“Twindrops Keep Falling on my Head”
- By Paul Morley
- NME/New Musical Express
- 10-Dec 1983
Robin and Elizabeth, two friends, at 12:30pm are sat, drinking tea from cheap mugs, in the kitchen of their flat. It is a Wednesday.
The flat, in Muswell Hill, London N.10, they share with some people I do not meet. Robin and Elizabeth have their own room where they sleep and which they tidy. In the kitchen they make the tea and plan the day.
The kitchen looks just like a kitchen that a few people share, well used, you almost want to pat it on the back and say well done for all it’s been through. Robin and Elizabeth sit on small wooden chairs at a skinny table. Calm, I burst in, noisy, with a carrier bag of strong lagers and a plastic case containing a mono Sony recorder and two TDK C90 cassettes. Storm.
The couple in the kitchen are very soft, and quiet, and remote, and only really smile for each other, and I shake the worn kitchen with my nervous friendliness. If Robin and Elizabeth were wearing hats, which of course they’re not, that would be silly, my vulgar boisterousness would have knocked these hats sideways. They don’t physically move together, but they do get closer, as if cornered.
Robin eyes me suspiciously. Elizabeth grips onto her mug as though it contains wonderful secrets.
Copies, that are unread and neatly folded, of Melody Maker and Sounds, lay on the kitchen table. The Smiths and Roland Rat, flat, coloured in, on paper, folder in the middle. The Cocteau Twins, movement and shape, black and grey, sat by the table, not folded in the middle. Robin, wondering what I am, looking at me as if to say, “I have nothing to say to you and I won’t say that very well.” Elizabeth, now moving by the sink, restless, rinsing some mugs. There are rings on her fingers and a shiny stud in her nose. Her skin is very white. Robin’s face is round and reddening.
“So what do you want to talk to us about?” asks Robin, using a soft Scottish voice that is quite at home in this cold shared kitchen filled with old used utensils. He places a careful see-through deprecating emphasis on the ‘us,’ and at the same time he challenges me.
Oh, vague things, I say.
The couple consider this reply. Vaguely. The three of us get used to our positions in the kitchen, defending in our own ways the almost handsome silence. I open a bottle of strong lager, Robin, at a distance, mixes a gin and tonic and adds a slice of lemon. Elizabeth, to my surprise, frantically rubs her fingers together, in a state of true anguish. I though I’d been invited, but it appears I am an intruder. I could kill them, because they make me feel so ugly.
But I had a feeling that this would be indulgent, so I gently inquired if we would have to talk in the open wilds of the kitchen.
They invite me into their room. Traffic churns right outside the windows in this room, which doesn’t smell of anything, and a clock ticks proudly by their bed. The three things you notice most on a recording of the conversation Robin, Elizabeth and I crumpled out over two hours—this is after you’ve marvelled at all the sinking pauses—is the traffic turning right outside their room, the clock tocking by their bed, and my huge voice lashing them with repetitive, fussy, often happily frivolous questions.
You hardly hear Robin defending his virtue and describing his disappointments, and even he seems to be bawling if compared to Elizabeth. She’s content to disappear for days and days as we talk, and when she does say something, she barely reappears. The loudest noise she made was the first noise she made during the conversation, after many meandering minutes. She sneeed, startling me, Robin and herself.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, as if she’d just broken open her soul for the world to examine.
He sits at the top of the bed in their room, leaning against a wall. Elizabeth perches on the side of the bed at his feet. Her hero’s feet? Oh, come now. Occasionally she will pluck a stray hair from his jeans, and once she trod some loose ash into the carpet, from sight, from mind. The room is very tidy.
At one point Robin will pull a hair from Elizabeth’s throat: the length of the hair shocks us all, but don’t worry, it wasn’t growing out of the skin of her throat. It must have fallen there somehow. Records in the room are stacked very neatly. The room is dustless, there isn’t really a hair out of place. Or at least, if there is, it is removed with some drama, and it finds a proper place. Oblivion, or something. From sight. From mind. They’re from Falkirk.
Robin decides: “Surely we’re dwelling on the past.”
We weren’t at that time, but we would some time soon. It was something to talk about.
Robin softly complains: “Everybody at our record company tells us how popular and important the Cocteau Twins are, but I cannot really comprehend any of that. The only thing we have to go on is our record sales, and we don’t really sell that many records.”
That made us think. It was something to think about.
We needed something to laugh about, not least because I was a stranger and Robin and Elizabeth woudl be highly happy living as a holy couple alone in high cold mountains, and we seemed strange to each other. I asked Elizabeth if she considered herself a writer: by his time she was talking to me, just, not sneezing or staring down past her knees at the clean carpet. Are you a writer?
Do you call yourself a singer?
So what do you call yourself?
She turns to Robin, touches his leg: “Oh, you’ve got a lot of names that you call me, haven’t you…?”
Robin smiles at her: “You’re a wee bastard, that’s what you are.”
That made us laugh.
Robin looks into a corner of the room: “I get a funny feeling running up my nose and my back when people go on about having to label yourself.”
He looked as if he was in a sort of pain.
Robin and Elizabeth are the Cocteau Twins. If you wondered why we were all brought together, it was to talk about the Cocteau Twins, or not talk, or try to talk. Doing them a favour, or not, or trying to. At the end of our talk-not-talk I tell Robin that I have a conclusion about the Coctwins, one of many that I could come to, but one that is in this random, broken world, as good as any.
I conclude that the Cocteau Twins are one detached Scottish boy who wants to be a record producer, and one distant Scottish girl who found, somehow, that she could sing. A technician and a voice.
“That’s a bit hollow,” Robin snorts.
Well, tell me more, I implore.
“Oh, we’ve been spilling our bloody life stories out to you…” he sneers.
Spilling…this was an exaggeration.
Dripping, more like.
A couple of drops.
Twin drops were falling on my head.
It was torture.
I asked Elizabeth if she was excited about being a Cocteau Twin: a question that was a little soft-centred, indeed, soft around the edges, but there is never anything solid about the very best questions. But the question was far too soft for Elizabeth, and she pulled her eyebrows together, and looked at me, puzzled.
I wasn’t after much, I just thought it might be interesting if she could explain whether being a Twin had taken her anywhere exciting, disturbing, stimulating, and I didn’t mean on a bus. Are you excited about being a Cocteau Twin?
“Yes and no.” Drop and drop.
In what way yes and no…It was as if I had leapt at her. This question was so soft it popped apart like a soap bubble. Elizabeth tried to hold onto it.
“Er…” A long pause as long as your grandmother’s life. Or death. “Oh…” A pause as long as a sleepless night. The clock ticks. The traffic turns. “Oh, God…” C’mon woman. “I’m going to say sorry again.”
Robin looks on: “I feel like an outside observer here.”
I try again. I am embarrassed, and it is so silly to punish this scared girl who signs for her supper but not before time, but life’s caught up in these ridiculous moments, like when you ask a soft simple question and get trapped in time, lost in loud long pauses. And seeing as though I’m here, or close by, I might as well persevere. Are you excited about being in the Cocteau Twins?
“I said yes and no…”
I almost heard you.
“What are you trying to provoke us into saying?” demands Robin.
Tell me some stories, tell me where you are, tell me where you might have been…tell me something. Unfair, decides Robin.
“We’re not deliberately obscure,” he continues, as the clock tocks on and a large lorry makes good use outside of a green light. “Do you think we are? I mean, we’re not lying in your face.”
You seem distressed that I have questions to ask, that I am interested in your position and your passions, that anyone can be at all curious about who you might be.
“I don’t think that we should have to explain anything. I would have thought that the music explains everything really…”
You feel that the music is the end, and not the beginning. You won’t accept that your music, something you feel very close to and involved with and therefore special to you, will attract attention and questioning…you don’t seem to want to acknowledge all the complications that must go with making a pop music.
“It all comes from a rejection I have of certain ideas in the music business…the selling…the competing…the music is there, it represents a particular time for us, we live it at that time…and there it is…if I was someone else I wouldn’t want to know about me, all those little personal details, my opinions, that’s all to do with the packaging, a packaging I don’t want to know about…”
Is this purity possible in such a rough, raucous world?
“Well, it’s a nice thought to have with you…”
But it means that you’re completely defensive all the time, even towards people who are, so to speak, on your side. I don’t want to pin you down, for instance, and I don’t want to harm you. But the more you pull away from me, the more I prod at you.
“On the whole in interviews I am defensive because generally the first question is, Oh, why do you copy Siouxsie and the Banshees? …something like that. I mean, that’s enough to put you on the defensive straight away.”
But do you never want to attack such laziness instead of letting it wash over you, and then moaning later.
“I suppose deep down I’d like to, but I’m just not the sort of person who is going to go round shouting at people.”
As Robin talks, Elizabeth will glance out of the corner of her at at me. Then pull her eye, and her other one, away, to look at something else, the carpet, or Robin’s trousers, or the clean windows. She looked genuinely scared of me, or what I represented, or what surrounded me. This scared me. Robin’s tiny mocking smile didn’t help. He dwells on the past: I said we would.
“In the days of ‘Garlands,’ especially, people had these notions that we would be clad in leather, with make-up all over, and po-faced. People would actually come along to interview us and they’d ask us where the Cocteau Twins were. It’s us, we’d say. They’d go, Oh, God, we thought you at least looked good!”
Robin smirks out of a kind of triumph—he cannot hide it, although he tries—at this memory. Elizabeth shivers a little, as if this memory, like most others, was a cold wind.
“Nowadays,” continues Robin, referring bitterly to a recent letter in Sounds, “people expect obese monstrosities.”
Elizabeth is abruptly rigid: “Oh, that was awful,” she moans.
Robin is as tubby as Bernie Winters. Elizabeth is as fragile as Karen Carpenter.
“Why did the letters’ editor pick out that letter to print and not only print it, but put it in a big box with our picture beside it?”
And the whole world is against them.
And the real world is beyond them.
Robin has his say: “We hardly talk about the Cocteau Twins between ourselves…we talk about whether we should rehearse or not, that’s about it, the limite of it. We’ve got much better things to talk about than the Cocteau Twins.”
Elizabeth has her say: “We just sort of take the piss out of each other a lot of the time…poke fun at each other…”
So your life isn’t all the Cocteau Twins?
“Working as the Cocteau Twins is very sporadic. I’d like to spend more time doing it, but you spend most of your time with the business, dealing with all the technicalities, signing things…I’m not doing this to deal with all that, but it’s what happens. You do it to escape one routine and end up in a whole new one…at first it was just, wouldn’t it be brilliant to make a record? And then we made some records, and it was, Oh, there’s a fuck of a lot of work to do now.”
I consider why it is we’re getting so distraught.
Will enters our time together. Will and Robin wanted to make some music, there in Scotland, and found Elizabeth dancing in a club. If she could dance that well, it was decided, surely she will sing superbly.
I look at Elizabeth sat on the bed, as perplexed to be involved in a conversation about pop music as your grandmother would be, dead or alive, and I find it hard to think that she has ever danced. I find it easy to imagine her fighting to leave her body. She rubs her fingers.
Was she excited about putting a record out?
“It was all new to me. Robin had always decided that that was what he wanted to do.”
At that time, you had nothing planned, did you even know where you were going, or where you would be pushed? Elizabeth cannot quite flick this memory into play. Robin answers.
“I think this is probably the last place she thought she’d end up.”
Did Robin and Elizabeth fall in love before the Cocteau Twins or during?
“Oh…I think before…we used to live together…just as it started…”
So the Cocteau Twins grew out of the energies of love?
“I wouldn’t say that…maybe the other round…not entirely…but it’s closer to the other way round…”
You learnt so much about each other that love was inevitable?
“Well, since we’ve met we’ve not spent more than a day apart from each other ever…Apart from when Elizabeth was in hospital…that wasn’t very good. I was lonely. Oh, I don’t want everyone reading this in a music paper. It’s personal.”
Isn’t everything personal, nothing more so than your music?
“Yes…but that is just there, and I don’t give it the hard sell. And talking about me and Elizabeth is especially personal.”
The public show would infect the special nature of your relationship?
“No, no, no. I’ll tell the whole world that we’re in love, but it would be embarrassing.”
Do you get embarrassed a lot?
It is Elizabeth’s regretful, exultant voice, singing to a different world for a now that must become then, that has over the last 18 months made the Cocteau Twins, between the two LPs ‘Garlands’ and ‘Head Over Heels,’ just that little bit better, a little bitter brilliance, a little brittle beauty. A light at the beginning of the tunnel.
It’s safe to describe their music, at its best, as a whiteness descending downwards. And, yes, at their best, they make free of time, working deliberately at the edge of quietness, as if eloquence—that kind of thing—is indecent. A Cocteau Twins song is an active contemplation of the impossibilities or near-impossibilities of adequate ‘coming into being.’ The couple strive towards a recovery of original purity.
What they hint at, pitifully, in their inability to organise that silly thing the pop interview, they express powerfully in their best songs: not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth. Elizabeth declares war on established language, and the songs allow a kind of orbit or cluster of possible responses, tangential readings and splintered echoes. The songs pivot inward and we follow as best we may.
At such a time you would imagine that such ambient, emblematic, introspective music would be lost for all time, its moving quality, its commitment to abstruse and transcendental worry is a nuisance in today’s climate, where people are just too sure of themselves, sealing themselves away in an airless present, cutting away vital stresses of doubt from their thought and speech.
But the Cocteau Twins have an audience, and it is growing. It is a sign small, but one of many, that people are not perhaps convinced by the ‘certainty’ they are being forced to accept. The Twins’ music has a magic that has cut through everything that should have destroyed it: their innocence and insolence, which in the cold plight of the pop interview sometimes just seems a stupid modesty or hopeless purity, has somehow worked, or at least not been defeated, and a standard success has come to them.
They are baffled by this. They cannot quite accept that an energy, however apparently opaque and concealed, that rides so sweetly and radiantly on the edge of the conflict between private expression and public utterance is bound to enchant.
“The more successful we become,” says Robin, stuck in a future acclaim, predicting new rules and regulations coming along to taunt them, haunted by the problems of having to be public even in a small way, “the more it will all get cocked up, the more we will have to do things that have nothing to do with the music…and, y’know, we’ll probably feel pretty shitty about it.”
What can you do?
“We’ll just take it as it comes. But it will make less and less sense as it goes along.”
Isn’t the kind of attention you are receiving a kind of reward? Isn’t an audience important?
“The idealist in me says, No, fuck that, it doesn’t matter about people’s attention…The realist in me says it’s quite nice for eating and things like that. Yeah, you have to survive.”
Do you feel that maybe the Cocteau Twins can encourage other people because out of nowhere, out of deep blue, and before you knew what had happened, you have shown that it is possible to establish an audience in this deadening joyless world, pushed down below the surfaces, and against all the odds, and amidst all the evens, made something unique and unclouded?
Robin lets this soak in. Elizabeth doesn’t let it touch her. “I would say that we’re the biggest shits, no example to anyone. We’re such a mess, it’s unbelievable. We never think about those kinds of things…”
Do you feel that the Cocteau Twins have build their following, an obsessed following, because the music fills a spiritual gap that many people feel exists in their life, the sound perhaps accepting the ancient panic and chaos that isn’t included in today’s vocabulary?
“The realist in me says that John Peel plays our records so the people who listen to Peel go out and buy them…The idealist says something like what you’ve just said. People say this kind of thing and yeah, it’s nice to think that’s maybe what’s happening, but I don’t spend every waking hour thinking, Oh, goody, I’m filling a space in somebody’s life. That makes me important, and that’s just not the case. We never think about these kinds of things…”
You think there’s something wrong with this kind of thought?
“I just don’t want to think about myself all day.”
You don’t think about yourself at all?
“Not on that sort of level…I think about cooking the tea and Elizabeth about hoovering the carpet…like mere mortals you could say.”
Will leaves the time we have together. He played the bass in the group until a long European tour supporting Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: this tour hit them flat with the impact of routine and the greyness of repetition and only the two lovers could survive, clinging to each other, closer, clearer, the nastiness of regularity ringing in their ears.
“As much as I’d like to be able to say I’ve not spoken to Will since we split out of choice, I can’t. I’d love to talk to him. I just can’t bring myself to talk to him. I can’t remember the last time we talked even. I’m just sort of frightened to get in touch with him. I dunno, he was like my best friend for eight years or whatever and suddenly he’s not there.”
How can this be?
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
From sight, from mind. Loss, and gain.
Elizabeth’s lyrics weave their way mysteriously in and out of the interstices between here and elsewhere: how can we catch exactly the sensation of delight and disquiet felt when we hear her sing them?
“I’m just sort of avoiding writing about me.”
“I don’t know.”
Are you scared of discovering yourself?
“No. I just don’t want to write about myself…I’m not interested in me.”
Talking to her, she can make me so frustrated I could hit her over the head with a lager bottle.
Hearing her sing, she just leaves me moved.
Sometimes I could kick Robin in the groin.
“She never tells me what a song is about. She might tell me what some of the words mean. But you can see for yourself what the songs are about.”
When did you realise that you could sing? Elizabeth has, temporarily, reappeared. But Robin answers.
“It was a Cocteau Twins rehearsal. When we first started she would never sing unless Will went home for his tea.”
Elizabeth boldly, indignantly, interferes, a memory firmly in place. “He fucking told Will he’d heard me sing and he hadn’t.”
So Elizabeth having this supernatural voice, a voice that makes Robin’s noodlings and stitchings something more than just a jarring private whim, something like a truly formidable meditation, it was…fate.
“Fate’s rather a romantic word for it,” says Robin, and I suddenly realise that he isn’t eccentric, strange, or particularly awkward, just obstinately pragmatic. Down to earth just as Elizabeth is busy standing still, flying and lowing in a pastness yet to come.
“Luck was more like it. I suppose fate will look better in print.”
FATE. LUCK. Does one look better than the other?
Was it a kind of liberation, Elizabeth, when you discovered that you could sing, did it open up possibilities, or did it start off falteringly?
Elizabeth flutters…Robin answers. “It started off wonderfully, I thought.”
Can you remember the moment?
“I can…” smiles Robin, who’s not as afraid as he’d like to appear of memory. “I burst out laughing. I was just amazed.”
What did you sing?
“I cannot remember…” Elizabeth tries to trick the memory into the present. “OH!” she squeals, delightedly, unexpectedly, “I remember! I remember! Four lines. I’d written four lines…” The memory burns for her. “I had to squeeze them out…they were awful…” The memory rapidly burns itself out. “I can’t remember them.”
Was it a liberation for you to sing?
“I didn’t keep at it…” Elizabeth fades away.
Robin attempts to pull her back. “After a few weeks she decided that she didn’t want to be a singer.”
Elizabeth: “I didn’t feel comfortable.”
Robin: “She wanted to be a singer, then she didn’t want to be a singer, then she wanted…”
When you did want to be a singer, why? This question seemed important, not at all soft, considering the uncanny power Elizabeth discovers when she sings, as if she’s found her home, her place, her air, her hope, her time…
“Oh, I don’t know what to say…” She trembles.
Do you want to say something?
“Oh yes…it’s just…I never think about these things…I was just sort of…we just do what we do…it’s all very natural…we don’t force ourselves in any way.”
Is this beauty? This rare, precious belief in ‘the natural’…are you scared of becoming self-analytical and self-conscious about what you do because you might lose something if you think so blandly about what it is, what it might be? Is this the marriage of doubt and faith?
Robin: “Well, if you think about things, the processes of making records, if you make records to keep everybody else happy, or whatever, if we think why all the time, we’d just make shitty records. Once you start questioning yourself, then there’s something to live up to. It will be the death of you once you begin believing what people say about you. We don’t want to do this simply to please people.”
The whole process of making ‘Head Over Heels,’ it was so relaxed, and that’s important…It’s ours and no one else’s, no one must get in the way, nothing…We never had to force ourselves, it just came out, we never once sat down and thought, Oh! What is the next song going to be about? You just know when something is right and something wrong…It’s a feeling that you get…just a feeling…”
You demand so much purity, so much isolation—you cannot be so untouched, so removed?
“Who says!” softly snaps Robin.
Robin: “We liked it a lot and it became the A-side of the 7-inch and it got played on the radio a lot and we did a video for it and it was a bit off-putting when you spend all your time being the Cocteau Twins and then that happens…It was a nice record, but I began to feel sorry for myself…there was one point where it looked like we would be doing Top of the Pops…I wouldn’t have done it. I’d do it for the Cocteau Twins…at least then we’d go in with both feet…”
It must have been funny for you as This Mortal Coil quivered towards the Top 40 and the certain world.
Robin: “I wasn’t laughing.”
Elizabeth: “It wasn’t funny!”
In your lyrics, Elizabeth, are you trying to compile your own logic, make up of your own sense, create your own reality, lost as you are in the perishable nature of what’s been given you?
“No…no…I don’t think that’s right at all…”
Do you know what you do…
“No…but I don’t think that’s right at all.”
Elizabeth sneezes. It’s a very loud sneeze. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. It’s OK, I say. But she’s gone. Maybe she’s in the kitchen. Robin tries to join her.
There’s time for me to go. ▣