“I’ve always said that The Killing Moon is the greatest song ever written. I’m sure Paul Simon would be entitled say the same about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ but for me The Killing Moon is more than just a song. It’s a psalm, almost hymnal.” – Ian McCulloch
Released on January 20 1984, Echo & The Bunnymen’s post-punk masterpiece ‘The Killing Moon’ from their seminal record Ocean Rain has often been put under the microscope in a desperate attempt to discern the complex and perplexing lyrics. It’s a track that has infiltrated entire generations with its lonely and somewhat morbid tone but, despite such a widespread adoration for the track, it is still one that defies definition.
Recorded at Crescent Studio in Bath, Echo & The Bunnymen laid down arguably one of the great post-punk anthems of all time. While many have tried to define the song’s sound and the meaning behind the lyrics, the truth is that, according to its creator McCulloch, “It’s about everything, from birth to death to eternity and God – whatever that is – and the eternal battle between fate and the human will. It contains the answer to the meaning of life. It’s my ‘To be or not to be.'”
Like many great tracks, the song came to McCulloch as a jolting epiphany of magnificent proportions. “I love it all the more because I didn’t pore over it for days on end,” recalled McCulloch to The Guardian. “One morning, I just sat bolt upright in bed with this line in my head: ‘Fate up against your will. Through the thick and thin. He will wait until you give yourself to him.’ You don’t dream things like that and remember them.
“That’s why I’ve always half credited the lyric to God. It’s never happened before or since. I got up and started working the chords out. I played David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ backwards, then started messing around with the chords. By the time I’d finished, it sounded nothing like ‘Space Oddity'”.
The group began recording the song in Bath but it was finished in Liverpool after a particularly heavy night: “I got home around 9am, slightly the worse for wear, and [former wife] Lorraine had a cob on with me for being out all night. I played her the song and said, ‘That’s what we’ve been doing’, and she cried.”
During the same Guardian conversation, Will Sergeant reflected on how listening to Russian balalaika bands with young communists affected the song’s sound. He also revealed how he came up with the signature riff: “During the recording, we went for a curry around the corner, and when we came back the producer had found this twangy thing on tape that I’d done tuning the guitar. He insisted it go in the song. It became the best-known guitar line in our entire catalogue”.
The song was also superbly used in Donnie Darko, Sergeant recalled: “We got an email saying this bloke wanted to use the song in a film, Donnie Darko, which we didn’t think would go anywhere, so accepted a one-off £3,000. Then when the director did the director’s cut he replaced ‘The Killing Moon’ with ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ by INXS. Aren’t some people knobheads?”
The beauty in ‘The Killing Moon’ like so many other great tracks is int is universal appeal. The abstract lyrics may appear to be impenetrable to the naked eye but, upon closer inspection offer up a moment of reflection for whoever hears it. A moment to take stock and get lost in the beauty of the void the band present.
As McCulloch says, “It’s about everything,” and you really can’t get more accessible than that.