What makes a song great? It’s a question as old as music itself. For some, a great song is one that they can connect with emotionally or relate to. For others, it’s a call to action – one that makes them laugh, cry, dance or sing along. Some people go all in on a killer hook or a catchy melody, while others are more invested in thoughtful song structure whether lyrically or musically. In his foreword to Rolling Stone’s definitive list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, Jay-Z said, “A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything – it just is.” But what makes one the best?

If you were to put the question to one Ian McCulloch, make no mistake, the answer is absolute and arguably arrogant. He doesn’t cite a hero in Bowie, icons in The Beatles or direct predecessors in Joy Division. Speaking with The Guardian, McCulloch opined: “I’ve always said that The Killing Moon is the greatest song ever written… for me The Killing Moon is more than just a song. It’s a psalm, almost hymnal. 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.”

Echo & the Bunnymen never quite reached the lofty heights of some of their ‘80s contemporaries. Even listening to their piece de resistance alone makes it easy to see why. They didn’t pander to the arena rock sound. Though not unpolished, there was always something about the Merseyside quartet that didn’t quite fit the sleek gloss of the era. Before the release of “The Killing Moon” (and its parent album Ocean Rain), you could even argue that they were no more than a decent-at-best post-punk band. But the song proved to be their biggest statement, the one that morphed them into poster boys for disaffected suburbanite youths alongside The Smiths, Depeche Mode and The Cure. Evocative, “The Killing Moon” is fuelled by Les Pattinson’s doom-laden bassline, a tasteful string arrangement and McColloch’s signalling voice – his vague lyrics permeating it with the kind of longing you’d associate with Etta James. It’s a spectacular song.

“The Killing Moon” was released on January 20, 1984 during a time that saw Echo & the Bunnymen get their first real taste of success. The summer of 1982 saw them achieve their first domestic hit in “The Back of Love,” while the following year had “The Cutter” and the album that birthed it, Porcupine both crack the top 10. A one-off single, “Never Stop” further solidified the band as a probable chart mainstay. They couldn’t have been any hotter.

By the end of 1983, the Bunnymen were taking something of a left turn. After touring Iceland and Denmark, the band took an unlikely spin around the Western Isles of Scotland before ending their tour at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon that saw “The Killing Moon” receive its premiere. The reviews were glowing.

McCulloch credits an unlikely source in the creation of “The Killing Moon.” “I’ve always half-credited the lyric to God” he told 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.”

The bare bones composition came from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” McCulloch playing the acoustic guitar chords in reverse and tinkering with the arrangement until it sounded nothing like the original. The deliberately ambiguous first-person narrative alludes to what could be either seduction or murder, describing a dark, starlit scene. Said McCulloch of its inspiration, “The title and a lot of the astronomical imagery, such as ‘your sky all hung with jewels,’ came about because, as a kid, I’d always loved ‘The Sky at Night’ and ‘Star Trek,’ and I remembered the moon landing. I was up all night wishing I had a telescope.”

Guitarist Will Sergeant, for his part, credits an excursion to Russia he took with Les Pattinson. “We went to Leningrad, then this place called Kazam, where nobody from outside Russia had been since 1943 or something. We went to a museum full of tractor parts and this very strange party organised by the young communists where everyone wore pressed Bri-nylon flares. But there was a lot of music and we came back full of ideas of Russian balalaika bands, which Les used for the middle of the song – this rumbling, mandolin-style bass thing.” In a separate interview, he credits a recent sponsorship deal for the rustic sound of Ocean Rain. “We’d all been given acoustic guitars by Washburn and we were all playing around with them, so the album was heading to a more acoustic world. I was going over to [McCulloch’s] house – we had a 4-track there and we were just coming up with riffs and chord sequences and stuff like that. ‘The Killing Moon’ was one of them, and it just sort of developed.”

The instrumental track was recorded and self-produced in Crescent Studio, Bath. McCulloch “wasn’t happy with the drums or the way it sounded in Bath, so I refused to sing on it. Plus I’d got a cold after staying out one night with Adam Peters, the cello player. So me and Pete de Freitas, our drummer, went to Amazon studios in Kirkby and finished it with Gil Norton mixing.” Sergeant’s Spanish-style guitar was in fact a happy accident. He recalled “during the recording, we went for a curry round 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”.

And what a guitar line it is – as iconic and immediately recognisable as The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” or The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry”, it offers a real sense of urgency, propelling the song with no forewarning, backed up by gloomy, doomy strings and fading away to give space for McCulloch’s oratorical, expressive vocal. As stellar as McCulloch’s performance is here, Sergeant’s work imbues the track with a chilling atmosphere on the middle eight and also offers one of the most stunning, emotive instrumental motifs of the era. The arrangement is its real secret weapon. Any and all tension created in the solemn verses is released in the dynamic upswing of the refrain. The tasteful strings throughout amplify the song’s sophistication, taking it to a place that is somehow both musically grandiose and understated. Serene, yet powerful, it is Echo and the Bunnymen’s undisputed masterpiece.

The song would be covered later by French lounge cover band Nouvelle Vague and ‘90s Amerindie mainstays Pavement but it’s most prominent appearance in popular culture was on the original soundtrack of Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult film Donnie Darko. Fitting that one of the film’s main characters in a film about predestination – a theme you could apply to “The Killing Moon” – is a giant bunnyman.
So what makes “The Killing Moon” the greatest song ever? If you were to ask McCulloch, you’d likely hear it was not just a song but a hymn that encapsulates everything there is to life from birth to death and everything in between. To take it from me, I have little interest in the rest of their back catalog. Nothing can top it. It doesn’t remind me of a pivotal or painful time in my life. There are no great insights into society or the politics of the time that still ring true today. It wasn’t predictive or forward thinking. If anything, it’s timeless. It doesn’t sound like anyone or anything else of its era. It doesn’t fit firmly into the realm of post-punk or gothic rock or anything of the sort. It’s too rustic, too symphonic, too involved in the drama of its own music and lyrics, which to be honest could be about anything. Sometimes music says captures feelings that words can’t. Sometimes a song stops you dead in your tracks and you simply can’t resist its pull or exclude it from any playlist you make from that point onwards. Sometimes a song is so well-arranged, the instrumentation so perfect, that it’s simply enough to take your breath away every time you hear it. A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything – it just is.

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