The Strange World Of… Cocteau Twins

Anticipating reissues of LPs Head Over Heels and Treasure, Lottie Brazier takes a look at ten moments in Cocteau Twins’ remarkable history, from their gothic origins to award winning filmmakers at the cusp of a breakup

“We do put a show on but we don’t perform. We’re not actors. There are bands that find it easy to get on Top of the Pops and prance about,” Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde remarks in an interview for Japanese television. It’s a stereotypical response from a band who’d much rather talk about what their music wasn’t about rather than what it was. Originally being influenced by bands like The Birthday Party, Cocteau Twins may have appeared like a bunch of dour Scottish goths, but they spent their long career fighting against this image.

Through sonic trial and error they cast out into the world a spiky, dissociative sound bordering on spiritual ecstasy. The band took their name from a Simple Minds song – a twist perhaps on the protagonists of Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles. Ironically the band themselves seem to become like the adolescent protagonists of Cocteau’s book, indulging in an enclosed fantasy underscored by a dark codependency, a dynamic that would be born in Grangemouth, Scotland in 1982 when guitarist Robin Guthrie met singer Elizabeth Fraser at a disco. Fraser was embarrassed at being addressed by British press as ‘the voice of God’. Complete hyperbole of course, but her unique ‘glossolalia’ singing must have appeared to be unique in the extreme and somewhat miraculous considering the musical context of the Scottish goth scene in which it appeared.

Cocteau Twins are as idiosyncratic visually as as they are musically, thanks to their own penchant for filmmaking and the work of 4AD’s favoured design team 23 Envelope. But their visual dimension wasn’t ‘brand’ as you might frame it today, instead appearing as a spontaneous, druggy, synaesthetic manifestation of the music itself. The band might have appeared and sounded at a disconnect from reality, but their alternate world was no calm reverie. Needless to say, the band’s breakup in 1997, mostly due to deep conflicts unfolding creatively and romantically between Fraser and Guthrie which would leave their relationship unreconcilable and no chance of a reformation from the band in later years.

Success for them came to the fore with their 1990 release Heaven Or Las Vegas, being their last album for 4AD before moving onto the major label Capitol. Being a jointly exemplary and commercially successful album, it’s easy as a newcomer to overlook the rest of their output. And although their inner turmoil is a central theme in the band’s history, Cocteau Twins produced much material in the time they were together. Following a reissue of Heaven Or Las Vegas alongside The Pink Opaque, there are now reissues of Head Over Heels and Treasure scheduled for release this month.

Cocteau Twins – ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’ (1984)

Entering the UK pop charts at number 29 in 1984, ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’ would be the first breach into the mainstream for Cocteau Twins. The single was also popular on American college radio and so 4AD sold some distribution rights to the American Relativity Records who would joint release The Pink Opaque – the compilation that features this single – two years later across the pond. After having become dissatisfied with his previous band Drowning Craze, this would also be the single with Simon Raymonde on bass duties, bringing with him his own fresh approaches to production which made ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’ song cleaner than their past material.

In that year, Cyndi Lauper had just won nine MTV Video Music Awards nominations for the videos to ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ and ‘Time After Time’. Very unlike the Cocteau Twins, whose music videos weren’t typically commercial, nor were they determined to make them so. As Raymonde recalls, the music video for ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’ was set in The Chapel in Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, and then all the outside locale stuff was filmed in Virginia Water Park in the same area: "I think Nigel Grierson [of 23 Envelope] discussed it all with us and we trusted him to just get on with it, but on the day the reality kicked in.” The band didn’t like the end result much, and at this point they were trying to reject the Pre-Raphaelite-cum-goth stylings that they had been encouraged to adopt post-Garlands. The band had never made a music video before, and as they hadn’t planned prior to filming they were going on gut instinct here. Though despite this, the Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops music video has become somewhat of a memorial to the The Chapel – which no longer remains – with Raymond saying that he thinks “it became badminton courts, which is entirely mad given how beautiful it was.”

Cocteau Twins – ‘But I’m Not’ (1982)

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‘But I’m Not’ – and Garlands for that matter – is an odd point of origin for Cocteau Twins. Released in 1982, the same year as The Cure’s murky, bass heavy Pornography, Garlands involved similar production values but lacked a drummer that could compete with Lol Tolhurt’s energy, and ‘But I’m Not’ falls back on a snappy drum machine that takes over the entire mix. The song’s title is vague, a half formed sentence and like many Cocteau Twins songs its meaning is ambiguous if not completely absent – “but I’m not what?” you’d ask.

The band’s core lineup featured Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie at this point, and they are still trying to find ways of creating space in the music, which at this point is rather muddy and gloomy sounding. Although not a standout album in the band’s repertoire, the basis of what Cocteau Twins would become is clearly there already; Fraser’s scat singing is miraculously mature at this point but could have easily become an esoteric, forgotten moment in music history if it weren’t for the band decidedly moving on from the sound of this album hereafter, which would end up becoming a stylistic albatross around the band’s neck in their more successful and developed years. Garlands couldn’t compete with the similar Pornography, and nothing except for Fraser’s vocals distinguished it from the goth rock of Siouxsie and The Banshees or label mates Dead Can Dance. Garlands is a historically interesting album, showing Cocteau Twins more involved with the Scottish post-punk scene at the time, collaborating with Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk during their early live performances.

The Weeknd – ‘The Knowing’ (2011)

On The Weeknd’s ‘The Knowing’, Heaven Or Las Vegas opener ‘Cherry Coloured Funk’ has been pulled apart into a syrupy R&B-friendly paste, with only Guthrie’s guitar strums distinguishable. ‘The Knowing’ is a miraculous feat of production in that the original track’s muddiness doesn’t make it sound clogged and lethargic – instead the Cocteau Twins’ haziness is turned into music both light and expansive. Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s genre-clashing skills were most likely inspired by an admiration for Prince, a reference point he discusses quite openly an interview with Hot New Hip Hop: “Prince turned experimental music into pop music. ‘When Doves Cry’, the whole Purple Rain soundtrack – he was inspired by the Cocteau Twins and new wave pop and brought it into R&B when he first started, and then it became this cool, next-level, kind of hard-to-digest music.” In doing so, The Weeknd was acknowledging a strong debt to Prince in terms of his eclectic sampling, which would also include Tears For Fears, The Romantics, Ryuichi Sakamoto and The Smiths.

Harold Budd, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, Simon Raymonde – The Moon And The Melodies (1986)

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Collaborations do not always happen with ease, even if the end results sound as if the artists involved were well suited to each other. Robin Guthrie decided that Harold Budd would be a good person to work with on the Cocteau Twins album which would be released during the same year as and be a companion to Victorialand.

Though musically this collaboration wouldn’t be an immediately obvious one to them both, as it needed a creative strategy to make it work. In an Echoes podcast with Robin Guthrie, Harold Budd admits that he is a slow, deliberate player. Cocteau Twins’ songs aren’t describable as fast, but they are certainly more energetic than Budd’s previous work. Guthrie found that he had to equally adapt to Budd’s musical mannerisms, as “not being a proper musician and everything I had to tune my guitar differently to accommodate things… What I do is spend ages tweaking up a sound until I get it just how I like it… When the sound’s right the musical content comes very easily.” Despite the technical differences in each others’ playing, the two musicians would naturally compliment each other, and Guthrie would go on eventually to work on Budd’s The White Arcades.

The end result of the combination of their singular approaches is an album categorisable more as ambient new age than post punk, with Cocteau Twins sounding now as if experiencing a collective dip in energy. The Moon And The Melodies however showed Guthrie’s interest in working in his production skills more at this point – instead of cramming sounds onto the record, there is space to breathe, plenty of which for Budd’s sparse piano lines that are planted in with a zen precision.

Cocteau Twins – ‘Whales’ Tails’ (1986)

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Fraser was inclined to share her lyrics – as long as she didn’t have to discuss their meanings – with them being printed on copies of both Garlands and Head Over Heels. About their meanings, she told Raygun in 1993 that the lyrics "don’t have any meanings. They’re not proper… It’s like the Cockney rhyming slang or something. Writers like John Lennon. Writers that just kind of made up their own portmanteaux that caught on and people still use them. They don’t mean anything, though, that’s the thing. You know all the transcendent sounds. It’s all sound all the way through."

It’s difficult to see how Fraser’s lyrics could mean anything given that Fraser didn’t sing in full comprehensible sentences, but as Fraser describes in an interview with 1FM, the process of their arrangement wasn’t random, making them look more like sung collages. Her process was in fact deceptively painstaking, with Fraser taking words from foreign language books and wrote them out in columns, having "had loads of these lists around the house.” It was clear early on to Fraser that she felt a freedom using this method of lyric creation that didn’t seem to come as intuitively to her when singing in English. The interviewer asks Fraser to read out the lyrics to ‘Whale’s Tails’ – a song taken from Victorialand – several times in disbelief at her intuitive ability to recall the rhythms of the words in the column, and how they fit the song, though it’s the melody of the music that she uses to remember them in her live performances.

Though as time progressed Fraser’s lyrics would become more intelligible, and even went as far as to send her lyrics to 4AD’s house designer Vaughan Oliver as part of a creative brief: “I’m very lucky actually to have a set of lyrics from the Treasure album, which Elizabeth doesn’t know that I still have. She wrote out the lyrics for me which is a revelation given how she distorts and contorts those lyrics especially during that period.”

Arca – Entrañas (2016)

Arca’s early work rarely features his voice, but his highly personal-sounding, operatic vocal style on his self-titled album sounds somewhat influenced by the depth of emotion present in Fraser’s own. Clues have been left in his past work as to his Cocteau Twins influence, with his sampling of the band’s ‘Beatrix’ on Entrañas in 2016. Arca doesn’t distinguish between extreme music and pop music, laying them all out on the same plane sonically and observing how they react with each other. After six minutes of sensory collage, ’Beatrix’s opening bars become a droning backdrop to violent hyperventilation, industrial noise and Madonna references. Cocteau Twins’ music can be both soft and angry, almost in alternation, and Arca draws out the latter aspect and strains it through his emotionally invasive production.

Cocteau Twins featuring Faye Wong – Serpentskirt (1996)

The collaboration between Chinese pop star Faye Wong and Cocteau Twins is a small but interesting sideline in the band’s history. To her large fanbase in East Asia, Wong often spoke regularly about the major influence that Cocteau Twins had on her sound – particularly her vocals – from 1993 onwards. This eventually became a collaboration between the two, but it didn’t become as fruitful as Cocteau Twins would hope.

Raymonde recalls that “Faye was a big fan of the band and had asked her label – a Universal label I think it must have been – to try and contact us. We liked her in that Wong Kar-Wai film Chunking Express and thought it might be a fun thing to do, as her voice seemed to be in a similar range and style to Elizabeth’s. We never worked with her directly in the studio; it was all done through interpreters and she recorded her parts in Hong Kong and Beijing.”

Cocteau Twins also released a version of ‘Serpentskirt’ on the Asian version of Milk & Kisses with Wong duetting with Fraser, meaning that also their collaborations were not well known in the West, EMI’s Asian branch deemed there to be a market for this. However, the band were not entirely pleased with the outcome. “We continued to work with her on her own next album which wasn’t her most successful as she moved from singing more conventionally to a more wordless style which didn’t go down as well in China, but Robin and I carried on writing music for her. She might have helped our name get a bit better known there, but I don’t think we helped her much. I think it was an interesting collaboration and while it probably didn’t work out as we might have imagined, I think musically and sonically it all worked out fine,” Raymonde says.

Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels

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Despite having run Sessions with the band since Garlands, John Peel considered Head Over Heels a favourite. Gaining a bigger spotlight through this album, Cocteau Twins recorded a BBC Radio 1 session with Kid Jensen. The band had since moved to London and left bassist Will Higgie behind. It’s also a strong point in the band’s graphic design history, with it being Vaughan Oliver’s first gig as a designer for 4AD. But Oliver, who worked with the band on album covers between 1980 and 1985, stresses that “I wasn’t with 4AD because it was a record label, I was there gradually as osmosis – I used to bump into Ivo [Watts-Russell, 4AD founder] at the same clubs, we were watching the same bands.” But Oliver knew what direction that the label was lacking: “I would elbow [Ivo] and say ‘Hey, give us a job mate. You need a logo, you need consistency.’ The word ‘brand’ didn’t exist in those days and I still feel uncomfortable using it today, but we talk about things having an identity, but individual bands had their own identity. And individual bands, and albums I hope had their own identity. So we weren’t trying to blanket everybody with a 4AD look, although from a distance I think you could say there’s a common thread in terms of texture, use of colour, maybe an obliqueness of ideas.”

Oliver’s creative briefs with 4AD would involve talking to the band about their lyrics, the kind of art and film they were interested in. This was no difference in the case of Cocteau Twins, and perhaps surprisingly Fraser’s lyrics became a central point of inspiration for him: “On Head Over Heels I didn’t really know what the fuck she was talking about! But I got from the whole thing a picture of a couple falling in love, for me it’s a hugely romantic album.” This wasn’t just Oliver’s first gig with 4AD, it was his first gig as an artist – “Before that, I wanted to be an illustrator. Even though I studied graphic design I didn’t like typography. I got signals from bands in terms of dialogue. The Pixies would say – Charles [Frank Black] would say ‘We like David Lynch, I want male nudity, I do song about this and that.’ Cocteau Twins were very Scottish – so I would ask them what they liked, and they would respond with, ‘No. Our music’s not about that. We don’t want a picture of anything.’ They wanted an atmosphere in a sense, which is where me and Nigel Grierson were trying to come from artistically at the time.”

The Head Over Heels cover was in many ways a happy accident, a result of the Cocteau Twins’ lack of specificity. So both Oliver and Grierson had to work hard to think of the right angle to approach this creative brief – or lack of: “Tarkovsky’s films were very open to interpretation. They’re very open to a suggestion of an atmosphere. You’re not trying to define the music. So when Robin was saying he didn’t want any subject matter, everybody’s influenced by stuff that’s going on around them, but Nigel and I talked about Stalker for instance. So when the Stalker takes everyone to the Zone there’s water that runs through it in many parts. There’s a bit where the camera is low-tracking over the water and there’s a fish running through between bits of old car parts and rubbish. The floor’s tiled. What goes on underneath it? So we embarked on a set of images that were just set in a water tank. It was a pretty small water tank, no big budgets there. And we were wondering how we could introduce colour to that – we used aerosol paint, spray paint, which I was hoping would go into the water and cause pools and whirls. Anyway, this car spray paint just solidified on the water so it formed a skin, so it became something else. I’m talking about the creative process, becoming new to something else happening – if you don’t make mistakes then you end up missing these moments on route. But it was really difficult with this album not having a centre point, a subject matter – there is a tiny little fish tail that we put in that album. Even that was a struggle for Robin, who would end up telling us that ‘[Cocteau Twins] music’s not about fish.’”

Cocteau Twins – Rilkean Dreams (1995)

No longer wanting to be defined by the 23 Envelope style that 4AD would use for many of their album covers, Cocteau Twins would eventually persuade the label to give them funds to produce their own covers and videos. Raymonde vividly remembers how that evolved: “After Treasure and ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’, things became more fractious. The Victoriana vibes didn’t really fit from our side, and following Treasure in 1984, we took more control over the sleeves and either worked ourselves with designers, sometimes easily and sometimes painfully, to get closer to what we wanted. On Blue Bell Knoll, we worked with fashion photographer Jurgen Teller and that image came from one of those sessions. By the time of the last two albums, we ended up far more involved in the sleeve design than we were in the beginning. After the ‘Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops’ video, we tried to get more involved and out of the fear of looking like a bunch of twats again. Before we broke up, I bought a 16mm film camera and started filming us for a set of short films we intended to do and we asked our label for £20,000 to make four videos that we would link into one short film and a four track EP, but they thought it was a stupid idea and only consented to give us £10,000, meaning we could only make two videos. We decided to make them anyway, and with Dirk Van Dooren and Graham Wood shooting more footage on Super 8, we could take all this footage of mine and theirs and make films for ‘Rilkean Heart’ and ‘Half-Gifts’. I think they’re both gorgeous and the best things we ever did. They won the Grand Jury Prize at the Charleston International Film Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, so they must have been.”

Martika – Love… Thy Will Be Done (1991)

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As one of four songs that he wrote for Martika’s second LP Martika’s Kitchen, Prince arranged ’Love… Thy Will Be Done’ over Cocteau Twins’ ‘Fifty-Fifty Clown’, in the process turning it into a sample. The original Cocteau Twins track is far more prominent in the ‘Prince Vocal Version’ alternative take of the song, however. The band didn’t receive royalties for this song sampled by Prince, and Raymonde points out that “these days, your record label would likely have received notice from Warner or whoever and would have some deal done, but back then, sampling was quite new and no one really knew what the legalities were around it all, and to be honest we were just massively flattered that someone we really liked was into our stuff, so we never thought to ask for money or royalties. Prince liked Cocteau Twins so much that he was keen for us to sign to Paisley Park Records, but I think 4AD had their own plans that didn’t really include him, which was probably a good thing as Paisley Park went bust in 1994.” Raymonde also reminisces about the time that the band went to see Prince play at the “Lovesexy shows at Wembley – I went to all three. He played an afterparty at Camden Palace and carried on for another four hours. Elizabeth went to the party and apparently she touched his bottom as he walked past, although I cannot confirm that this happened as I didn’t see it. But I’d like to think it did!”

Head Over Heals and Treasure are reissued on vinyl by 4AD on March 16

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