High noon in the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow. Gammon and pineapple on the menu and Wham on the television. Look around and it could still be 1984, not 2004. Especially if you see the five familiar-looking men having their photograph taken at the back of the bar. In 1984, after all, they were the next big thing around these parts.
But that was then. Look a little closer and it’s clear that all five are now middle-aged. Well into middle youth at any rate. They’re all grey hair and T -shirts (in one case it’s more like no hair and Man at C&A shirt). Not even the odd San Francisco Giants baseball cap can disguise the fact that all five are on the high side of 40.
As they pose at the front door, one of the Horseshoe’s punters puts down his dinnertime pint, comes over and asks what’s going on. It’s Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, I tell him. He shrugs his shoulders. “Who?” It’s more a statement than a question.
Perhaps if he’d seen them an hour later, in a rehearsal studio near the Clyde, running through Are You Ready to be Heartbroken, with some vigour, it should be said, his response might have been different. Until a few days ago the five members of the Commotions hadn’t been in the same room for 16 years, not since the band broke up after the release and promotion of their third album, Mainstream. These days only two of them, Cole himself and guitarist Neil Clark, are still working musicians. Drummer Stephen Irvine worked for MTV for years but now manages a band, Cherryfalls, who, he says, are “somewhere between Coldplay and Radiohead, but a bit more muscular”. Bassist Lawrence Donegan is more familiar as a journalist, author and columnist in this very parish. And keyboard player (and Man at C&A customer) Blair Cowan? Cowan’s a software engineer for British Telecom. BT has given him a sabbatical for the reunion. “Mind you, I don’t get paid.”
The five of them have come back to Glasgow to rehearse for a series of gigs to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first album, Rattlesnakes (a regular feature in those top 100 albums of all time lists, albeit usually down in the low nineties). Only Cowan still lives in the city, though Donegan is moving back from San Francisco next year. Cole has come from Massachusetts, Clark from Toronto and Irvine from London. A couple of them (Donegan and Irvine) are staying with their mums, Clark and Cole have rented an apartment. And, after just a few days together, it seems, they’ve more or less reconnected. Not that it was any great drama. “We’re like quite a reserved Scottish family,” admits Donegan. “We’re not emotionally demonstrative. There was no group hug or anything like that.”
Certainly in the rehearsal studio there’s an easy familiarity between them as they run through the setlist which draws heavily on tracks from Rattlesnakes (they’re revisiting nine of the 10 tracks on their debut. Only Down on Mission Street failed to make the cut. You don’t like that song Lloyd? “I love it. I’ve just got no idea what it’s about.”)
Whenever there’s a break in proceedings Donegan jumps on to the drums and taps out a rhythm or picks out a bassline that shows off his thumbwork. “Mark King lives,” I tell him after one such diversion. “Do you mind? That’s Wild Cherry, I’ll have you know.”
In the space of a few hours we also get Boston (More than a Feeling), Fleetwood Mac (The Chain) Lynrd Skynrd (Sweet Home Alabama). When they’re not playing or messing around they’re trying to sort out tee-off times for the upcoming weekend (Cole has his clubs in the studio), discussing their memories of minor members of Amazulu (if that’s not an oxymoron) and the alcoholic predelictions of John Martyn who used to drink with Irvine’s father, it seems. “He was quite a drinker,” says Clark of Mr Martyn. “So was my dad,” says Irvine.
You wouldn’t have said the same of the Commotions. Back in the eighties their public image was of a group of sensitive types; poloneck-wearing, book-reading, nascent new men. Did they have any rock and roll tendencies? “I think we got drunk, took drugs and slept with strangers occasionally,” admits Cole, “but I don’t think it was a driving force.”
“I think I took more drugs before I was in the band,” Clark adds.
“I think businessmen travelling around the world were probably naughtier than we were,” continues Cole. “Certainly when we bumped into Vienna Orchestra in Japan one time they were certainly up for more trouble than we were.”
Cole admits he did try to make up for lost time when he left the band and moved to New York in the late eighties. “I just thought f***, it’s about time I did some rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. So for the first six months in New York I had four girlfriends. I got out of it on LSD accidentally once. I thought I was taking mushrooms, but it turned out they were laced with acid. I’m not into hallucinogenics. It’s horrible.”
Tonight it’s just pints of Belhaven and a Greek meal later. We’ve moved on to the Copycat bar under the shadow of the Kingston Bridge and we’re discussing why they decided to come back together. Actually, they don’t seem sure. Whose idea was it? “Probably his,” Clark says, signalling to Donegan. Such is the power of the press. The idea may have been first mooted in one of his columns. What all five do know is that they didn’t want this revival to be some kind of karaoke version of their past. “It’s not one of those things you see in the back pages of Q,” says Clark.
“My main concern was whether I wanted to do it or not in the first place,” says Cole. “I’m the only person still working in the music industry producing their own stuff. I’m the only one with something to damage. I’m the only one worried about whether it was going to be crap.”
“You’re not the only one working in the music industry,” Clark corrects him.
“Making music under my own name,” Cole concedes.
The idea of celebrating Rattlesnakes is one that appealed to him, though. It’s an album, he thinks, that’s worth celebrating. They all do. “Even now I think it is a
fantastic record,” Donegan will tell me later. “I love The Smiths but go back and listen to Meat is Murder. Unlistenable. Go and listen to any of those Echo and the Bunnymen records. Garbage. But if you sit down and listen to Rattlesnakes it sounds great.
It cost £ 30,000. “We did it in six weeks. Mainstream (their third and final album released three years later) cost 10 times that much and it was f***ing torturous. I remember thinking this is so easy, this is amazing. We’re going to make records forever more and it’s going to be easy, easy, easy. It was almost like a fluke.” Which is just what it proved to be in the end.
Back in 1983 it seemed like
everyone in Glasgow was in a band. (Irvine, indeed, seemed to be playing in all of them, well, five anyway when he joined the Commotions.) “Glasgow was very vibrant,” Cole recalls. “There was a lot going on. You would go to Nico’s Bar in Sauchiehall Street and three-quarters of the people in there were either in bands or were artists or were trying to be architects. And nobody would speak to you if you weren’t trying to do something like that. It was as simple as that. There was a very healthy peer pressure.”
Having dropped out of law school in London, Cole had followed his parents north. “I needed somewhere to live so I went to Glasgow University for a while.” You dropped out of there as well. “Yeah, two-time dropout.” Still, he met Cowan at Glasgow Uni and they decided to form a band with art student Clark. Irvine and Donegan joined soon after, the latter after he had been sacked from the Bluebells, a result
of record company “downsizing”.
“Before I was in them – not that I made a big difference – they were aiming more for Talking Heads,” says Donegan, “which is funny because Lloyd isn’t the best dancer I’ve seen.”
They never made a better impression than their first one. Their second record, Easy Pieces, outsold Rattlesnakes by some distance, but it rarely figures on anyone’s best-of list. Donegan’s appraisal is the most succinct. “Easy Pieces was s***,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.” Their moment had passed. They carried on, made a decent third album, even promoted it. But by that time the spark had gone. Cowan bailed out before the tour, suffering from
asthma. “He was just sick of it,’ says Clark. Irvine and Clark might have been willing to carry on, but Cole wasn’t. “If the singer decides he doesn’t want to be part of the group that’s it,” says Irvine. Three weeks after they played a gig at Wembley, Donegan was at journalism school. Cole went to America where, after his wild moments in New York, met his wife Beth, raised two kids and just about avoided bankruptcy when an advance fell through. “In retrospect I might have been smarter to go bankrupt but I just didn’t like the idea so I just worked my arse off.” Life moved on.
Cole is still making records, but his output has slowed. “I have more time for people who go out and play to make a living than people who want to make records but have nothing to say. So I have more time for Gerry and the Pacemakers than Van Morrison right now.”
The reunion is probably a one-off. “If we have a ton of fun and somebody calls us up and asks us to headline a festival in Tokyo and we are all free then I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it,” says Cole. “But it is certainly not going to be Madstock.”
Enjoy it, while you can, seems to be the message. “I always thought it would be pretty sad and pathetic to be in a rock band in your mid-forties,” admits Donegan. Long-term, he has no plans to test the theory.
Publication: The Herald (Glasgow)
Publication date: 29/10/04