“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.’”
To create music so singular, audacious and, at times, polarising (and wildly popular) 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 carry on, in detail and with great fanfare, about “What it all means.” The real twist to it all was they could barely pin it down themselves. If their music had a message or made any kind of commentary—as least during their 4AD years—it was a mystery to pretty much everyone. They made music that sounded the way it sounded, crafted with an almost fastidious perfectionism until they were (sort of) 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 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. Questions of “relevance,” which made an appearance now and then, seemed lost on them. Relevance, as far as Cocteau Twins’ music goes, is truly in the ear of the beholder: It’s what the listener makes of it.
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, Goldfrapp, or M83). 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 bring their own kind of relevance—again, if that means anything in this context—as they are newly discovered by anyone yearning for something seminal. (The song “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” played an important role in the novel and young adult film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” as recently as 2012; in 2020 Heaven or Las Vegas was ranked among the most important albums of all time by more than one media outlet.) It is a testament to the timelessness of their sound and production quality that many new 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 be occasionally 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 mostly defied description (but not comparison). 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 some derisive or dismissive opinions from a few music journalists predicting that they would soon fade into obscurity—nothing more than a poor imitation of the great Siouxsie and the Banshees, 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., flattering given that band’s formidable reputation, ultimately amounted to throat-clearing. They were doing something different. Having been snapped up by the fledgling independent label 4AD—which was becoming known for its artistic, experimental moodiness and acts like Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, Rema-Rema, and Modern English, all slightly to the left of the emerging scene—the trio were on to 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 their counterparts of the time, such as The Cure, Joy Division (and later New Order), The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen or, as it were, Siouxsie & The Banshees.
Within eighteen months, and temporarily down to a duo of Fraser and Guthrie following Heggie’s departure, they were being lauded breathlessly by at least half the music press that was 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 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 in their early years 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. To their most sceptical critics this signalled a kind of disingenuousness or fraudulence, though most people were content with or without an explanation.
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.”
They were, arguably, greater than the sum of their parts, the music a sort of alchemical byproduct of their working style and complicated, even dysfunctional relationships. Their distinctive 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 late 1983.
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 multiple 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.
The early comparisons and criticisms gave way eventually, and not just because the music evolved. The more music Cocteau Twins made, the less comparable they became to anything, or anyone, else. It became increasingly difficult to get away with a lazy Siouxsie reference, or to even categorize the music Cocteau Twins were making. Influential bands like the Banshees or Sex Pistols were moving in their own distinct directions by 1983 (with John Lydon’s band Public Image Limited picking up where the Pistols had left off). Even groups like fellow Scots Simple Minds, whose song “No Cure” had given the Cocteaus their band name, were becoming more mainstream.
Were bands like Cocteau Twins a new kind of punk standard-bearer, 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. Capitalism, as always, picked up the most marketable bits and repackaged them for mainstream consumption on upstart taste-makers like MTV and networks like it. 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 disinterest in describing what they were doing or conveying 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.
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.
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 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.”
It was with their third LP, 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.”
But while they assumed positions alongside other 80s bands working in parallel and enjoying great success, Cocteau Twins—intentionally or not—tended toward the less pop-oriented, less commercially accessible end of the spectrum, keeping company with label mates Dead Can Dance, Dif Juz, or The Wolfgang Press. Their music was almost objectively beautiful, even joyful—blissful, sublime, choose your superlative—but it was decidedly not exactly radio-friendly pop. 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.
Misunderstood and mercurial, they seemed utterly out of place in the music business. And they might 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 three musicians in their early 20s 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 that relationship 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 new 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 split with 4AD—by some accounts painful—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.
The Cocteaus went on to record two more albums while with Fontana—Four-Calendar Café (1993) and Milk & Kisses (1996)—along with an array of singles and EPs. The relationship, which never quite worked, ended after Milk & Kisses. In the years that followed, both Guthrie and Raymonde rejected the idea that their music during this time was a reflection of the shift from indie 4AD to a more commercial label. Quite the contrary. Although there were inevitable music industry trends and pressures—recording multiple singles with more b-sides, for example—the actual music was a natural progression of what had come before. “I find it difficult to make a demarcation line between the 4AD stuff and the non-4AD stuff,” explained Guthrie, “because that’s a label, that’s not the band.”
True to their essential indie spirit, they then 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 sometimes frustratingly opaque. Much like Liz’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.
As it turns out, 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,” “cinematic,” and countless 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 coil, expanding and contracting, often ecstatically. The music may not have sounded like unhinged angry punks, but the aggression was in there. In late 1983, when asked about punk’s impact in their own work, Robin offered, “I think the sentiment’s still there, the non-conformism is still there, even though it looks like we’re conforming with everything that we’re meant to conform with as a band, but the thought’s still there.” Liz concurred. So many years later, 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 to have been an ideal career.
Years of unresolved conflict, broken and half-repaired relationships, sublimated as well as open dysfunction, and substance addiction 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 addiction and nervous breakdown; near-constant scrutiny and speculation. In other words, a more familiar rock band narrative. Most of the money they made had been invested back into the music, which meant more music had to be made in order to make more money. They’d gone from being “the Voice of God” to “music you can bonk to,” to one of the “three pillars of alternative music” 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 been having something of a renaissance 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 popularity of dreampop and what was dubbed in the 90s, rather critically at first, as “shoegaze,” represented by bands like Lush, Pale Saints, The Sundays, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, Moose, The Veldt, Catherine Wheel, Mazzy Star, Curve, and others, all of whom owed a debt to Cocteau Twins’ influence. Notably, My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Slowdive, and Ride, have 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.) Beyond this revival of sorts has been a wave of artists taking Cocteau Twins’ sound and shoegaze onward—artists like M83, Goldfrapp, Asobi Seksu, Beach House, I Break Horses, Hammock, Blonde Redhead, Alvvays, and The Radio Dept., some of whom got their start with Bella Union.
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 live on in their solo endeavours and post-Cocteau Twins bands like Robin’s Violet Indiana and Simon’s Snowbird and Lost Horizons, the uncanny alchemy of all three together will likely remain elusive. ▣