Cocteau Twins: “Frosty the Snowman”
- Dec 1992
Over a year ago, when Volume started out, we asked Robin Guthrie if we could feature the Cocteau Twins. Just like we’ve asked Prince, Neil Young, The Boo Radleys, you know the kind of thing. Always hoping, but never really expecting anything.
“Yeah, nae problem,” he said. “But we’re redecorating the studio at the moment—once that’s done I’ll give yea a call.”
So, six weeks ago the phone rings:
“Aye, we’ve finished the studio. Are ye working on the Christmas issue? I’ve got something you might like to hear.”
This is “Frosty The Snowman”—the first new Cocteaus track since they parted with 4AD. Shortly after we’ve heard it, Robin—last spotted in jovial mood threatening to follow up with “The Laughing Policeman”—goes down with flu. Simon Raymonde takes up the story.
“There’s a Christmas record that comes out on Capitol Records (the Cocteaus’ US label) every few years. And they were trying to get all their bands to do a cover version of a Christmas song. I didn’t think that’s what it was at the time. I thought it would be like sitting next to Frank Sinatra. But in fact it would’ve been, y’know, Skinny Puppy, doing ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’. Anyway they’d said, Would you do one? And Liz suggested—it must have been for a joke—‘Frosty The Snowman’. Then Robin went, Yeah, good title, people will think it’s a normal Cocteau Twins song with a title like that.”
“Once we’d got the music down, I wrote down the Iyrics on a piece of paper and said to Liz, Hey, look at these, and we were laughing away. As we were going through it I was listening to Liz’s reactions and thinking, this is never gonna get done. She was going, ‘He’s a very happy soul’—me sing that?! No way, I could not in a mil- lion years… ‘with a broomslick in his ‘—you’ve gotta be fucking kidding!
“I just didn’t think she’d do it.”
But she did and, even more surprisingly, it’s not contending for that Christmas number one slot as their first release on Fontana.
“They’ve heard it,” Simon continues. “The A&R guy there apparently said, ‘Christmas number one—it’s gotta be released!’ But, y’know, Lincoln (Fong Moose man and engineer) came up with the most obvious reason against it: How would you like a cover of ‘Frosty The Snowman’ to go down as the biggest hit you’ve ever had?”
We’re in the Cocteaus’ studio and redecorated is putting it lightly. The previous owner, Pete Townshend, had it decked out in ’70s browns with a lot of hessian. The Cocteaus have gone for red walls, yellow walls, simple fittings, expensive radiators and oak. Oak cupboards, cabinets and tables—all very oak and all very tasteful. Simon’s gone off into the control room to programme some drums, or launch the next lunar shuttle (it’s hard to say). NASA would be envious of the Cocteaus’ floor-to-ceiling flashing lights. Liz Frazer is making tea in the recreation room: wall-to-wall windows covered in stretched white fabric, more tailormade oak furniture, simple chrome fittings, lighting and radiators as art installations and a TV with a Super Nintendo games module hooked up to it.
“That’s why we haven’t had a record out in so long,” says Liz, pointing at Super Mario waddling across the screen.
“Robin can’t leave it alone.”
I’d pre-warned them that I wanted to go over their history a little—asked if they could think of a few memorable moments from their career. Liz is apologetic.
“Oh no, sorry—we haven’t thought about it at all. I can’t really remember that much of it.”
The Cocteau Twins were, in the first place, Robin Guthrie and bassist Will Heggie. It started in Grangemouth, a small town near Falkirk on the east coast of Scotland. There’s an oil refinery in Grangemouth and not much else. But in the late ’70s, Robin was the DJ on punk nights in a local club.
Liz is nervously playing with a drinks mat on the table.
“I was going there for about a year before I started talking to him. Then I got pissed one night around Christmas time and started procrastinating (sic). He was nice because he was really shy, really introvert. He was in a band that did cover versions of Stooges songs, then he left that and ended up in a band with Will. Then they left that band together, got a drum machine, and started up the Cocs.
“Then I came along, but I left the band, got fed up with it and didn’t feel like it was for me at all because I was a bit…l don’t know, I just thought I couldn’t cope. So I left the band—I think it was more the lyrics I didn’t have the faith in. I found it too hard. But I started going out with Robin—so I came back into the band six months later.
“Can’t we skip some of this?”
Liz has never liked talking about things even as they happen, let alone ten years after the event. So I say we can. But it goes like this. They recorded a couple of tracks and sent two demos out. One went to John Peel who immediately responded and booked them for a session. The other went to Ivo at 4AD Records, who did likewise.
They were booked into Palladium, the studio in Grangemouth where they’d made the demos, and started recording a single, “Speak No Evil” and “Perhaps Some Other Aeon.” A little over a week later, the single had been shelved and their debut album was finished: Garlands was to be their first release in June of ‘82, receiving a lukewarm response from the music press but tremendous support from John Peel.
The album edged into the independent charts within two weeks of release, and soon rose to a healthy berth in the top five. The Cocteaus toured fairly extensively to promote it, mainly with 4AD labelmates The Birthday Party and Modern English, playing a dissonant, slow hum of bass, guitar and feedback with the backing of an 808 drum machine. With the addition of Liz’s untrained, wavering voice, they were enchanting a rapidly growing following.
Lullabies, a 12-inch EP featuring “Feathers Oar Blades,” “Alas Dies Laughing,” and “It’s All But An Ark Lark,” followed and again charged high into the independent ratings. Press was still scarce, but what they did receive compounded the rumours. Andrea Miller wrote in Sounds: “Elizabeth mesmerises. Having never seen them live before, the impact of this latter-day Piaf was more than a surprise. Stretching up to the microphone she seems all at once both childishly fragile and overwhelmingly powerful. The power doesn’t come from her tiny voice dipping and weaving through their stark Eastern-flavoured melodies, but from a rare thing—presence.”
By Christmas ‘82 they had established a strong following. Garlands was voted among the best albums of the year by readers of the NME and John Peel’s “Festive Fifty” included tracks from the album, his session and all three from Lullabies.
But with the new year arrived problems. Alan Rankine of The Associates had been called in to produce their second single, “Peppermint Pig,” and, though it was covered in praise and was held off the independent number one spot only by New Order’s “Blue Monday,” it was not a sound that Robin wanted for the Cocteaus. Rankine would be the first and last outsider to produce the Cocteau Twins.
They also played a 52-date European tour supporting Orclhestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. It proved so traumatic in uprooting them from their native Grangemouth that it led to the departure of Robin’s longstanding best mate, Will Heggie.
Liz, still here, patiently playing with the drinks mat, remembers it well:
“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 Jonh 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.”
Thus the Cocteaus shifted base to London.
“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.”
When Head Over Heels was released in August, the ripple was turning into a wave and the press started riding it. “A richly delicate mood of whispered secrets, sacred beauties and tender moments,” wrote one. “Rhapsodies bled of desire, songs that posit an innocent ineffable,” drooled another incoherently. Helen Fitzgerald, perhaps most pertinently, decided: “Their unguarded vulnerability is their strength. Their magic is a fluid element that won’t ever be explained.”
Sunburst and Snowblind, released in September’83, contained “Sugar Hiccup,” taken from Head Over Heels, and three new tracks, “From The Flagstones,” “Hitherto,” and “Because Of Whirl-Jack.” It duplicated the album’s success, going straight to number one in the independent chart.
By now, a separate project that Ivo had been working on had come to fruition. It brought together various 4AD band members, along with Buzzcock Howard Devoto and Cindytalk’s Gordon Sharp, under the brand name of This Mortal Coil. Produced by Ivo and John Fryer, it was a project that needed very little input from any individual performer. Each would play a specific part for a song chosen by Ivo and then he and John Fryer would fit the pieces together.
Liz guested on two of the tracks. One was a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren” which was received by the public with rapture but spelt confusion. The Cocteaus were having a bad enough time as things stood, asked constantly about the intricacies of Liz’s lyrics. But now they were This Mortal Coil, and the single version of the track was hitting the national chart.
Liz is now playing with two drinks mats.
“We’ve slagged that record off a lot and I think it’s because there were a lot of bad things going on in our lives at the time—me and Robin—and we’ve always thought it was because of that record. But it wasn’t, it was other things. It was just life, but we chose to, I don’t know, use that as an excuse for us being so unhappy.
“We probably did get a bee in our bonnet about it not being Cocteau Twins, because that was ‘Head Over Heels’ time and it felt more right to have success because of Cocteau Twins music. Having said that, though, I heard it played in a shop quite recently and I liked it. I realised why I got in such a pickle wasn’t because it was a bad recording of a amazing song. It is a beautiful song.
Simon Raymonde, drinking partner and ex-bassist with The Drowning Craze, joined the Cocteaus at the end of ‘83 and in April ‘84 they released “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops,” the 12-inch that included “The Spangle Maker.” Their most in instantly addictive song to date, It was their first to reach the national top 40. When it peaked at 29 they were asked to play “Top Of The Pops,” but turned it down.
Liz has put down both mats firmly on the table and looks quite angry.
“Punk rock. It’s just that whole punk rock thing, I guess we were just… We’re still paying for it, do you know what I mean? Apart from the clothes we’re still pretty much punk in attitude, which hasn’t really paid off and I sometimes wish we weren’t like that. I don’t know why we’re still like that, because it’s just so detrimental to everything you do.
“It’s a different world now and I don’t know why we’re still living in that one. I don’t know what it is that we’re so afraid of. It takes you a long time to find another way to learn it and you’ve got to dig quite deep, which is when the shit hits the fan.”
And nobody argued about this at the time?
“No, which is a shame. Everyone was just cacking their pants at the thought of success. I don’t know, I can’t understand it, I just hope we don’t keep doing that.”
The Cocteaus had reached the dizzy and opulent heights of Sadler’s Wells by the time their third album, Treasure, was released in September. And this time, as well as topping the independents, they entered the national chart, peaking at number 28. In a Melody Maker review, Steve Sutherland escalated the myth of the Cocteaus to unprecedented heights by announcing, apparently in all seriousness, that “surely this band is the voice of God”.
“I was very angry about that,” says Liz, bouncing the mats off each other. “But now that we know Steve a lot better, we can understand why he said it, because he’s just enthusiastic about everything and feels things really deeply.”
A little late and with the air of someone who’s just successfully launched the first goldfish into space, Simon walks into the room.
“He meant it, didn’t he?” he says.
The album’s song titles, a list of unusual and whimsical names (“Lorelei,” “Pandora,” “Cicely,” “Amelia”), combined with Sutherland’s statement and the seemingly deliberately obscured lyrics, led to bizarre suggestions that the band were playing with witchcraft and subverting the nation’s airwaves with subliminal sorcery.
“I thought it was a really good idea because I thought, Well, what are people gonna see in these names?” explains Liz. “They’re gonna realise it’s got nothing to do with mythology and all that bollocks. Well, it’s not bollocks, but I foolishly thought people wouldn’t think that we were into that sort of thing.”
“I think we were very foolish at the time,” counters Simon.
“We still are. We still are!” Liz still has the endearing quality of repeating a line to emphasise its point. “But you know, I think it was a very brave thing to do—three people getting together for the first time and making a record. It could have been much worse. But it sounds like what it was, a total experiment—three people getting together, trying to get to know each other better. But… we’ve learnt.”
At the end of ‘84 the album was voted best of the year and Liz best female vocalist in most of the music press polls.
If 1985 was a year of consolidation—Aikea-Guinea, buying a studio, Echoes In A Shallow Bay, Tiny Dynamine, signing to Capitol in the US and not appearing on “Top Of The Pops”—‘86 was one of apparent confusion.
While Robin produced The Wolfgang Press, Dif Juz and Felt’s memorable ‘Primitive Painters’, on which Liz duetted with Felt main man Lawrence, the band released Victorialand—an acoustic album that excluded Simon from the ranks for no apparent or explained reason, although Robin passed it off at the time as “just something me and Liz were messing around with in the studio”. It also became their first top ten album.
By October Simon was back for the recording of Love’s Easy Tears but not long afterwards things took another faintly queer turn when they released The Moon And The Melodies, “a collaboration between pianist Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie, Simon Raymond” which was not afforded the status of a Cocteau Twins record.
No one has a bloody clue why most of this happened the way it did but, just as the truth seems ready to out, who should stroll in but Lawrence, once that same Felt main man and now the voice of Denim, en route to borrow a guitar. Liz asks him about interviews.
“I did the first one I’ve done in over two years the other day,” he replies, “And it was really dumb. I mean, I’ve not done anything in two years and this guy started asking me about all the lyrics on the new album. I hate that. I mean, why not just say, you know, What have you been doing for the past two years?”
This puts an almighty spanner in the works. Simon and Liz are now thinking, Yeah, why don’t you just ask us what we’ve been up to for the past two years. I’m still back in ‘88 at the release of Blue Bell Knoll, and wondering why they didn’t promote this, the first album to feature all three Cocteaus since Treasure, in the time-honoured touring fashion.
“We just weren’t in the mood,” points out Simon. “I still think it stands out as a good album, but I don’t think you need to promote everything you do. I suppose we’ve been lucky, in the respect that up till now our record sales haven’t fallen off when we haven’t toured or put singles out or done all that kind of thing. For some reason there are a certain amount of people that always buy our records. But that may not happen every time—you just never know.”
He’s got a point. Blue Bell Knoll, though not quite reaching the chart heights of its predecessor, still managed to hit number 14 in its first week of release.
To breeze through ‘89: Liz found herself in a yet another duet scenario, this time with Ian McCulloch on the title track of his Candleland LP, and the band suppressed their scepticism of ‘worthy causes’ to lend a track from Victorialand to an anti-animal testing ad. Meanwhile, Liz and Robin (who have never publicly divulged much information about their very private lives) had a baby—Lucy, who’ll be forever grateful that by the time of her birth they had curbed the name frenzy of Treasure days.
The biggest wrench in the Cocteaus’ career was a sudden one. Virtually at the runway to leave for an their most extensive tour yet (miles, not dates) to promote 1990’s Heaven Or Las Vegas, the band heard from Ivo that they were free to leave 4AD.
Simon: “Almost a day before we left to go on tour, he said, You can go. It was completely out of the blue to us, because we hadn’t had any discussion about it, we hadn’t said, We want to leave. We were still contracted for another album.”
“It was two albums, in fact,” recalls Ivo when quizzed on the subject a few days later. “It was because it wasn’t enjoyable anymore. I felt particularly that Robin was extremely unhappy and I was…l felt like a hypocrite really, because that’s not what we’re doing this for. It’s a shame, I wish it wasn’t the case and I’m obviously sad that I lost them. I fucked up in a big way, but I’m certainly a lot happier now and I think they probably are too.”
So ended a ten-year relationship that had seen the band develop from teenage punks from Grangemouth into international artists with a list of confirmed fans that, aside from a battalion of over-enthusiastic scribes, includes Annie Lennox, Prince and Madonna.
“You do tend to be less angry about things, but you can’t forget things that are so momentous in your life,” says Simon. “Decisions that mean so much to you, things that are very important if you’re a very single-minded bunch of people. You can’t help being hurt by things that have happened.
“I don’t think Ivo feels any differently. He probably misses not being able to come down here and listen to the music. But I’m sure he doesn’t miss us as people—we were just always arguing. You could say it was somebody’s fault and that he was to blame or we were to blame. But we just kept getting further and further away from each other. What we wanted was not what he wanted for us. Therefore, every time a meeting would happen about what we might want to do, there would be this huge conflict.
“Because of the kind of group we are, we’re not, by our nature, very visible—if you want to use a marketing word.
“We don’t like to do the big tour, lots of interviews, photo sessions. So we need an operation which can really work on our behalf to get our records in the shops and do things for us, because we don’t want to do them.
“It’s not like we’re being obtuse and saying, Er, we don’t want any publicity, we want to shy away from everything. It’s basically that we feel quite uncomfortable doing certain things that some people feel quite happy about doing, so therefore we really need a marketing department that pushes us, without us having to be too… different. And the thing is, Ivo doesn’t like marketing, he puts up a few posters, puts a few ads in the papers, but he doesn’t really promote his records. He’s more into the sound of things, or the image—I don’t really know.”
“No. He’s a very complicated person,” says Liz. “He doesn’t know himself very well. So consequently neither does anyone else. It’s more all the things that never got said than the things that did. All that stuff that rots away that you never really handle.”
Which brings us neatly round to Lawrence’s all important question (at last). What have they been doing for the past two years? Rumours were rife after their departure from 4AD that the Cocteaus were to sign to Geffen or EMI (the UK arm of their US Capitol label). But the band, still globetrotting with Heaven Or Las Vegas, were unavailable for comment.
Simon: “We had two record companies who came out to Brazil to attempt to sign us while we were out there. We’d heard about it and thought, Well if they want to come, let ‘em come, you know. They’d be daft if they think they’re gonna sign us just because they made the effort to go out to Brazil.
Finally, after months of speculation, they achieved Robin’s lifetime ambition and signed to the same label as Wet Wet Wet.1
“It’s been brilliant,” says Simon. “They’ve not pestered us at all. They’ve had total respect for us and what we agreed at the signing of the contract and all that stuff and they’ve stuck to it which is really good.”
“They’ve not heard any of the songs, they don’t know how many we’ve got and they’ve no idea what they’re gonna sound like. So they just sit tight—good manners,” says Liz, having stacked all the mats into a neat little pile.
But what happens when they turn down Wogan?2
“Well, we haven’t actually got to deliver the album till May 1994,” points out Simon. Though obviously we learnt a lot from the last contract about all that stuff and we just had to make sure that everyone knew what to expect and what not to expect of us—and that if we did do something out of the ordinary then they must take it as an extra, a good thing, but not to bank on anything.”
The Cocteaus are not speculating on when the LP might be finished but, as Simon says, they are getting there.
“There’s a lot of music. Usually the way we work is to do a bit of music, then Liz listens to it and starts doing the vocals on each track. We didn’t really intend to do it that way again—we were trying not to build up this huge wodge of stuff, but it’s worked out that way. But I’m not going to say when it’s going to be ready—we’ve made that mistake too often.”
So is it getting any easier to write, Liz?
“It’s never easy. I’ve approached it in quite a few different ways and it doesn’t matter what way I approach it, I always find it hard. These are the most traditional lyrics I’ve ever written, but the hardest bit about that is, of course, that it’s the most honest I’ve ever been and personal. So that’s quite hard. That’s very hard. I think that’s why it’s taken me so long. It’s a lot more scary.
“That, and I want it to be absolutely amazing. And it’s just coming to terms with trying not to want perfection and just trying to go with what I’ve got. Because that’s the inside of my head. That’s how it is and how it should be, not wanting perfection all the fucking time and not being afraid of what people are going to think about it which I’ve never really bothered about before. But I suppose now it’s a lot more… I guess I’m more of a target.”
“Because of what’s gone before,” Simon chips in. “Because the thing about the Cocteau Twins is, people want to know what is it that Liz is singing. And now Liz is at a stage where she wants to say certain things, people are going to want to dig into it.”
“You know when you see reflections of yourself in other people and other people’s things and you don’t like it?” asks Liz (not mentioning names).
“You realise that you can’t keep doing that and you’ve got to do something else instead. You know you kind of brought it on yourself, But you couldn’t do anything else. You just did all you could do—and I suppose it’s still the same story, but it’s a lot more. A lot more something. Just… a lot more.”
But we’re not going to speculate on what might be. Like I’m not going to ponder on the tremendous pleasure their music (that’s every single glorious spine crushing track they’ve done to date) and live shows have given me over the past ten years. There’s plenty of that gone before and plenty to come in the future. No, instead Liz is going to talk about Christmas.
“We’re still trying to figure out if it’s a good idea to tell Lucy about Santa Claus or not. It’s so hard. I don’t want to tell her about Santa, because I don’t want her to grow up hating me, but you can’t get away from it.
“Robin’s really reluctant about the religious aspect as well, so we’re not allowed to talk about that yet either. So it’s tricky, you’ve got to tell her about both or… I don’t know. I don’t fancy telling her about this bloke that comes down the chimney, leaves lots of presents and has a reindeer parked up on the roof and all that bollocks.”
“I do remember the moment when I found out that it wasn’t true,” recalls Simon. “You feel such a fucking fool, don’t you? It’s your first really big embarrassing moment.”
“I was devastated,” says Liz. “It’s even more embarrassing when you tell everyone at school that they’re lying to you, like, NO—he is real, he is real! I’m so slow though. You know when you get those weird sensations in your body and you don’t really know what they are? Well, someone once told me that was my blood changing direction. I believed that one for years.” ▣
1 Fontana Records.
2 This is a reference to Sir Terry Wogan, who was a popular television commentator and host in the UK. It’s unclear what this question is supposed to mean, unless it is an oblique reference to the band having turned down “Top of the Pops” in the 1980s.