Lloyd Cole’s return to Scotland this week for what has become an increasingly rare sighting during his solo career comes at a point when he appears to have almost completely disappeared off the radar, his career either in freefall or hiatus depending on how charitable your view.
It is now 15 years since, with The Commotions, he enjoyed his biggest chart successes, 11 years since the band split and five years since the release of his last (and best) solo album, Love Story. His last visit to Scotland saw him playing small venues adjacent to golf courses, and it is not inconceivable that Cole will be swinging as well as strumming on this brief visit from his home in Massachusetts, where he moved last year after 10 years domiciled in New York.
“I don’t really like what’s been happening in New York since Guiliani’s been here,” he said last summer. “I don’t like Times Square any more. I don’t like the fact that only millionaires are moving to the city. A lot of the structure of the city that you use when you are single, you just don’t access when you’re spending a lot of time with your kids.
“I don’t like the school thing either. People are scrambling to find apartments in the three neighbourhoods that have good schools. When it comes to private schools, you have this almost limitless choice, but it’s a fallacy to think choice is freedom. Ultimately, I’m not satisfied with the school my son has been to, and costs a lot of money.”
It may be that his family – he had another son last March – has been the cause of Cole’s low profile in the past five years, but numerous planned dates have been cancelled around the world, while talked-about albums have failed to materialise.
A compilation, The Collection, appeared in 1998, covering both Commotions and solo singles with two new songs recorded with his new band, The Negatives, before Cole was dropped by the Universal conglomerate – although he saw himself as a victim of the recent Polygram-Universal merger, claiming: “I could see myself slipping through the cracks, so I left.”
In early 1998, Sentimental Genius – the Norwegian-based Lloyd Cole fan site on the internet – reported that Cole was working on “a compilation, a regular album, and a soundtrack and instrumental material. It seems that he has two band projects: The Negatives who include Jill Sobule; and Death Star who include Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey from the Go-Gos.”
Of these potentially tantalising projects, little has come to light. The compilation appeared. Occasional gigs – mainly in the US, one in Dublin last year, happened with various permutations of the Negatives – but the key dates at the end of 1998 to promote The Collection, including those in Glasgow and at the London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire were cancelled. The album managed just four weeks on the album charts, peaking at number 24.
Indeed, it seems that Cole, like Morrissey, the figure with whom he was most compared by his detractors in the eighties, is struggling to come to terms with his place in the market, commenting recently at a solo show in Arlington, Virginia, that he “felt like an artist of the old millennium.” The show, on January 7, featured 29 songs, including some predictable covers of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, and Jackson Browne songs.
Also, like the former Smiths’ frontman, there may be a bitterness stemming from a We-Hate-It-When-Our-Friends-Become-Successful situation. Del Amitri and James have taken the commercial route to mainstream success while former Commotion Lawrence Donnegan has carved out a successful career as a journalist and author.
Even his long-time manager Derek McKillop seems to have taken over the reins of Elton John’s career since his parting of the ways with John Reid. This in spite of being on the receiving end of one of Elton’s more vicious tantrums during the Tantrums and Tiaras TV documentary.
When the Negatives’ recordings make it into the public domain remains to be seen, but there is no doubting Cole’s enthusiasm for
“I think I know how to make records at last. Just working on five songs at a time is so much easier than trying to make a whole record. The Negatives were the only thing keeping me in New York for a while. We have more fun playing than I could ever have imagined. We have all kinds of Negative dreams. We want to make a Negative disco record. When we’re messing about we sound like New Order, 1984 In the past 10 years, who have been New York’s premier songwriters? Me and a couple of other people. There have not been many.”
He also admits ignorance of Glasgow’s current music scene, but claimed that the city’s size is the key to its creative productivity. Cole, however, reckons he is still famous in his native England.
“Glasgow’s always going to be good,” he said, “it’s just such a perfect-size city. You can walk from one end to the other. You’ve got two universities and an art school all within kicking distance of each other. It’s got the great underdog thing next to Edinburgh, because Edinburgh’s the capital and the supposedly beautiful city. So Glasgow tries harder.
“I’m probably most famous in Stockholm or Lisbon, maybe Dublin. I’m still regarded as a famous person in England, but 15 years is a long time in the English music scene. It’s a longer time than it is almost anywhere else in the world. I’m a bit like an elder statesman of rock there.”
It would be uncivil to deny Cole’s worth as a songwriter – Rattlesnakes is still a refreshingly strong debut album; his solo career has been punctuated with moments (if not full albums’ worth) of genius; and the brief glimpses of his work with the Negatives suggest a welcome musical revitalisation: but when he realises his fame in this country is not what it was, then a catalogue of no releases, no concerts, and no promotion (his people in London don’t want him doing interviews until the time is right) may provide most if not all of the answers. It is whether Cole can release himself from these self -restraining harnesses that remains the most pressing question to be answered by his one-off Scottish show.
l Lloyd Cole plays at the Queens Hall, Edinburgh, on Saturday.
GRAPHIC: Millennium Boy: at his recent solo show, Lloyd Cole “felt like an artist of the old millennium”
Publication: The Herald (Glasgow)
Publication date: 27/01/00