Portrait: Getty/Steve Rapport
How the ‘80s turned an earnest student with a passion for Americana into a pop star.
In the mid-1980s, when most of the British music scene was in thrall to synth-pop and looking east to Europe, many in Glasgow looked west to America. As the decade progressed, emerging groups wore their US influences overtly: Deacon Blue (Steely Dan and Bruce Springsteen), Texas (Ry Cooder), Love And Money (Steely Dan again). Even Wet Wet Wet were so devoted to soul traditions that they had a first stab at their debut album in Memphis with Al Green producer Willie Mitchell.
For better or for worse, as an Americana-obsessed English outsider in Glasgow, where he’d gone to study, Lloyd Cole was a forerunner of this trend, making his band The Commotions – guitarist Neil Clark, keyboard player Blair Cowan, bassist Lawrence Donegan and drummer Stephen Irvine – in the image of Booker T. & The M.G.’s. At the same time, (literally) chiming with The Smiths, he held a strong passion for The Byrds, along with a penchant for arch, bookwormy lyrics that positioned him only a few steps apart from Morrissey and set up Lloyd Cole And The Commotions as the other great student bedsit band of the era.
Following their swift summer ’84 ascent from uni gigs to Top Of The Pops with wordy, Dylan-esque pop song Perfect Skin, came their debut long-player, Rattlesnakes. Innocent of some of the worst studio production crimes of the era, nearly 40 years on it sounds punchy on a new vinyl cut (reissued with the other two Commotions albums released during the decade) and swirls with string arrangements provided by arranger Anne Dudley only two years after she’d brilliantly performed the same task on ABC’s sophisti-pop extravaganza, The Lexicon Of Love.
Vocally, in his head, Cole seemed to want to be Lou Reed, but in reality came over as heavily indebted to Edwyn Collins in his quavering tones: a tentative, vibrato-heavy delivery that only added to his shy and vulnerable appeal. What’s more, he seemed happy to emphasise his weediness. Amid the Southern soul shapes of the atmospheric Speedboat, with its Hammond organ stabs and bluesy guitar bursts, he depicted himself in the classic weakling scenario of having “sand kicked in my eyes”.
For the most part, these were tragi-comic songs about intense, invariably doomed love affairs, filled with cultural namechecks: Leonard Cohen to Simone du Beauvoir, Norman Mailer to Arthur Lee. If Cole’s lyrics sometimes smacked of smart-arsery (see Charlotte Street’s “She said, ‘Do you know how to spell audaciously?’/I could tell I was in love”), it’s easier to forgive when considering he was still only 23 when Rattlesnakes was released.
Recorded within a month in London with producer Paul Hardiman (The The; Kate Bush), these 10 tracks have worn very well. The headlong rush of the title song evokes western film themes in its tale of a troubled and reckless – if, of course, beautiful and well-read – girl. But it’s especially with its ballads that the timelessness of Rattlesnakes is made clear: the Muscle Shoals-styled arrangement of Forest Fire backdrops a Velvets-ish story of someone destined to “burn herself out”; towering closer Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken? spotlights Clark’s nifty acoustic picking as Cole reveals an intense romantic fear that by falling in love, he’s setting himself up for failure.
Instead, what followed was a success that seemed to blindside Cole and The Commotions. Rattlesnakes reached Number 13 in the album chart and Polydor pushed for a swift follow-up. Preliminary sessions with Hardiman stalled due to record company interference and the band were matched with hit-makers of the day, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness; Dexys). 1985’s Easy Pieces, subsequently dismissed by the band as rushed and undercooked (Lawrence Donegan declared “most of it was mortifyingly bad”; Cole damned Minor Character as “the worst lyric ever written”), is better than its creators believed.
Not much is radically different in the production: the drums are a bit boxy; a brass section wanders into the frame on opener Rich. If, lyrically, a lot of it sounds pressured and low (there are even recurring references to suicide), its highpoints match anything on its predecessor. Cut Me Down (“I’ve been bought and sold, and I’ve been hung upside down”) is slow-burning and passionate FM rock. Perfect Blue, with its aching harmonica, is fine, dreamy-headed, funky pop.
A couple of inclusions (Grace; Why I Love Country Music) sound like paler Rattlesnakes rewrites, but then there is Brand New Friend, a cousin of The The’s Uncertain Smile, that builds beautifully over its almost five-minute length, and as a single reached UK Number 19. Charting two places higher was follow-up Lost Weekend – Iggy’s The Passenger rewritten with a lyric detailing double pneumonia suffered by the singer in an Amsterdam hotel room. It was Cole and The Commotions’ biggest hit and presumably bought mostly by those attracted to its perky beat rather than its miserable words.
This being the ’80s, the budget for ’87’s Mainstream was £300,000 (10 times that of their debut), and overseen, in a fractious five studio months that saw Cowan quit, by Ian Stanley of Tears For Fears. It, too, sounds good for its age: opener My Bag imagining the overheated thoughts of a cokehead stockbroker; 29 paying shuffling soul homage to Roxy Music’s Just Like You. Side two is where much of the production money was spent, notably on the synthy contours of Big Snake with its cameos from Jon Hassell and Tracey Thorn.
The experience of making Mainstream exhausted both the singer and group, however, and they resolved to split in 1989. Cole moved to America to pursue a solo career and Donegan became a journalist, but there were clearly no lingering bad feelings since all the original participants reunited in 2004 for a Rattlesnakes 20th anniversary tour.
In the end, theirs is a tale of a band undone by commerce, who nearly lost themselves in a cloud of ’80s reverb, but whose best music – as freshly polished on these vinyl remasters – only seems to grow in stature with the passing of time.
Rattlesnakes, Easy Pieces and Mainstream are out now via Proper/UMC
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