EVERYONE'S COMPLAINING, an unreleased song from the protracted sessions for Lloyd Cole & The Commotions’ final 1987 LP, Mainstream, is one of the most fascinating elements of a plush new 5CD+1DVD box set of the collected works of the Anglo-Scottish group, best remembered for their exquisite 1984 album, Rattlesnakes. The track – more gutsy and immediate than the epic soundscapes of the eventual album – was produced in Paris by Chris Thomas (The Beatles, Sex Pistols etc.). Listen to MOJO’s exclusive stream now.
But why, given the quality of Everyone's Complaining, were the Thomas sessions terminated having yielded so little? On the phone to MOJO, Lloyd Cole fills in the gaps.
“Chris Thomas was [Cole's Polydor A&R man] Malcolm Dunbar’s dream for the Commotions,” says Cole, “and on paper… who could possibly be better? Chris had produced so many amazing records. But… Malcolm had told Chris that the Commotions really wanted to work with him – not quite true – and he’d told me that Chris really wanted to work with me. So Malcolm was playing us off, and we found that out pretty early on.
“There’s a sense there of what might have been. Something more like R.E.M.’s Document.” Lloyd Cole
“It was great being in Paris,” Cole continues, “but The Commotions weren’t on top of our game. Looking back now, Everyone’s Complaining sounds pretty great, but we also had an unsuccessful stab at [Mainstream album keynote] Mr Malcontent. It took us a while to work out that that original arrangement wasn’t any good. We played it at Ibrox Park [1986 – a performance immortalised on the box set's DVD component] and you can see how not great it was.
“At least we got a few good McCartney stories out of Chris Thomas. And I asked him, How do you make Chrissie Hynde’s voice sound so great? [Thomas had produced the first three Pretenders albums] He said, Put any microphone in front of her...”
As Cole disarmingly admits, “the stars were not aligned” for Mainstream – sessions ensued with The Police's Stewart Copeland before the group and their label settled on Tears For Fears' Ian Stanley, riding high after Songs From The Big Chair – but these things are relative. There’s a gorgeous cinematic sweep to the final versions of Hey Rusty, 29 and These Days on Mainstream, while the group’s second album, Easy Pieces (1985), benefits from current indie rock's interest in mid-’80s production shimmer (cf. Destroyer, The War On Drugs). On the other hand, The Commotions' debut album, *Rattlesnakes, needs no helping hand from retro-fashion: it’s a masterpiece that the box set’s excellent remaster can barely enhance.
Meanwhile, the box's two discs of rare tracks, b-sides and unreleased demos, red herrings and abandoned experiments – some very fine – indicate an alternate future where the Commotions were not derailed by the long slog making Mainstream, and carried on making brilliant records.
“We weren’t in a great place, and isn’t that sad?” notes Cole, “because in one sense we were on top of the world. On Everyone’s Complaining, I think there’s a sense there of what might have been. A record that was more like R.E.M.’s Document, perhaps.”
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Collected Recordings 1983-1989 is out on June 29. Read a full review and more from Cole in the forthcoming edition of MOJO magazine, out June 30.