Artist: Cocteau Twins
Description: album track, Treasure
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984
Ping pong, peach flan …
There are a number of bands over the years who, as a fan, I’ve fantasised about becoming friends with. Cocteau Twins were one of them. Having met them professionally on numerous occasions since first falling head over heels for them around the time of Head Over Heels, I know for a fact that singling out a track from their third album, Treasure, will not make the transition to their Christmas card list smooth. Sometimes you have to put gut instinct above social ambition.
Our first meeting, ironically, was non-professional. In 1985, my first full year as a resident of London, my friend Rob and I were in our Cocteaus pomp. I’d been intrigued by their grumbling Goth beginnings back in Northampton – the tinny drum machine, the lonely echo, Robin Guthrie’s squealing guitar, Elizabeth Fraser’s fraught Esperanto – but a perfect storm of the increasingly glacial grandiosity of their music, the sheer beauty of the sleeve artwork Vaughan Oliver was creating for them (Head Over Heels, The Spangle Maker, Sunburst And Snowblind), and the top-heavy nature of their haircuts had ushered them to the top of our to-do list by Christmas ’84 and the end of that first term. As a pair of art students, we’d bonded over their aesthetic. Treasure was our first shared new release. Ivo was our first shared opening track. It shed light, truth and beauty into a nondescript study bedroom behind an ugly orange curtain in Battersea.
Self-produced, it was the first Cocteau Twins LP to include Simon Raymonde and, in retrospect, feels like their first complete work. The earlier genuflections to the wiry fuzz and angry beats of Siouxsie & The Banshees had been totally expunged in favour of cathedral guitar that exploded into shards (or “a thousand incandescent fireflies,” were you to take one florid review of the time as gospel) and a hard, resonant metronome from deep within the drumbox first discovered on Hitherto. It was as if Sugar Hiccup – the airborne lead track from Sunburst And Snowblind – was the new blueprint for their sound. That every track had its own decorative Christian name felt very much as if the Cocteaus had given birth.
There was, however, no pop hit here. No single gem from Treasure would leave the chest. It’s an album’s album. (Pearly Dewdrops-Drops had reached number 29 earlier that year, and it would remain their highest singles-chart position.) It coalesces around that signature sound. Little is left to understatement. It is an ornate Valhalla of a record. Its two almost beatless tracks, Beatrix and Otterley, make a credible claim to modern classical music. but Ivo, named after their mysterious label boss, sums up Treasure for me. Fading in, which is not something I usually encourage, on the back of strummed guitar, it allows Fraser to trill her gobbledegook refrain without having to battle for ear-time with anything ethereal or Wagnerian: [phonetically] “Ping pong, peach flan, pandor, pompadour, penleigh, peatswee, Persephone-eeee–eee.”
In a more cosmopolitan age of Danish drama, Polish supermarkets and Sigur Ros, the idea of not understanding a word of what’s being sung or said but appreciating the musical sound is commonplace. In the early 80s, Liz Fraser’s bulletins from another dimension seemed peculiar and, to some, impenetrable. To those who succumbed, they were ours to decipher. I got the feeling I’d been cheated when, in the early 90s, she started to string sentences together.
Ivo does not tinker with the verse-chorus-bridge orthodoxy of rock. It even has a guitar solo – which is a bit like letting off a firework during a fireworks display. But in every other way it was unlike anything else at the time. (As a drummer, it’s odd for me to cleave so closely to music that dispenses with one – as I subsequently would with Carter USM and had already done with Sisters Of Mercy – but there’s nothing a man behind a kit could do to improve this rapturous, skyscraping sound.) There was jazz and there were marimbas, scratchy guitars and fisherman’s caps in the early-to-mid 80s. None were to be found here. Even the other acts on 4AD, whose sleeves looked like the Cocteaus’, didn’t sound like the Cocteaus.
Rob and I – superfans, remember – met Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie in the bar at the University of London Union in 1985, at a 4AD gig whose bill included instrumentalists Dif Juz (we’d bought their records, too, without having heard a note) and the Wolfgang Press (why, of course). Too enraptured at seeing our clay-footed gods not to approach them, I allowed Rob to make contact, and joined him once he’d broken the ice by showing them the ticket to a GLC gig they were supposed to be headlining, but which had been cancelled. (We kept the tickets as souvenirs rather than get our money back.) Robin and Elizabeth, as we now intimately knew them, seemed not to know anything about the gig and were momentarily intrigued. We had our “in”. Nothing profound was exchanged. They were shyer than we were. When the headliner went on, we accompanied them back into the hall. Liz had added playful backing vocals to an iconoclastic Wolfgang Press cover of Respect, and Rob asked her if she was getting up onstage. She shook her head and we dispersed into the overcoated throng.
I eventually seized my chance to interview them for the NME in 1990 for Heaven Or Las Vegas. It would have been the cover story if not for the Pet Shop Boys, but we ran it across the centre pages, and my circle was squared. They didn’t say much on that occasion either, although I reminded them of our first meeting at ULU, and, a few years later, managed to wangle it for Rob to interview them, briefly, for Q, when I’d taken him on as technology ed and the Cocteaus did an early streamed gig on a new thing called the Internet.
In 1993, Guthrie unloaded some post-rehab, 12-step coke confessions into my tape recorder in Brussels, and in 1996, I went to his house to interview he and Liz, then separated, for a record company bio. We never became friends, which means I am allowed to carry on loving Treasure.
When I listen to Ivo today, it takes me back to sitting in the dark as a first-year and thinking beyond the instant coffee and Marlon Brando postcards. I never ever went off the Cocteau Twins, but will always prefer their earlier, more incandescent fireflies.