The Pitchfork 500 Indie Explosion Part 2 – Cocteau Twins To Billy Bragg

In the mid ’80’s, British Indie music woke up from its glum post-punk nightmare and started to produce music that was, if not out and out happy, at least willing to step outside its front door with something approaching a smile. Of course, this was largely due to the huge amounts of drugs it was consuming, but never mind. IndiePop sprung to life. All was sunny. Kind of.

Cocteau Twins – Lorelei
New Order – Bizarre Love Triangle
Billy Bragg – A New England

In 1984, Cocteau Twins were a promising, if slightly Gothic, ambient/dream pop band, hailing from the unlikely environs of Grangemouth, Scotland. Then they released “Treasure”, the first in a series of records that are as good as any other records you could care to mention. New bassist Simon Raymonde (now owner of the superb Bella Union record label) helped the band develop; they built entire worlds from spiralling shards of sound, cascading like waterfalls through a cathedral made of champagne ice, and….

Ok, ok, I’ll stop there. Writing about Cocteau Twins brings to mind the classic Frank Zappa quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”1. Whilst I can happily write about Liz Fraser’s shockingly beautiful singing, Robin Guthrie’s effects-laden guitars, Simon Raymonde’s looping, graceful basslines, the thundering drum machines, often all tied together with additional sounds from Lord only knows where, nothing can quite prepare you for the majesty of their music. At their heights – heights which precious few bands reached even once, let alone over three or four albums and as many EP’s – they were, quite simply, the best example of how music can transcend the mundane and become something utterly transcendental.

“Lorelei” is probably the first time they peaked. Starting with a guitar line so simple that even a 5-year old could play it2, then bursting into their trademark booming drums with Fraser singing a deceptively simple vocal line. It’s often said that she sang nonsense lyrics, or made-up words, but this isn’t entirely true. Interviewed in the mid-’80’s, she stated:

Well, I do sing about life. Life with Robin; coping with him. They’re all words that I sing. There’s none of it that’s just nonsense

(You can see the seeds of their destruction in those three little words, “coping with him”. More of which later).

I must have listened to this song well over 1,000 times. No exaggeration – when this was first released, I taped it from my brother3 and played it again, and again, and again. I’ve always had a copy on CD; I used to play it early in the morning when chilling out after club nights; I’ve argued with myself many times whether to put this, or Blue Bell Knoll, or Heaven Or Las Vegas onto whatever iPod or iPhone I’m currently messing with. Even returning to it for this article, I was hearing new things; all those overdubs of Liz’s vocals and the subtle ways the drums change throughout the song, for example. This song showed the world just what they could do.

After this, the band rose to even greater heights during the rest of the ’80’s, but Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship went downhill as Guthrie’s drugtaking got out of hand. A major label deal took them away from the loving bosom of 4AD and their records made clear that all was not happy with the band. They broke up in 1994, after some promising changes to their sound that had pointed to a potential way out of their creative hole.

Cocteau Twins have slowly but surely been gaining recognition for their amazing records. Whilst they were reasonably big in the ’80’s and ’90’s, they seem to have fallen away from sight since their split. Sadly, it seems as though a reunion just won’t happen. The scars from Fraser and Guthrie’s separation are apparently too deep to heal enough to perform together; from a purely selfish point of view, this is a massive shame. Considering the complexity of their music, they were a fantastic live band and one of the best I’ve ever seen. Maybe they should do the re-release, re-master thing (with extra material, please, folks). One of the few faults you could ever raise about the Cocteaus was that the production was never quite up to scratch; a quick wash and brush up could do wonders. In any case, this track is the perfect introduction to their magical world. If you have never listened to them before, I can happily say this with religious fervour: Listen. If you are don’t like this, you don’t like music.

New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” is another gold-plated, sure-fire, utter 100% classic record. Arguably, it’s their finest moment; only “Thieves Like Us” and “True Faith” can beat it. Those famous New Order trademarks are all there; the easy melodies, the lyrics that teeter on the fence between profundity and nonsense, and the deft mixing of rock and dance in a way that hardly anyone has bettered since. This isn’t Indie music; it’s pop, of the highest order.

But reading between the lines, the tensions in the band were starting to show. The album version features Peter “Hooky” Hook’s at the forefront of the mix, driving the lead melody. The single version (presented here) misses it entirely. Whilst Bernard “Barney” Sumner wrote most of the music (with some help from The Other Two, mostly drum programming), Hooky became increasingly disgruntled at how much he was being sidelined. He was also the least enamoured with the dancier direction the band were taking – partly because this seemed to make him redundant. After all, when you’re completely removed from the single version of one of your band’s best songs, you’re entitled to be concerned. The odd thing is that the song, in its single mix, is weaker without Hooky’s bassline.

Plus, the band had a unique setup, which didn’t really help matters. Every day, they travelled to a detached house in South Manchester and worked on their songs, making demos etc. They were paid a salary by Factory Records, and they effectively didn’t get any royalties. These were, by and large, pumped into The Hacienda nightclub. So, the band – Hooky in particular – decided that, as they were being paid a pittance by their record label and their substantial royalties were being spent on a mostly empty club, they might as well take advantage by drinking large amounts of alcohol there. Not a recipe for success. Still, tensions aside, the band continued to make classic records, and continued as a band (on and off) until last year, when it was finally announced that they’d had enough of each other4.

Anyway, back to “Bizarre Love Triangle”. What a song, eh? At their finest, New Order were so far ahead of their peers it was laughable. Trying to make sense of what makes this song so brilliant is a tough call, and one I don’t have the music theory chops for. So, if anyone can explain how the interplay between the differing keyboard and bass lines causes such a swelling of the heart, or how Barney makes the daft lyrics actually feel like they mean something, or how the song somehow straddles euphoria and melancholy, then you’re better at this than me. In any case, this is a brilliant, brilliant record.

I used to really dislike Billy Bragg. His ultra-stripped down sound, his overt politicism, and his Estuary English accent could make him easy to dislike to an unreconstructed snob like me. With years of living between hearing this song first and writing this now, I can finally see him for what he is5 – if not quite a genius, then a fine songwriter, a decent guitarist and an honest and emotional singer.

Of course this is by far his best known song, covered by many, but most stunningly by Kirsty MacColl. Starting off with a line stolen from a Simon and Garfunkel song, he wistfully sings of his lost love and yearning for a new romance to take his mind off his last one. With just him and his guitar, the song is a brilliant combination of the simple and complex, from lovelorn moaning to singing about satellites looking like shooting stars.

Chalk this one up to the value of this list. I’m very glad I finally heard this song for what it really is.

Next up, we go back to Metal; the new, thrashy, mutated Metal of Metallica and their peers.

1 Though admittedly you could see Michael Clark giving that a go.

2 So simple that Simon Raymonde actually played it live. Sorry, Simon.

3 Home taping is killing music.

4 Or more accurately, Hooky decided he’d had enough of Barney and Steve Morris, who initially stated they didn’t know what he was on about, and then decided they agreed with him.

5 And what most other people have seen, except me. The teenage me was a right dick sometimes.

You can find the rest of the Pitchfork 500 articles here.

MP3: Lorelei by Cocteau Twins

MP3: Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order

MP3: A New England by Billy Bragg

Buy “Treasure” by Cocteau Twins (CD/MP3)

Buy “Brotherhood: Collector’s Edition” by New Order (CD)

Buy “Must I Paint You a Picture – The Essential Billy Bragg” (CD)

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  1. Aren’t You An Old One Now « Loft And Lost
  2. Elizabeth Fraser at Royal Festival Hall « Loft And Lost

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