Cornered on tour in Dublin, LLOYD COLE – a renowned man of letters (and postcards) -explains to ROY WILKINSON why his songs on the new Commotions LP ‘Mainstream’ are less precious and less autobiographical.
UH OH, we have an artist apparition scenario.
The six piece Commotions file into the dressing room accompanied by a hearty fusillade of greetings and snippets of tour info. No such recourse for Lloyd though. He simultaneously looks bemused, intent and mumbles a couple of multi-purpose “hellos”.
In half an hour’s time, his onstage personality will indicate a new, relaxed Cole with a heavily reduced continual anxiety quotient.
But for now the vintage nervy, distracted Cole is keeping his eye in.
WE’RE IN Dublin, where, for some reason, the Commotions’ profile rides higher than anywhere else. Ideal conditions for a young pop star’s self-consciousness to parade itself at full blast. And Lloyd Cole is emphatically a self-conscious pop star.
We’re not necessarily talking affected here, but the hours spent in libraries and the years spent in a start-stop academic career have saddled Lloyd with a craving for analysis he was hardly likely to escape.
From the moment he shed ‘Perfect Skin’, every word of his wordy lyricism, every agitated mannerism, seemed calculated to give clear Indication that this was a young man with a well stocked bookshop in his back pocket and some frenetic activity taking place upstairs.
Right now a new album and a proudly flaunted discovery of the ability to relax are combining to lay the parameters for a new Lloyd Cole.
‘Mainstream’ is a record that comes with an unashamed design, a conscious employment of state of the art sophistication and opulent production. It also cuts back on Lloyd’s former lyrical hallmarks of tireless reference and verbal overkill. Lloyd is now a man of 26 who’s claiming things get better with age.
Witness the positive glee with which he’s wearing his rimless specs. This is a pop person who’s through with being cool, kissed off with being coy.
Lloyd on Lloyd remains a favourite conversational mode, but he can treat himself with more levity these days.
Similarly the preciousness which once made him resent audiences singing along to his songs is gone and he’s ready to relent on his formerly rigidly enforced “Autobiography, not me guy” stance.
WELL YES, ‘Lost Weekend’ was the only song I ever admitted was autobiography. Old Man Cole now looks back on those songs and, of course, most of them are autobiographical. You don’t realise it at the time but if a song’s not necessarily about oneself that doesn’t mean the astral essence of it isn’t.
“Take the character in ‘Charlotte Street’. That’s based very closely on me. My idea of romance obviously is meeting a wonderful, beautiful girl in the library. I wrote that song and it took me a year to realise that I hadn’t actually mentioned that it was set in a library. I forgot to put that in, which is a bit stupid really.”
Little bit stupid, little bit forgetful, but absent-mindedness is one Cole constant that fits in well with his new found casual wisdom. A hint of bumbling bookworm will do quite nicely thanks: the shoulder bag which he habitually carries with him contains computer printouts of all his lyrics, a necessity for a man who’s crammed a lot of thought into his words but can’t always remember them.
“I’ve never really addressed the audience before. I just used to go out there and sing the songs and expect that to be enough. If you exchange a glance with a member of the audience then that makes them incredibly happy, heaven knows why. These things, they help the general atmosphere of the concert.”
Stop it Lloyd, that sort of calculation’s a bit unbecoming. Well, It would if it wasn’t for its unerringly deadpan, seriously concerned delivery. The same goes for his mild mannered bursts of arrogance, bursts that his slightly comic intensity pull back from the realms of conceit.
WE’RE NOW in the foyer of the hotel where pop star B&B comes at £50 a night with no autograph free zone. Up close the Lloyd visage clashes with the bespectacled, slightly awkward figure you see across a room. The Cole eyes fairly gleam from the chubby jowls and the drooping raven fringe completes a much sought after brand of moody glower. There’s definitely something of the big E in this face, a face that’s hinting at late period Presley decadence sans the appropriate chemical conditioners.
There’s quite enough intent in these features to suggest a few latent personality quirks lurk under his facade of measured, sub clausing speech. Could mild mannered Lloyd Cole really be Lexicon Man, the late 20th Century superhero who can foster a handful of unrequited love affairs with a single well turned phrase and but half a dozen references to post war cultural Icons?
Of course it’s very easy to mock Lloyd and indeed many have been unable to resist. There’s Edwyn ‘Penguin Classics’ Collins, Mark E Smith, and the sustained campaign run by a certain broadsheet post-modernist pop mag to name but three. Lloyd’s certainly come in for his fair share of invective.
Not that it worries him unduly. He just fires back with some of his patented benign arrogance and a typically Lloyd rationalisation of the situation.
“There’s so many good things about me,” he finalises without an audible creak of Irony. “So many that it’s easy to make them seem bad if you want. What talent I have is a particular talent in the way I write and, er, if you choose to make fun of it, It’s very easy. I think it’s easy in the same way it’s all too easy to write an article and give, say, Bananarama ten out ten for pop, Justifying it with a facetious, tongue in cheek attitude.
“Edwyn. Oh Edwyn. I believe he’s grown up now hasn’t he? The thing about Edwyn is that he couldn’t be nasty if he tried, he’s such a big wet rag. The reason I get this from him is because he happens to have listened to the same records that I did as a boy. He liked the Staple Singers and The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. That doesn’t make him very special. I think that for a while Edwyn thought he was the only person who knew about Al Green. I do like his new single though.”
THE COMMOTIONS’ return single, ‘My Bag’, got held up in the nether regions of the Top 30, as far as this lot are concerned a commercial failure. Similarly the album, the half jokingly titled ‘Mainstream’ nudged into the Top Ten, a position that, In the light of a mass appearance of unit shifting Christmas rivals, the Commotion boys thought it was unlikely to maintain.
This is a record that’s been Immaculately honed for very specific ends, an intent that Cole conversation gives sizeable clues to.
“Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen don’t think they can write ten great songs straight off. They’re the people who throw 20 songs in the bin and keep ten. With ‘Rattlesnakes’ we were very lucky in coming up with 11 songs from which we took ten. We really shouldn’t think we can go in and write ten worthwhile songs straight away.”
“I think the basic difference with ‘Mainstream’ is its depth. In terms of pure beauty, I think the sounds involved are a lot better. Like in the song ’29’, where there’s that feedback thing from the lap steel guitar all the way through in the high registers.”
“If you listen to the first Buzzcocks LP, it sounds very dated even though I loved that album. It was a period piece and I don’t want to make period pieces. I think The Smiths have succeeded in that with some songs that’ll last forever. Similarly, a couple of songs on ‘The Joshua Tree’ achieved that – they’re really beautiful and they just sound like a band at their very peak. Roxy Music in the 70s made music that had these qualities and Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ has them too. ‘Bad’ is a really fantastic R&B song which could have been written in 1962 by Ray Charles or someone.”
And there you have it. ‘Mainstream’ is a record that has been allocated three modest requirements: a) flawless consistency, b) resonance and c) immortality. Of course even someone as “particularly talented” as Lloyd and his co-writers Lawrence, Nell, Blair (now departed) and (producer) Ian Stanley could do with some help here. These are sophisticated times for serious songwriters; at this stage in the day there’s a lot of history to keep your eye on and the same goes for technology. What’s needed is some method and the Commotions have wholeheartedly dedicated themselves to one of today’s favourite schemes. George Michael goes for pastiche but Lloyd and company, like Mr. Jackson, go for synthesis.
It’s no accident that Lloyd should namecheck Roxy Music and U2 because Roxy frills and The Edge’s guitar texture are just two of the elements that have been co-opted onto the ‘Mainstream’ tapes. The core of the sound remains Commotions tunes, items that maintain quite a constancy with ‘Rattlesnakes’, yet now drip with a wealth of machine based gravity, Jon Hassell trumpet and ‘roots’ elements like the lap steel guitar and Fraser Speirs harmonica. The Edge together with Eno and Lanois have brought new textures to recording a guitar track and ‘Mainstream’ follows this up. If anything was ever technopop then this is it.
IN THE face of all this there’s a slight Irony in the fact that the tunes remain the key strength. The Commotions have a genius with a melody, one that’ll be borne out by covers stretching beyond today’s sole Commotions’ royalties provider, Sandie Shaw.
“She trashed ‘Heartbroken’. Yes…I never will forgive her for that. She wouldn’t sing ‘ready to bleed’. Being very much a peace type karma person, she insisted on singing ‘are you ready to be’ in its place.
“I wouldn’t mind someone who’s a good singer doing one of our songs… George Michael, that would be nice. I used to detest him but his new album does look to be very good indeed.”
While upping the sonic sophistication, ‘Mainstream’ does cut down on Lloyd’s lyrical proliferation. Only ‘Sean Penn Blues’ and ‘My Bag’ maintain the Dylan brand of free fall verbal sophistry.
“I actually thought that in ‘My Bag’ I’d recovered some of the reckless, careless writing that I used to do in things like ‘Perfect Skin’. I wrote it when I was drunk one night. It’s basically about a coked up stockbroker. I took most of the scenarios from that song from Big Lights, Bright City or things that I’d heard like some executive that we’ve dealt with getting a phone call from another part of the office saying, Come upstairs, it’s snowing which of course meant a whole load of new coke was in. I thought ‘a multi-story snowstorm’ was quite a nice way to start a song.”
One of Lloyd’s characters was once ‘drowning in amphetamine’, but it’s difficult to imagine the author opting for the ‘gloriously wrecked’ mode of rock existence.
“When I was younger it was quite romantic to see people like Tom Waits, early Tom Verlaine and the early Velvets. I don’t think that kind of thing’s good though. I’ve never been a person who really needed drugs. When I was at college everybody used to do speed but I was generally speeding more than they were without doing any drugs. The only drugs I really like are alcohol and nicotine and I very much like both of those.”
As well as developing a sparser, more restrained writing style, ‘Mainstream seriously dilutes the former quintessences of Lloyd, the references and the name checks.
With ‘Rattlesnakes’ it seemed that he was employing these devices out of sheer fascination with his own erudition. That and the demarcation of an audience with a host of (sub) cultural signifiers from a 2CV to On The Waterfront and Simone de Beauvoir. With ‘Mainstream’ he slips but twice with a mention for My Beautiful Launderette and a quote from TS Eliot.
“I’m concerned rather more these days with just being understood. If there’s something a bit arcane then I won’t use it. Most of those early references… I mean I’ve never actually read a whole Simone de Beauvoir novel but she’s got this particular place in our culture that she represents modern thinking woman and that’s what I wanted in ‘Rattlesnakes’, a woman who was at least aware of modern woman’s position. With the TS Eliot, the ‘should I part my hair behind’, I simply couldn’t think of a better line and that just seemed to fit perfectly. One of my very favourite films is Five Easy Pieces and 1 want to write at least five songs out of that film.”
THERE WAS always a humorous aspect – whether intended or not – to this namedrop activity. Similarly, as early as ‘Perfect Skin’, Lloyd was weighing in with lines as arch as ‘The moral of the song is/ there never has been one’. It’s just possible that humour has been missed with Lloyd Cole.
Most of the humour’s on the first album. Things like ‘Patience’ and ‘Brand New Friend’ with, ‘Let me count the times we swore and lied/ We’d tie ourselves to the railway line’. The humour is quite gentle. A lot of people miss it because my media profile is someone who’s very precious, very serious about what they do.
“Arch? I’ve heard that word only once before. It means sort of camp doesn’t it? No, the references to books are mainly because at the time I’d just come from a land of books. The way I would think of describing someone would be something like a friend of Truman Capote because he used to hang around with New York darlings and these people did drive Grace Kelly cars. I don’t do it so much these days. I’m dealing more with images on the new album, more visual scenarios.”
This is a pop star grown up, slightly prematurely and extremely willfully. Of course he’s fully aware of this.
“I really do think that youngsters are bad at most things and it’s all so stupid. You don’t worry about stupid things when you’re older. You worry about death all the time when you’re 17. You don’t worry about death at all when you’re 26. Its like early Roddy Frame with his sub-Kafka stuff.’
There’s a name and a literary reference for you. It seems that even the new Old King Cole is still subject to the odd lapse.
Publication date: 21/11/87