The Meaning Behind “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen and the Fateful Dream that Inspired It

American mainstream pop audiences didn’t know much about the influential British band Echo & the Bunnymen during their ’80s heyday. But the alternative fans got it, making the band underground darlings. Much of their reputation was based on their brooding yet invigorating songs, and “The Killing Moon,” from their 1984 album Ocean Rain, epitomizes that archetype.

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What is the song about? How did it come to songwriter Ian McCulloch in a dream? And how has McCulloch continued to bolster the song’s reputation over the years? Let’s go back to the ’80s to find out all about “The Killing Moon.”

A Growing Echo

Echo & the Bunnnymen formed in Liverpool in the late ’70s just as punk was peaking. Of course, that peak was short-lived, meaning that the band would fall into line with many others of that era in taking the DIY attitude of punk and combining it with artier visions. Their first album, Crocodiles, arrived in 1980.

Their third album, Porcupine, proved to be a polarizing one upon its release. On the one hand, it contained the band’s first British hit singles, as both “The Back of Love” and “The Cutter” reached the Top 20. But many critics said the band—which included singer Ian McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson, and drummer Pete de Freitas—were releasing music that was leaning too heavily into knotty song structures and unrelentingly dark lyrics.

Whether these reactions filtered into the band’s artistic sensibilities or not, there’s no doubting that their 1984 album Ocean Rain changed course. While McCulloch’s lyrics still tended towards the gothic, he leavened matters with more approachable emotions throughout the tracks. The band also colored the music with strings and horns. Leading the charge for this new sound was a stunning new single that would become one of the landmarks of ’80s alternative music.

“Moon” Dance

The inspiration for “The Killing Moon” came to Ian McCulloch not via a long struggle in a writing session, but rather, a la The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” during a good night’s sleep, as he explained in an interview with 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.”

McCulloch worked out the chords and brought the song into the band, and each member brought something unique to the proceedings. Sergeant delivered the hypnotic opening lick, which came from sounds he was making when tuning up his guitar. Pattinson was inspired by the balalaika sounds of Russian bands to create his bass part. And de Freitas went to the brushes to give the track a smooth glide instead of a foreboding rhythm.

McCulloch has never been shy about singing the praises of “The Killing Moon,” often claiming it’s the greatest song ever: “I’m sure Paul Simon would be entitled to 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. 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 ….'”

What is the Meaning of “The Killing Moon”?

We’d never be so foolish as to say we understand completely what’s going on in “The Killing Moon.” After all, its mystery provides a good deal of its allure. McCulloch confuses things even further by changing back and forth from first to second person. That technique lends the song the feel of a sensual romance, which it very may be in some ways.

It lies somewhere in a vivid dream world, albeit one that makes massive impact on our waking lives. The narrator encounters some sort of figure who pulls him right out of his existence, and he has no say in the matter: So soon you’ll take me / Up in your arms, too late to beg you / Or cancel it, though I know it must be. He suggests that the allure of this being is too strong to overcome: So cruelly you kissed me / Your lips a magic world / Your sky all hung with jewels.

It all boils down to those dreamed lines about the clash of fate and free will, with fate always coming out on top. Resistance is futile, because, eventually, you give yourself to him. Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” depicts the struggle between life and death as a mesmerizing tango, one where we humans eventually become too entangled to extricate ourselves.

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Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

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