Wednesday, October 1, 2008

TAKE TWO - Lloyd Cole Spends A Lost Weekend With The Commotions

NOTE: Apologies if you've already read this post. I originally published it on 29 September, but for some mysterious reason it's vanished into a cyberspace blackhole. So for the benefit (or aggravation) of those who didn't get a chance to read 'part one' of my Lloyd Cole (& the Commotions) post, here it is again (part two is two posts below where it was originally published).

A few years ago I purchased a ‘best of’ CD for Lloyd Cole (and the Commotions). It was a long overdue acquisition, given the fine body of work recorded by firstly the group Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and later by Lloyd Cole as a solo artist during the 80s and 90s.

During 1981 English born Lloyd Cole was studying philosophy and English at the University of Glasgow, where he also began to develop his song writing craft (which lyrically at least would be strongly influenced by his academic background). Lloyd Cole and the Commotions were conceived during 1982, with the precise conception point said to be above Tennant's Bar in Glasgow's West End. Initially vocalist/guitarist Cole was joined by keyboardist Blair Cowan and guitarist Neil Clark (who Cole had befriended during the previous year). The trio dubbed themselves the Commotions and became regular players on the thriving Glasgow music scene. They were signed to a management deal by Derek MacKellop, and soon expanded their line-up to include bassist Lawrence Donegan and drummer Steven Irvine in the mix. For a short period the Commotions added a couple of female singers, basing themselves on the model of 70s group the Staple Singers, and playing a lot of soul material. But before long Cole’s own song writing was taking the band in a different direction musically, so they were pruned back to a quintet. It was on the strength of Cole’s cache of songs that the newly named Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was signed to the Polydor label.

Producer Paul Hardiman was brought in to oversee production for Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ debut album ‘Rattlesnakes’ for the Polydor label in 1984. The lead out single ‘Perfect Skin’ was released in April ‘84 and reached a very acceptable peak of #26 on the British charts. A lot of music critics stood up to pay heed to a very promising artist. Cole's vocal style was a kind of understated, languid crooning, not dissimilar to Chris Isaak with a definite Elvis element to his tone (early on they covered a number of Elvis tracks in their live sets, including 'Mystery Train'). When combined with Neil Clark’s dextrous retro-style guitar work and Cole’s finely crafted, intelligent lyrics (overflowing with literary references), they were a more upbeat, melodic version of the Smiths. They were soon competing with the likes of Aztec Camera (see previous post), Stone Roses and Prefab Sprout (see future post) as the next big thing on the British indie ‘jangle’ scene (jangle referring to the chiming, melodic guitar style originally made popular by 60s bands like the Byrds). The second single ‘Forest Fire’ didn’t exactly burn hot on the charts but still managed to fire up to #41 in the U.K.

Soon after Polydor released the much anticipated album ‘Rattlesnakes’, with the title track released as a single in November ‘84. Whilst the brilliant single ‘Rattlesnakes’ (UK#65) was a relative disappointment in commercial terms, the album progressed steadily up the U.K. charts, eventually reaching #13 before year’s end. Polydor issued the album in Australia in early ‘85 (#28), with a rush release of all three singles within the space of a couple of months - ‘Forest Fire’ (OZ#87), ‘Perfect Skin’ (OZ#54) and ‘Rattlesnakes’ (OZ#59). None of them made a huge impact on the charts, but I can recall ‘Rattlesnakes’ in particular getting a lot of radio airplay and featuring on 'Countdown' more than once. Another album track 'Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?' was re-recorded by 60s pop sensation Sandie Shaw and released as a single in 1986, reaching #68 on the British charts.
The ‘Rattlesnakes’ album also benefited greatly from the orchestration work of Anne Dudley (who had worked on ABC’s ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ - see future post), effectively augmenting but not overpowering the group’s sound.

Late 1985 saw the release of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ sophomore album ‘Easy Pieces’, again on Polydor (the U.S. distributor was still Geffen). At the behest of the suits at Polydor, the album was produced by the team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had previously worked with Teardrop Explodes and Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Their production influence added a sugary shimmer to the album’s tone, which acted as an effective counterpoint to Cole’s oft times acerbic, even dark lyrical subject matter. The advance single was the melancholy pop classic ‘Brand New Friend’ which found a friendly environment at #19 on the British charts (OZ#73). Coinciding with the album release, the follow up single in November ‘85 was arguably the band’s best song ‘Lost Weekend’, which found a home at #17 in the U.K. and #49 in Australia. The top 20 success of both singles helped push ‘Easy Pieces’ into the top 5 on the British album chart, whilst it peaked at #14 in Australia in early ‘86. The third single ‘Cut Me Down’ (UK#38) gave Lloyd Cole and the Commotions yet another top 40 hit. Overall 'Easy Pieces' featured a more up-tempo Brit-pop sound. Though both albums had been released in the U.S., neither managed to crack the top 100 or yield any hit singles Stateside. Though Lloyd Cole and the Commotions enjoyed a growing fan base (especially on the campus scene) and almost universal critical acclaim, big time rewards on the mainstream charts continued to elude them. Cole's song writing infused ideas of modern love and the human condition with a sharp wit, and laced it all with elegant, evocative imagery that would become a feature of his career's work, but may have proved one aspects in terms of limiting that commercial accessibility in his music.

That quest for elusive mainstream recognition may have been a factor in the title for the band’s third album ‘Mainstream’ in late 1987, produced by Tears For Fears’ keyboardist Ian Stanley. The first single ‘My Bag’ (UK#46) was a low key performer, but the album soon found its way to #9 on the British charts (OZ#54 - by this stage Capitol were handling the band’s U.S. distribution). The follow up single ‘Jennifer She Said’ (UK#31) was another great song that was sadly overlooked for the most part by record buyers. The song ‘From The Hip’ was released as the feature song on a four track EP released in April ‘88 (UK#59). Another album track was ‘Sean Penn Blues’, a clever, tongue in cheek song which referred to Penn as ‘Mr. Madonna’ in the lyrics.

During 1988 the band undertook another extensive tour in support of the album, but following the tour, and amidst reported internal frictions, Cole announced he was leaving the band to pursue a solo career (which I’ll explore further in the next post). Of the Commotions, guitarist Neil Clarke continued to work with Cole on several of Cole’s solo albums and tours. He also formed the short lived band Bloomsday with fellow Commotion Steve Irvine (drums). Irvine also worked extensively as a session musician with fellow Scots group Del Amitri (see future post), Etienne Daho and Sarah Cracknell, before going on to a career in artist management. Keyboardist Blair Cowan also collaborated with Cole on his first two albums, before going on to play with Texas and Del Amitri. He has now largely retired from the professional music scene and has established a career in IT with British Telecom. Bassist Lawrence Donegan went on to a very successful career in journalism and as a non-fiction writer.

Polydor released the compilation album ‘1984-1989’ following the dissolution of the Commotions. It reached a peak position of #14 on the British charts, proving that although they were probably never destined to be as big as U2 in commercial terms, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions had established a considerable fan base in a recording career that spanned less than five years. Lloyd Cole himself, would soon set out to confirm himself as an artist of note in his own right.

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