Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – The ‘Rattlesnakes’ Pack

June 1984 really was a foreign country. They did things differently there. By the time Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ debut single, ‘Perfect Skin’, was nudging its way up the top 50 at the second time of asking, Morrissey and Edwyn Collins were in need of some serious back up. Paul Weller had taken to sporting tennis whites with his Style Council, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were monopolising the top 10 and Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw were hanging in there, snoods and all. Over in the albums chart, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie and Rod Stewart were making hay.

Meanwhile, students the nation over, poured over the first Smiths album and prayed for the cavalry. It arrived in the shape of a nervy looking, floppy fringed, 12-string strumming, bookworm who sang about sexually enlightened Cosmo girls and Velvet Underground fans. Around him, his Scottish band laid down a stylish backbeat with some gorgeously intricate guitar play while sporting Socialist Workers’ Party haircuts. They were Neil Clark (guitar), Lloyd Cole (vocals, guitar), Blair Cowan (keyboards), Lawrence Donegan (bass) and Stephen Irvine (drums) – the ‘Rattlesnakes Pack’, if you like – and we did.

By the time ‘Forest Fire’ followed two months later, the music press and a thousand student union jukeboxes were won over. Cole was a star. Young women loved him and young men wanted to be him. Eloquent, controversial, sure of himself and no respecter of reputations he took to the press treadmill with all the ease of a young man who was comfortable wearing eyeliner at college while devouring his weekly dose of the NME.

And ‘Forest Fire’ had another trick up its sleeve. Neil Clark’s extended, smoldering feedback guitar solo was impossible to ignore. It even had the cocksure Smiths camp sitting up and taking notice.

What we didn’t know then was that the Commotions already had a remarkable debut album in the back pocket of their black 501s. Having decamped to Shoreditch for 6 weeks with producer Paul Hardiman, Cole and the band recorded a set of new songs that were to become one of the greatest British (Cole is not Scottish) debut albums of all time. The NME Top 100 albums of all time later placed it just above the Beach Boys.

“It all seemed so easy,” recalls bass player Lawrence Donegan from his Californian base. “I remember thinking ‘is this how easy it is to make a great record?’ and of course it’s not. At the time it all seemed so simple and to fall into place.

“I remember when Neil was recording the solo for ‘Forest Fire’ – it was just amazing, layer upon layer of guitar. I absolutely loved it. I also remember almost crying when we played back ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ because it sounded so beautiful.”

Polydor releases a special, 20th anniversary deluxe edition of ‘Rattlesnakes’, complete with a bonus disc of rarities, demos, live tracks and radio sessions on October 4th. The re-released ‘Rattlesnakes’ is preceded on Sep 27th by a re-jigged best of compilation titled ‘Lloyd Cole. The Commotions. The Singles’, which also includes a DVD featuring all the band’s videos.

Clark, meanwhile, has been practicing that solo in his Toronto home ahead of the band’s 20th anniversary shows in Britain and Ireland in October, timed to coincide with the new releases. The original line-up will meet for the first time since 1989 in a Glasgow rehearsal room in a few weeks ahead of shows at Dublin, Vicar Street on October 10th/11th, Glasgow Barrowlands 12th, Manchester Academy 14th and London Hammersmith Apollo 15th.

“It was great,” says Clark. “I can remember doing it, being in the studio and putting the chalk marks on the floor for the feedback and all this stuff. Paul Hardiman was great to work with and the weather was great. We just went in and did our stuff. It was like the best job ever at the time. We’d start at 10am and finish at 6pm, though I did the Forest Fire solo late one night but that was an exception. We were well organized and we’d played the songs in.”

Dongean, now a sports writer as well as an author is perhaps best placed among the band members to deliver his verdict on the record they made and its sustained appeal.

“It’s still a very listenable record,” he says. “If you listen to some stuff from back than; Bunnymen records for example sound awful. ‘Rattlesnakes’ seemed very pure, perfectly conceived and simple. It has stood the test of time.”

And while Morrissey’s own interest in Lloyd may have been other than strictly professional back in the mid-80s, Smiths producer, Stephen Street went into the studio each day during that band’s ‘Meat Is Murder’ sessions with the sounds of ‘Rattlesnakes’ ringing in his ears.

“I listened to it a lot,” he recalls. “I remember, I went and bought a cassette version of the album and I’d listen to it in the car on way to the studio and I was very impressed by it. I loved his voice and the lyrics and I really loved the guitar playing too. I was very aware of Lloyd Cole and The Commotions being there amongst the rest of the pack while the Smiths were rising through the charts. I think Morrissey and Lloyd met a few times and there was a mutual respect between the two of them. They were both very good lyricists, a cut above most at the time.”

The Commotions were never the sort of band that other musicians would cite as a direct influence but that says more about the jealousies and insecurities of 80s guitar bands than it does about Cole’s songwriting. The Creation records stable of 20 years ago certainly spent many evenings studying the playing and production of ‘Rattlesnakes’.

Tori Amos had the good sense to put Cole up there alongside Tom Waits, Neil Young, Lou Reed and the Beatles when she covered the title track of ‘Rattlesnakes’ on her ‘Strange Little Girls’ album in 2001. Cole has also identified kindred spirits in Aimee Mann and Michael Penn and the trio have discussed forming some sort of artists’ network to help promote and distribute each other’s work online.

Even artists who have passed no comment on Cole’s work have used him as a yardstick for their own. These days, in Cole’s live solo show, the singer tells the true story of Alice Cooper performing the self-penned ‘feminist anthem’, ‘Only Women Bleed’ and telling the audience; “Not even Lloyd Cole has written a song about menstruation.” Cole shrugs, then launches straight into the opening lines of his song, ‘Impossible Girl’ – “Bloody Monday afternoon, you want to blame it on the moon…” It never fails to bring the house down.

Polydor had left the Commotions and producer Paul Hardiman largely alone during the recording of ‘Rattlesnakes. Nobody had expected a gold record. It went straight in at number 13 and stayed in the chart for a year. Inevitably the pressure was now on for that second album. Cole had the songs. He’d been so inspired by the band’s success that he now took note pad and pen wherever he went, as he still does today.

But for now the band enjoyed touring, flushed with success and confidence.
“I remember it was like you knew the secret and you were in this fantastic band,” says Donegan. “When we were touring in the van – just the music we used to play was fucking terrific. In ‘84 not many people were listening to Buffalo Springfield and the first three electric Dylan albums. We had Creedence Clearwater Revival in there, the Faces…we always had good taste.”

The studio beckoned and the band set about recording ‘Easy Pieces’. This time Polydor wanted to protect their investment. Paul Hardiman once again began the sessions but he wouldn’t last long, replaced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, flush from success with Madness. The Commotions were appalled that Hardiman had been sacked, but they felt powerless when the record company flexed its muscle. “We were just too young,” reflects Donegan. “Recording ‘Easy Pieces’ suddenly seemed interminable.”

The Commotions, to a man, dislike ‘Easy Pieces’, despite its yielding two top 20 singles and their biggest hit, the Iggy Pop inspired (though Cole insists it ended up sounding like Madness) ‘Lost Weekend’. The singer, for his part, accepts some of the blame.

“We were too educated,” he says. “We thought we had to change because we were brought up on Bowie and Talking Heads. We didn’t give ourselves time to step back and think. The record company was telling us ‘this is your moment and you must take it now’ – which is crap. People would have waited for us. We were insecure so we made the record too soon and the record company fired Paul Hardiman.”

Cole also found Langer’s approach to his trademark vocals off-putting.
“The minute people started asking me if I could control the vibrato on my voice – well I had no idea how to do that because I had no idea what I was doing except trying to sing in tune. One of the reasons that record isn’t as good is because the singing suddenly becomes awfully self-conscious.”

Not as good, maybe. Polydor accountants, looking at the bottom line, would beg to differ. ‘Easy Pieces’ sold more in the first two weeks of release than ‘Rattlesnakes’ had in a year.

1987’s ‘Mainstream’ was a very different record. A darker set altogether with far looser arrangements and a more relaxed, sophisticated sound. Producer was Tears For Fears’ Ian Stanley. Cole’s more innocent tales of lost love and French cars were replaced with tales of cocaine addiction ‘My Bag’ and despair, ‘These days’. ‘Mainstream’ cost £300,000, ten times as much as ‘Rattlesnakes’ and took five months to record. Despite standing up well to modern listens it sounded the death knell for the band. But before they could split they had to tour the album.

“That was the awkward thing,” says Clark. “We’d kind of decided that this was the last record but the tour was a long one, over a year, and it was depressing at points. But I do think ‘Mainstream’ is a good album. ‘Easy Pieces’ sounds dated, but I don’t think ‘Mainstream’ does. It’s a reasonable epitaph for a band.”

Tour over, Cole surprised everyone – including his girlfriend – by quitting his comfortable flat, outside Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium, and heading for New York.

“I didn’t feel that Lloyd had gone off and left us,” says Clark. “We used to talk about how many bands hang around too long and make records when they shouldn’t. We were disappointed because the lifestyle and camaraderie is going to end, but creatively and in terms of resenting Lloyd; not at all.”

Cole had no firm plans to go solo at this point. He had no idea if he could cut it on his own. Long on hair and short of sleep, (he developed a late night poker and pool habit) he eventually wrote the magnificent, beautiful but brooding, ‘Lloyd Cole’ album.

He teamed up with New York legends Fred Maher on drums and the recently deceased Robert Quine on guitar. They made a formidable noise but in among the leathers was one of Cole’s most gentle, lyrically sharp songs, ‘Undressed’ – still a live favourite today.

1991’s ‘Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe’ was a schizophrenic, Scott Walker
meets Glen Campbell affair and ‘Bad Vibes’ (1993) a darker set
altogether as Cole experimented with sounds and producers. He began to play live with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment and was surprised at how comfortable, and productive it was. The fans liked it too.

1995’s ‘Love Story’ was a celebratory return to form, which included the surprise, hit single ‘Like Lovers Do’ produced by ‘Rattlesnakes’ fan, now Blur producer, Stephen Street.

“It came as a bolt out of the blue really,” he recalls. “I think Lloyd wanted to get back to a more basic guitar driven thing. He invited me over and we worked in a tiny little studio called Green Street and we worked with Bob Quine; a very strange, very arty New York character. You could imagine him getting on very well with Lou Reed. I clicked with Bob quite well and got some really good guitar playing out of him and we also had Neil come back and do some typical Commotions type overdubs.”

Street was impressed by Cole’s organization and confidence in the studio.

“I think on the previous solo records he’d had his hand on the steering wheel a lot and he wanted someone else’s opinion and not to be the only person telling the other musicians what to do. The album became ‘Love Story’ and I was a very pleased with it. I wanted to get him back to the ‘Rattlesnakes’ buzz and I think, to a degree, we achieved that.”

1997 saw the birth of a new Cole-led band, the Negatives, a spirited and irreverent musical troupe that showed little respect for their leader’s back catalogue, but taught him to have fun again.

Amid the industry rationalisation, Cole was having a difficult time with his label, Mercury, who were keen to release a compilation – with two brand new, smash hit songs included. A tall order. Cole left the label

‘The Negatives’ album was recorded in 1999 but sat on the shelf for 18 months, surfacing as part of a boxed set in 2001 which included the magnificent, ‘lost album’, the criminally overlooked, ‘Etc.’ as well as instrumental and live CDs. Cole continued to develop his increasingly successful solo show while talking to friends about the possibility of a Commotions reunion to celebrate 20 years of ‘Rattlesnakes’.

As an independent artist, licensing his product where he wants to, Cole released ‘Music In A Foreign Language’ last year including a brilliant version of Nick Cave’s, maudlin, ‘People Ain’t No Good’. Recorded straight into a Mac in his New England hideaway the record highlighted Cole’s deft folk guitar playing while betraying a bleaker lyrical approach to familiar themes of cooling passions, ‘Today I’m Not So Sure’; self-deception, ‘My Other Life’; and substance abuse, ‘Brazil’.

For now, the five Commotions, scattered across the globe, are about to set off for a rendezvous in a modest rehearsal room in the city where they originally got together. Bassist, Lawrence Donegan, seems a little nervous at the prospect, with some justification.

“I literally haven’t played a bass guitar for 15 years,” he admits. “When the band split up, I don’t know why because it was my bass guitar, but Lloyd held on to it. He only posted it back to me 3 or 4 months ago! To be honest the bass parts in the Commotions weren’t exactly Bootsy Collins, so we’ll be okay.”

“I think it’s going to be great,” says Clark. “I’m really looking forward to it. Just to be with these people again for that period will be great. It’ll be good to be back in my hometown for a few weeks too.”

As ever, Cole himself qualifies his excitement

“It’s going to be hard,” he says. “ I don’t want to look like a 40 year old prancing around trying to look like a 20 year old, but I’m looking forward to being in Glasgow and everything being in place and me just being the singer. You know, we’re a decent band from the 80s.”

He’s not wrong.

Publication: Music Week

Publication date: 18/09/04