"...since we started with just me and Liz, we've written more songs than the old Cocteaus ever wrote, which is strange. Maybe there was an element of laziness." — Robin Guthrie
Head Over Heels, the Cocteau Twins' second full-length recording, is often cited by the band as well as many enthusiasts as being among their true favorites. Along with its companion EP, Sunburst and Snowblind, Head Over Heels fairly established the trademark "Cocteau" sound, and both met with generally positive responses in the music media and achieved number one spots on the UK Independent charts. I write "generally positive" because the press at the time, although enamoured of the Twins, still had a habit of comparing them to other bands—namely Siouxsie and the Banshees—comparisons which were becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Robin commented on the comparison: "If they'd [Siouxsie and the Banshees] meant half the things they said when they started, they would have finished after their second LP - that would have been that. Now they're the establishment they were fighting against when they started. They've really overdone it, just making fucking idiots of themselves. They're so old and they just go on and on making records. It's not relevant, what they're doing, anymore. I'm not saying we'll stop but I hope we have the sense to know when we're past it." [Rorschach Testing, 1983].
The new album was recorded following a European tour, with the Cocteaus supporting Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark - a tour which they had to cut short. Around this time, the band consisted of only Robin and Elizabeth, so playing live required some non-traditional setups such as backing tapes and monitoring systems in place of a drummer and bassist. Robin explained, "We had technical difficulties this time, so we had to come home. When we got there, there was nothing (equipment wise) we'd asked for at all. It's difficult using a tape because we've got to hear exactly what's on the tape so we can play along with it. The monitors just weren't there. If you've got a drummer and a bass payer it's easy, you can just look round and see what they're playing. You can hear the noise of the drum kit off stage but we really need a perfect monitor system." [Rorschach Testing, 1983.]
When asked about the obvious, Robin explained: "[It will be just the two of us] For the forseeable future. I'm not going to rule anything out now. Every gig we've played we've had people coming up and saying, 'It wasn't very good. If you had a bass player and drummer it would have been great.'"
(Jokingly) "I've got to get a new singer though."
"I'm a moaning bitch, basically." Liz deadpanned.
"I get on fine." Retorted Robin.
Liz: "I just get really, sort of uptight. Robin's very even-tempered."
Robin: "Since then I've discovered she's worse when it comes to singing live. Three days prior to a gig that's when the moods start—slamming doors, breaking things."
Liz, continuing the joke: "Oh yes, that's the best of it..."
Robin: "You never said that in Europe, did you? You said sitting in the back of the van going to gigs was the best bit."
Liz: "Well it was the best bit there because we were fighting a losing battle. The sound was bad, every gig."
Robin: "It's alright for the soundman out front but it's not for us - the monitors have got to be perfect." [All Quotes Rorschach Testing, 1983].
So they returned to London, having only played eight shows of a planned fifteen-date tour.
As Liz recalls: "We had to give up the flat because we couldn't afford to travel and pay the rent. So we did that, did the tour and then of course we had no home. So we thought, Where the fuck are we gonna go? Foolishly John Wilde and Scott Roger, who'd come to a lot of the dates on the tour, had said, Well, if you really need somewhere to stay, just come along at any old time and we'll put you up and all that stuff. But I think they meant a weekend, and it turned out to be about a year. We made Head Over Heels while we lived there—we went back to Grangemouth to record it, made it up as we went along in the studio—but we stayed there while it was going on. There was a lot going on in that house. It was a really good atmosphere, really productive, speeding out of our heads all summer and stuff like that." [Volume 5, 1992]
The couple did eventually settle into a London flat of their own in a building of otherwise older folk. Soon thereafter, they found themselves nearly being evicted due to the excessive noise!
"We're getting evicted, I think, and we haven't even bloody been here!" Exclaimed Liz.
Robin did the explaining..."Everybody in the whole block signed a petition to get us out because of the noise and we've been in Europe. The day we made the Mortal Coil video we were out from about eight in the morning 'til about two the following morning and the next day we had a complaint about 'the terrible noise that was going on the day before'. Everybody else in the place is really old so we don't fit in..." [Rorschach Testing, 1983].
There is Head Over Heels, after all—precarious living arrangements aside. The absence of Will Heggie is made apparent, at least, by the fact that the album sounds nothing like its predecessors. Although over time most people would come to expect this sort of freshness from the Cocteau Twins, Head Over Heels is the result of much improvisation and experimentation, with Robin developing his own unique bass style and songwriting entirely independently.
"...since we started with just me and Liz," Robin explained, "we've written more songs than the old Cocteaus ever wrote, which is strange. Maybe there was an element of laziness." [Rorschach Testing, 1983].
This musical exploration is evident with such diverse songs as "Multifoiled," with its jazz and rock-a-billy influences, and the punk and new wave edges of "In Our Angelhood" and "Because of Whirl-Jack." Other songs, such as the sweeping "Sugar Hiccup" and the romantic "From the Flagstones" exhibit an ingenuity uniquely their own. The anthemic "Musette and Drums" is perhaps one of the most emotionally charged Cocteau Twins songs ever and, in a way, started a Cocteau Twins tradition of finishing albums off with such tracks ("Donimo"; "Ooze Out and Away, Onehow"; "Ella Megalast Burls Forever"; "Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires"; "Pur"; "Seekers Who Are Lovers").
One UK music journalist referred to Head Over Heels as a "whirligig of sound" or "scorpion cocktail", and the descriptions are rather appropriate. The guitar and rhythms are multi-layered and significantly lighter than before, and the songs are simple and yet complex, with huge enveloping sounds being evoked from a simple guitar chord and some effects pedals—something that placed Cocteau Twins somewhat ahead of their peers in terms of studio technique and ability—thanks to Robin's gift for technical tinkering and improvisational ingenuity.
It is during this time that we also hear how quickly Liz's voice had developed over the span of just one year, even if her increasingly obscure lyrics continued to elude the listener. The proliferation of praise did not go unnoticed by Fraser: "We bought an Edith Piaf LP the other day, a spur of the moment thing. I'd never heard her but we seemed to get compared. So I thought go for it, Liz. We've been buying an awful lot of Billie Holliday records as well..." [Rorschach Testing, 1983].
In spite of the unavoidable comparisons, it was becoming clear that Liz was on her own path. As for her lyrics, the consensus was generally becoming that what Liz might be singing was not necessarily the point after all. But a good ear can pick out some of the lyrics just the same, and Liz did tease us by having a few of them printed on the inner sleeve of the vinyl release of Head Over Heels:
"When Mama was moth, I took bulb form..." ("When Mama Was Moth")
"Glass candle grenades are popping, still we'll not keel over..." ("Glass Candle Grenades")
"Fig up my love paramour, ooze out and away, onehow..." ("My Love Paramour")
"Tinderbox of a heart, left a shell is all..." ("The Tinderbox (of a heart)")
Cocteau enthusiasts may notice that the phrase 'sunburst and snowblind' is clearly audible in the song "When Mama Was Moth"; the phrase 'ooze out and away, onehow', in "My Love Paramour," is also the title of a song on The Moon and the Melodies, as is the phrase 'bloody and blunt', from "The Tinderbox (of a heart)," which is characteristic of a practice of word-play and cross-referencing Liz would continue on and off for years.
Robin and Liz continued to play live shows throughout this period, including their first American appearances. The set lists included a few of the new songs, some of which were still performed live as recently as 1994. Those songs included "Sugar Hiccup," "From the Flagstones," "My Love Paramour," "Musette and Drums," and "Hitherto." "Musette and Drums," "From the Flagstones," and "Hitherto" were also subsequently featured on the 1985 compilation The Pink Opaque.
By the time the dust had settled following the release of Head Over Heels, it was obvious to everyone that the Cocteau Twins were going to be around for a while, and few, if any, were complaining. They did finally pick up that new bass player, and, ironically, got an extra shot of critical praise and publicity during this same period—but from a project totally unrelated to Head Over Heels: 4AD's This Mortal Coil project.
View a "Favorites" questionnaire, completed by Liz and Robin in 1983.