THERE IS A show on music channel VH1 called Bands Reunited. The premise is simple: the programmes presenter approaches the various musicians from a long-defunct but reasonably-successful-in-their-day outfit (usually from the Eighties, because that seems to be where nostalgia is at these days), often by simply accosting former members in the street, and persuades them to reunite for one last gig. Then he stands by and watches the buried resentments, insecurities and pathetic back-stories resurface before it is all resolved in a group hug and some jolly music.
So far, subjects have included Haircut 100, Kajagoogoo, A Flock Of Seagulls and The Beat, but the list of potential targets is endless. How about pop ménage à trois The Thompson Twins? Those old geezers – whats theirname – thats it, Duran Duran! Except they never split up, we just hoped they would. Perhaps they could even reunite Howard Jones and his mental chains.
One band of contemporaries who would probably eat their own polo-neck jumpers rather than submit to such a tawdry enterprise are Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, the black-clad Scottish janglers and their English beatnik frontman who had a decent run of “student bedsit” hits in the mid-80s. Cole could – still can and does – drop the name of his favourite authors into a conversation more naturally than small talk about the weather. He was an unashamedly erudite, honorary Glaswegian rock star when Franz Ferdinands Alex Kapranos and Belle & Sebastians Stuart Murdoch were both still in short trousers. No, there would definitely be no TV-endorsed reunion for him.
Instead, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions are temporarily reuniting of their own accord, for a month. The occasion which merits this unlikely move is the 20th anniversary of their idiosyncratic, dare we say classic, debut album Rattlesnakes, which was ranked 11th in last years Scotsman 100 Best Scottish Albums poll and has just been reissued in an attractive anniversary edition with an extra CD of demos, sessions and live tracks.
“Were not really reuniting because of the band; were reuniting because of the record,” explains Cole, fighting both the effects of a cold and the chill in the cell-like lounge of the bands Glasgow rehearsal studio. “We were only together for about five years and three albums, of which only one is really special. The other two are all right.”
Cole initially rejected the idea of a reunion when it was first mooted and even now, after three weeks of rehearsals, on the verge of their five reunion dates, he remains ambivalent. “Ive been very bipolar about the whole thing,” he admits. “Some days I think we sound fantastic, then a couple of days later Im wishing Id never agreed to it. Im still trying to make contemporary music, but the context almost requires giving up that hope.”
INEVITABLY, THE reunion is fraught with nostalgia. Coles vain hope was to creep back virtually unnoticed, play the shows, then break for cover. Instead, he is constantly being asked to reminisce. The Commotions were an instant success story at a very fertile time for music in Glasgow. Diverse underground acts such as Simple Minds, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice were breaching the charts for the first time and record companies were profligate in their efforts to sign up anything with a guitar strapped to it.
“It was incredibly vibrant, primarily because of Postcard Records [the label which was initially home to Orange Juice and Aztec Camera],” Cole recalls. “But what shouldnt be dismissed was the importance of bands like Simple Minds, who we used to dismiss at the time as ned music, just because we were snobs. What was great about Glasgow is that it was across the spectrum that interesting music was happening.
“When they first started, Simple Minds were fantastic, but we would never have admitted it because we were from the art school society thing based around Nicos bar in Sauchiehall Street. It was important to us that we felt we were more interesting than all the other bands. So there was this healthy peer pressure which bordered on being extremely bitchy at times, especially when Alan Horne [Postcard Records boss] was involved. If it wasnt for that bitchiness and small pond thing, Im not sure if wed have had the impetus to do what we did. You didnt want to be exiled. I think primarily I got into a band so that people would speak to me, so that I didnt have to go to them, so they would come to me.”
Such youthful arrogance quickly bred Rattlesnakes, which was written and recorded in a year. With literary references and cinematic allusions, in ten songs it transported you to a world of iconic Americana and yet reflected its environment totally, at a time when Glasgow was less cosmopolitan than it is today. Says Cole: “Id never been on an aeroplane before, then all of a sudden I was jetting up and down to London on British Midland. I remember writing lyrics on aeroplanes and in hotel rooms, which was a romantic thing for me to do. Id never spent a lot of time in hotels. I still love hotels. Im not very excited about flying anymore, but at the time it was novel.”
The novelty wore off. After releasing two further albums, Easy Pieces and Mainstream, with which they were progressively more dissatisfied, The Commotions split. “I didnt want to be in a band anymore,” says Cole. “I was worried I was going to become a maudlin old man at 27.”
POST-COMMOTIONS, Cole was the only one who continued with any success in music. He pitched up in New York, stayed there for 11 years, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy at one point, and now lives in Massachusetts. Guitarist Neil Clark, now living in Toronto, still plays music and works in graphic design. Drummer Stephen Irvine is in music management in London, while bassist Lawrence Donegan is a successful writer and journalist. Keyboard player Blair Cowan, now a software whizz, is the only Commotion who never left Glasgow. He was the first member to leave the band. On their final tour, he joined The Commotions for one more time on stage in Glasgow. Until three weeks ago, this was the last occasion all the group had been in the same room at the same time (although they had mostly remained in touch).
“There was a certain amount of awkwardness,” says Cole of the initial meeting. “There still is, I think. All of us have grown in different ways, although everybodys character quirks and peculiarities seem to be just the same, if not magnified over the years. Lawrence is always on the verge of tripping over or breaking something. Blair is fastidious and very detail- orientated. Stephen is verging on sergeant-majorish in rehearsal and Neil doesnt like to rest on his laurels ever.
” Im probably too much of a control freak,” he adds.
“Some of us think that a rock n roll band is really not that important, and yet that was our life. Im just being realistic about it. Im not fighting for this music. Its just a tiny piece of art in a tiny subsection of the world of art. Its the music we did. Its already been done. But it seems that it still means something to people so were celebrating that.” Whether he believes it or not, it is worth celebrating.
And for the record, Lloyd Cole still wears black polo-necks.
Lloyd Cole and The Commotions play Barrowland, Glasgow, tomorrow. Rattlesnakes 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is out now on Polydor, as is the singles compilation Lloyd Cole. The Commotions. The Singles
Lloyd Cole’s bluffer’s guide to Rattlesnakes
“Really just our manifesto. I dont think the song says anything other than: Here we are, were bright and perky, a wee bit brash and smart alecky and were not remotely embarrassed about any of that.”
“A lovely picture of our sound. Its not really a story, its just a bunch of scenarios, me putting together found sentences.”
“The closest we ever got to a rock song in those days. Its a composite character from two Joan Didion books, my image of a beautiful, confused woman from California.”
DOWN ON MISSION STREET
“I dont really know what I was trying to say in that. Id been reading too much Graham Greene. I think I just wanted to hear the word mission in a song, and then I found out that there was a Mission Street in San Francisco and that was enough for me.”
“The do do do bit in the middle is very annoying because it was meant to be an ad-lib and Ive been singing it for 20 years now.”
“Thats really about Upper Street in Islington, where I had a very exciting relationship with a woman who was quite a bit older than me.”
“That was the other relationship from that year. The room coloured deepest blue was really green – poetic licence – and she didnt have a 2CV, Blair had.”
FOUR FLIGHTS UP
“One of our friends lived four flights up in a tenement flat and we did spend a lot of time there.”
“I liked the idea of doing something that worked like The Beatles Dear Prudence, the idea of a name with other connotations. Its just a very simple love song.”
ARE YOU READY TO BE HEARTBROKEN?
“The one I hold most affection for. I used to get a fair amount of stick for name-dropping. For me, its good economy in songwriting. Using someones name or the name of a place can have all manner of cultural connotations. Listening to Arthur Lee records just sounded evocative, and everybody was listening to Arthur Lee in Glasgow in 1982
Publication: News. Scotsman.com
Publication date: 11/10/04