Ethereal Punks: The Cocteau Twins Story
In the mists of Scotland
Grangemouth is a small industrial town on the eastern coast of Scotland with a population under 20,000. Its strategic location at the mouth of the Forth River and the Firth of Forth estuary is what allowed its port to become one of the biggest in the United Kingdom. But Grangemouth’s economy depends first and foremost on the petrochemical industry. Between fields adjoining the smoking chimney stacks of oil refineries stand modest blocks of flats with grey roofs and beige walls. The poshest streets are lined with small red-brick houses with private gardens. It is a blue-collar city, a series of residential areas with no special charm. Old photos of Grangemouth show dirty, neglected alleyways, a few lonely shops and the smoke of refinery chimneys. You can almost smell the acrid chemical odour in the air. Growing up in a town like this can’t have been too exciting.
Grangemouth is the hometown of the three founding members of Cocteau Twins. Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie were born in 1962, and Elizabeth Fraser the following year. All three were punk rockers in their teenage years. Early on, Robin suffered from low self-confidence aggravated by the fact that his friends could play the guitar and he couldn’t. But he badly wanted to be in a band, and at this particular time (1976-1977), the music scene was undergoing a sea change with the advent of the punk movement, which would mark them forever.
From 1978 to 1979, still in high school, Robin and Will cut their teeth in several punk bands before starting their own, The Heat, covering titles by Iggy and the Stooges and also playing their own songs. They began to tour with other Scottish groups, in particular opening for Simple Minds.
Elizabeth and Robin were both the youngest in their families. “I didn’t want to like the same groups as my brother. I wanted to be different,” Robin recalled. “The groups I listened to when I was ten didn’t have long hair. We listened to lots of singles rather than albums—we had short attention spans!”
“In 1976, I listened to bands like Dr Feelgood, simple things that were played fast, and then punk arrived. Punk music gave me the right to go on stage and make as much noise as I could. The freedom to do what I wanted, without caring what others thought. This negative worldview comes from Scotland—no need for John Lydon!”
“Our connection to music was the radio. There were strikes. It was a difficult time. We didn’t have Beatles records at home. That was too new for my parents, who’d stayed stuck in the 40s. But we did have some Simon and Garfunkel.”
Elizabeth had a strange reputation. In his book Dictionnaire du Rock, Michka Assayas relates a story Robin had told him. “A pet shop owner once accused her of stealing a snake.” Liz originally had no thoughts of becoming a singer. She was from a large family, the youngest of six, and didn’t get on with her parents. And she had a secret that would change her life once it was revealed. We’ll get to that later. “I was the sweetest punk rocker you've ever met,” she told Alternative Press in 1996, describing her look as “Wilma Flintstone”. Elizabeth clearly has a sense of humour, but this time in her life must have been rough. “I grew up in a very special family, with two sisters who were half mad. One of them spent a long time in a correctional home. The other one tried to kill me. Nothing serious!” At age 14, Elizabeth left home with one of her sisters.
Robin didn’t get on well with his parents either, but an event at the end of his teenage years increased his feeling of being stifled. “My father died when I was 17. For as long as I can remember, I didn’t want to be where I was. My one goal was to get out. Without the group, I don’t know where I would be today.”
When he spoke of music to his mother, he didn’t find much support. “Years later, we were playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and my mum was watching us from the royal box. Around this time, she was still telling me to be careful not to lose my job!”
The name Cocteau Twins was not inspired by the French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau but something rather more trivial. As Robin explained, “We were opening for Simple Minds and saw the name ‘Cocteau Twins’ on their set list. We thought that sounded cool.” The song played the evening of 28 December 1978 in Grangemouth was indeed called “Cocteau Twins” at the time, but would get a new name, another arrangement and slightly different lyrics before appearing on the Simple Minds’ first album, Life in a Day (1979) with the title “No Cure”.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Robin had two jobs: apprentice engineer at a British Petroleum oil refinery by day and DJ by night for the punk evenings at the hotel disco The International Hotel (nicknamed The Nash), the “only excitement for a 30-mile radius” It was there that Elizabeth and Robin would meet.
Over the first year, they noticed each other at the disco but didn’t get close, neither of them making the first move. As Will teased her in a 1982 interview, “She was the only one who could dance! We dinna like her very much but she keeps taggin’ along.” Robin recalled, “Not many people danced to the music I played, but Elizabeth was one of them. “We figured if she could dance so well she could probably sing, and when she did she blew us away.”
Alcohol helped break the ice. “It was New Year’s,” Elizabeth explained, “and we just got so drunk that we spoke to each other. I liked him because he was very shy, very introverted. And it was, you know, punk rock and all that stuff which we were both into. Robin was playing in a band at the time, but wanted to have his own band. [Will] and himself . . . were just sort of messing about on their own and asked me if I wanted to come along. Which I did. Because I was bored. Wasn’t doing anything else.”
“Will and I were inseparable,” Robin said. “When we started, we had two girls singing and a bloke on the drums. There was a girlfriend of Elizabeth’s, a little punk, and John Murphy on the drums for a few weeks, but he wanted money so we replaced him with a beatbox. We would practice in an abandoned building, the former town hall, in the old part of Grangemouth. We also practiced in a café in Falkirk.”
Frustrated by his mediocre guitar skills, Robin put his engineering knowledge to use (at his day job, he worked with computers) and built equipment based on diagrams he found in magazines. “I built fuzzboxes and wah-wah pedals that I would connect to my guitar to create sounds and textures,” he explained. “I loved the pedal effects. It was the end of the 1970s and I was using all the money I could scrape together to buy flanges and delays. It was a way to have a unique sound. Everyone could play better than me, but no one could play like me.”
He continued, “I didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t buy all the effects. I didn’t have access to all the equipment I wanted, only what I could find. I was experimenting. I would tinker around and spend my money on records and beer. We had to make do with the gear we had.”
Elizabeth and Robin’s relationship would be the driving force of the group, its heart and energy, but also its source of conflict and destruction. In 1980, they moved in together in Falkirk. It was there, during a practice session, that the revelation would occur. “At the beginning, she would sing only when Will went home for tea,” Robin explained in 1983. “The first time I heard her sing, it was splendid. I remember it so well. I burst out laughing, I fell on my arse!” But this powerful, supernatural voice, which would become an essential part of the group, was not enough to convince her of her own talent.
Elizabeth worked at a whisky distillery, labelling bottles and packing them in boxes. “You have to understand how few the choices were,” she explained. “Most of the women worked where my mother did, in a sewing factory called Racke’s. And most of the men worked for BP, but my father was a tool grinder in a wood yard.”
Elizabeth took refuge in music, which was already a family tradition. “My mother had been a drummer in a pipe band, and my father played accordion. There were hundreds of British pop records at home—the Beatles, Petula Clark, Lulu—and I got shanghaied into singing hymns at Beancross Primary School when I was six. It was wonderful growing up with music in the house, because there was so much tension just outside the door, like our Protestant segregation from Catholics. My brother and grandfather were in the Orange Lodge, and you weren’t allowed to cross the road when they marched. Religion left me numb.”
The Birthday Party was one of the groups the three friends most admired. This Australian band fronted by Nick Cave was one of the darkest and most provocative to emerge from the post-punk scene in the early 1980s. Their austere, brutal music was the perfect backdrop for Cave’s lyrics, which explored disturbing stories of religion, violence and perversion. It was also one of the first bands to sign with the fledgling English label 4AD founded by Ivo Watts-Russel and Peter Kent in 1979. That was another reason the Twins were attracted to this band, and it was at one of their shows that their own destiny took a turn.
Elizabeth remembered, “It’s all the result of Rob’s sheer hard neck really. We were moseying along a bit aimlessly and then one night at a Birthday Party gig Rob decided to wheedle us all backstage—and sat himself down next to Phill [Calvert]. I was bloody terrified at the audacity of it, but Phill was genuinely interested and helpful. he gave us the address of 4AD and told us to write, and of course Rob being Rob, he did . . .”
“They wrote back and told us to send more tapes,” Robin added. “We did, and things have just escalated from there.”
Robin put together two demo tapes with two songs each. Since the band didn’t have cassette-copying equipment, they just recorded their demos twice—in Robin’s mother’s dining room.
Robin took the night train to London so he could personally deliver one of these tapes to Ivo Watts-Russell. The young label was then located above a shop called Beggar’s Banquet, and Robin hung around there in the hope of running into Ivo. In the end, he left the tape with the staff and Ivo picked it up a little later. It was on the tape deck of his car, on his way back from a studio session with a now-forgotten band called Dance Chapter, one of the first the label had signed, that Ivo heard Cocteau Twins for the first time. “It was I believe in the summer of 1981. I loved what I heard, even though the voice was barely audible. And it cheered me up because the session with Dance Chapter had not gone so well. I don’t think Robin, Elizabeth or Will would mind if I say that the demo was a bit Banshee-esque!” The other tape was sent to the legendary BBC radio host John Peel, who also fell under the Twins’ spell a little later.
Soon after this, Ivo called the group and suggested that they come to London to record a few songs for 4AD. He was pleasantly surprised when he heard Elizabeth’s magnificent voice in person. He gave them money to make a demo in Strathaven, Scotland—it contained “Garlands” and other songs including “Grail Overfloweth”.
Ivo took the initiative of recording the group’s first two songs on an acetate record to send to John Peel, who had not heard the original demo tape. “It took him forever to listen to it, but when he did, he loved it and we got the session,” said Ivo.
Ivo signed the group on his label and had them record a single. The first two songs they recorded were “Speak No Evil” and “Perhaps Some Other Aeon”. Ivo explained later, “I liked these so much that I suggested they record an album rather than a single. I think they went back to Scotland to record some more songs and came back a few weeks later.” After a stop at Palladium Studios in Edinburgh, where they had recorded their professional demos, the three bandmembers were invited by Ivo to record their first album at Blackwing Studios in London. The two aforementioned tracks were recorded for a single that was never released, but they would be included later on the English and Canadian releases of Garlands, to which four tracks from the Peel sessions in 1982 and 1983 were added. “My idea was to give fans who had already bought the vinyls something special for their money,” Ivo explained.
Robin recently explained, “At the time I just knew that 4AD would sign us. It was only years later that I realised how hard it is to get a deal with a record label. But we were sure of our value and full of enthusiasm.”
The entire album was recorded over a seven-day period in December 1981 and was produced by Ivo. This early experience recording in a professional studio was somewhat overwhelming for the group, especially if you keep in mind that Robin was only 19 at the time, and Elizabeth 18. Robin remembered, “I didn’t produce. In fact, I didn’t even know what a producer did back then. All the work on the guitar sound had been done before we stepped into the studio, by doing shows and scraping together whatever equipment we could. The album Garlands was basically recorded live in the studio with Will and I playing together, and Elizabeth adding her vocals later. I was intimidated by the studio staff. They didn’t let us do what we wanted, especially when it came to the beatbox sounds . . . At the time, we had a beatbox that had cost 80 quid and we put it through the guitar’s fuzz pedal to get a hard, strident sound like the Beastie Boys used. But the ‘grownups’ didn’t let us use it. They said, ‘All the needles are in the red.’ And so they cleaned all that up. But if you listen to our concerts from those years, it did sound good!”
And so their little beatbox was replaced by a Roland TR808—which had just been invented—on loan from Vince Clark of Depeche Mode. The sound was cleaner but weaker than their live sound. After their first two shows in Stirling (Le Clique) and Paisley (Bungalow Bar), opening for Scottish band The Dream Boys in late 1981, the group toured throughout the UK with The Birthday Party, Modern English and Killing Joke. They then gave a few concerts in London, opening for The Birthday Party at the Venue on 5 March 1982.
Getting local gigs hadn’t been so easy at the beginning, due to the band’s location. “We were right in the middle of the two cities [Glasgow and Edinburgh]. Once we signed with 4AD, we had less trouble getting shows.”
It was around this time that Robin made the acquaintance of someone who would be significant for the band. “I met John Turner. He was a genius piano player with a recording studio in Edinburgh. It was with him that I learned to produce and he was happy to let me experiment with things. He was lazy, so he let me do things for him. He played with Demis Roussos on tour. A really cool lad. Very anti-trend. He wasn’t interested in indie music. Which is ironic, since he worked with Ivo and This Mortal Coil.”
For both Robin and Elizabeth, the decision to try earning their living from music was taken at a crucial point, as they were leaving adolescence and school was ending. The only other option—a grim one—was to spend the rest of their days in a factory. The choice wasn’t easy, Robin said. There was pressure from the family to follow a more traditional path. He was sad that his father had died before he could hear his first album. “Liz and I had to leave our apartment in Falkirk because we couldn’t afford it, and we went on tour just to feed ourselves.”
Elizabeth explained, “We could have ended up like the people I knew. Back home, at fifteen or sixteen, girls get married, barely out of high school. As for me, I ran away from home and lost contact with my family. Leaving was a good idea.”
The first Cocteau Twins album came out in July 1982. At the same time, at a nightclub in the Soho area of London called The Batcave, the gothic rock scene was taking its first steps in response to the music movements of the time: new romanticism, new pop and funk music, which were dominating the clubs.
When you listen to the first Cocteau Twins album, a few things stand out. Garlands opens with “Blood Bitch” and Will’s guttural, hypnotic bass, accompanied by the beatbox and then Robin’s guitar repeating the same loop, untiringly, for a full minute and twenty-five seconds. This is all before Elizabeth is heard for the first time—an unusual, high-pitched voice singing a kind of tribal chant, some verses ending in vibrato. The entire song is an endless loop, light-years from pop’s usual structure, and ends in a sort of disintegration blurred by a perpetual echo.
It’s a strange way to begin an album. And the rest is cut from the same cloth. “Wax and Wane” features the same repetitive formula in a similar albeit more syncopated rhythm. No traditional verse/refrain/bridge formula—instead, there are pure melodic lines, extra-terrestrial vocals, effect-saturated guitar arrangements and a deep, earthy bass.
Certain features from the music movements of the day—post-punk, new wave, new romanticism and goth—can be recognised in their music, but overall there is an uncompromising originality that makes it unique. Moving away from the influence of their contemporaries (The Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees, to which the group was often compared), Cocteau Twins laid down the foundations of their sound with Garlands. These were the ingredients of a magic formula whose staying power surprised many, the Cocteaus included. The album offers nothing evocative of a wreath of flowers or a garland, as the title suggests, but rather a somewhat stifling, almost industrial soundscape of machines, shrieks (“The Hollow Men”) and terror. The cover, featuring a shirtless man, a ray of golden light and a stark backdrop of warehouses, is reminiscent of the mood of Eraserhead, David Lynch’s first feature film. As we will see later, the common theme of urban fear is not a total coincidence.
The title track, “Garlands”, easily stands out from the rest: opening with a strident guitar riff, it takes flight with some very hip-hop drums, Elizabeth’s teasing voice and Will’s incredible bass. With an excellent melody, as in the other songs, the tone of “Garlands” is a bit lighter, although Elizabeth sings of “dying in a rosary”.
Speaking of lyrics, let’s take a closer look at them. Garlands is one of the rare albums on which Elizabeth sings in English, although not all of her lyrics are intelligible. It was also one of the few times in her entire career that she decided to include the lyrics on the back of the original vinyl. It offered a rare opportunity for fans to immerse themselves in the words of the singer, who wrote all the band’s lyrics. The following are a few examples from this album:
“My mouthing at you; My tongue the stake; I should welt should I hold you; I should gash should I kiss you…” (“Blind Dumb Deaf”).
“Things from the forest die here, but I don’t; Dead forest things are offered here, but I’m not…” (“But I’m not”).
“The then shallow she Earth as we know it; The then hallow she a sky for the sacred; Stars in my eyes; stars at my feet; womb in my belly; capital place…” (“Shallow Then Halo”).
“Garlands evergreen; forget-me-not wreaths; chaplets see me drugged; I could die in the rosary…” (“Garlands”).
“Grail overfloweth, there is rain; and there’s saliva and there’s you…” (“Grail Overfloweth”).
These lyrics create a very romantic world where death rubs shoulders with beauty, where the wounds of love are put into words, where a Grail overflows... Much later, in 1995, Elizabeth described her writing process in those days. “A lot of the stuff I was singing about then was all metaphorical. I wasn’t talking like I am now. I guess it’s back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I’m 17 and I don’t even know when I’m hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don’t even know that, then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place? I always said ‘I don’t know’ and I didn’t.”
Of course, at the time this first album came out, no one could guess that this very intuitive way of writing and singing would lead to endless arguments and misunderstandings. In the years following Garlands, the speculations about—and above all, criticism of—the lyrics of these songs would take on such a proportion that the only thing Elizabeth could do was make her lyrics even more obscure.
With John Peel’s enthusiastic support, Garlands became one of the most successful indie albums of 1982, reaching no. 2 in the English independent music charts.
Colin Wallace was the bandmembers’ friend, confidant and roadie. He too was from Grangemouth. As he remembered, “Liz’s mum and my mum used to work in the same factory and I worked there for five years. And God, it was awful, and I became their roadie by default. The first Cocteaus album, Garlands, was written off in the UK as another Siouxsie copy band, and Elizabeth was a huge Siouxsie fan—she had Siouxsie tattoos which she’s had lasered off since.”
Ivo paid the criticism no mind. “I liked them so much that I didn’t care what the media thought about them. I just didn’t care. I was proud to represent them.”
When a journalist suggested in 1982 that a drummer could be a bonus for their music, the idea didn’t appeal. “Maybe you’re right,” Robin replied. “But the introduction of a fourth party would ruin the rapport of our close-knit threesome, so things will have to stay the way they are.”
With a few rave reviews in the British press, a tour and a successful album, the group kept getting asked how they could follow up such an intriguing record. Looking back at those days, Robin explained in a recent interview, “Our only plan was to make an album, not to have a career. We weren’t expecting what happened next.”
Although playing live was not necessarily their strong point, rare videos of Cocteau shows from this period show fairly wild performances, which isn’t surprising given their punk roots. But they didn’t have much to say when asked to talk about their music, and this never changed. This lack of introspection is obvious in an interview with Elizabeth from the Garlands period. “Where we come from,” she said, “I’m afraid that for us, there’s nothing like activities or experience.” This honesty and mischievous humour would be their usual way of deflecting journalists’ questions.
 Alternative Press, January 1996
 Sounds Magazine, 1982
 Sounds Magazine, 1982
 Billboard, 1993
 Mondo, 2000
 Mondo, 2000
 Billboard, 1993
 A Northern Irish Protestant fraternity
 Billboard, 1993
 Sounds Magazine, 1982
 Sounds Magazine, 1982
 Billboard, 1993
 Alternative Press, January 1996
 How Soon is Now, 2012
 Sounds Magazine, 1982