“Can I tell you about the albums I bought yesterday, rather than my all-time favourites?” asks Lloyd Cole, who emerged from the icy climes of Glasgow in the early 1980s and has recently settled in the equally icy climes of Massachusetts, where he has been making a living as a solo folk singer. Cole is in London on the eve of a tour, and he spent the previous evening stocking up on the complete works of Miles Davis and Marc Bolan in the Oxford Street branch of HMV. “I first heard Miles Davis when I was a typical student trying to find out if there was any jazz that he likes, so I discovered the same as everybody else – John Coltrane and Miles Davis – but I got into albums like In a Silent Way pretty deep. The only conscious thing I ever did about my singing was to eliminate any vibrato, which is what Miles Davis did in his playing.”

There was a period in the mid-80s when no student bedsit was complete without a copy of Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, alongside a poster of Che Guevara and some paraphernalia about the healthful and ethical virtues of marijuana. Cole cornered the market in wry, literate pop, and two decades on, Rattlesnakes still sounds as sharp as ever. Its originality was at least partially a result of the fact that Cole had no idea what he was doing. “If I ever had any natural talent, it was as an idiot savant because I didn’t even know what a key was when I started,” he says. “But if you know what you like, and if you can make a sound that you like, you are almost at an advantage because you don’t think about the process at all. You just think about the end product.”

When Cole started out in his early 20s he looked and dressed as if he was in his 30s, as befitted a man who saw pop music as an art form to be taken as seriously as any other. Now he is in his 40s, he still looks as if he is in his 30s, so nothing about his appearance has actually changed in the past 20 years. Cole’s original goal was to be like Isaac Hayes, although it didn’t take him too long to discover that this was never going to happen. “But if I hadn’t listened to something like Hot Buttered Soul I wouldn’t have had the motivation to make a record that moves people in the way that one moves me. The Commotions started as a soul band, but we failed hideously, and it was only when we started writing songs that we realised we had much more in common with, say, the Byrds than Booker T and the MGs. The music we made did not bear much relation to the music we liked.”

Cole’s music is certainly nothing like that of T-Rex, which he currently seems excited to rediscover. “Marc Bolan was my first pop idol, which was a bit of a problem because if you walk around a small town in the Pennines wearing Marc Bolan trousers, you have a good chance of getting the crap beaten out of you.” Cole was given Electric Warrior by T-Rex for his 11th birthday, and it made him want to become a singer. “He had a really fabulous, unconscious genius for singing gobbledegook and making it sound very cool. Take a line like ‘What’s it like to be a loon? I liken it to a balloon’ (from Cosmic Dancer). It’s totally meaningless and yet somehow so emotional and wonderful, and in Cosmic Dancer he manages to contradict himself from one line to another and it doesn’t matter at all.”

Cosmic Dancer comes from Bolan’s golden age of glam, but towards the end of his career – and his life – he went off the boil at bit. On his HMV shopping spree, Cole bought Futuristic Dragon and Dandy in the Underworld, the two final records by T-Rex. “Futuristic Dragon has nothing to redeem it whatsoever beyond some of the lyrics to New York City,” says Cole. “Dandy in the Underworld is slightly better, and it was considered a brief return to form before he died. But the only reason I bought them is because I have to have everything that Marc Bolan has ever done in order to feel complete.”

Cole’s teenage pop music obsession was so severe that his chief ability was completing the NME crossword within 10 minutes. “There wasn’t much about pop music in the 70s that I didn’t know,” he claims. “Bowie became as important as Marc Bolan for me, and this was the age when pop stars got the closest to being Byronic figures of romantic myth; when they really were the poets of the age. I can’t think of anything better in popular music than the sound of Metal Guru or Rebel, Rebel, and the otherwise silly words to those songs make total sense when they are put next to the music. But that’s the essence of great pop: you don’t know what they’re on about, so you put your own meaning on to it.”

Cole admits his drive to write songs came from wanting to be a pop singer, rather than inspiration from a higher muse. “I made myself write songs because that’s what you had to do if you wanted to be like Marc or David Bowie,’ he says. “My primary motivation was, in retrospect, wanting to be famous, which is quite sad but probably fairly common. Then you get to the point where you have to get a different motivation to carry on. My only goal at first was to be on Top of the Pops and on the cover of the NME.” Cole achieved his goal. So what did he do from there? “Exactly. What do you do after that? I did it for another 14 years, until 1997 when I realised that I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I gave up writing. Now if something comes to me I’ll run with it. And if it doesn’t, I’ll play golf.”

Link to original article online

Publication: The Guardian (London)

Publication date: 01/10/04