Cocteau Twins – Beauty Amid the Chaos
21st Feb 2021
I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about doing a proper feature about the Cocteau Twins for some time. I’ve featured a few tracks in the past, but the story behind the band deserves to be examined. Many regard them as the founders of Dream Pop. Their indecipherable vocals set against the heavily processed guitars and synths, they embodied the dreamier side of this sub-genre of Alternative Rock. Along with New Order and The Smiths, they were one of the three main pillars of British alternative music of the day.
As a band they were quite media-shy and fans still have questions about this often-mysterious trio, who were influential in not only defining the post-punk sound of the 1980’s, but also generations of musicians during the 90’s and beyond. To-date, they have been cited as notable influences by artists as Prince, Madonna, Annie Lennox and Perfect Circle.
During their 18-years as a band, Robin Guthrie (guitars and drum machine), Will Heggie, the bassist who was replaced with multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde in 1983, and Elizabeth Fraser (vocals) always seemed to be at odds with themselves and their fame. Guthrie and Heggie had started playing together in 1979, but when they met Elizabeth Fraser at a local disco the duo found the spark they had been missing.
By 1982 they had signed to 4AD, the record label that gained prominence with artists such as Bauhaus, Modern English, Dead Can Dance and the Pixies to name a few. Their debut album, Garlands, was an instant success and peaked at #2 on the UK Indie charts.
What effect did this sudden fame have on this trio of
youngsters from the dingy Scottish petro-chemical town of Grangemouth? There was a honeymoon period over the first few albums, but as with many bands, the pressure of regularly creating new material combined with rigid touring schedules started to take its toll. Guthrie had ongoing arguments with sound technicians and was never completely happy with the bands sound
He and Elizabeth Fraser were romantically involved at this time. After their breakup she was quite vocal about how opinionated and controlling he was. I recently watched a documentary about The Cocteau Twins that shows this controlling streak perfectly. When the band approached Brian Eno to produce one of their albums he walked out after the first meeting in complete frustration claiming that Guthrie didn’t need a sound engineer as he has too many of his own ideas to let anyone else have an opinion.
When Heggie was replaced by Simon Raymonde the characteristic Cocteau Twins sound was perfected. Guthrie claimed that his increasingly effects-driven guitar sound was based on his view of being more interested in the way the guitar sounded when it’s recorded rather than the actual notes being played. He admitted some years later that the actual reason behind his distinctive style was his lack of guitar prowess and technical limitations.
The first track I’m featuring today is from the 1983 Head Over Heels album that features the original line-up of Guthrie, Heggie and Fraser. The sound on the later albums became increasingly echo-laden, so this is a good example of their simpler, earlier work. Here’s Sugar Hiccup.
When Simon Raymonde joined The Cocteau Twin in 1983 it heralded the start of an exploration into their new sound and the release of a series of critically acclaimed albums and EP’s. The Spangle Maker and Treasure in 1984, followed swiftly by ‘Aikea-Guinea’, ‘Tiny Dynamite’ and ‘Echoes in a Shallow Bay’ in 1985, set a pace that was hard to sustain.
Apart from this slew of releases, the band also collaborated on The Mortal Coil project who had already had a hit with their cover version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song of the Siren’. Strangely, this had become one of the best-known Cocteau Twins tracks, although it was never released under their name. Under contractual obligations, Raymonde was called to perform on the second Mortal Coil project, leaving Guthrie and Fraser to release an acoustic album, Victorialand, in 1986.
Contractual obligations would become a constant thorn in the side for the band and were further complicated when 4AD signed an agreement with Relativity Records for distribution of the band’s material in the US and other territories. This saw the compilation The Pink Opaque being released to introduce the band to its new market. While remaining a part of 4AD internationally, the band finally opted to sign with Capitol Records for USA distribution.
Although this move saw their 5th album ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ produce the #2 hit Caroline’s Fingers, it also meant that The Cocteau Twins had contractual obligations to three different parties. When the album ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ was released in the late 90s it became the most successful of their many recordings and shot up the charts. Despite the album’s success, the band’s internal pressures due to Guthrie s increasing drug and alcohol abuse. This also prompted their departure from the 4AD stable.
Yet another contract was signed with the Mercury Records subsidiary, Fontana, for the UK and elsewhere not covered by their Capitol Records contract. In 1991, 4AD and Capitol released a box set that compiled the band’s EPs from 1982 to 1990, and also included a bonus disc of rare and previously unreleased material. One of the collector’s item I wouldn’t mind owning.
Fraser and Guthrie ended their 13-year relationship in 1993. Their daughter, Lucy-Belle, had been born in 1989 and Fraser was feeling the pressures of not being able to spend time with her child, and tired of a partner who was increasingly reliant on drugs and alcohol to write and perform.
Due to the complicated contractual arrangements they could not dissolve the band and went on to release Four-Calander Cafe shortly after the couple’s split, something that caused Fraser to suffer a nervous breakdown. Two EP’s in 1995 were followed by what was to become their final album, Milk & Kisses, the following year. The writing was on the wall and while recording what would have been their 9th album the following year, the trio disbanded citing irreconcilable differences.
We’ll pick up on what happened to the various members of the Cocteau Twins after listening to the beautiful Pearly Dewdrops’ Drop.
Guthrie and Raymonde founded the Bella Union record label in 1999 and released a double-CD compilation named BBC Sessions, and is the complete record of the band’s appearances on UK radio programs between 1982 – 1996. This sound like one for serious fans, but I’d prefer a copy of the 2005, 4AD release of a limited edition box set titled ‘Lullabies to Violaine’, a 4-disc set that details every single and EP released from 1982 to 1996.
The music industry was abuzz when it was announced that the Cocteau Twins would be reforming to play Coachella in 2005, and indicated that further tour dates would be added. Six weeks before the event the reunion was cancelled after Elizabeth Fraser announced that she would not take part as she could not go through the pain of sharing a stage with Guthrie. Raymonde revealed that the planned world tour that she ruined would have paid him $1.5 million, the majority of it tax-free.
In a subsequent Guardian interview she admitted “What brought us together (Guthrie and Fraser) was me having no ideas and opinions of my own, and him having plenty- enough for both of us. We were attracted to each other for the wrong reasons”. She also made clear that the reunion was not her idea at all and knew from the outset that it wouldn’t happen. As to Rayomande’s claims she says she doesn’t recall any such amounts being discussed.
In fact, she doesn’t even regard what the Cocteau Twin did particularly experimental or original. “It felt like we got away with it, but the early 80s was a lucky time. Bands could do what they wanted and have a career. It felt like it was feted. But”, she said, “It couldn’t be sustained.” She still remains upset by the suggestion Guthrie made after completing rehab, that he’d needed the drugs to make the music
Raymonde has carried on with the Bella Union label and released a solo album, Blame Someone Else, and produces several Domino artists. He received the Independent Record Company of the Year award at the Music Week Awards in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Robin Guthrie stayed active and released five solo albums and five EP’s and has also scored a number of movies.
Elizabeth Fraser provided vocals for three of the tracks on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album, and also wrote the lyrics and provided vocals for their Top 10 UK hit, Teardrop. Apart from an occasional vocal track and a short tour with Massive Attack, she has virtually given up her musical life, concentrating on raising her second daughter with her partner, Massive Attack’s drummer Damon Reece.
The 17-year-old girl who was thrown into fame is now happier than she has ever been. Damon Reece has produced her first new music in over a decade, and although she is insistent that it isn’t finished and won’t be released until is, hopefully, we’ll be hearing more from her soon. As Reece says about having Elizabeth sing around the house; “I’ve worked with many singers, and a lot of them are fake. The world is a sadder place without Elizabeth singing.”
I think that the Cocteau Twins are amongst the few bands whose music stands the test of time. While researching this article I have listened to songs that were released 30-years ago, and they still sound as fresh as ever.
Thanks for joining me for a look into this fascinating band and their ever-dreamy music. My final track is from the 1990 album Heaven or Las Vegas, here’s the title track. Catch you soon.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021