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Music

Watch Echo & The Bunnymen and Billy Bragg cover The Velvet Underground in 1985

There is a great saying about The Velvet Underground. Not many people bought their records during their heyday, but what few did ended up forming a band. People who listened to The Velvet Underground were the likes of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Iggy Pop, as well as Ian McCulloch and Billy Bragg. And in the mid-1980s, McCulloch and Bragg decided to sing a cover of The Velvet Underground live on television. But was it any good?

As it happened, it was, as lead guitarist Will Sergeant supported the two vocalists with a collection of billowing riffs that centred their attention on the melody in question. No matter the nuance of the track, the tune pummeled through the proceedings, matching the vibrancy and immediacy of Lou Reed’s original. 

Echo & The Bunnymen were regarded as many to be Britain’s answer to The Velvet Underground, especially in light of the shimmering chords they used to piece their work together. Bragg, on the other hand, invoked the polemical posturings of Reed’s solo work, curating a body of songs that were designed to champion the changing geopolitical landscapes of the common market. 

Between them, Echo & The Bunnymen and Bragg championed a new form of alternative rock, which pivoted focus away from the electronic hardware that formulated the backbone of the 1980s and instead offered a more rustic genre of music that was harder and more ragged in its demonstration. It was a return to the essence of rock, which is what the decade needed, as it gradually grew more processed and focused on changing technologies. 

McCulloch was dense, dark, and deeply quirky, never shying away from a killer quip or a cutting remark, but never at the expense of the music itself. “I’ve had melancholy downers since I was a kid,” he said. “They wouldn’t hang around for that long. I like to laugh — and to make people laugh. So, usually, it was not something I had every day. On this occasion, it lasted a long time.”

The darkness cemented the music, not least on the barrelling ‘Rescue’, a choppy guitar number that demonstrated a longing and a need to escape. Countering this band was Bragg’s piercing ‘Between the Wars’, which begged the listeners the ultimate: How can we fight to be English if we have nothing left to fight for? 

Together, they were among the tentpole artists that founded indie rock, a genre that owed more to the men than it did to the success that it offered them. It wasn’t riches that gave the men their standing, but truthfulness and tight, taut deliveries, every note performed was a note delivered with passion and gusto. 

As it happens, the burgeoning rock movement invoked the work of Arthur Lee and Love, so there was clearly an appetite for more rustic oriented rock. Judging by their appearance on the live show, Bragg and McCulloch were keenly aware that they were representing a new movement of music, as well speaking on behalf of a generation that was gearing for a new musical guru to lead them to more enlightened plains. 

The band sound tight, but Bragg also acquits himself nicely on the guitar, punching along to the sound of ‘Run Run Run’, his choppy, crisp chords reminiscent of the surfer stylings of the 1960s. As it happens, the band sound tight but loose, willing to give room for a spontaneous flourish of instrumentation or vocal interpolation. And judging by the body language, Bragg and McCulloch seem happy to hand over the microphone for the other one, feeling that the work is more important than the singer in question. 

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They’re reverent to the material, but they’re not slavishly so, as the five musicians put their own spin on the 1960s tune. One of the notable differences is McCulloch’s tendency to interject the tune with humour and goodwill. There’s less of the sneer from the Reed vocal delivery, as McCulloch goes for a more nihilistic form of darkness that permeates the song. 

1985 was also the year that The Jesus and Mary Chain released their debut album, which was soaked from head to toe in The Velvet Underground’s DNA. The band went one further with their sophomore effort, Darklands, where the brusque humour and tumbling riffs started falling out of the speakers and into the vicinity of the listener as if emulating the milieu of the live stage. 

It was a startling effort, but it’s impossible to imagine that the Scottish band could have pulled this feat off if it wasn’t for the efforts of Billy Bragg and Echo & The Bunnymen in the early to mid-1980s. It was the final startling chapter in a series of building blocks that led the way to the more incendiary form of rock that is now commonly heard all over England. 

See the clip, below.