Artist: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Description: single; album track, Rattlesnakes
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984
In the same week in 2013, the National Literary Trust revealed that only 28.4% of children in Britain read for pleasure outside of school (down from 38.1% in 2005), while blanket media coverage afforded David Bowie’s top 100 reading list, as collated by the Art Gallery of Ontario. As I wrote in the Guardian that week (I used to write for the Guardian): “For my generation, raised on literate pop music, it was like being given homework by the coolest teacher in the world.”
It was, in fact, a reading festival.
Shall we agree that Lloyd Cole is the coolest teacher in the world? Although long since flown from the mainstream (a concept enshrined in the ironic title of his third album Mainstream), he remains a reliable mix of icy reserve and bookish warmth, from the other side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts, and I am proud to confirm that my own love of Raymond Carver’s writings was sparked by an interview I conducted with Lloyd for the NME in Bar Italia in London’s Soho circa 1990. I took his Bowie-like recommendation away with me and invested in poetry collections Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985) and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). As I built my Carver library, I also included poetry by his second wife Tess Gallagher. (When I recommend books by and about the Mitford Sisters to those who occasionally inquire, I feel like I have improved the world by proxy. Mr Cole, as we would have called him if he was our teacher, improved mine.)
When I put together a fanzine named This is This in 1988, I wrote a two-page feature about Lloyd Cole’s water metaphors, and I did so under the pseudonym “Rusty James”, taken from a character in Susan Hinton’s novel Rumble Fish, filmed in 1984 by Francis Coppola, in which he is played by a young Matt Dillon. I think you can see the tendrils of cultural connection winding around my relationship with Lloyd Cole.
Rattlesnakes is one of my favourite LPs of the 1980s, and I’ve found it difficult to extract one song from it. The first I knew of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was when their debut single Perfect Skin landed them, or him, on the cover of Melody Maker and on Top of the Pops, a performance marked by the look of fear on the singer’s face. I invested. The tunes were pin-sharp and the arrangements made the pieces sound easy. But it was the lyrics that besotted me and kept me up all night with their references and allusions (“it’s just a simple metaphor,” Lloyd admits in Forest Fire, blowing the metatextuality wide open on side one). If I single out the title track, which became the unsuccessful third single, it’s because it encapsulates everything that was refreshingly brainy and archly poetic about the commotion Lloyd Cole made. For heaven’s sake, it includes this line:
“She looked like Eva Marie-Saint in On The Waterfront …”
Now, in 1984, when I first heard Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, I was this side of fashioning myself as a young, bohemian cineaste; a bushy-tailed young art student in dungarees and high hair who still lived at his Mum and Dad’s, besotted with Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now and Dispatches by Michael Herr. During the previous summer, the writing-things-out tedium of A-Level revision had been alleviated by A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, both of which I’d audio-taped off the telly (by placing my ghetto blaster next to the speaker when nobody was likely to walk in). I could quote liberally from both: “You’re not too funny today, fatman … What’s this article? It’s a solid gold dress I believe … Do you know what I say? Ha ha. D’you hear me? Ha ha!”
Can you imagine how loud the worlds colliding sounded at that crux in my cultural education? The pop music fed into the films fed into the books fed back into the pop music. In Rattlesnakes, we learn that Marie-Saint lookalike Jodie wears a hat “although it hasn’t rained for six days” (note to self: buy a hat); that she looks like Eva Marie-Saint, but not in North by Northwest or The Sandpiper or Grand Prix, but in On The Waterfront (my film!); that she reads Simone de Beauvoir (note to self: find out who, in a pre-Wikipedia age, Simone de Beauvoir is); she’s in some kind of “American circumstance” and there’s San José and traffic police and therapy (be more American, more introspective; look into a jumper purchase); she needs a gun on account of all the rattlesnakes (don’t be a snake); and her heart’s like crazy paving, “upside down and back to front” (Mum and Dad had crazy paving, but this sounds more like a suitable case for treatment – nothing is common or garden in the Transatlantic hinterland of Lloyd Cole).
Musically, it’s as tight as a band who’d been together longer – they clearly did their homework before handing it in. Produced by Paul Hardiman in a pre-loved Shoreditch, Rattlesnakes (LP and song) emerged breezily and toe-tapping without pain of birth, I understand. Guitars snake, drums rattle, harmonies enhance, and Eva Marie-Saint’s name is correctly pronounced. (I learned how say the name of my new-found favourite screen goddess from Lloyd Cole – obvious despite myself.)
The one thing I already had in common with Mr Cole (actually, we called our new, turtle-necked teachers at art school by their first names: Mike, Pete, Frank, Malcolm) was that love was also my “great disappointment”, or so I believed without any evidence.
For the record, Rattlesnakes was one of four tracks out of ten on the austerely-packaged parent album co-written with three other Commotions: in its case, guitarist Neil Clark (who also co-parented the gorgeously rhetorical Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?, my second favourite tune on the LP); keyboardist Blair Cowan co-wrote Patience; golfing bassist Laurence Donegan Four Flights Up. These shared credits speak affirmatively of a meritocratic band, not merely a swoon-generating frontman and props. Indeed, the Commotions lasted as long as the Commotions were built to last, and avoided going downhill. After three Top 20 albums, all sound, all of a piece, but not all with hit singles (they accumulated five Top 40 singles, two of them Top 20), they split and Lloyd has been solo ever since, collaborative when it suits him, not least with Clark. Five years: that’s all the Commotions got – to prove their point and stake a claim in the Smash Hits sticker album before my college education had played out.
Footnote #1: I have belatedly discovered that in 1985, The Fall recorded one of their 24 Peel Sessions. (The Commotions recorded none.) It began with L.A. and some impromptu Mark E Smith beat poetry: “Lloyd Cole’s brain and face is made out of cow pat, we all know that.” If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that L.A., happens to be my personal favourite ever Fall song, and thus my selection from their catalogue in The 143.
Footnote #2: Answering a fan query on his website, Lloyd wrote this about why he was never invited to record his own Peel session: “Peel made it quite clear that he didn’t rate us. Which was slightly saddening, but that’s all. I’m not sure if he ever heard any of my solo stuff. He memorably compared the Commotions to Leicester City – a team in the first division, but one was never quite sure how they had got there, as they seemed more of a division two outfit at best.”
Footnote #3: John Peel was fallible, just like a Pope.