Video Nasty Icon Ian McCulloch’s Lost Pop Career

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The lost mid-Sixties psych-folk career of Britain’s reluctant Italian horror star.

Actor Ian McCulloch unintentionally carved out a cult movie immortality at the end of the 1970s, when he accepted a role in a cheap Italian horror film. Lucio Fulci‘s Zombie Flesh Eaters proved an unexpected global hit, ensured that McCulloch would forever be associated with the sort of films for which he almost certainly had little taste – as he has said in interviews, he was rather shocked by the levels of violence when he finally saw the film. By then, he’d also made Contamination and Zombie Holocaust / Dr Butcher MD, and for a while in the early 1980s, had the dubious honour of being one of Britain’s most banned actors, as all three films were caught up in the video nasties hysteria.

For most of his career, McCulloch had been a jobbing actor with a reasonably successful career in TV. He had genre form, having appeared in The Ghoul in 1975, the TV series The Survivors and the opening episode of Hammer House of Horror. But to his continuing surprise, the Italian films are what he is best remembered and most loved for.

But it might have all been very different. Had things worked out differently, we might even now be having to explain which Ian McCulloch we meant when talking about famous pop stars – the bloke from Echo and the Bunnymen, or this chap.

As a twenty-five year old, McCulloch had his chance at the pop big time, when he recorded a single for Decca. I asked him about the disc, and this was his explanation.

“It was not a success, mainly because the A side was not very good and a last minute choice, because I was originally signed up by Decca to record an anti-Beatles song I had written. I was signed by Dick Rowe, who turned the Beatles down! Decca chickened out at the last minute and substituted Down by the River and Come On Home. I sang the Beatles song on Tonight and the producer told me they had taken more phone calls and letters from that than any other song ever on the programme.”

Come On Home is pretty throwaway pop that would’ve already seemed dated at the time, but Down by the River is actually a pretty impressive slice of pioneering folky psych – hippy trippy stuff before hippy trippy stuff was all the rage. In the end, McCulloch became yet another pretty boy singer who didn’t make it, caught up in the changing tastes of the era. He turned to acting and never looked back. Well, maybe not never – there is always the awareness of what might have been. But he has never felt the urge to return to the recording studio.