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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