Nick Abadzis

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A Weekly Song: Episode 3 - The Cocteau Twins

A Weekly Song

Episode 3 - The Cocteau Twins

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When I was at art school, I knew a bloke – let’s call him “Bill” – who was what you might call a music fascist. He was sociable enough, a nice person in a general, convivial sort of way, but when it came to music, there were only certain things you could admit to liking in his presence without him looking down his nose at you. “Fascist” is perhaps a bit of strong term, but he was definitely a huge snob and had a very narrow view of what was “good.”

Three of us used to go to record shops together and Bill would snigger if he caught you looking at something he disapproved of. Looking at something, pausing and surveying it as you flicked through the racks of vinyl LPs meant considering buying it, listening to it, allowing it to flow into you and for your tastes to make room for it. Musical taste, like clothes, said something about you and the kind of person you were or wished to be. We were teenagers and we all wanted to be accepted, seen as sophisticated, stylish. We all craved the approval of our peers, so half of what I liked was liked in secret for fear of it being deemed uncool.

I used to read the weekly UK music press back then – Melody Maker, NME and sometimes, Sounds. (I even read my younger sister’s copy of Smash Hits.) Those weekly periodicals – newspapers for music – all had very different voices and championed different bands and genres, everything British, everything American but with an eye on Europe and the rest of the world too. I was very curious about just about every genre and tended to be fairly experimental with my purchases, and was drawn to Bill because of his knowledge – he did seem to know about a lot of artistes I’d not heard of. He mostly eschewed the recommendations of the music press; he led, he didn’t follow and it was understood by our little social group that he knew better than anybody. What I didn’t really comprehend was that he didn’t like much that was homegrown – that is, British. As I learned, he tended to think of most music produced within the British Isles as parochial, insular, unspectacular. It lacked some essential element of exoticism that Bill craved.

One day, in 1984 or thereabouts, Bill, me and another friend were at the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill (a good source of cheap, used records) where I decided to get a new-ish copy of Head Over Heels by the Cocteau Twins. I’d heard something on the radio, probably John Peel’s show, and I liked the sound of the singer’s voice. I knew she’d also done the vocals on This Mortal Coil’s version of Song to the Siren, which I found compellingly sad and beautiful. I wanted to see what her own band were all about. That was the Cocteau Twins – Elizabeth Fraser with Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde who, to my ears, became one of the quintessential sounds of the eighties and nineties.

You’d often find them described with phrases like “chiming guitars,” and “driving basslines” which are adequate enough but which do no justice to the wall of sound that poured forth from any Cocteaus record when you dropped the stylus on it. They were unashamedly romantic at a time when pop music had not long choked down all the pretty boy posturing of “New Romanticism” and they did it all their own way. Romanticism of the sort offered by the Cocteaus unnerved Bill because it was… well, apparently a bit female and mysterious. Fraser sang and sounds emerged, but the lyrics were impossible to understand. Were they even words?

I remember Bill’s frigid grin when he saw me paying for that Cocteau Twins album at the till. I felt the temperature drop as surely as a dense cloud blotted out all warmth from the sun on an uncertain early spring day. We left the shop and went to the pub, where we’d routinely discuss each other’s purchases.

“You like the Cocteau Twins?”

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t listened to it.”

I explained that I’d heard the singer, one Liz Fraser, singing for another band on the same label, 4AD. Bill rolled his eyes – I knew he thought anything on 4AD was trendy gothic nonsense, but it turned out that Bill hated the Cocteau Twins. I mean, he fucking loathed them. It’s too long ago for me to remember that exchange verbatim, but I recall being surprised at how a band could inspire such ire and how much he couldn’t believe that I was I was willing to give them an ear. There was something about the Cocteau Twins that offended Bill – they were post-punk, Scottish, a bit floaty and ethereal, a bit wish-fulfillment, a bit current, all of which was automatically shit. They didn’t fit into his portfolio of cool, and therefore must be ritualistically consigned to oblivion with extreme scorn. This meant heaping similar upon me and eviscerating my tastes, because I’d surrendered to their confidence trick, their splash of emotional colour against the backdrop of Thatcher’s monochromatic ‘80s spartanism. I’d admitted I liked something that Bill didn’t consider cool.

It’s probably needless to add that this friendship didn’t survive into the long term, although I did later hear that Bill had opened up his own rare records shop in Barcelona, which seemed appropriate somehow. The Cocteau Twins remain a part of my life however, and I still love how unashamedly romantic they are. If you’ll pardon the pun, I think that Elizabeth Fraser is something of an undersung hero of British pop music, perhaps partially because she doesn’t perform that often.

This week’s song is Bluebeard off Four-Calendar Café, one of the Cocteaus’ later, warmer efforts when they had achieved a certain level of mainstream success, even if Fraser tended to hide from the spotlight.

Bill hated the fact that you couldn’t make out most Cocteau Twins’ lyrics; he found that terribly affected. Personally, I think it’s a manifestation of Fraser’s genuine (and well-documented) shyness, which sometimes lent an anxiety to her stage performances too.

Unusually, you can make out some of the words on Bluebeard (and Four-Calendar Café as a whole):

“Are you the right man for me?

“Or are you toxic for me?”

I could’ve got that completely wrong of course, but that’s the beauty of it – Fraser’s intonations leave more-than-usual room for listener interpretation – you’re not reading deeper meanings into a lyric, you’re actively wondering what inexplicable and acutely-felt emotions are transporting her to such spiralling highs and occasional lows. Her voice is unique and instantly recognisable, whether she’s backed by Guthrie and Raymonde or Massive Attack, another outfit with whom she has frequently collaborated.

If you’ve never encountered the Cocteau Twins before, dear listener, I envy you… explore and enjoy. Each member of the band has gone on to greater glories, with Raymonde and Guthrie founding the Bella Union label, which if you don’t know, go look. Me, I’m looking forward to seeing Fraser sing with Massive Attack later this year.

Oh, and Bill? You had a heart of stone and your ears were made out of papier-mâché.

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Notes

There’s a great article here about the history of all the record shops of Notting Hill Gate in London.

The Record and Tape Exchange (long since renamed to keep up with time and the changing formats of music delivery) still exists.

Nick Abadzis