Lloyd Cole and the Commotions bassist Lawrence Donegan thought his rock’n’roll days were over until someone had the idea of a reunion.
San Rafael, California, is a gorgeous place but the trouble is that nothing much happens there after 10 o’clock. In the morning. Given the town’s sleepy countenance, it’s little wonder that when any band makes the journey north from San Francisco, the entertainment-starved locals turn out in droves, as they did one night last year when one of the local pubs hosted a gig by A Flock of Seagulls.
Older readers might remember A Flock of Seagulls from the 1980s. They had one big hit on both sides of the Atlantic, a song called I Ran, but in truth were more famous for their lead singer Mike Score’s haircut – an elaborate, heavily lacquered construction that appeared to have been modelled on the tail fins of a 1955 Coupe De Ville. A recent episode of Friends was built entirely round the fact that when Chandler was at school he had a haircut exactly like Score’s.
At least Score and Co achieved some kind of artistic longevity, albeit as the butt of a sitcom joke. Other popular bands of that era haven’t been so lucky, though that hasn’t stopped them trying to elbow their way back into the current music scene. Scan the back pages of Mojo or Q and you’ll come across numerous adverts for gigs featuring 1980s bands like Go West, Altered Images, ABC, Erasure – in recent months all have embarked on reunion tours. Meanwhile the American cable channel VH1 is currently showing Bands Reunited , a programme that brings together 1980s bands like The Alarm for one-off gigs, giving modern audiences – as the show’s host likes to point out – ‘the chance to relive the golden age of pop music’.
Funny that. I don’t remember the 1980s as the golden age of anything. The fashion was bad, the politics atrocious and the music dire, mostly. I say mostly because, occasionally, pop music from that era could be terrific. The Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays and the Pixies all released their first albums in the 1980s. The Smiths released four albums during the decade, all of them great, though none of them quite as great as the album I think of as one of the decade’s best.
Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was released in October 1984. It quickly became a student bedsit classic. This was good in one way – it meant the record had reached a wide audience – but bad in another: ‘student bedsit classic’ was a derogatory term in those days. The hip, young gunslingers who ran the NME at the time hated students and, by association, hated music that students liked. So rather than reviewing Rattlesnakes the record they reviewed Rattlesnakes the audience, and deemed it to be angst-ridden and pretentious. This might have been true of the students but as far as the record was concerned, this was travesty of the truth. Rattlesnakes was (is) a wonderfully simple record, packed with straightforward pop songs and lyrics that were smart, sure, but playful and funny.
Twenty years later, Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did in 1984. I dare anyone to play it back to back with, say, Meat is Murder or anything by Echo and the Bunnymen and argue that it’s not by far the better record. But then again I might be biased. After all, I was a Commotion. For five years I was Lloyd Cole’s bass player; the tall gangly one in the photographs who wore the ridiculous quiff and, I’m ashamed to admit, white socks.
Being a Commotion was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Lloyd Cole was the singer and the main songwriter, which meant he had to deal with most of the hassles that came with being in a band – dealing with clueless A&R men and NME writers. It also meant he got the biggest chunk of the money. But that didn’t matter to me. I had enough cash to do what I wanted to do, which was travel around the world, playing gigs, getting drunk and chasing elusive groupies, like a Vauxhall Conference League version of Keith Richards.
We recorded Rattlesnakes in east London with the help of a lovely, laconic producer called Paul Hardiman. Every day we’d arrive at the studio, lay down a few backing tracks, nip along to Brick Lane for a curry and some pints, then head back and record some more. The album was finished in a month. Happy days indeed. Making a great record seemed so easy. But of course it isn’t.
We released two more albums after Rattlesnakes; Mainstream, which was pretty good but flopped, and Easy Pieces, which was our best-selling album by far – ironic really, especially as it was terrible. We were on the cusp of making our fourth record when something curious happened. We split up. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what happened but I suspect Lloyd got fed up listening to me wittering on about the greatness of the Beastie Boys and decided he could make perfectly good records on his own without such distractions.
That’s exactly what he’s been doing ever since. The rest of the Commotions, meanwhile, went off and did their own thing – Stephen Irvine (drums) and Neil Clark (guitar) formed another band, Blair Cowan (keyboards) continued to write music with Lloyd. I gave all my equipment away and went to journalism school, which led eventually to a job as a reporter on the Guardian.
For the next few years I scarcely gave a moment’s thought to the Commotions. Nor did I see anyone else in the band. We hadn’t fallen out, but after five years virtually living together we were all pretty glad to escape each other. The months turned into years. The only time I ever thought about my Commotions days was when one of our songs was played on the car radio. Our video turned up on Top of the Tops 2. A producer from Never Mind the Buzzocks called me at home in the late Nineties and asked if I’d appear on the ‘which one is the former rock star?’ spot. I declined the chance to be abused by Mark Lamarr.
It was a year after that I saw Lloyd for the first time in a decade. He was playing a gig in San Francisco, just him and his guitar. He was great, too. Afterwards we went for a curry. It wasn’t exactly a tearful reunion but we got on well enough to arrange a game of golf. Gradually, I got back in touch with the other Commotions. They’ve all got proper, grown-up jobs now, and kids too. We were scattered all over the world but made promises to meet up in London one day and get drunk together. In reality, I suspect the only thing that would have brought us all back together would have been a funeral.
But then one day an email arrived from Universal Records, which now owns the rights to Rattlesnakes. They wanted to know if we would be interested in releasing a twentieth anniversary edition of the record, remixed and remastered.
My first reaction was, Jesus Christ are we really that old? The second was, yes, absolutely. If ever a record deserved a second life, commercially and critically, it’s Rattlesnakes. For the last few months, we’ve all been listening to demos, radio sessions and recording of live concerts from the mid-1980s, trying to pick out tracks for a bonus CD.
It’s a short leap of imagination from listening to live recordings to reminiscing about what was going on when they were made. Sepia-tinted memory syndrome does the rest – bleaching out the bad times, adding a stylish, monochromatic warmth to the rest. Well, I don’t have to tell you what happened next. Later this year Lloyd Cole and the Commotions will play a couple of concerts to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of Rattlesnakes . The reunion was my idea, or at least I seemed keener than everybody else when the idea was floating around. They probably live fuller lives than I do. I could say that I thought we should do it for the fans, but that would be lying. I’m not even sure Lloyd Cole and the Commotions have any fans, at least not any more. The truth is nostalgia got the better of me.
It is, of course, a terrible idea. Band reunions usually are. A few years back I went to see the original line-up of the Velvet Underground – my favourite group of all time. Apart from being one of the most depressing evenings of my life, it was a perfect synthesis of physical decay, cynicism and financial greed. Twenty years of worship ruined in 90 minutes. I wish the Velvets had never done those reunion gigs. I wished I’d never bought a ticket. Maybe I’ll end up feeling the same way about the forthcoming Commotions gigs. In the meantime I’ll comfort myself with these two thoughts; at least we’re not playing at a pub in San Rafael, and at least none of us is fat and bald.
Publication date: 15/02/04