Echo & The Bunnymen's First "Echo" Was This Drum Machine

It might be one of the most famous cheat sheets in history. Will Sergeant recently uncovered it after nearly 40 years, while researching his autobiography, and he’s looking it over bemusedly. This handwritten piece of paper, however, wasn’t for some long-gone math or English class. It was, instead, the set of directions that guided one of the world’s most famous drum machines.

Korg Mini Pops Junior
Korg Mini Pops Junior

That would be Echo, of Echo & the Bunnymen fame. This humble Korg Mini Pops Junior, purchased for £80 by Sergeant, provided the early backbone of the Liverpool post-punk group that Sergeant formed with singer Ian McCulloch in 1978. In fact, as Sergeant jokes, in the band’s early days “the drum machine was the only professional among us.” The machine’s nickname, Echo, was just a band joke that caught on when the press took it seriously. And the Mini Pops lasted for less than a dozen early Bunnymen shows before it was replaced by drummer Pete de Freitas.

But that was all enough for Echo to pass into music legend, along with its bandmates. Moody new-wave anthems like “The Killing Moon” and “The Cutter” happened long after Echo retired, yet Sergeant affirms how critical the machine was in getting the band its start.

Echo and the Bunnymen perform their single "The Back of Love" on Top of the Pops, 1982.

He bought the Mini Pops from Rushworths, one of Liverpool’s most famous music shops. (Sergeant and Paul McCartney bought their first guitars there; McCartney’s thanks to his father, who traded in a trumpet.) When Sergeant saw the rhythm box, it reminded him of Brian Eno’s ‘70s drum-machine experiments—and also a show he’d seen recently with the American duo Suicide opening for The Clash.

Suicide’s British tour in ’78 had mostly been a disaster. If the band was lucky, punks were just gobbing phlegm onto the stage; often it was much more solid objects, and in one legendary instance, an ax. Some believed the negative reaction was because Suicide had no guitars—nor drums. Instead, the group’s Martin Rev played rhythms from a preset drum machine, similar to the Mini Pops that would become Echo.

Sergeant hadn’t been one of the naysayers at Suicide’s show: he was inspired, instead. Suicide’s self-titled debut “was a massive record in Liverpool. Everybody I knew had it,” Sergeant says. “I’ve even bought that record for people, just so they can hear it.”

But Sergeant didn’t have grandiose dreams when he brought home the Mini Pops from Rushworths. He simply hoped the machine could give some shape to the songs he and McCulloch were starting to write. What he wanted, he admits, was “an electronic Mo Tucker”—the drummer from another favorite American band, The Velvet Underground. Tucker was known for her basic, stripped-down rhythms, and Sergeant hoped the Mini Pops could do the same sort of thing.

He’d noticed that there still weren’t many British bands who were using drum machines regularly. “Still, no real guitar bands had them,” he notes. “Maybe Cabaret Voltaire, in Sheffield, but to me they seemed like more of an electronic band—sounds and synthesizers.”

It was an era when a drum machine like Echo could be the difference between an imaginary group and an authentic one. “A lot of it in those days was just talk around Eric’s,” recalls Sergeant, referencing the legendary Liverpool club where the Bunnymen and many other groups got their start. “We were just kids. I remember Mac [McCulloch] at one point saying he didn’t even know what a bass did!”

"The Pictures on My Wall", from Echo and the Bunnymen's 1980 debut album Crocodiles.

As Sergeant points out, the “cheat sheet”—on which he wrote the drum machine settings for the Bunnymen’s first songs—didn’t really involve much cheating. The Mini Pops, like most of the preset drum machines of the ‘60s and ‘70s, had a limited number of pre-programmed rhythms: just ten in total.

“And only two of them were really any good,” Sergeant recalls. Not surprisingly, those were the Rock 1 and Rock 2 presets, which provided the backbeat to early performances of such songs as “Going Up” and “Pictures On My Wall.” Occasionally, Sergeant utilized the machine’s ability to play multiple patterns at the same time, to add a little rhythmic variety.

When it came to tempos, the sheet reveals that most of the band’s early songs were set at “about the fourth line” on the tempo dial, Sergeant says. “Mid-tempo, I suppose. Though you couldn’t really count on that,” he adds with a laugh. “It’d be fast one day and slow the next.”

If you’re getting the sense that Echo—like many of the early transistorized drum machines—could occasionally be as temperamental as a drummer, you’re not wrong. Especially not when you hear Sergeant recount the worst experience Echo & The Bunnymen ever had with the Mini Pops.

It came when they recorded a segment for the Granada TV show What’s On in 1979. The show was taped in Manchester, and it was the Bunnymen’s first TV appearance. “The place is full of grannies. We didn’t have any fans at that stage. It’s all old women who’re sat in the crowd, who’ve been shopping in Manchester and then came over to Granada Studios,” Sergeant says. “And it’s being recorded on a delay, to go out in half an hour. So there’s to be no editing.”

The group were to play their first single, “The Pictures On My Wall.” Sergeant was the drum machine’s keeper, and he counted the band in and pressed the Start switch. Nothing happened.

“It didn’t work,” Sergeant says. “Or I mis-pressed it. And so I went, ‘I fucked it up! I fucked it up!’ And there’s a panic in the studio. Because the audience is all old ladies. And there’s no swearing on TV. And Mac’s glaring at me, like: ‘You dickhead!’ And I’m like, ‘You try it, mate!’ But we had enough time to do it again, and somehow they managed to edit it out.” Looking back, Sergeant is glad he cursed. “Because,” he explains, chuckling, “they might have kept that first version in!”

Echo and the Bunnymen perform with the Korg Mini Pops Junior at Eric's in Liverpool in 1979.

You can actually hear Echo’s swan song with the Bunnymen on YouTube. It’s a September 15, 1979 gig at Eric’s. When I point out the surprisingly good sound quality to Sergeant, he replies dryly: “Yeah, I know. Because it’s my bloody tape!” He recorded the gig from the soundboard onto his Bang & Olufsen cassette player. “And when I went to get the tape out, it had gone,” he says. “Someone had nicked it!”

Echo the Mini Pops had a somewhat ignominious end. After losing its spot in the band’s lineup, it got a couple of coats of spray paint, and finally disappeared from the Bunnymen’s rehearsal room. It was replaced by a Roland TR-66 Rhythm Arranger, which Sergeant still owns, although it’s no longer functional.

But the Bunnymen weren’t quite done with drum machines. Years later, the band acquired a new rhythm unit, the Yamaha RX11. They sometimes used it to have a bit of fun with American audiences. “We just used to turn it on, really slow, half an hour before we went on. Boom. TCCHHT. Boom. TCCHHT. And we used to keep it going for ages, just to annoy everybody,” Sergeant says, laughing at the memory. “They’d be going, ‘What’s that noise? What’s that banging?’”

Sergeant had read about public speakers who used a similar noise-making tactic before their speeches. “You couldn’t really hear it, but you’d feel uneasy. Sick.” Then, just before the speaker went on, they’d turn it off. “And all of a sudden, everybody felt better! So that was the theory behind it,” he says. “Psychological warfare,” Sergeant adds, chuckling. “That’s the way forward.”

About the Author: Dan LeRoy’s latest book is Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World (available here). (It includes an original one-act play by former Bunnymen manager/KLF-member/pop-provocateur Bill Drummond, starring Echo!) For more information visit

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