- By Jonh Wilde
- Oct 1983
When the Cocteau Twins narrowed down to a two-piece (Robin and Elizabeth) in June of this year, they settled down for some re-thinking and some rigourous re-channelling of energies. Quitting their tour support with OMD in Germany with four gigs remaining, it was patently obvious that this re-thinking was essential.
I talked to guitarist, Robin, about the effects of that demanding tour that took them through Britain, France, and Germany, abruptly finishing (for them, at least) one eventful night in Hamburg. This was to be their last performance with bassist Will.
Robin: “Although that tour took certain matters to a head, we have no doubts that some vital lessons were learnt. It was a great experience, although towards the end, we began to question the advantages of it. Commercially, it has made very little difference to us, as I imagine we only converted a minority of the people we played to. The most important lesson though was the whole question of TOURING itself, which just seemed futile by the end of it.”
ZZ: Does that mean that you would never tour again?
Robin: “At the moment, that seems definite. We would rather do selected dates occasionally than one huge tour. It seems pointless to decide otherwise. The OMD tour was exceptional because we were playing to their audience, but part of the dissatisfaction for us by the end was just that it had become routine. Right at the start, there was so much nervous tension that we worked off that. By Hamburg, it was all too casual and the excitement had gone. At the moment, we don’t really know if we could work live in this format. Basically, we don’t want to lose the vitality when we play live.”
Playing huge halls to largely indifferent OMD fans, the Cocteaux obviously felt as though it was swim against the tide. Hamburg, ironically enough, was one of their most powerful performances yet, fuelled perhaps by a secret knowledge of some sense of finality. That night, they decided not to continue the tour and headed home with their future in some confusion.
It seemed that there was a difficulty in adjusting to the demands of the album-tour-single-album-blah-blah-blah routine and, after alll, they were no ordinary band. To capture the special strength of their intoxicating noise, perhaps the Cocteau Twins would work with more success outside of that routine.
Robin: “We just want to avoid meeting those sort of demands if it means losing the eagerness to involve ourselves. Also, because we use tapes anyway, the set tends to vary very little from night to night so I’d have to agree that we sometimes lack spontaneity live. This only becomes a real problem though if we do long stretches of touring.”
They had undeniably reached the end of a stage between the release of the last single, ‘Peppermint Pig,’ and that extensive tour.
There was a need to break new ground and perhaps vary the textures and shades of their songs that were threatening to become almost predictable.
After the break with Will, the two remaining Cocteaux returned to the native Scotland to write and record the forthcoming LP ‘Head Over Heels’ and the single ‘In Our Angelhood.’ While assessing its merits, Robin explains the relief felt upon its completion and now that it is set for release.
“Although we didn’t admit to it earlier, there was a great worry about making this LP. Firstly, after the German tour, there was no clear idea how we would continue. Secondly, all the material we were using on the tour was at least six months old. There seemed no time to write new songs so it was obvious that a lot of it would be written in the studio. In the end event little of it was really planned, the songs just came together very naturally.”
All bands inevitably face that second LP challenge of having to write a lot of new material in a relatively short space of time. Did the Cocteaux feel that they had to push a little further, that there was a need for new colours, new movements and new blood?
Robin: “When we were recording the first LP, it felt brilliant, but afterwards, when we thought about it, it could have been a lot better. It hasn’t been like a steady progression at all. ‘Head Over Heels’ is like a new start in many ways. While still having faith in the new album, we still believe that we can make something much greater. This time, I have had to rely upon my own judgement in writing the songs, whereas in the past Will and myself would write together. We used to be able to fall back on each other so this time it was completely different.”
‘Garlands’ and the following 12-inch singles, ‘Lullabies’ and this year’s ‘Peppermint Pig’ perhaps all fell short somewhere/somehow but there was a secret knowledge…they were edging closer all the time to GREATNESS.
The new LP, far from being a step to the side, is certainly the most convincing and overwhelming demonstration yet of their almost frightening potential. A healthily diverse collection of songs, it positively shimmers with new possibilities, stretching across a glorious world of whispered secrets, sacred beauties and tender moments.
It finds the two remaining Twins willing to explore their sound with more adventure and faith in chance. Piano, sax, and various effects scatter themselves about (with purpose), adding new twists and turns to their enigma. The entrancing atmosphere that dominated their material up to now remains (indeed more potent now) but it is part of a more coherent overall song structure. ‘Head Over Heels’ has a cutting edge, angular and intensely oblique.
THAT VOICE meandering moodily through tenser structures than before still remains in that state of pure otherness (poignant and emotionally rich) but now reacts with more violence to that discordant swirl.
Robin: “Direction-wise, there’s more loose ends in ‘Head Over Heels’ and it works better than ‘Garlands’ as a collection of songs, mainly because it was written in a very short space of time.
“The main problem up to now has been that Liz’s lyrics have been criticised for being too unclear. We received loads of letters after ‘Garlands’ asking us to send lyrics or to put the words on the next LP. We felt obliged to…almost. We’ve no decided against that. Quite simply, there’s nothing deliberately obscure about them—it’s Liz’s natural style.”
I always felt that the cryptic trail of words that Liz let fall into their fascinating whirlpool of sound was a crucial part of their abstract attraction. On the other hand, in her near-impenetrable, dense lyrical landscape, there was an infuriating distance. Sometimes, there was something cold and uninviting about ‘Garlands’. Themes / impressions / general aims seemed too beyond. Were they wilfully keeping communication under cover?
Robin explains: “Nothing is planned or plotted like that. It just seems impossible to explain the songs, we’d rather leave that to the listener. I cannot honestly understand how so many song-writers can talk about themselves so much in interviews. Perhaps we’re just more private in many ways. We could say though that they are more personal love songs than actual comments on love. Whereas ‘Garlands’ contained a lot of ‘religious’ imagery (Liz’s own impressions) the new LP is more concerned with love imagery.”
At this point, the very silent Elizabeth Cocteau makes a rare interruption to point out, “Maybe that’s putting it too simply or perhaps I don’t want it to be too straightforward.”
Before Liz has the chance to contradict herself, Robin continues.
“If we are talking about motivations, I suppose I could say that for me it is a NEED. For Elizabeth, well…Elizabeth would rather play with fluffy toys, to be honest!”
As Robin and myself fall about with mirth, Elizabeth physically attacks the former and asks me not to put that bit in. As a man who finds it impossible to veer away from TRUTH even for a moment, I feel it only right to point out that Liz Cocteau Twin does spend an extraordinary amount of time walking about cuddling little fluffy ‘Sesame Street’ toys and suchlike? GUILTY! I promise that I wouldn’t dream of putting that offending comment in and Robin puts us back on the road…
Robin: “On ‘Head Over Heels,’ for instance, it is enough to say that most of the songs are love-songs. But there would be no need or no inclination to explain their motivations or their objects beyond that. We’re too close to them and there’s nothing preconceived about them.”
Those Cocteau Twins. Intimate mysteries. Unknown quantities. Starlit skies. Basically, I have gone over the top so often about them this year, I wonder sometimes if there is less to their intrigue than meets my eye. I worry occasionally at how seldom Robin and Liz react with ardent fervour to the question of their music and I often suspect a casual complacency. All too often, though, it simply means that the Cocteau is that rare and precious sort of music that makes all its drama and its deep impressions IN THE MUSIC. They obviously see little need to throw out clues.
Robin: “It’s very, very difficult for us to remain objective about what we do. It means a hell of a lot to us obviously. Simply, it’s not as though we planned to make our music around certain ideas. The Cocteau Twins just HAPPENED and the music just HAPPENS. It wouldn’t be true to say that we want everything to be a mystery but on the other hand, we don’t want everything to be too clear-cut or obvious.”
It is important to re-consider the Cocteau Twins if you have already dismissed them as second-rate Banshees (a very wrong impression). It is crucial to listen again if you have not seen beyond the overcast shade that might only be the surface of their intentions. SCRAPE AWAY. ‘Head Over Heels’ might ease itself alongside the strongest LPs of this year (Mob, Spear, X-Mal, Talking Heads, Costello) a little unsure of itself but it is an LP with a shattering range of colour and conflicting moods. Likewise, ‘In Our Angelhood’ is their most immediate single to-date—a brisk, stabbing re-definition of new ‘pop.’ I turned to Robin for his impression.
“The single was recorded in a very straight kind of way, it’s not been given a lavish production or anything. It could have fitted quite nicely on the album but that’s not taking anything away from it. ‘Peppermint Pig’ lacked any structure, tune, melody but ‘In Our Angelhood’ has the right ingredients for a single. I wouldn’t agree that it is a ‘pop’ single—because I don’t believe it will be a popular single. On the other hand, there’s no way we could be a ‘Rock Band’ because we haven’t got that idea. We’re not limited to rock formats. At the moment, the only thing that separates many bands from ‘ROCK’ is a haircut or a political stance. That’s not really enough.”
They feel less inclined to enthuse, though, about the recent release of an EP featuring various 4AD people (themselves included), under the collective name of ‘This Mortal Coil.’ Featuring both Cocteaux, Michael and Gary from Modern English, Martin from Colourbox, and Gordan Sharp from Cindytalk, the idea was the brainchild of 4AD’s Ivo. Gordon worked with the Cocteaux on the second Peel Session and has also contributed vocals on a handful of live shows. This single re-works to Modern English songs, ‘Sixteen Days’ and ‘Gathering Dust.’ Robina and Liz also cover Tim Buckley’s tender love song, ‘Song to the Siren.’
Liz explains: “Apart from the Tim Buckley song, the whole idea doesn’t really work. We were asked to contribute to it but we never thought about it seriously—never imagined it would come out at all. We were never in the studio together or anything. We all just did separate tracks at different times. Even the Buckley song, I’m not really pleased with my vocals. I really like the song itself though, I thought the words were beautiful.”
Despite typical Cocteau self-criticism, their interpretation of Buckley’s heavy-hearted lament is a deeply moving translation and Liz’s pure white flood of feeling (complemented by Robin’s sparse guitar lines) certainly equals the original strength of desire. One is advised to opt for the 7-inch release, which features ‘Song to the Siren’ in its entirety and a thankfully brief snatch of the Modern English covers (which fail to raise themselves above the ordinary, spread over approximately 12 minutes on the 12-inch version).
I turned finally to Robin to ask him about the faith in themselves.
Robin: “If we are seen to be casual in what we do, then it’s a mistake. It’s just that everything is done without shouting about it. For both of us, it is something that we WANTED to do very strongly. Recording the album, there were times when I felt so much excitement, I could hardly control it. There was so much tension. Liz tends to seem dissatisfied with everything she does, but doing the LP she was brilliant, perfect. She’ll always be very self-critical.”
It is the precious self-consciousness and intense caution that holds them back just now, that stops them just at the brink. The Cocteau Twins (one day) will push beyond those restraints and then…we can think about the possibilities of Heaven.
Just now, I’m in love with their kaleidoscope of moods and emotions. Is that the perfect place to stop just now… ▣