of the week

Cocteau Twins

Most acts who call themselves Twins generally, and logically, consist of two people. The Thompson Twins broke that rule when the trio turned up on the charts in 1982. The only other ‘Twins’ who were not a duo were the Cocteau Twins although their story is a bit more logical as they started as a duo and only became a trio two years later.

The nucleus of the band started in 1979 by guitarist Robin Guthrie and original bass player Will Heggie. Both were from Grangemouth in Scotland and one night when the pair were at a disco they met Elizabeth Fraser who would eventually be invited to join as their vocalist. They all had a love of the same bands and artists that they claim all influenced them, those acts being The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Simple Minds and Kate Bush. The New Musical Express once described the Cocteau Twins as Kate Bush meets Joy Division so you can see why.

They took their name from a Johnny & the Self Abusers song called The Cocteau Twins. That band eventually renamed themselves Simple Minds and that song was later rewritten as No Cure.

They came in for critical praise because of Fraser’s distinctive soaring vocals often indecipherable, a writer at Allmusic once said that, “Part of her appeal is how she can make hard-to-interpret lyrics so emotionally gripping.”

In 1983 Will Heggie left to join a new up-and-coming band called Lowlife. Later the same year, having signed to 4AD records, the remaining members were invited to participate, with label-mate This Mortal Coil, that featured guitarist Simon Raymonde, which spawned a minor hit with a haunting cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren.

Following that collaboration, Raymonde then joined the Twins completing their permanent line up. “I was always a fan of the Cocteau Twins, before I joined,” recalled Raymonde. “I hear what people say about them being, mystical and all that stuff. I never thought that then, I just thought, brilliant music, really exciting. I never thought in a million years that I’d be a member. I had known Robin and Liz for a while through Ivo who was in This Mortal Coil, and travelled around with all 4AD people to see shows all over Britain. Then while working in an 8-track studio in Camden, I invited Robin and Liz over to make use of the studio while the boss was off on holiday. One thing very naturally led to another and Robin and I wrote a song together, which was released as Millimillenary on The Pink Opaque. After, I went back to writing music at home, until I got a call from Robin and Liz asking if I fancied going to Scotland for a week to write some songs. The rest, as they say, is history…”

The addition of Simon certainly meant additional studio experience and technique. A good example of which is the opening to their next single Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops — a cascading snare-through-reverb cadence punctuated with chimes and a full-bodied bass rhythm. Robin returns to more textured guitars for the most part.

John Peel became one of their biggest fans and championed all their music. Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops, you can be assured is not about toothpaste or something hanging out of your nose, but more likely a sexual reference, but as The Cocteau Twins are generally uncomfortable in interviews and also on stage, they’ve never said too much about it. They even refused permission for Smash hits to print the lyrics in their magazine.

In 1984 a writer at the NME reviewed the track saying, ‘What you can say about the song is that it gives a clearly subjective image, one which both allows the listener the freedom to impress upon it his or her own thoughts and feelings and at the same time creates are certain timelessness to the overall sound. Who can’t imagine how a ‘pearly-dewdrops’ drop’ might appear? Liz’s voice, in keeping with Sunburst is loud and expressive, and her lyrics tease the listener with vague clarity and obscure symbols, often only audibly giving away nothing more than the song titles in the course of her singing.’

Throughout her career, Liz has time and again been questioned about her inspiration for her lyrics, and often has had little to say, but in a rare interview in 1984, she said, “When the band started, I began reading books a lot more, and I get most of my inspiration for lyrics through them. I can’t get inspiration from seeing things, I can only get excited by images—things that are conjured up. I think I’m also more interested in the way words sound and what you can do if you say words in different ways than in what the words themselves actually mean. I can’t really say which authors or books have influenced me and I can never remember names, but it’s really just certain groups of words and the way they sound.”

The accompanying video was the single was directed by Nigel Grierson. It features the band walking around and inside a large church with some interesting (for the time) cinematic effects. The images tend to be blurred at times, with some slow-motion fades and montages. The band was not very happy with the video in the end, feeling that it didn’t adequately represent the music and was much more promotional in nature than they would have preferred.

The band released a further 12 hit singles of which only three made the top 40, Evangeline (1993), Bluebeard (1994) and Tishbite (1996). Two years later Liz decided to leave the band for a solo career. She was also appeared as a guest vocalist on various artists’ tracks and in 1999 was invited by Peter Gabriel to lend her spectacular voice to the UK’s Millennium Dome Project.

Robin now works and lives in France with his wife, Florence, and their two children while Simon continues to focus a great deal of energy on his Bella Union Record label and its stack of new artists. He has collaborated with other groups, including the Autumns and the Czars, while continuing to pursue his own musical interests.

In 2009, their song Alice was used in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones and they even gave permission for Pearly Dewdrops’ Drop to be included in The Perks of Being a Wallflower soundtrack in 2012.