Lloyd Cole and the Commotions: how we made Rattlesnakes | Music


Lloyd Cole, singer, songwriter, guitarist

I went to Glasgow University to study English literature and philosophy, and in my second year, before dropping out, I formed Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Being in Glasgow amid the [pioneering indie label] Postcard scene was influential. Orange Juice were our heroes.

My idea was to be some sort of male Aretha Franklin, but then the five of us realised we could make this distinctive noise together. Between 1983 and 84, we went from being a wimpy band who sounded like the Style Council to more of a rock band. When I wrote Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken? it made us realise what we could do. I took a Portastudio to my room in Glasgow Golf Club, where my parents worked and lived, and wrote Perfect Skin and Forest Fire. Not one song on Rattlesnakes was more than a year old when it was recorded.

Many of the songs are based on a year I spent in London studying law, when I was 18 or 19. The landscape for the album was my imagination. I’d been to Europe once, but my romantic imagery was from books or films. I stumbled on a way of creating an image with very few words. Everyone knows exactly what a “Grace Kelly car” looks like, and it’s probably in the south of France. I sang “Read Norman Mailer, get a new tailor” because he represented masculinity, the hard man. Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir represented modern feminist thinking.

The blue room in 2CV was really green, and it was Blair [Cowan, keyboards] who had the 2CV car. Charlotte Street is actually Upper Street in Islington, but it sounded lovelier. The girl is someone I went out with, who was older and more sophisticated, but she never said: “Do you want to go to heaven or would you rather not be saved?”

Perfect Skin’s Louise wasn’t real, though. I’d read about Bob Dylan seducing women by writing songs for them, so I was showing off with words: “She’s got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin and she’s sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan.” When I sing that live now, I go: “Who isn’t?”

The idea for the song Rattlesnakes came from a line in Joan Didion’s book, Play It As It Lays: “Life is a crap game, and there are rattlesnakes under every rock.” I sing that someone “looks like Eve Marie Saint” because she looked how I thought these characters in my songs should look: beautiful fragility.

It was very exciting. We’d been playing gigs to 500 people in Glasgow, but empty rooms in England. Then Perfect Skin came out, Radio 1 played us, we did Top of the Pops, and we never played an empty room again.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions posing in Munich in 1985.

Trying to be a soul band … Lloyd Cole and the Commotions in Munich in 1985. Photograph: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

Neil Clark, guitarist

I was playing with Alan McGee when a friend told me that this English guy had borrowed his Portastudio and was writing fantastic songs. Lloyd was different then, awkward and gauche. He wore tweed, smoked Player’s Navy Cut and had that hair, so he probably felt a bit weird in Glasgow.

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music. We had black girl singers and were trying to be a soul band, when Bobby Bluebell interviewed us for a Glasgow magazine. He told Lloyd to listen to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde albums and he was right, that was the turning point. I wrote the chords for Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken? and Lloyd wrote the lyrics.

The arts weren’t just for posh people. Most of us were on the dole, which gave us time to create. I woke up one morning with the riff for Rattlesnakes in my head. I said to my girlfriend: “I’ve got to get this down on the Portastudio NOW!” She was like: “You’ve what?”

Getting Paul Hardiman as producer was incredibly exciting. He’d just finished the The’s Soul Mining, and he was great at marshalling a young, naive bunch from Glasgow in our first major recording, working in John Foxx’s Garden Studio in London. One night, the rest of the band wanted to go for a curry, but I wanted to put more guitar on Forest Fire.

I came up with this epic solo, and Paul and I stayed up all night recording it. At 2am, with everything turned up, it sounded incredible, but the next day I thought we’d gone over the top and wanted to take some of it off. Paul said: “No, play it to everyone as it is” and everyone agreed it was incredible, so we left it.

  • Lloyd Cole’s new album, Guesswork, is out now. He tours the UK from 5 to 25 October, accompanied by Neil Clark.

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