Heel to toe to hair and hoof and it's head over heels and it's all but an ark-lark...

“Cocteau Hour”

  • By Helen FitzGerald
  • Sounds
  • 11-Sep 1982

Plodding the urban mile in search of some subterranean recording studio on a rainy Sunday afternoon is not my idea of fun. But this time the end will justify the means—I’m in hot pursuit of the latest enigma of the independent charts, the Cocteau Twins.

“Who?” I hear you ask blankly. Well, if you care to flick forward a few pages you’ll be surprised to find their debut album “Garlands” at the top end of the charts.

But where have these creatures sprung from, what dastardly corporate skulduggery can explain their unannounced and almost unprecedented leap to the forefront of our attention?

Well, for once, bribery, corruption and deceit are blameless. The fact of the matter is that the album is bloody good, a fluid frieze of wispy images made all the more haunting by Elizabeth’s distilled vocal maturity, fluctuating from a brittle fragility to a voluble dexterity with full range and power.

The Cocteau Twins are invariably three: Liz, Will and Robin. Natives of Grangemouth, Scotland, they have up to now initiated little media interest. Theirs is a story with real Cinderella appeal, not exactly rags to riches, but only a couple of weeks ago they were just another team of hand-to-mouth survivors. The burning question has to be, who played the part of Fairy Godmother?

Liz overcomes her trepidation at meeting me to answer (though how anyone could be scared of me I can’t comprehend).

“It’s all the result of Rob’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 (Calvert).”

“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.”

“They wrote back and told us to send more tapes,” interjects Robin, his deceptively babyfaced countenance camouflaging a singularly determined personality, the guitar hero of the piece!

“We did, and things have just escalated from there.”

And the 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.

But without the wistful vocals and atmospheric lyrics it would be like a cake without the icing. Me putting a needle to songs like “Wax and Wane” and “Shallow Then Halo” is to follow Liz through a circuitous tunnel, emerging only to take her hand and to plunge apprehensively downwards on some narrow spiral staircase. It is hard to believe that this is their first recording together.

I burn with curiosity to know more of their origins, an Liz, the raggle-taggle gypsy, expands the tale for me, her narrative well interspersed with expletives, apologies for her expletives, and confounding phrases like, “I dinna ken” (which I didn’t believe Scottish people really said).

“Grangemouth is not exactly a hive of social activity. The only excitement for a 30-mile radius is the ‘Nash,’ a local hotel disco where Rob was DJ. That’s where we all met, although Rob and Will have been in bands together before.

“She was the only one who could dance,” shouts Will from the bowels of the studio. “We dinna like her very much but she keeps taggin’ along.”

“Ah, shut yer face, you know they’re always takin’ the piss out of me. If i said white they’d say black just to make me look foolish.”

“Don’t need much assistance though, do you?” he shouts and as she marches off to deal with him I’ll condense the meandering story for you.

They decided that forming a band would alleviate some of the tedium of life, a familiar old story as we all know. The Cocteau Twins monicker was gleaned from an early Simple Minds song, and thus the ball was set in motion.

But finding local gigs wasn’t a piece of cake. For a start they were badly located, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Glasgow not willing to embrace what they saw as an Edinburgh band into their gig circuit, and vice versa.

“Maybe they were just a bit wary of us,” muses Will. “Where we come from you’ve got to have hairy arms and prolific tattoos before you’re a real man!”

They have, however, played several gigs in London—you may remember seeing them support The Birthday Party at the Venue last Easter—though unfortunately I missed it. And I’m curious to see them live, particularly to see if the use of the ddrum machine works for them in a live concert.

That’s my nitpick, I don’t like the perfect syncopation and tone the machine provides. I’d prefer to hear the hollower, tinnier sound of real drums, which to my mind would better complement the ephemeral qualities of the music.

“Maybe you’re right,” ponders Rob. “But the introduction of a fourth party would ruin the rapport of our close knit threesome, so things will have to stay the way they are.”

So how ambitious are our three babies in the wood now that they can see beyond a short-term future?

Isolating Liz as we rustle up a coffee in this musical cave, she balks at the question—this is the first interview she’s done with one of the three mega-influential music papers(!) and the coyness is unfeigned.

“Och, I dinna ken really, I’m no takin’ a lot of notice of how the record’s doing. The implications scare me too much. I’m just looking forward to going home for a while. I don’t want to move to London, though I expect that sometime we may have to.”

I really wish this interview was audible like SEX (or is it like mentioning ITV when you work for the BBC?) I’d love you to hear the lilting colloquial inflexions that lose themselves when she sings; she’s the perfect antidote to the sickly simperings of compatriot Clare Grogan—and the Cocteau Twins’ collective naivety is uncontrived, not pushed forward as an image.

Instead it is a catalyst for the vulnerable quality that makes me want to take all three home with me and cook them lashings of lasagne verde washed down with litres of maternal advice!

But our expansive waistlines and the stringent time schedules forbid such self indulgence. They’re here to record an EP, to be released in the near future and, judging from the snatches I’ve heard, I’m sure that it won’t be an anti-climax to “Garlands.”

Again, the almost fey inflexions of Liz’s vocals play a prominent part in creating shimmering images of vast empty spaces and will-o-the-wisp mystery. You’re going to like it!

And why are my colleagues of the press resting on their laurels—why aren’t they lauding the Twins with the acclaim they deserve? Did I hear one of you sharks whisper that she’s only a second rate Siouxsie? Step closer, worm, and prepare to defend yourself and your convictions, for I fight to the death.” ▣