“They were simply—and remarkably—greater than the sum of their parts, the music a sort of alchemical byproduct of their working style and complicated, even dysfunctional relationships. Their unique sound, according to Elizabeth Fraser, ‘flowed from the chemistry between us.’”
Few and far between are the artists—in any medium—that manage to create anything unique and seminal, timeless and transcendent. Fewer still are recognized for it in their own lifetimes. Twenty years since their rather sudden breakup in 1997, many consider Cocteau Twins among this rarefied family of musicians.
To create music so singular, audacious and, at times, polarising (and wildly popular) just doesn’t happen every day. Perhaps more provocative still—at least to the often fickle UK music press of the 1980s and 1990s—was to be audacious and not bother—nor care—to explain yourselves; to refuse to sit politely down with an interviewer and carry on, in detail and with great fanfare, about “What it all means.” The real twist to it all was they didn’t even know it themselves. They simply made music that sounded the way it sounded, crafted with an almost fastidious perfectionism until they were happy with it, and then sold enough records to keep doing it until they couldn’t anymore.
The former members of Cocteau Twins have by now each been on their own for longer than they were together as a band, which was all of 16 astonishingly prolific years. Any band of any era would kill to have had it. They went from nobodies from small-town Scotland to heavy rotation on the BBC’s coveted John Peel Show in mere months. Within a few years they were among the most beloved post-punk bands in the UK with a growing international following and a music press that couldn’t quite find the words, and really never did.
Many others have tried to reproduce or otherwise capture the Cocteau sound, with limited or mixed success. The few artists who have succeeded sound mostly unlike them, but have managed to convey an unmistakable essence: inspiration without imitation (think Beach House or Goldfrapp). Cocteau Twins were a foundational influence for entire categories of music, notably dream-pop and shoegaze—forms that have themselves resurged in recent years. Somewhat more obliquely, they also became and continue to be a staple of the goth scene, though they, unlike 4AD labelmates Bauhaus, generally eschewed goth’s trappings.
In a world exploding with musical creativity, output, and listening sources, they remain relevant—if that means anything anymore—discovered by new generations of music lovers. It is a testament to the timelessness of their sound and production quality that many younger fans don’t even know that the story started in 1979 (which seems like ancient history), or that the trio formerly known as Cocteau Twins long ago moved on to new endeavours.
Like many groups formed in the early 1980s post-punk wave, their beginnings were humble: Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Will Heggie—the original lineup—were young, shy, self-effacing, awkward, taciturn, frequently profane and circumspect working class teens who, like fellow Scots The Jesus and Mary Chain, to whom they would occasionally be compared, had little else to do but have a go at making music, despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of musical training. Boredom, after all, can be a great motivator for doing things one might not otherwise consider. Though they may have had some inkling, few others could have anticipated the rich vein of expression they would mine in the years following their debut, when they burst onto the British independent music scene fully formed, a kind of self-possessed singularity.
From the start, their music defied description, but there was more than a hint of things to come, as Helen FitzGerald surely perceived in her 1982 piece on Garlands for Sounds magazine: “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.”
Despite derisive or dismissive opinions from a few music journalists predicting that they would soon fade into obscurity—a Siouxsie and the Banshees copycat, some said—Cocteau Twins proved themselves resilient and difficult to dismiss (even when reviews of their music in the UK press tended to be thoughtless and opportunistic hit-jobs). The passing reference to Siouxsie & Co. ultimately amounted to throat-clearing. Having been snapped up by the fledgling independent label 4AD—which was becoming known for its artistic, experimental moodiness and roster of acts like Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, Rema-Rema, and Modern English, that was slightly to the left of the emerging scene—the trio were doing something new, even if words failed to convey exactly what “it” was. In this way, Cocteau Twins, like Jesus and Mary Chain, would always appear distinct from more radio-friendly counterparts of the time, such as The Cure, Joy Division (and later New Order), The Smiths, or Echo and the Bunnymen.
Within eighteen months, and temporarily down to a duo of Fraser and Guthrie following Heggie’s departure, they were being lauded breathlessly by a music press desperate to articulate what it was they were hearing, and usually falling short of the mark or, in some cases, giving over to spasms of either euphoric hyperbole or plain rage. This was not always their fault. Cocteau Twins were reclusive—or at least seemed to be—and almost impossible to interview in a traditional sense. Being Scots, any expression of pride or entitlement would have been uncharacteristic anyway for Fraser and Guthrie. They were routinely asked what it was that made their music so special, what vision drove their songwriting, and they were never able to provide a very concise or satisfactory answer. Responses to such questions were not infrequently met with muffled non-sequitirs, uncomfortable laughs and Scottish expressions like, “I dinna ken.” They left fans, radio programmers, and the music press to try to make something of the mysterious album sleeves, enigmatic song titles, impenetrable lyrics—the whole of it—and sort it out for ourselves. (It was with Treasure, released in the fall of 1984, that the floodgates truly burst open. Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland declared, in its wake, that “Surely this band is the Voice of God.”)
They were, quite simply, greater than the sum of their parts, the music a sort of alchemical byproduct of their working style and complicated, even dysfunctional relationships. Their unique sound “flowed from the chemistry between us,” Elizabeth said, a flow that only increased and improved with the addition of Englishman Simon Raymonde, formerly of Drowning Craze, to the group in early 1984.
Raymonde brought not only sufficient punk sensibility to fill Heggie’s vacancy (Heggie went on to co-found another beloved Scottish band, Lowlife), but a new range of musicianship and songwriting skill. Indeed it was Simon who, in 1985, said, “I don’t really think of us as songwriters. In the traditional sense, they’re not songs at all. Songwriters, to me, mean people who sit down with an acoustic guitar and piano, methodically working out the right chords, what words go with these chords, fitting it all in. We don’t work like that. It’s usually, turn the tape recorder on and hopefully, in ten minutes, we have something. Then Liz will come down, listen and sing. It’s not like songwriting, it’s music.” In myriad interviews in the years since, neither Raymonde nor Guthrie have described their approach any differently. Only in the years just prior to their breakup did this pattern change at all, with Elizabeth contributing more to the instrumentation, and the three working out songs together in real time.
Guthrie added, many years later—in one of the few succinct and straightforward explanations of what it might have been Cocteau Twins were trying to do—that “the aim was to make music with punk’s energy but more finesse and beauty, and that shiny, Phil Spector sound. I was trying to make my guitar sound like I could play it, so I was influenced by guitarists who made beautiful noise, like The Pop Group or Rowland S. Howard.”
Those early Siouxsie comparisons, needless to say, melted away quickly, and not simply because the music evolved; Siouxsie Sioux was an artist already associated heavily with 1970s British punk—a legend by the time Cocteau Twins came along. She was no doubt an inspiration—Elizabeth had a rudimentary Siouxsie tattoo on her arm for years before having it removed (along with one paying homage to The Sex Pistols)—but Sioux was a punk of the old order and one who had, even by 1983, begun to subtly evolve to suit the times. Another Scottish act that had emerged in the 70s punk era, Simple Minds, had even given Cocteau Twins their unusual name (from a song called ‘Cocteau Twins,’ later recorded and released as ‘No Cure’). By 1985, Simple Minds—and Public Image Limited, John Lydon’s successor to the Pistols—were mainstream hit-makers in heavy rotation on MTV.
Were bands like Cocteau Twins the new punk standard-bearers, carrying forward the ethic if not exactly the sound? Conventionalism, after all, hadn’t been entirely wiped away by the rough-edged DIY revolution of punk. Corporate and political power structures hadn’t collapsed, and capitalism, as always, picked up the most marketable bits and repackaged them for mainstream consumption. At the same time, innovation in music exploded. This was helped along with new, more accessible technology that allowed musicians to make the music they wanted, in ways previously impossible or unaffordable. Independent record labels such as 4AD, Factory, Creation, Postcard, Mute, and others were there to support these artists working in the margins. Decidedly un-corporate, they were quickly becoming bellwethers of cool.
Cocteau Twins’ youthful enthusiasm and self-confidence in their music proved to have been an asset throughout their early years, despite their chronic inability to describe what they were doing or convey a sense that they even understood it themselves—or cared if anyone else did. The anti-trend ethic of punk had left its mark, and would be a key ingredient to their success as they defied all fashion, confounded the music press, and enchanted their loyal following in a career that was as prolific as any, and more than most.
They quickly became synonymous with 4AD itself, helping the legendary indie label to establish a distinct identity and reputation, particularly following the release of This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears LP in early 1984, and their unexpected cult hit cover of Tim Buckley’s haunting “Song to the Siren.” It was a watershed event that troubled the band and their relationship with the label for years afterward, even as Cocteau Twins and their music came to define the signature “4AD Sound” of the time.
When early mainstream success came calling in the form of the UK music television powerhouse “Top of the Pops,” following the chart showing of “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” (their first Cocteau song to do so, in early 1984) they infamously turned it down (mostly out of fear, but certainly also because the idea of bright lights, balloons, and dancing didn’t feel suitable, either). It was a decision that ruffled feathers at the BBC for years.
But while they quickly assumed positions alongside other 80s bands working in parallel and enjoying great success, Cocteau Twins tended toward the less pop-oriented, less easily-accessible end of the spectrum, keeping company with label mates Dead Can Dance, Dif Juz, or The Wolfgang Press. It was almost objectively beautiful music, even joyful—blissful, sublime, choose your superlative—but it was decidedly not radio-friendly pop, New Wave, New Romantic, or otherwise. They also eschewed the traditional rock band profile—no glossy photos or lyrics on the record sleeves; interviews continued to be typically rambling, delightfully, incoherent and profanity-laden. There was virtually nothing in the way of concreteness—very little for the public to grasp. There wasn’t even a drummer. Cocteau Twins music wasn’t what you danced to at the club; it was what you listened to afterward, in the wee hours, with the lights down low (or off altogether). They developed a reputation for making the music most likely to accompany sex.
They were misunderstood and mercurial personalities that seemed utterly out of place in the music business. And they would have been, were it not for the guiding hand of Ivo Watts-Russell and 4AD. It was an intense and often fraught relationship that would steward them from the frosty terrain of Garlands and the ballads, jigs, and reels of Sunburst and Snowblind and Head Over Heels, through three more LPs and eight EPs to the shimmering, sunlit heights of Heaven or Las Vegas before it finally ended.
By the time Heaven or Las Vegas debuted in September 1990, the band were firmly in control of most aspects of their work. Following a successful string of releases with 4AD in the mid-1980s (Aikea-Guinea, Tiny Dynamine, Echoes in a Shallow Bay, Victorialand, Love’s Easy Tears, and their first major-label LP release—in the USA—on Capitol Records, 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll) they had earned enough to build a self-sufficient and state-of-the-art studio, which they christened September Sound. The studio, and Robin’s production skills, were very much in demand by 4AD, other labels, and musicians. Liz and Robin had had a child together, and Simon had married and had a child as well. The band were barely in their 30s and life, from the outside, seemed perfect.
The painful split with Ivo and 4AD came while they were on tour promoting Heaven or Las Vegas. As expected, other labels lined up, eager to woo the trio, and the venerable Fontana eventually won them over.
They went on to record two more albums with Fontana—Four-Calendar Café (1993) and Milk & Kisses (1996)—along with an array of singles and EPs. The relationship with Fontana, which never quite worked, ended after Milk & Kisses. The band started their own label, Bella Union, as a way to finally assume complete control of their destiny. It was the right move, but one that would prove to have been too little, too late. Bella Union only ever released one Cocteau Twins record, BBC Sessions, in 1999.
The arc of Cocteau Twins’ story is by turns beguiling, fascinating, and frustratingly opaque. Much like Elizabeth’s lauded and debated lyrical style, one feels as though one isn’t quite getting the full picture; that no two people hear exactly the same thing. The outward refinement and perfectionism that evolved as they matured had been concealing a much more familiar punk narrative. Because although journalists and fans alike would typically resort to words like “wispy,” “ethereal,” “gossamer,” “atmospheric,” and other phrases meant to evoke something cloudy, amorphous, and mysterious, at the heart of the Cocteaus’ sound was a carefully controlled and channeled tension; something wound tightly, like a spring, expanding and contracting, often ecstatically. The music may not have sounded like unhinged angry punks, but the aggression was in there. Few could have known for certain the extent of the turmoil beneath the music’s beautiful layers of melody and soaring soundscapes, and what appeared, from the outside, at least, to have been an ideal career.
Years of unresolved conflict, broken and half-repaired relationships, sublimated—as well as open—dysfunction, and substance abuse had taken their toll, and Cocteau Twins, though resilient, ultimately proved no match for it. While recording their ninth proper LP, which was never completed, Elizabeth—the painfully shy and panic-stricken teenage girl who had become one of the world’s most distinctive and beloved singers, and who had quite publicly shared her thoughts and experiences on Four-Calendar Café—made a break from the music and relationships that had defined her adult life. Alas, it seemed the lyrics, unusually plain and crystal clear, of the 1993 song “Evangeline” had come to pass: “There is no going back / I can’t stop feeling now / I am not the same / I’m growing up again / I had to fantasize / Just to survive / I was a famous artist / Everybody took me seriously / Even those who did / Never understood me.”
In later years, Liz described her life in Cocteau Twins as having been “an endurance test,” and perhaps it was: a frenetic burst of creativity spanning 16 years, eight LPs, ten EPs, and a handful of singles; marriages, children, divorces; drug abuse and nervous breakdown; near-constant scrutiny and speculation. Most of the money they made was invested back into the music, which meant more music had to be made in order to make more money. They went from being “the Voice of God” to “music you can bonk to,” to one of the “three pillars of alternative music, alongside New Order and The Smiths,” all by the age of 40. At least from Liz’s perspective, there seemed never any time to stop, reflect, and ask oneself if this is what one really wanted to be doing. It couldn’t last.
The dynamic that had made their music possible—one that, more often than not, depended on the three members barely interacting and yet feeding off one another’s creativity—had proven untenable. “I turned to others for some sort of reality check,” Fraser said. But “they hadn’t even noticed there was a problem. And that was another thing that sent me absolutely round the bend. When you need things measured and it’s not happening it can make you feel quite mad.”
Though they had tried to reform briefly in 2005 for the massive annual Coachella Festival, Elizabeth was the one who pulled the plug. “I don’t remember it being that much money and in any case that’s not the reason,” she said. “But people get so fucking carried away. Even though something’s staring you in the face, people just cannot see it. I knew it wouldn’t happen and it didn’t take long to want out.”
Since their initial breakup, and even more so since the failed reunion in 2005, Cocteau Twins have become relevant again—if one can argue they were ever “relevant” in the way that word usually implies—in a world where the DIY, anti-trend, anyone-can-make-music, to-hell-with-fashion punk attitude of the 70s and post-punk 80s is having a resurgence. This revival includes the recent popularity of what was dubbed in the 90s, somewhat negatively, as “shoegaze,” represented by bands like Lush, Pale Saints, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, Moose, Catherine Wheel, Curve, and others, all of whom owed a debt to Cocteau Twins’ influence. Several of these, most notably My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Slowdive, and Ride, have even reformed, embarked on world tours, and released new music. (Mark Gardener, of Ride, collaborated with Robin Guthrie on the album Universal Road, released in 2015 on Robin’s Soleil Après Minuit label.)
In 2008, Q magazine awarded the group its “Inspiration Award.” The three former bandmates appeared together on stage again—briefly—for the first time in many years. Robin, characteristically reticent, said in his acceptance speech, “So many people tell us all the time that the music we made back then stayed with them, so that’s really good. It’s lovely to be part of that.” Liz followed with a warm thank-you, adding, “This is actually the first thing we’ve ever won, which is very bizarre!”
Well into the 21st century, the iconic Cocteau Twins sound continues to be recognized as a transcendently singular thing: influencing many, standing alone, and enduring without the aura of nostalgia that so often plagues other bands from the era. And while the constituent parts—Robin’s and Simon’s masterful guitar, bass, percussion, and keyboard compositions, Elizabeth’s uncanny voice, the production values that brought it all together so perfectly—live on in their solo endeavours and post-Cocteau Twins bands like Robin’s Violet Indiana and Simon’s Snowbird and Lost Horizons—we likely will never hear the unique combination of all three, or their like, again. ▣