“We were very fucking noisy and very loud live. One of the things Ivo used to say a lot was that he couldn’t really hear Liz on the original demo we gave 4AD at all. It was an added bonus for him. When he first met her and heard singing he was really surprised. He hadn’t heard her at all.” Robin Guthrie
“We shall both die in your rosary”
“Punk” as a musical form, is typically defined by its amateurism and unrefined character—DIY, anti-establishment, typically aggressive and filled with tension. It was utterly democratic, and proved an efficient medium for venting rage and counter-cultural discontent. The rowdy, drunken scene that grew out of Britain in the mid-1970s was in every way a response to the “flower power,” pop and rock of the 1960s and the folk and glam of the early 70s; an expression of the social upheavals, tension, and economic decay happening in the UK and elsewhere at the time. Punk was working-class youth picking up guitars and screaming into microphones in dank, beer-soaked pubs and seedy nightclubs; shaving their heads and generally misbehaving. Punk also was—and is, arguably—an ethic; an approach to creativity and self-expression that eschews trends, fashion, commercial considerations, and anything resembling a bourgeois status quo. It has become synonymous with individualistic non-conformity.
Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Will Heggie were too young to have been much a part of the punk scene’s early years; by the time they came of age it was in full-swing. In 1980 they were barely out of their teens, and the music and the attitude of punk inevitably made its mark on them. “Punk to us didn’t mean your clothes,” Guthrie told Martin Aston many years later, “but doing what you want. Self-expression. A teenage cry for help.”
In 2006, Robin reflected, “I was actually a little bit too young for punk. To my eternal discredit one of the only original punk bands that I ever saw was Generation X, and they were hardly first level. I was sneaked in through a toilet window to see Generation X when I was about 14. I did, however, certainly buy punk records from 1976 onwards. Punk did give us the ability to do what we wanted. I came into it absolutely without any pretension. I saw it like a wee boy perhaps would. I was hugely excited that here was this movement which was all about doing what you wanted to do and in the way you wanted to do it. It gave me the headspace to think, We can have a drum machine, We don’t have to have a drummer, and We can have all these fuzz boxes and things.”
Having grown up in the economically depressed refinery port city of Grangemouth, near Falkirk, in Stirlingshire halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, their potential futures seemed limited, to say the least. School mates Robin and Will, neither of whom were trained musicians in any usual sense of the word had, true to punk form, taken up playing guitar and bass in local punk outfits like The Heat (who released one single as The Liberators in 1980), and were trying to form a new band. Robin’s natural aptitude for electronics proved useful in building his own effects pedals.
Elizabeth was two years their junior, and they knew of each other passingly at school. Liz had assumed she would follow her mother’s path working in a local textile mill, or perhaps become a waitress. The boys saw her frequently, dancing on punk night at a local hotel disco—The Nash at the Hotel International—where Robin would occasionally DJ. Liz stood out, not just for her dancing and fashion sense (jumpers festooned with chicken bones), but because she would stay on the dance floor when Robin would play The Birthday Party or The Pop Group. “Most people weren’t happy with my choices,” said Robin, “but Liz was, as she kept dancing. We struck up a bit of a friendship.”
Another acquaintance from their youth, Colin Wallace, recalled to Martin Aston that Elizabeth was, “this little vision in fishnet tights, leather mini-skirt and shaved head, smoking cigarettes, playing truant until lunchtime. Shy and quiet, too. She was ostracised at school, as a weirdo, but to me she was unbelievably brave.”
Something about her—something ineffable, almost prescient—suggested to Robin she might also be able to sing. With nothing better to do and few other prospects (her hands were too small to really be useful at the mill anyway), Elizabeth said, “why not?” and joined Robin and Will as the third Cocteau Twin. At first, in a foreshadowing of the end, the going was rough. She wouldn’t sing in front of Will, and lacked the confidence in her lyrics and her singing ability and felt it wasn’t working out. “I left the band, got fed up with it and didn’t feel like it was for me at all because I was a bit…I don’t know, I just thought I couldn’t cope. So I left the band. I think it was more the lyrics I didn’t have the faith in. I found it too hard. But I started going out with Robin, so I came back into the band six months later.”
Elizabeth, who had left home at age fourteen, was, according to Robin, self-conscious to an almost pathological degree. “Liz was insanely shy,” Guthrie explained, “but as her mum later told me, she always sang as a child. We just assumed that she’d be brilliant, like I thought we were all great. We were very naïve and idealistic then.”
“I looked up to him. I could never have done it without him,” Elizabeth said later of Guthrie, reflecting on their early years together.
It’s a little-known fact that Cocteau Twins had—for two weeks, at least—two singers. Elizabeth’s friend Carol signed on, but it didn’t work out. (She is immortalised on the inner sleeve of Garlands with the words, “Dear Carol, We shall both die in your rosary, Elizabeth.”) There had also been a drummer named John Murphy. His request for travel expenses encouraged Guthrie to enlist a drum machine (“the introduction of a fourth party would ruin the rapport of our close knit threesome,” Robin said).
Following some false-starts, the group rehearsed regularly at the derelict Grangemouth town hall, a Communist Party office, and a squat. They eventually played a couple of shows, and worked up a handful of songs with guitar, bass, voice and a drum machine—“Speak No Evil,” “Perhaps Some Other Aeon,” and “Objects D’Art” (spelling intentional). They committed them as demos to cassette tape using a rudimentary home recorder. In fact, they had to record the songs (at least) twice because they had only one recorder and one microphone and no way to copy the first cut.
In another seeming incongruity that defies comparison to Cocteau Twins’ own music, they were ardent fans of Australia’s The Birthday Party—an early 4AD signing—having followed them for years and going to their shows in the area. As Elizabeth explained, “It’s all the result of Robin’s sheer hard neck really. We were moseying along a bit aimlessly and then one night at a Birthday Party gig Rob decided to wheedle us all backstage and sat himself down next to Phil [Phil Calvert, drummer]. I was bloody terrified at the audacity of it, but Phil was genuinely interested and helpful, he gave us the address of 4AD and told us to write, and of course Rob being Rob, he did.”
“Well we made two tapes,” explained Robin. “And I went to London with them and I gave one to Ivo [Watts-Russell, co-founder of 4AD] and one to John Peel” of BBC Radio, who had the most popular programme on at the time showcasing new, emerging artists.
“We had no phone, so I wrote down the number of the phone box down the road and ‘call between five and six’ on the cassette case, and I’d wait outside every night for a call! There wasn’t a doubt in my mind they’d both ring.”
“John Peel wrote us back a nice letter saying that it was really good and everything, and Ivo phoned us and said, ‘Hey, wanna come and make a record?’ It was sort of…we were sort of naïve and into what we were doing so much that we almost sort of expected, you know… We just sort of expected it. ‘Of course we want to make a record! We’re fucking good!’ You know…no trouble.”
Ironically, the demos’ rough quality more or less obscured the one element that would become, as much as their shimmering guitar sound, Cocteau Twins’ calling card: Elizabeth’s voice. 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell booked the group into London’s Blackwing Studios to record new versions of “Speak No Evil” and “Perhaps Some Other Aeon.” Liz’s singing was a revelation. Ivo was so enthusiastic about the session that he suggested they record a full album instead of the single—an idea the band heartily embraced. Though it would be at least two more years before Robin took over production of their music, his unconventional ideas in the studio didn’t go over well with engineers working on the album that would become Garlands.
“There was a lot about ‘Garlands’ that we were really, really unhappy with,” explained Guthrie to Penny Black Music in 2006. “One of the things we had done on the demo and used to do playing live was put our drum box through fuzz pedals and guitar amps, so that it came out sounding really mashed up which was what the hip-hop guys came up with a couple of years later. When we got to the studio there were all these technicians who were like “Oh no, you can’t do this stuff.” We felt really intimidated. They wouldn’t let us touch any of their stuff. It was like we were wee boys and they were grown-ups. We were like “You set up the drum machine like that” and they were like, “Oh no! You can’t do that. It’s going into the red.” The drums as a result came out sounding clean and drum-machine pristine. It was disappointing. It’s just one detail, but it is like a personal reflection of that whole album to me. I’ve actually got a couple of live tapes of the early days and to listen to them now it is like “Wow! That is fucking monstrous.” We were very fucking noisy and very loud live. One of the things Ivo used to say a lot was that he couldn’t really hear Liz on the original demo we gave 4AD at all. It was an added bonus for him. When he first met her and heard singing he was really surprised. He hadn’t heard her at all.”
The album was completed in seven days in December 1981 and, despite some mixed reviews, went straight up the UK independent music charts upon its release three months later. Helen FitzGerald wrote in Sounds: “[T]he end product, “Garlands,” is in my humble opinion one of the most exciting albums I’ve ever heard. It weaves an intricate web in the mind; efforts to pinpoint or categorise are frustrated by its elusive infrastructure. It’s a basic enough format of guitar, bass and drum machine, but their intricate layering has formed a hypnotic matrix that allows itself the pleasure of being dubbed unique—an adjective not often bandied about in the press these days.”
Indeed, though the album bore some passing resemblance to other artists’ work at the time—not terribly surprising—it was remarkably mature for a band so young and inexperienced. Nearly forty years on, it still sounds mostly fresh and undated, which can’t be so easily said for many of its contemporaries. The dense wail of Guthrie’s guitar against Heggie’s relentlessly throbbing bass (and, like it or not, the drum machine actually works) was the perfect backdrop for Fraser’s emergent voice.
Liz hadn’t yet innovated her unique approach to lyrics and singing, and the songs are much more straightforward—as they would be until Treasure two years later. Her words, many of them included on the LP sleeve, evoked a dark and enchanted world, equal parts treacherous and redeeming: “Things from the forest die here / But I don’t / Dead forest things are offered here / But I’m not” (“But I’m Not”); “My mouthing at you / My tongue the stake / I should welt should I hold you / I should gash should I kiss you / Blind dumb deaf and I’ll find / I was never a part of it” (“Blind Dumb Deaf”); “Garlands evergreen / Forget-me-not wreaths / Chaplets see me drugged / I could die in your rosary” (“Garlands”); “The then shallow she Earth as we know it / The then hallow she a sky for the sacred / Stars in my eyes / Stars at my feet / Womb in the belly / Capital place” (“Shallow Then Halo”).
Though Elizabeth would forever downplay her gifts for writing and wordplay, it was evident to just about anyone that this teenage woman was a natural talent. In a 1995 interview Liz reflected, “A lot of the stuff I was singing about then was all metaphorical. I wasn’t talking like I am now. I guess it’s back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I’m 17 and I don’t even know when I’m hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don’t even know that, then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place? I always said ‘I don’t know’, and I didn’t.”
“Wax and Wane” performed live at De Meervaart, Amsterdam | 29th January 1983
Ivo and 4AD foresaw greatness.
As for the late, great John Peel? Within months of that first friendly letter, Cocteau Twins played a four-song set on his highly influential and popular radio programme—the first of many sessions they would play with him in their early years.
With Garlands firmly rooted in the charts, the hyperbolic UK music press and the band’s enthusiastic new following were riveted, and sat holding their collective breath to hear how Cocteau Twins would follow-up such an impressive debut. But the band themselves were keeping relatively quiet when probed about the subtleties and nuances of their music, and generally avoided the often prying inquisitiveness of the press. This self-effacing tendency only served to reinforce the quickly-evolving myth about the trio and their music that would persist for more than a decade. ▣