog was said to stand for — I’m not going to list the benefits and faults of this long-ago sibling war; we’ve all been there too often. What I am going to insist on is that postpunk, announcing itself repeatedly as an intellectual expansion, often quietly kowtowed in the cull. Tainted hippydippy piffle was out, and this — for a long time — included anything remotely associated with the Indian subcontinent. To the extent that you likely don’t experience now The Cutter’s violin sample (which isn’t a sample, of course) in terms even of an absence of awareness of any of the above: the lost detail has to be brought in back for the shock of this juxtaposition to flare. This sense of appalled incomprehension, even panic, is (I think) part of the song’s meaning and effectiveness, if not necessarily its self-aware intention. Focus back on EatB: their own sound, mac’s own words; what you’d get if L Shankar hadn’t been semi-invitedly guesting.

The sound is big, a sense of a space dabbed in via high-reverb ambient fragments, and streaking across it the long-form lope-and-glide that U2 were already successfully refining away off into their own patent arena-manipulative pseudo-religious yearning-and-redemptive-smugness (I *really* don’t like U2). Guitars scythe across the Bunnymen soundscape (and scything turns to ambience and back, and to rhythm and back); this zone isn’t one to be comfy in, a quasi machine-driven
high-volume near-monotony of semi-hysterical unease.

As oblique non-disgressive sidepoint, here’s the Mac lyric I’ve always liked best, from the seemingly U2ishly named song ‘Pride’, on Crocodiles: “Mother says/Sister says/Would you mind if we laugh at you?/Do you mind if we sing with you//Daddy says/Brother says/Make us proud of you/Do something we can’t do/Do it…” It’s a song about stepping up and being good — in a rock band or anywhere else — and I love the compressed sense of ghastly daring, the snidey family fondness and doubt…

The Cutter — in sound and structure, in tone and energy — is also a song of dread, and doubt; a figure for the fear of how wide the failure of the 70s project would travel, for the revelation that nothing — in this particular vgbd tongue — was anything but doomed. If EatB are in anyway presenting themselves, and the way they play, as a needed route out of something, out of a failure or a failing or a blockage (the impasse of expressive fright), this is not a happy let alone a convinced self-presentation. As rock the sound is the sound punk wrought, stripped of pretty much anything black or blue — of anything of the conventions of prog-metal bluesiness, that uncalculated shared argot at the heart of the fusion project, the platform an earlier rock had improvised to enable global inclusion — of Africa, India, Latin America — in this collective generational anti-elite resistance to the Man, the System, the War-Machine, the War. Stripped of anything that had come to be seen as, despised as, feared as unselfcritical delusion, of any sound of this mark of every kind of collusive failure…

So, “Porcupine”: a deliberately mysteriously titled project. Mac (or someone) loves a wholly unmoored metaphor, and this LP is a chilly, hurtling flood of them, a torrent of frozen blocks of words and ideas and sounds… as the cover-image declares, the foursome stood gingerly at the lip of the frozen Gullfoss Waterfall near Reykjavik, loomed over by TWO major sub-species of the gothickal sublime, which (rather awesomely) cancel each other out emotionally: a CATARACT, as in ever-rushing, ever-tumbling body of water, made of ICE, petrifying monument to pent-up power stopped forever in mid-flow blah blah blah…

Turn to the internet for Bunnyman lyric interpretation and largely you get yr own private cataract of semi-anachronistic speculation about “cutting as self-harm” (which of course works as a meaning, but entirely narrows and privatises the sense of doom). A cutter’s also a fast sailing ship (once used in the slavetrade, now largely found in the world of yachting). It’s a type of pig — bigger than a porker, smaller than a baconer. It’s a blade, a guillotine, the technology that editors or producers or directors use on celluloid or audiotape or text; it’s the means by which L Shankar’s swell and throb and turn is introduced into Bunnymen noise. As a lyric-writer, Mac is a helplessly addicted cutter-and-paster (a later song on Porcupine notoriously cut in his little sister’’s a-level englit notes about John Webster’’s revengers’ tragedy “The White Devil”… )

We needn’t choose: the song yells “spare us” because the cutter — whatever else it actually “is” — is the threat of cultural cull that’s the founding crime of punk… the fear here, and the force, is the EatB terror, having stood up as part of the gale unleashed, of falling and failing (as we now knew rock could; as we had begun to think it couldn’t not). The boldness of the song is that — with a bit of a market-eyed push from someone not in the group? — it presents in the face of this bolt of music outside the “movement”; presents as a foe or a rival or a compadre, this isn’t clear or meant to be. EatB don’t know; this isn’t a situation they’re analysing politically, just like ‘Pride’, it’s an emotion and an energy they’re capturing, a response to extreme uncertainty and unclarity, to distrust of the very possibility of successful art, or successful them.

Comments

  1. 1
    byebyepride on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I’m pretty sure I’ve always assumed that the title was a nautical reference, but reading this I also realise that for about fifteen years I’ve had the song confused in my head with ‘The Cutter and the Clan’ which is a Runrig album title.

  2. 2
    Jack Fear on 9 Mar 2009 #

    Point taken about the self-harm angle — it’s likely a dead end, interpretationwise. But it is so terribly tempting, I think, because the language of the lyric — filled with images of frustration, failed self-discipline, and feelings of shame and worthlessness – maps onto the psychology of the self-injury phenomenon at interesting angles. As appalling as it is to imagine a Bunnymen song as actually being “about” anything (as if McCullough were Nicky Wire or somesuch), “The Cutter” invites interpretation even as it eludes it. And there’s always morbid fun in this sort of diagnosis-after-the-fact; witness the frenzy of close re-readings in the pop press whenever a musician commits suicide, looking for “clues” in the lyrics that might have “warned” us of that fragile “state of mind.”

    Scare-quotes a go-go, today.

  3. 3
    Alan on 9 Mar 2009 #

    i always thought it was about making shaped biscuits

  4. 4
    DOESN'T on 9 Mar 2009 #

    the only one i am fairly sure it DOESN’T mean is the pig one! (which i only discovered while looking up meanings of “cutter”)

    jack’s “invites even as it eludes” is pretty much right, but i think this deliberate little dance fits within a broader (and quite time-specific) context of what’s good and what’s bad about easily read meaning

  5. 5
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Mar 2009 #

    haha that was me: spare us the cut-and-paster :/

  6. 6
    ace inhibitor on 9 Mar 2009 #

    It has that great,great chord change – I’m not muso enough to be certain of this but it sounds to me like the 1st two verses sit on extended variations of the same minor 7th chord, before bursting into major 3-chord brassy sunshine on the is-this-a-chorus-or-a-bridge bit, all the more glorious for being deferred for so long, like Dancing in the Street.

  7. 7
    Jack Fear on 10 Mar 2009 #

    a broader (and quite time-specific) context of what’s good and what’s bad about easily read meaning

    I think I get what you’re on about here, but how time-specific is it really? I would venture that a certain degree of obscurity has been held up as a virtue in post-Dylan rock generally…

  8. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 10 Mar 2009 #

    well, i would certainly argue — to take three hard-to-follow fellows from successive decades — that jon anderson’s, ian mcculloch’s and kurt cobain’s obscurity are each shaped by different contexts and driven by different motives, even if they’re all somewhat tolerated under the same apparent post-dylan umbrella; what they share is (to me) less interesting than where they differ, which is their relationship to rock as a utopian project as it manifests in those different decades

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 10 Mar 2009 #

    Re: Indian instrumentation: Which came first – this, or Monsoon’s ‘Ever So Lonely’? They had some critical credibility at the time, didn’t they (tho’ probably not in rockist circles)

  10. 10
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 10 Mar 2009 #

    monsoon is 1981/2, so that’s earlier than this — sheila chandra’s first solo LPs are 1984: i gave her second LP an excellent review in nme, so i guess the answer to the second question’s yes! their label was called IndiPop

  11. 11
    Dave on 3 Dec 2016 #

    Thought it was about pretentious music articles….

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