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Cocteau Twins were a Scottish rock band active from 1979 to 1997.
The original members were singer Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Will Heggie, who was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde in 1983. The group has earned much critical praise for its innovative, ethereal sound and the distinctive soprano vocals of Fraser, which often seemed to veer into glossolalia and mouth music.
Guthrie and Heggie, both from Grangemouth, Scotland, formed the band in 1979. At a local disco called Nash they met Fraser, also from Grangemouth, who would eventually provide vocals. The band’s influences at the time included The Birthday Party, Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Kate Bush. The band was named after the song “The Cocteau Twins” by fellow Scotsmen ‘Johnny and the Self-Abusers’ (who later renamed themselves Simple Minds; the song “The Cocteau Twins” was also re-penned as “No Cure”). Their debut recording, Garlands (released by 4AD Records in 1982), was an instant success, as was the subsequent Lullabies EP. Around that time, NME‘s Don Watson compared the style of the band to goth bands like Gene Loves Jezebel and Xmal Deutschland., while SPIN magazine’s Sue Cummings compared it retrospectively to Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus.
“The Cocteau Twins are still the best by far at the 4AD ethereal dreamscape, thanks largely to the extraordinary voice of Liz Fraser. Somehow she’s found a voice that falls completely outside ‘Rock’ or ‘Pop’.”
– Simon Reynolds, New Statesman, 1987
Heggie left the group after the tour that followed the 1983 release of the band’s second EP, Peppermint Pig. He subsequently joined Lowlife. The band’s sound on its first three recordings relied on the combination of Heggie’s rhythmic basslines, Guthrie’s minimalist guitar melodies, and Fraser’s voice; the Cocteau Twins’ next full-length LP, Head over Heels, relied solely on the latter two. This led to the growth of the band’s characteristic sound: Fraser’s voice, by turns ethereal and operatic, combined with Guthrie’s effects-heavy guitars. Guthrie has often said that he is far more interested in the way the guitar is recorded, than in the actual notes being played, though he later admitted the effects and layering were due to his own technical limitations.
In 1983, the band participated in 4AD’s This Mortal Coil project (this spawned a cover version of Tim Buckley‘s “Song to the Siren” performed by Guthrie and Fraser), and during their work for that, they got to know multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde (formerly a member of Drowning Craze), who joined the group later that year. In 2012, Dawn French selected “Song to the Siren” on Desert Island Discs as, in her words, “The song that made me fall in love again”.
With Raymonde, the band released a series of critically acclaimed albums and EPs that explored their new style. These included The Spangle Maker (1984), Treasure (1984), Aikea-Guinea (1985), Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay (1985), and Love’s Easy Tears (1986). Raymonde, who was called in to work on the second album by This Mortal Coil, did not participate in the recording of the fourth Cocteau Twins LP, Victorialand (1986), a predominantly acoustic record which featured only Guthrie and Fraser. Raymonde returned to the group for The Moon and the Melodies (1986), a collaboration with ambient composer Harold Budd, which was not released under the Cocteau Twins name.
In 1985, 4AD signed an agreement with Relativity Records for distribution of the Cocteau Twins’ releases in the US and other territories. To commemorate the event, the compilation The Pink Opaque (1985) was released as a way of introducing the new, broader audience to the band’s back catalogue.
While remaining a 4AD band internationally, the Cocteau Twins finally signed a major-label contract with Capitol Records in 1988 for distribution in the US, and released their fifth proper LP, Blue Bell Knoll, in October of that year.
The group released Heaven or Las Vegas in late 1990. The most commercially successful of their many recordings, the album rose to the higher reaches of the UK charts immediately after its release. Despite the success of the record and the subsequent concert tours, not everything was well with the band. They parted ways with 4AD following Heaven or Las Vegas partly because of conflicts with the label’s founder Ivo Watts-Russell, and were close to breaking up over internal problems due in large part to Guthrie’s addiction to drugs and alcohol.
While on their international tour supporting Heaven or Las Vegas, the group signed a new recording contract with Mercury Records subsidiary Fontana for the UK and elsewhere, while retaining their US relationship with Capitol. In 1991, 4AD and Capitol released a box set that compiled the band’s EPs from 1982 to 1990, and also included a bonus disc of rare or previously unreleased material.
The band’s seventh LP, Four-Calendar Café, was released in late 1993. The band explained that Four-Calendar Café was a response to the turmoil that had engulfed them in the intervening years, with Guthrie entering rehab and quitting alcohol and drugs, and Fraser undergoing psychotherapy. The two had been in a long-term relationship, and by this time had a young daughter, Lucy-Belle, born in 1989.
1995 saw the release of two new EPs: Twinlights and Otherness. Some of the tracks on Twinlights and Otherness were versions of songs from the band’s eighth album, Milk and Kisses (1996). The record saw the return of more heavily layered guitars, and Fraser began once again to obscure her lyrics, though not entirely. Two singles were taken from the album: “Tishbite” and “Violaine“; both exist in two CD versions, with different B-sides included on each. The band, augmented by an extra guitarist and a drummer, toured extensively to support the album, their last for Mercury/Fontana. A new song, “Touch Upon Touch”, which debuted during the live shows and was recorded later in 1996, became the last Cocteau Twins song ever released.[clarification needed] It was also one of the two songs written and arranged by Fraser, Guthrie and Raymonde for Chinese pop singer Faye Wong for her Mandarin album Fuzao released in June 1996, the other being “Tranquil Eye” from Violaine released in October 1996.
In 1997, while recording what was to have been their ninth LP, the trio disbanded over irreconcilable differences in part related to the break-up of Guthrie and Fraser. While a number of songs were partially recorded and possibly completed, the band has stated that they will likely never be finished or released in any form. In the same year Guthrie and Raymonde wrote and performed a new song in Faye Wong’s eponymous album.
In 1999, Bella Union, the record label founded by Guthrie and Raymonde, released a double-CD Cocteau Twins compilation entitled BBC Sessions. The collection is a complete record of the band’s appearances on UK radio programs from 1983 to 1996, with rare and unreleased material included. In 2000, 4AD released Stars and Topsoil, a compilation of selected songs picked by the band members that had been released during their years with 4AD; all recordings had been digitally remastered by Guthrie. Finally, in 2003, 4AD followed Stars and Topsoil with the release of digitally remastered versions of the first six Cocteau Twins LPs.
On 31 January 2005, the Cocteau Twins announced that they would be reforming to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on 30 April 2005, and later indicated that additional tour dates would be added. On 16 March the reunion was cancelled. Later in 2005, 4AD released a worldwide limited edition of 10,000 compilation box set titled, Lullabies to Violaine, a 4-disc set that details every single and EP released from 1982–96. This was shortly followed up by two 2-disc sets of the same names, known as Volume 1 and Volume 2.
Since March 2007, the band has started podcasts of exclusive material. On 6 October 2008 the Cocteau Twins were awarded, and accepted in a rare collective live appearance, the Q Awards Inspiration Award.
In 2013 the first book about the band, Des Punks Célestes, was published in France.
The former members of Cocteau Twins have remained active musically in the years since the band’s demise. In addition to forming Bella Union, Guthrie and Raymonde have produced releases from new bands signed to that label.
Raymonde released the solo album Blame Someone Else as the first release on Bella Union. He also co-produced the posthumous album by Billy Mackenzie from the Associates, then went on to produce several Domino Records artists like James Yorkston, Archie Bronson Outfit (whom he later managed) and Clearlake. More recently he has produced the UK band The Duke Spirit, London-based duo Helene, former Golden Virgins frontman Lucas Renney and has mixed the Mercury Prize nominated album The End of History by Fionn Regan. In his role running Bella Union, he has discovered such artists as Laura Veirs, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Lift to Experience, The Low Anthem, I Break Horses, The Czars and John Grant. The label is renowned for its long-term relationships with its artists, such as Beach House who have released all four of their albums with Bella Union, as have Dirty Three, Midlake etc. Raymonde picked up the Independent Record Company of the Year award at the Music Week Awards (as voted by UK independent retailers) in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Guthrie has released five solo albums – Imperial, Continental, Carousel, Emeralds and Fortune – and five EPs. He toured extensively with his band Violet Indiana, which included ex-Cocteau’s guitarist Mitsuo Tate in the line-up. He has also scored the music for two movies—American indie film Mysterious Skin (in collaboration with Harold Budd) and Mexican/Spanish movie 3:19. He has also reunited with Budd to collaborate on two companion CDs, Before the Day Breaks and After the Night Falls, and the later Bordeaux and Winter Garden, the latter a collaboration also with Italian electronica artist Eraldo Bernocchi. In 2006, Guthrie produced three songs on Mahogany‘s “Connectivity,” on which Lucy Bell Guthrie made her singing debut. He most recently produced and played guitar on Apollo Heights debut album, White Music for Black People.
Fraser provided guest vocals on The Future Sound of London‘s single “Lifeforms” (1993), vocals for three songs on Massive Attack‘s Mezzanine in 1998 (as well as touring with them several times), and for other musical projects and groups. Notably, she wrote the lyrics and sang the vocals for “Teardrop” which was released as a single in 1998 and reached number 10 in the UK singles chart It has been speculated that she has been working on a solo album, though details of this are as yet unavailable. Fraser provided the vocals for “Lament for Gandalf” in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In 2000 she sang with Peter Gabriel on Ovo (The Millennium Show). In 2005, she worked with Breton musician Yann Tiersen on two songs for his album Les retrouvailles. In 2009, she released the single “Moses” on Rough Trade.