There can hardly be a word in the English language more precisely defined, yet more persistently misused, than unique. It’s really not complicated – it simply means something is one of a kind, nothing more, nothing less. Yet more often than not, it’s used when the word that’s really required is distinctive or unusual. It’s rarely that something truly is unique and this means that the word shouldn’t be bandied about like it belongs in a chat about the weather – we should treasure things that genuinely are unique and, however frequently and hamfistedly they’ve been imitated, I contend that the Cocteaus were, and remain, among them.
You can detect the fingerprints of Siouxsie and the Banshees and, to a lesser extent, Joy Division on their first album, Garlands, but by the time of its follow-up, Head Over Heels, they’d grown to a point where it was hard to divine any obvious influences at all. Robin Guthrie was arguably reinventing the guitar even more thoroughly than Kevin Shields would half a decade later, creating labyrynthine textures from what very soon ceased to sound like guitars. Meanwhile, Liz Fraser sang like she had no choice and, as is well known, literally invented a new language as she strove to express the inexpressible. Even their drum machine was more versatile and dextrous than many of its peers – human or mechanical – and wasn’t there simply because it drank less and took up less room.
Treasure came at the end of a year which had seen the vast Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops – where Guthrie’s guitars are transformed into bagpipes playing a pibroch worthy of Culloden – give them a top 40 hit. Guthrie later furiously denounced the album but I’ve always heard it as the most fully-realised and downright beautiful thing they’d done up to that point, despite a tracklist composed entirely of quaint names that could double for a Hampstead school register.
Beatrix has a music-box sound that’s always put me in mind of cloisters, while Otterley plumbs depths of mystery that you’d need Sonar to penetrate and the almost Californian tinge to Pandora is an unexpected yet completely fitting counterpoint to Fraser’s voice tiptoeing up a spiral staircase.
At the risk of heresy, better versions of some songs were done elsewhere – opener Ivo, which had all the conditions for another hit, on an EP given away by the NME, Lorelei on Whistle Test and Beatrix, under the unrepentantly Scottish working title Wheesht, on a Peel session. But none of this dilutes the majesty of Treasure – they’re complementary to it and a reminder that a band who play a song the same way every time will be a very bored band and it will show.
I was 16 when Treasure came out, restless to move on from school and see more of the world. This didn’t necessarily mean far-off lands and was as much about people as place, people I knew nothing of who could be in towns just a few miles away – the Cocteaus’ native Grangemouth, for example. Their music was one of the foremost soundtracks to these times and that’s at least my perception of it – like your perception of it and like the music itself, it’s unique (PG)
(A) BLUE BELL KNOLL
Conventional wisdom identifies two distinct camps of Cocteaus fans. There are those who reckon Treasure their finest moment, and those who prefer Heaven or Las Vegas. Sandwiched between these two undoubted creative peaks are a couple of oft overlooked gems – which for a minority third camp, might well represent the summit of their achievements.
Victorialand is in some ways a transitional album – while it retains some of Treasure’s icy nerve (as on the closer The Thinner The Air) the listener is no longer made to feel like a worm stuck in a glacier. However, Victorialand, the Cocteau’s aural perestroika, was merely paving the way for the majesty of Blue Bell Knoll.
Blue Bell Knoll contains everything you need in a Cocteaus album. And you do need at least one. The song titles have reached new supra-semantic heights: Spooning Good Singing Gum; A Kissed Out Red Floatboat; Ella Megalast Burls Forever. The music itself is dense, playful, exultant. There is a vibrancy about it that sounds a million miles away from their dour gothic beginnings.
The album has a glowing heart. The outer sleeve with its blurry image of cold grey fingertips opens to reveal the same picture burning gently within. And that’s no accident. The one frosty moment – The Itchy Glowbo Blow – transforms itself in a gloriously chiming finale. Everywhere else, the ice has melted. On Phoebe Still A Baby, with its beautiful marimba accompaniment and Cico Buff, Liz is at her ecstatic best – while she recalls recording sessions for BBK as being particularly exhausting, the fruits of her efforts are plain for us to hear. On the magnificent single, Carolyn’s Fingers, and the aforementioned A Kissed Out Red Floatboat in particular, things come together in spectacular style. The latter features a remarkable keyboard part that strangely conjures images of a fluttering locomotive on its way to another solar system.
For some, Robin Guthrie is really more of a producer than a great guitarist. But here even the sumptuous trademark reverb cannot disguise his masterful playing. For me, this is Liz is at her absolute peak and words simply cannot do her performances justice. Indeed when it comes down to it, what do words matter? So if the opportunity to use the familiar adjectives (celestial, ethereal etc) seems wasted, it is only because Blue Bell Knoll transcends these cliches to feel like a meeting with God Himself. (JJ)