The Cocteau Twins
The Cocteau Twins
It’s apparent that a band occupies an odd place in the terrain of pop music, even alternative rock, when reviewers can make claims such as Timothy White’s remark in Billboard that cuts from Cocteau Twins 1993 release “actually boast whole sentences of accessible verse, plus springy tempo turns that could qualify as grooves.” Reviewing the same album in Detroit’s Metro Times, Ralph Valdez noted that lead singer “Liz Fraser’s cryptically indistinct vocals have gradually become decipherable like an angel or an alien who, after floating to Earth, has finally begun to speak the language.” After a decade making music whose sounds are so unconventional that they prompt these comments, Scotland-grown Cocteau Twins have not only “become decipherable,” they are also being recognized as an influence behind the growing spate of musicians who conduct similar experiments in ethereal sound, such as Enya and Mouth Music.
The three original members of the band, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Will Heggie, share a background in stark contrast to the celestial musings of their music. Interviewed by White, Fraser and Guthrie described their birthplace of Grangemouth as a town whose main industries, oil refinery and textile production, offered its working-class citizens little escape from a life of dead-end labor. Guthrie referred to Grangemouth as “a great chemical-refining works that’s not at all picturesque,” adding that he had spent some youthful years working for British Petroleum. Fraser worked temporarily for a whiskey distillery. She stressed to White, “You have to understand how few the choices were. Most of the women worked where my mother did, in a sewing factory called Rackes. And most of the men worked for B.P. [British Petroleum], but my father was a tool grinder in a wood yard.”
A long tradition of folk music deeply ingrained in Scotch culture offered Grangemouth youth some of the only relief from their labor lives. Fraser described for White the significance of music in her home: “My mother had been a drummer in a pipe band, and my father played accordion. There were hundreds of British pop records at home—the Beatles, Petula Clark, Lulu—and I got shanghaied into singing hymns at Beancross Primary School when I was six. It was wonderful growing up with music in the house, because there was so much tension just outside the door, like our Protestant segregation from Catholics.” Guthrie told White, “Our music has always been a reflection of our desperate desire to get as much distance from where we came from as possible.”
For the Record…
Members include Elizabeth Fraser (born c. 1962 in Grangemouth, Scotland; children: [with Guthrie] Lucy Bell), vocals; Robin Guthrie (born c. 1960 in Grangemouth, Scotland) guitar; Simon Raymonde (children: Stanley), bass, keyboards, drums. Original band included Will Heggie on bass and keyboards.
Group formed in Grangemouth, Scotland, 1979; embarked on tour, early 1980s; relocated to London and signed a recording contract with 4AD, 1981; released debut album Garlands, 1982; first U.S. release, The Pink Opaque, 1986; opened recording studio in London, 1989; left 4AD, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 1750 North Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028-5274.
Dissatisfied with their options, Guthrie and Heggie began putting their free time and energy into making music. Guthrie recollected the atmosphere of the late 1970s pop music scene, telling White, “It was a post-punk sort of time when Will and I bought our first drum machine.” In search of a vocalist, Guthrie and Heggie met Fraser at a pub in 1979. Soon after, the three began writing and performing music together, finding most of their experience playing in Scotland pubs. At the time, Fraser and Guthrie also moved in together, having begun a romance that would prove to be long-lasting. With very little money coming in, the embryonic Cocteau Twins actually went on the road first just to make a living. As Guthrie explained to White, “Liz and I had to leave our apartment in Falkirk because we couldnt afford it, and we went on tour just to feed ourselves.” Their struggling artist phase didn’t last for too long, however, since their live performances and first album, Garlands, soon attracted what White called “international cult status.”
Fraser, Guthrie, and Heggie left Scotland for London in 1981, two demo tapes in hand. The first went to John Peel, an important London radio deejay, who arranged two radio recording sessions. The second, and more profitable, went into the hands of Simon Raymonde, who was only a shop assistant at 4AD at the time, but who nonetheless brought the tape to the attention of manager Ivo Watts-Russell. The band signed on with 4AD in 1981, and Garlands was released in the spring of 1982. Despite the expenses that were spared on its production, it quickly jumped to the Number Two spot on the U.K. independent charts.
Alec Foege, in his 1993 Spin review of Four-Calender Café, commented briefly on that beginning: “The Cocteaus signing to the now-influential 4AD label in 1982 set a distinct aesthetic for the label and sparked a cult following which interpreted the group’s muddled etherealness as profound self-contemplation.” Foege’s dislike notwithstanding, the band was soon fending off offers from influential managers and major labels; they chose to reject all of these for the continued autonomy they would have with 4AD. As Valdez noted, they had quickly become “the darlings of the underground.” They finished 1982 with a 12-inch release called Lullabies, consolidating their success with the “indies” charts. They started 1983 with a European tour, opening for the then well-established alternative music band, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD).
A series of successful releases followed, despite Heg-gie’s departure in 1983. Fraser and Guthrie spent a year performing and recording as a duo, turning out a second album, Head Over Heels, in 1983. Their Sunburst and Snowblind 12-inch single took the Number One spot on the independent charts, setting the precedent for most of their subsequent releases. Simon Raymonde took over on bass and drums just in time for the recording of the 1984 single “Pearly-Dewdrops Drop,” which brought Cocteau Twins their first break in the pop market, hitting the Top 30 on the mainstream charts. Valdez dubbed their 1984 album, Treasure, “their stylistic breakthrough.” Like the work that preceded it, the album entered the mainstream Top 30 and grabbed the Number One position on independent charts.
Over the next few years the band maintained a pace of impressive productivity that kept them in the public eye and favor. They turned out three extended play releases in 1985, followed by two albums and a well-received single, “Loves Easy Tears,” in 1986. The Pink Opaque marked their first U.S. release, available on CD only, and their British release for the year, Victorialand, took the Number Ten position on the charts. The success of Victorialand insured the success of their 1986 U.K. tour, which they played to capacity houses.
The Cocteau Twins’ somewhat odd position in pop music was marked in many ways, not the least of which was the incompatibility of their music with the clubs and auditoriums usually used by pop bands; instead, as Guthrie explained to Spin in 1991, “People are used to us playing places like the Royal Festival Hall and Sadlers Wells,” both known in England as spaces for classical music performance. But the music also didn’t hold to the conventions of classical, New Age, or easy listening music, as White’s general description of their sound betrayed: “Most of the beautiful elegies in the group’s repertory resist either identifiable time signatures or lyrical dissection, so ineffably fluid is the uninflected celeste of Fraser’s singing voice.”
Describing Heaven or Las Vegas in Stereo Review, Parke Puterbaugh had a similar response: “The songs of Cocteau Twins are so much more about sensation than sense that they do not easily yield to interpretation or comparison with familiar things.” Writing for Spin in 1991, Frank Owen called it “rock more akin to geography than music, an otherworldly no-place outside of language and meaning.” Most critics credited this particular quality of the music to Fraser, as Hannaham did when he remarked that she “sounds like she’s inventing her own language as she goes along.” Guthrie confirmed this in an interview with Guitar Player’s Steph Paynes, when he confessed that he also finds his partner’s work mysterious: “I don’t know what she’s singing!... I’ve seen the lyrics written down, and they’re brilliant—it’s all English, you see—but she twists everything around, putting accents on different syllables than you would in normal speech. Once we were in Japan, and the whole audience thought Liz was singing in Japanese.”
For two years after the success of Victorialand and “Loves Easy Tears,” the Cocteau Twins stepped back from the rapid production schedule that had produced those hits. They didn’t reappear until 1988, when Blue Bell Knoll climbed to Number 15 on British charts and broke the Top 200 on U.S. charts, almost cracking the Top 100 as well. Their growing fan base in the United States paved the way for their first U.S. tour in 1990, after the release of Heaven or Las Vegas, an album that enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the United States as well as the United Kingdom. It simultaneously served as what Hannaham called their “U.S. breakthrough” and surfaced in the Top Ten on English charts.
The general American response to Heaven epitomized the kind of lyrical hyperbole Cocteau Twins music prompted from critics, although it was the first such indulgence in the U.S. press. Puterbaugh decided that “Cocteau Twins makes music that seems to emanate from the far edge of consciousness.” He found the album “beautiful, flowing, and fragile, like a rainbow on the surface of a bubble.” Paynes tried to pin it down in Guitar Player: “Youre assaulted by a barrage of beautiful, shimmering, swirling ... stuff. There are guitars there somewhere, but they’re textural, oblivious, environmental.... Meanwhile, the rich, emotive voice of Liz Fraser flies merrily around the mix.” Much of the praise was reserved specifically for Fraser’s voice, as in the People review, which claimed that she “injects a feeling of ecstasy into even slow, quiet songs. She swoops with amazing ease from angelic soprano notes down to a rich alto.” Puterbaugh waxed poetic as well: “No less an instrument ... is the sensually sibilant voice of Elizabeth Fraser, which is as delicate as fine crystal.”
Even as the band continued to take more time between releases, they also saw considerable professional and personal growth in the early 1990s. After an official break with 4AD in 1992, they began recording in their own September Studio and releasing under the auspices of Capitol Records. Guthrie tackled the problems he encountered writing his music, confessing to White that he has depended on alcohol and other drugs to carry him through the task of composition; he claimed that “I’ve cleaned myself up, but creating these things can hurt so much.” Guthrie and Fraser began their family in 1989, with the birth of daughter Lucy Bell; Raymonde and his wife had their first child, Stanley, in 1991, and were expecting their second in September of 1993.
Four-Calender Café, the band’s 1993 release, received mixed reviews, prompted by the turn toward a slightly more traditional use of music and lyric; some found the accessibility refreshing, while others expressed disappointment. Valdez captured the second response, saying that “it would have been nice if by this ... they had gotten progressively stranger rather than more normal sounding and familiar.” He feared that, instead, “they seemed to be allowing themselves to assimilate into the tireless mega-machine that is pop music.” James Hannaham, on the other hand, argued that they “drop some of their willful obscurity without deserting their singular path.” He declared, “Rather than acknowledge their legions of imitators or accommodate the pop-song format, Cocteau Twins have become much more accessible simply by refining their time-tested methods.”
Garlands, 4AD, 1982.
Lullabies (EP), 4AD, 1982.
Head Over Heels, 4AD, 1983.
Sunburst and Snowblind (EP), 4AD, 1983.
Aikea Guinea (EP), 4AD, 1985.
Tiny Dynamine (EP), 4AD, 1985.
Echoes in a Shallow Bay (EP), 4AD, 1985.
The Pink Opaque, 1986.
Victorialand, 4AD, 1986.
Blue Bell Knoll, 4AD, Capitol, 1988.
Heaven or Las Vegas, Capitol, 1990.
Four-Calender Café, Capitol, 1993.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
Billboard, September 11, 1993.
Details, November 1993.
Guitar Player, February 1991; January 1994.
Metro Times (Detroit), September 15, 1993.
People, February 11, 1991.
Request, December 1993.
Rolling Stone, January 10, 1991; March 10, 1994; April 21, 1994.
Spin, March 1991; December 1993.
Stereo Review, January 1991.
Strobe, January/February 1994.
Variety, November 19, 1990.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Capitol Records.
—Ondine Le Blanc
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