Two decades after splitting up, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions re-formed this year, older, little wiser, and no less likely to argue over a curry. Here bassist (turned Observer writer) Lawrence Donegan opens his tour diary of highs (putting 115 mates on the guest list), lows (playing ‘Kumbaya’ in an Irish pub) and terror (wondering if he’ll be beaten up by the hard men of Wet Wet Wet)
Sunday December 12, 2004
When is a reunion tour not a reunion tour? When it’s a Lloyd Cole and the Commotions reunion tour. Reunion tours are for sad old guys who used to be in bands, who are married, who have kids, who now find themselves in jobs that don’t satisfy them in the way that being in a band once did and who could do with the cash that comes with surfing the wave of nostalgia, even if the wave is more of a ripple than a rip.
We are none of the above, we convince ourselves, even though, to varying degrees, we are all of the above. So we have to find another reason. ‘It’s been 20 years since the release of Rattlesnakes, the Commotions’ first and best record. Why don’t we re-release it in a special edition?’ says the man from the record company.
This is all the excuse we need.
‘Why didn’t you do it after 10 years? Why not 15, or 12 years, or five?’ my girlfriend asks me.
‘I don’t know,’ I reply, which is the truth. I really don’t know why Lloyd Cole and the Commotions got back together in the autumn of 2004. As I drive south over the Golden Gate Bridge towards San Francisco airport and a 15-hour journey back to Glasgow for three weeks of rehearsals and one week of gigs, I tell myself that maybe I’ll have found an answer by the time I come back.
The Annexe is a new, state-of-the-art rehearsal studio complex close to the River Clyde. It’s owned by Steve Cheyne, who was running a rehearsal studio in Glasgow when the Commotions were going first time round. ‘How’s tricks, big man?’ he says, looking up from his notepad, as if we hadn’t seen other for 15 hours rather than 15 years.
My flight was late. The rest of the band have been in the studio for a few hours, and as I walk down the hallway I can hear the sound of music. I’m nervous. We haven’t played together since 1988, at the fag-end of a long, miserable and fractious tour to support Mainstream, our third (and last) album.
‘All right, guys,’ I say, barging in on a version of ‘Perfect Skin’ that sounds remarkably like the record, even without the bass part.
‘All right, Lol.’
We were never the most demonstrative bunch. There is no group hug, though everyone looks happy and well. Stephen Irvine has lost a ton of weight. Blair Cowan looks fit, but older than the rest of us – but then he always did. Neil Clark is as cool and phlegmatic as ever. Lloyd still looks a little like a young Elvis, except for his hair, which is flecked with grey and has a white flash across the fringe, as if he’d brushed against a freshly painted wall and hadn’t noticed.
I haven’t played with other musicians in 16 years.
‘Shall we try something?’ says Lloyd.
We play ‘Perfect Skin’, which sounds remarkably like the record, even with the bass part.
‘How about we try ‘Country Music’?’
‘Why I Love Country Music’ is one of the Commotions’ lesser-known songs; a lovely, lilting tune on our second album, Easy Pieces – a record I never listen to on account of the fact that most of it is mortifyingly bad.
‘I haven’t heard this song for years,’ I say. ‘How does it go?’
I feel stupid, lazy, and embarrassed that everyone is better prepared than me. Blair, for instance, has spent most of his spare time over the past six weeks programming his keyboards.
‘The only album I’ve got is the greatest hits. So that’s the only songs I know,’ I say, which is a lie – the only songs I know are the first four songs on the greatest hits album.
Lloyd starts laughing. ‘D, E minor, G.’
‘What song is that?’
‘The opening chords of ‘Country Music’.’
We stop after the first verse, so that Lloyd can teach me the chorus.
We’re sounding good – surprisingly good, considering the bass player spent the three weeks before rehearsals started covering the Olympic games in Athens for the Guardian, the guitar player designs websites for a living, the drummer is busy managing a happening rock band called Cherry Falls, the keyboard player has a full-time job with BT and the lead singer hasn’t sung a lot of the songs for over a decade. Pleased with ourselves, we knock off at six o’clock and head to a local curry shop, where we take an audit on the past 15 years.
We swap stories of children and careers and what do we think of each other now. ‘No one has changed,’ Lloyd says as the pakora is delivered to the table.
‘Rubbish,’ I say.
Stephen squeezes the juice of a lemon wedge right over the top of the food. I hate lemon.
‘Hey, what the fuck are you doing?’ I snap.
Stephen is taken aback. Lloyd finishes chewing on a piece of pakora and says, ‘I rest my case.’
Call it human nature, or call it pathetic, but you can’t help measuring your life against that of your contemporaries and friends, although in the small world of the Commotions there really is no competition: Derek, our manager, wins.
After the band split up in 1988, Derek descended into a dark pit of failure, only producing one of the most successful stage shows of all time – Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance – before he started managing a little known singer-songwriter called Elton John.
It’s a busy life looking after the most successful, most beloved pop star in the world (Taiwan and the Madonna household excluded) but somehow Derek has found the time to participate in the Lloyd Cole and the Commotions reunion tour golf tournament, which is, come to think of it, one of the main reasons why we decided to get back together.
Blair is a squash player, and golf to Neil is like Taiwan to Elton. This leaves Lloyd, Stephen, Derek and me. ‘Best player over four rounds wins,’ Derek says. ‘And I’ll buy the engraved trophy.’
We’re doing five shows, only one of which has so far sold out. Lloyd gets up at nine o’clock every morning and does press interviews to let the world know that Rattlesnakes is being re-released and, hopefully, to sell a few tickets. This means we don’t have to get to the rehearsal studio until noon.
I arrive at one, fresh and rested. Lloyd looks frazzled.
‘Did you do many interviews today?’ I ask him.
‘Not really, just the Daily Record,’ he sighs.
‘Just the usual crap.’
Lloyd’s Daily Record interview is published beneath the 24-point headline ‘WE’RE NOT AS SAD AS WETS – LLOYD CAUSES A COMMOTION AS BAND REUNITES’. The intro reads, ‘Veteran pop star Lloyd Cole has re-opened a 20 year feud with Wet Wet Wet by claiming their reunion is “sad”.’
It is hard to know where to begin cataloguing the silly inaccuracies in the piece, though it is undeniable that our beloved but occasionally obtuse leader did say something like, ‘Every fucker is reforming this year. If I had known they [Wet Wet Wet] were reforming it would have been even harder to persuade me.’
This was, Lloyd explains, a joke. We didn’t know Wet Wet Wet 20 years ago, therefore we didn’t have any ‘feud’ to re-open. In any case, he adds, who cares – it’s not like we’ll ever see Marti Pellow and friends any time in the next 20 years.
Buddy, our guitar roadie and a natural born comedian, wanders in carrying a restrung guitar. ‘Nice story in the Record,’ he says nonchalantly, then leaves a beat before adding. ‘You know the Wets start rehearsing in the room next door on Monday, right?’
The sniggering hasn’t stopped when Brian, our drummer roadie, arrives. ‘I’ve organised the ring,’ he says to Lloyd, who looks bemused.
‘The boxing ring.’
‘Right enough,’ Buddy says. ‘The Wets like a good ruck, don’t they?’
I’ve no idea whether the members of the Wet Wet Wet like a good ruck but I know for a fact that Lloyd is the most mild-mannered, least confrontational person on the planet. A fight could be ugly, especially as he has been abandoned in his hour of need by four of his oldest, closest friends. ‘You’re on your own, you speccy bastard,’ I say, ever the loyal sidekick.
The Delgados, one of my favourite groups, have been rehearsing in the room next door for the past few days. It’s a particular shame their place is being taken by Wet Wet Wet – lots of people’s favourite group but not mine. Not to be too unkind but I’d been looking forward to the rest of my life, safe in the knowledge that I’d never have to listen ‘Love is All Round’ one more time.
That’s the bad news. The good news is the members of Wet Wet Wet are less physically imposing in the flesh than they look on their tour posters, and much friendlier than Buddy had suggested. I meet their tour manager, Dougie, keyboard player, Neil, and bass player, Graham, in the hallway. ‘What about this Daily Record story?’ Dougie says, grinning. Neil and Graham are trying hard to keep straight faces.
‘It’s that Lloyd Cole,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘He’d start a fight in a hair salon.’
We’ve agreed to play a ‘secret’ show for our friends and families at a bar in Glasgow called the Bunker, partly because it means we won’t have guest list hassles for our concert at the Barrowlands but mostly because it gives us something to aim for, otherwise we’d spend most of the rehearsal time playing golf or eating curries.
The final few of days of rehearsals have been spent trying to put together a set list for the tour. We’re playing quite a long show and it’s important that it is structured properly. Fans have no idea how much thought and effort goes into working out a running order for a concert. ‘What shall we start with?’
‘What do you think?’
We decide to start with ‘Rattlesnakes’, finish with ‘Jennifer She Said’, and end the encores – if we get any – with ‘Forest Fire’.
We go through the running order a couple of times and it sounds decent enough, although halfway through the final set of the day I cock up four of the songs. I self-diagnose this as the first symptom of nerves.
‘Don’t worry. It’s rock’n’roll – it’s not meant to be note perfect,’ says Neil, who is always note perfect. He’s right, but it doesn’t stop me feeling like the thickest kid in the class, a feeling intensified as I write out crib sheets to help me get through the songs.
The golf tournament is going disastrously for everyone but Lloyd, who is miles ahead after two rounds. I’d never say it to his face but he’s actually quite a good player – a six-handicapper. I try to put him off in his backswing by calling him a ‘boring golf nerd’. It doesn’t work, on account of the fact he thinks this is a compliment.
I hand over my list of guests for the ‘secret’ show to Malcolm, our trusty tour manager. ‘How many have you got?’ he says.
‘About 115,’ I reply
Normally, Malcolm would have a seizure at this point but he says, ‘Cool. The more the merrier. We need to fill the bloody place.’
Between the five us, we manage to come up with 300 names for the guest list. ‘Only half of them will turn up,’ Malcolm says, confidently.
It’s three hours until we’re on stage. We fritter away the time counting the typing errors in the sleevenotes I’ve written for the album packaging, and adding to the guest list. By the time the doors open, we’re up to 350 names. They all turn up.
Glasgow in the mid-1980s was a heady place to be, especially if you were in a band – which most people were. Everyone had a record contract or was about to sign one, and everyone thought they were the new Velvet Underground or the next Rolling Stones. In the end, no one was the next Rolling Stones, though Del Amitri came close a couple of times.
When the doors opens it’s like Friday night at the Sub Club, circa 1984. The faces are a little rounder, the hair a little thinner, but I recognise old friends from Hipsway, Del Amitri, the Bluebells, the Big Dish, Friends Again and Bourgie Bourgie. ‘It’s like The Big Chill without the funeral,’ someone says.
Just before we go on stage Stephen asks me if I’m excited. ‘Kind of,’ I say. ‘And you?’
He’s beaming. ‘God, yes,’ he says, then nods towards the table in the front row where his two young kids are sitting with their mum, Georgia. ‘My daughters have never seen me play the drums before. Neither has Georgia.’
Call me a sentimental fool, but this sounds like the best reason I’ve heard so far for doing the reunion tour.
Day 19 continued
It’s chucking out time at the Bunker. The show finished an hour ago and I’m still asking people, ‘What were we like?’
So far, I’ve had 14 ‘brilliants’, 11 ‘greats’, three ‘too quiet’, one ‘too loud’ (from my 74-year-old mother), and one ‘For fuck’s sake, will you stop running around like a blue-arsed fly. Have a beer and enjoy the moment. You were fucking great.’ I go home, get to bed around 2am and fall asleep about half-past five.
Malcolm has inexplicably failed to book us a private jet to travel to Dublin for our first proper gig. We fly with Ryanair and catch a mini-bus into the city. We have the night off, so we get together for a band meal, get drunk on red wine and then head off to a pub near Grafton Street to get even drunker.
Around midnight someone walks in with an acoustic guitar, which we commandeer. I start playing ‘Kumbaya’, which prompts a first in the history of Irish licensed premises. ‘Hey lads, some of the other customers are complaining,’ the barman says. ‘Can you put the feckin’ guitar away, please?’
Day twenty two
Our first ‘proper’ gig, at Dublin’s Vicar Street venue, is sold out. As we’re walking in through the stage door, one of the touts spots Lloyd and comes over to shake his hand. ‘Cheers,’ he says. ‘You’ve just made me two grand.’
‘Jesus,’ Blair says, ‘That’s more than we’re making.’
Inside, we rifle through the dressing room rider, which is some way short of the lavishness demanded by J-Lo: two bottles of red wine, a bottle of Wild Turkey, a dozen beers, a packet of pitta bread, crisps and a tray of cold meat and veg.
After a 16-year hiatus, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions are about to appear before a paying audience. I’m not nervous. Why should I be? I’m 43, this is not my career, there is nothing at stake apart from an aching desire to make sure the audience doesn’t walk out at the end of the show telling each other, ‘I can’t believe we paid 35 euros for that shite.’
A huge cheer greets the opening guitar riff of ‘Rattlesnakes’, though it’s not loud enough to drown out the first note I play, which is, of course, a bum one. Lloyd almost wets himself, though he still manages to start singing at the right time. ‘No jazz, please,’ he says at the end of the song.
Thankfully, the rest of the show goes a little better, though it isn’t quite up there with Dylan at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Afterwards, we head to the backstage bar looking for sex and drugs. Instead, we find a little knot of friends having a drink. The entire staff of the Tirconaill Tribune, a newspaper in Donegal where I once worked, has made the long journey to Dublin.
‘What did you think?’ I ask Francis, one of the paper’s owners.
‘Quite good,’ he says. ‘Mind you, I’ve heard a lot better at the Golden Grill in Letterkenny.’
Day twenty five
We’re driving down to Manchester the morning after playing Barrowlands in Glasgow. The reviews are in. ‘Dahling, we’re a smash,’ I tell Neil, handing him a copy of the Guardian. ‘There is a distinct irony in these 40-somethings pouring themselves into the songs they wrote as fresh-faced adolescents. It lends their once perfect pop a dignity and profound sadness,’ James Smart writes. He gives us four stars out of five, although he’s not entirely won over: ‘… at times a sense of fatigue hangs over the proceedings.’
Just over two-thirds of the tickets have been sold for the Manchester show. ‘Don’t worry, folks, it only means your audience has become a bit more selective,’ says Malcolm, who has watched This Is Spinal Tap too many times for his own good.
Fortunately my mate Ian manages to find 45 people to put on the guest list, including his eight-year-old son Tommy and Tommy’s mother, Lisa. Tommy is a huge music fan – Morrissey is his current favourite – and tonight is his first ever live concert.
‘Don’t worry son, it’s all uphill from here,’ his dad tells him.
Day twenty six
The last time we played in London was May 1988, at Wembley Arena. Two weeks later, I was sitting in a journalism class in Newcastle trying to learn shorthand. Four months after that I was working in the Bishop Auckland office of the Northern Echo alongside a bald guy called Cliff.
You make your own choices in life, and by and large I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. But every once in a while I think I might have made a few mistakes. Standing in front of 5,000 people at the Hammersmith Apollo on the night of 15 October 2004 is one of those occasions. It was the gorgeous, dark-haired woman in the front row who did it. She looks so happy, so deliriously in love with the songs, that I can’t help thinking we should never have split up. We could have survived quite well for 20 years on that kind of devotion. It’s time to make a new record, I tell myself.
I’m delusional, of course. The truth is, the Commotions split up at exactly the right time, before we made a really crap record that would have extinguished whatever affection people had for us in the first place, before the petty irritation we felt with each other developed into something much more malignant. The truth is it’s time to go home and get on with the rest of our lives.
There is an aftershow party at the Hammersmith Working Men’s Club and everyone is there: people I haven’t seen for years whom I’ve missed; people I haven’t seen for years whom I thought I’d never want to see again (but now I do!). They’re dancing, drinking, shouting at each other to make themselves heard above the music, which is all from the 1980s and sounds 10 times better than it sounded back then.
Gary Crowley is DJ-ing. Another old pal. I go over and give him a hug.
‘Remember when we first met, Lawrence?’
‘April 2, 1982 – the first day of the Falklands War,’ I tell him.
‘On Parker Street, right?’
‘We were kids, weren’t we?’
‘We were,’ I say, then I look across the room and for just a second I convince myself that nothing much has changed.
Day twenty eight
We play the last round of the reunion tour golf championship. It’s a formality. Cole wins by a landslide. Afterwards, in the clubhouse bar, Derek presents the winner with his trophy. We all shake hands. ‘Let’s do it again next year,’ Lloyd says.
I think – no, I’m sure – that he means another golf tournament, not another reunion tour.
Excuse me, but were you once famous?
Once the Commotions’ drummer, now manages a rock band called Cherry Falls.
Bassist turned journalist, working for The Observer and the Guardian, recently covering the Olympics.
A singer-songwriter, Cole formed the Commotions in 1983. After three albums – Rattlesnakes, Easy Pieces and Mainstream – he broke up the group, releasing a succession of albums under his own name, the most recent being 2003’s Music in a Foreign Language.
Keyboardist, continued to work with Cole after the Commotions split, now works for BT.
The Commotions’ guitarist is now a website designer, who also writes music for film and TV.
Publication: The Observor
Publication date: 12/12/04