The arrival of the Cocteau Twins into my consciousness was an electric happening early in 1984. I had heard nothing of the band or read any press on them. I was watching the monthly program “London Calling” on MTV and they would show excerpts from music videos for a few minutes each month as a way of cramming a lot of glimpses of uniquely UK happenings into a short segment. The brief clip of “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drop” by Cocteau Twins made my world stop spinning.
The vibe was simply glorious while being unlike anything else happening in the potentially drab year of 1984. The soaring guitars and thunderous drum machines formed a cocoon of sound around singer Elizabeth Fraser, who made it her business to burst from within it with an almost operatic sound that belied her small frame. The way she used repetition for rhythmic emphasis might have been the effect of hearing early samplers remixing tracks from the dawn of the 80s. Her idiosyncratic style often left her emotional thrust at the forefront of the song with discernment of her lyrics being just another aspect of their wall of sound that was often abstracted. At a certain point in their development, it became almost impossible to pick out recognizable words, thought the meaning of the songs was as clear as a bell.
While I had my head turned, but good, by “The Spangle Maker” EP, that was not my first purchase. After seeing that video clip I made a bee-line for a nearby record store [Peaches on Colonial Drive, as I recall] and purchased whatever Cocteau Twins were in their bins. As it turned out, they did not have “The Spangle Maker” but they had the previous album “Head Over Heels” in the bins, so I immediately purchased it and took it home to enter this shimmering, rococo world of sound so unlike anything else that I had ever heard. Well, almost anything.
There was a strong vibe of Siouxsie + The Banshees, bubbling just under the surface of the music that was a discernible antecedent. The crepuscular sound favored by that band certainly informed where the Cocteaus were headed, though they favored an approach that was unafraid to be steeped in sheer beauty with Fraser’s vocals fluttering like butterflies glinting in the liquid sunlight of Robin Guthrie’s heavily effected guitars. 1984 brought the one song by Siouxsie + The Banshees that in turn seemed to be the closest to what the Cocteaus were now doing on a regular and prolific basis. This was “Dazzle,” which remains my favorite song of theirs to this day.
The heavily abstract and textural covers of the records by 23 Envelope were another aspect of the insular world that the records of the band created in the listener’s mind. The design by Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Grierson marked them as the third and final spoke of a wheel of classic Post-Punk design that also encompassed Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett. I quickly bought the full Cocteau Twins catalog as the band underwent an explosion of listenership around the time that I first heard them.
I can’t say I recall seeing too many of their releases prior to 1984, though the band had two albums and three EPs out in the world by then. I’m guessing that it just exploded in 1984 for them as they reached my ears, as well as thousands of others, to the point where every well-dressed record store of the day sported a fat Cocteau Twins section of imports. That the band were on fire creatively, meant that the EPs came on a very regular basis, usually sporting non-LP tracks in every case. It was not until the band signed with the majors a few years down the line, that singles were then released from the albums.
The band were exactly the injection of emotional overload that was needed to get this listener through the coming Middle Eighties Malaise®, with extant favorite bands crashing and burning creatively right and left. They were Scottish in a time period where many of my favorite acts were Scots. The former icons [Bowie, Ultravox, Simple Minds, Heaven 17, Human League, etc.] were stacking up like demolished cars in a 12 lane L.A. pileup. When listening to the Cocteau Twins releases, one could almost imagine that the time period was one of a bountiful artistic feast instead of the end of an era that it actually was. I would ride the Cocteau Twins bus right through the end. I first saw them live in 1990 when they began touring America more widely; having been signed to Capitol Records in The States a few years earlier. Thinking back to the time I’d first heard them in ’84, when all they ever did were one-off events at NYC clubs, this was like a huge payback to me for missing most of my other favorite UK acts, or worse, catching them only when they were past their prime.
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Nice. I’d heard of them around ’86 but never really got to hear them until a local “progressive radio” station in New Hampshire played Side A of Blue Bell Knoll when it came out, and I was hooked. One of my high school buddies had Treasure and the ’85-’86 EPs (still my favorite era of theirs) that I dubbed, and I listened to that tape for about three years running. Actually, I taught myself how to play bass by playing along with Blue Bell Knoll as well! :)
Suffice it to say, they and This Mortal Coil ended up being my introduction to the classic 80s 4AD sound that I still love so much.
Jon Chaisson – I can’t fault your favorite Cocteau Twins era. ’84-’86 is what I would put in an escape pod if necessary! “Treasure” was an astounding album and certainly my favorite by them as well! Interesting that you got hooked by “Blue Bell Knoll,” an album that remains difficult to recall anything from here and now., Though I wouldn’t say that I dislike any of their albums. Proof, that it takes all kinds.
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Interesting Monk, I think of Blue Bell Knoll as very memorable! The title track is one of my favorites in CT’s catalogue and Carolyn’s Fingers was a huge Alt Radio hit to my memory – to the point that it annoyed me that they were getting that much exposure.
PPM, I discovered the Cocteau Twins through their incredible “The Pink Opaque” CD comp that was released in 1986 (one of my college friends turned me on to it). In fact, I just bought the 2015 LP reissue, since I never owned this on vinyl.
Middle Eighties Malaise® is so on the money. It was awful when New Wave/post punk ran out of steam; alternative rock never quite filled the void. And don’t get me started on the 90s…
Steve – Ah yes, “The Pink Opaque!” As memory serves, that was the first Cocteau Twins CD and I too, bought a copy on release. Anything to get even the 7″ edit of “Pearly Dewdrops, Drops” on CD! The 4AD CD floodgates didn’t open until after this came out, a few months later. Do I regret trading in all of my Cocteau Twins vinyl in the 80s? Uh, that’s “what is ‘heck yes!’ for $500, Alex!” If anything, those pressings are worth much more now.
Ha! Monk you mentioned one off shows in NYC….WELL…I went to that one off show on an early tour. It was Danceteria. My friends and I showed up at the normal time for a concert in this club venue – this would have been sometime after 10pm I suspect – I don’t remember there being a reason to get their earlier for any opening act of note. Well 11pm rolled around and passed, then Midnight, then 1am, and finally 2am. At just before 2:30am, Cocteau Twins came on and the 3 of 6 of us who decided to stick it out all had a real attitude about how late this was. Now it’s not like I’d never waited this long before, New Order’s legendary concert at The Paradise Garage didn’t go on until 2am, but anyone and everyone knew that performances were either early before the DJ Larry Levan got cooking on the deck, or worked into his set at it’s high point after 1:30am.
Back to Cocteau Twins…I can’t honestly say I remember much of the show as not only was I pissed off and dog tired, but the sound system fed back into Liz Frazier’s mike so consistently it was really hard to listen to. We stuck it out for the 40 minute or so show and it has certainly gone down as show to remember just for how ridiculous it was.
I would see them 2 more times into about 1990 – when I saw them on the gorgeous Heaven Or Las Vegas tour in London at I think the Town & Country.
As for Cocteau Twins recording career, I am a great fan of the early albums, especially the The Moon And The Melodies which they made with Harold Budd and Victorialand. But I have a great regard for their later, possibly more accessible work as well on Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas.
Spot on referencing Siouxsie And The Banshees – Guthrie was certainly a fan. How wonderful might it have been to have had him produce one Banshees album before they called it a day?
Echorich – I was counting on you to jog my distant memory of a review in the last issue of Trouser Press. I figured that you would have been there! Now that I have access to my archives, I note that in his review, Don [Bassholes] Howland said “the music was large parts pomp and bombast, but masterfully executed pomp and bombast.” Strange fact: Don Howland lives in my city, but I’ve never [knowingly] met him. Howland also noted the “some ungodly hour” of the show, by the way.
Monk – I have heard others rave about Cocteau Twins that night…I guess they chose to not blame the band for the woeful sound system…fair cop…but I’m just not so sure the show was as dynamic as some make it out to have been. Again, my ears/eyes were colored by that ungodly hour that the show started…
Echorich – Speaking of ungodly hours for gigs in NYC clubs of the era, I have find memories of a bitter thinkpiece called ” How Do You Sleep” in Trouser Press on the topic in 1982 or so, bemoaning fates like yours. I didn’t start living that lifestyle until the 90s since I lived in the sticks. Unfortunately, the local “hip” booking agents in Orlando also owned the club their acts usually played in. No conflict of interest there, right? This meant that when we arrived at the club around 9:30 for a 10:00 pm showtime, somehow another opening act had gotten shoehorned into the bill at the last minute, meaning that by the time the headliner you wanted to see finally started rocking, it could have been as late as 1:00 am on a work night. All the better to run up my bar tab… and I don’t drink!!!
Monk, it just dawned on me, you didn’t make the connection between Cocteau Twin’s name and the Johnny And The Self Abusers song title they took it from…which then became No Cure.
I’m quite sure I first picked up on the Cocteau Twins through a compilation CD, but I can’t recall what it was. The first thing I bought from them was The Spangle Maker EP, and as the Monk says their sound just sweeps you away to another place like few artists are ever able to really do. I quickly got more EPs but only later got the full albums — that music had a shall we say Enigma-like effect on the beautiful people, at least in my world!
I enjoyed pretty much everything they put out, actually feeling faintly disappointed when I could start to make out Fraser’s lyrics (a less-bad move for Michael Stipe, mind, but it still takes away the fun and mystery)! I remember seeing them live in St. Pete, but don’t ask me the year — this may be the same concert the Monk references, but I do recall that Fraser was battling a cold and the band generally felt that they had let down the audience, whereas our group was bewildered by the attitude and tried to convince them we were having a great time! They left the stage early and clearly irritated at that show, which made me feel bad (perhaps they could hear comments that our section couldn’t).
If you’ve ever wondered what the Twins might sound like today, take a listen to Beach House’s single “Myth,” which is a delightfully shameless steal of an updated CT sound. Victoria Legrand is no Lis Fraser, but she’s also not barking, either! The song is a lovely tribute/homage that could only be improved by the Hand of Guthrie. In the meantime, I must re-listen to that John Foxx/Robin Guthrie album again … heaven!
I first discovered the Twins with the Peppermint Pig EP and Garlands LP in I think 82 or 83.It was a bit rough but everything was covered in reverb so that made it OK ! Yes,that drum machine sound was attractive to me,primal sounding.Only on the next few EPS did Robin’s guitar come into it’s own and became their trademark sound,along with Liz’s vocals.She always sang lyrics as far as I know but you could not understand most of it until much later.I saw them on that early tour also and it was a mess.That 1990 tour was when most of us saw them I expect since it was quite extensive.In my city,they played in a church.My favorites are Treasure and Heaven or Las Vegas.
Luckily I kept all my vinyl but listen mostly to the CDs.4AD was certainly one of my favorite labels from the early 80s until the late 80s.
His picks may not be as sexy as those from the early years, but Jordan’s favorites are mine as well. For me, your mention of London Calling is the smile of the day. Now that was must-see TV. I once heard a song on there called Another Grey Day in London by a band called the Fabulous Pop Tarts that I have been trying to find for more than 30 years. Maybe I would hate it now, but I have built up that song in my mind as the best song ever. Keep your eyes open for me when on your next record shopping road trip. Thanks.
Brian – The Fabulous Pop Tarts are Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey of the World Of Wonder media empire which has given us Rupaul’s Drag Race, Party Monster and The Eyes of Tammy Faye and other pop culture nuggets over the last 20 or more years. Barbato and Fenton were denizens of the NYC Club Kid Scene in the late 80’s/early 90’s and I probably saw them perform half a dozen times during that time around the city. Another Grey Day in London was a song you couldn’t escape in NYC back then and got a good deal of MTV play if I remember.
Brian – At the end of the day, I would also take “Treasure” and “Heaven Or Las Vegas” to that desert island [with a functioning CD player.] But I still might miss “Head Over Heels.” I looked up “Another Grey Day In London” and it’s by The Pop Tarts, not The Fabulous Pop Tarts. You may be mixing the name up with The Fabulous Wealthy Tarts, who were Paul Young’s backing singers. The Pop Tarts record dates from 1988 and was a US release, implying the you are probably remembering it from 120 Minutes and not London Calling, which only ran in 1984. Just my theories, of course!
You may be right, PPM. I thought it was many years earlier than that, but I’m reading later ’80s too. The mind must be going… Thanks for the education too, Echorich.