"It's all the result of Rob[in]'s sheer hard neck really. We were moseying along a bit aimlessly and then one night at a Birthday Party gig Rob decided to wheedle us all backstage and sat himself down next to Phil [Calvert]. I was bloody terrified at the audacity of it, but Phil was genuinely interested and helpful, he gave us the address of 4AD and told us to write, and of course Rob being Rob, he did." — Elizabeth Fraser
Taking their name from an obscure song by fellow countrymen Simple Minds, the then-teenage Cocteau Twins descended upon Britain's independent music scene in 1982 from their home in Grangemouth, Scotland. After initially recording a couple of songs for Ivo Watts-Russell at the fledgling 4AD label in London during the Spring of 1982, the band went on to release Garlands in June, having recorded the entire album in just seven days.
Long before Garlands, Cocteau Twins consisted only of Robin Guthrie and his pal Will Heggie. Elizabeth Fraser knew of them because they all frequented the same dance club in Grangemouth ("a toilet," as Robin so eloquently refers to his hometown). Robin was the DJ on punk nights...
"Grangemouth is not exactly a hive of social activity," Liz explained. "The only excitement for a 30-mile radius is the 'Nash,' a local hotel disco where Rob was DJ. That's where we all met, although Rob and Will have been in bands together before." [Sounds Magazine, 1982].
Will Heggie humorously added, "She was the only one who could dance! We didn't like her very much, but she keeps taggin' along..." [Sounds Magazine, 1982].
Liz later continued, "...but I left the band, got fed up with it and didn't feel like it was for me at all because I was a bit...I don't know, I just thought I couldn't cope. So I left the band - I think it was more the lyrics I didn't have the faith in. I found it too hard. But I started going out with Robin, so I came back into the band six months later." [Volume 5, 1992].
The intimate relationship shared by Robin and Liz would later form the core of the band, and would be the catalyst for not only creativity, but for turmoil and change as well.
Early on, Cocteau Twins had cited their admiration for The Birthday Party, an Australian band which was an early recruit of 4AD as well as one of the reasons the Twins were drawn to the label. Liz explained at the time, "It's all the result of Rob[in]'s sheer hard neck really. We were moseying along a bit aimlessly and then one night at a Birthday Party gig Rob decided to wheedle us all backstage and sat himself down next to Phil [Calvert]. I was bloody terrified at the audacity of it, but Phil was genuinely interested and helpful, he gave us the address of 4AD and told us to write, and of course Rob being Rob, he did." [Sounds Magazine, 1982].
"They wrote back and told us to send more tapes," Robin added. "We did, and things have just escalated from there." [Sounds Magazine, 1982].
Other contemporary influences were the Sex Pistols (and subsequently PiL), Siouxsie and the Banshees, and other punk icons. The Cocteau Twins, though relative late-comers to the movement, were quickly adopted and soon found themselves pioneers in their own right, taking what they could from their influences to forge something altogether new and entirely inexplicable—even to themselves. In fact, one could identify elements from any of several different musical movements at the time—Post Punk, New Wave, New Romantics, Goth—in Cocteau Twins' music.
In this early period, Will Heggie's bass played a significant role in defining their sound, giving it a darker and heavily rhythmic, earthy texture. This combined nicely with Robin Guthrie's minimalistic and heavily effected guitar arrangements. Garlands features a great deal of distortion and feed-back, smoothed out with chorus, reverb, and flanger. In the background is the Roland 808 drum machine thumping along—a sound that was as characteristically Cocteau as that guitar. Regarding the use of a drum machine, Robin offered at the time, "...the introduction of a fourth party would ruin the rapport of our close knit threesome, so things will have to stay the way they are." [Sounds Magazine, 1982]. Different instruments show up later, such as the piano found in Hearsay Please, and even more in later releases. Had Will Heggie remained with Cocteau Twins, it's interesting to imagine how their sound may have evolved. An example would be the album's title track, "Garlands," a very hip-hop song for 1982.
Elizabeth Fraser's vocal style got its legendary start here, as well. Initially, there were comparisons to Siouxsie Sioux (which Liz claims she doesn't fully recognize), although most individuals then as now considered Liz to be in a class by herself.
A journalist at the time, in describing Garlands, wrote:
Liz's voice, which while being instantly recognizable through the years, has undeniably evolved over the Cocteau Twins' various recordings. During the early period, and especially on Garlands, the style is fairly consistent. It is here also, on the Peel Session recordings of "Hazel" and "Dear Heart," that Liz has her only vocal accompaniment ever on a Cocteau Twins record, with Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk/This Mortal Coil (along with extra lyrics not featured on the original recording).
Lyrically, Garlands is one of the only Cocteau Twins releases where Liz uses actual lyrics, and many of them are somewhat comprehensible. Liz helped out a bit by including lyrics excerpts scribbled on the back of the sleeve of the original vinyl release of CAD 211. Some examples follow:
"My mouthing at you; My tongue the stake; I should welt should I hold you; I should gash should I kiss you..." (Blind Dumb Deaf)
"Things from the forest die here, but I don't; Dead forest things are offered here, but I'm not...." (But I'm Not)
"The then shallow she Earth as we know it; The then hallow she a sky for the sacred; Stars in my eyes; stars at my feet; womb in the belly; capital place..." (Shallow Then Halo)
"Garlands evergreen; forget-me-not wreaths; chaplets see me drugged; I could die in the rosary...." (Garlands)
"Grail overfloweth, there is rain; and there's saliva and there's you...." (Grail Overfloweth)
These, and a few select others, are the only lyrics Liz has ever elected to publish. Reading them inspires a multitude of imagery, ranging from the rugged and varied geographies and gritty industries of Scotland to the intangible and inscrutable confines of the mind. In retrospect, Liz explained in a 1995 interview, "A lot of the stuff I was singing about then was all metaphorical. I wasn't talking like I am now. I guess it's back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I'm 17 and I don't even know when I'm hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don't even know that, then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place? I always said 'I dont' know', and I didn't." [Alternative Press, 1995].
How could she have foreseen the subsequent headaches and misconceptions that would be bred by her own entirely natural way of writing and singing? In the years following Garlands, there would be nearly as much speculation surrounding Liz's lyrics as a front-page scandal, as her panicked response to all the probing inquisition sent her lyrics further into obscurity.
In the end, Garlands was one of the most successful independent recordings of 1982, and peaked in the UK Independent Top Five. In addition to this, the band had received avid support from the BBC Radio 1's John Peel—a significant figure in the early development of Britain's independent music culture in the 1980's. Peel originally learned of the band much the way Ivo at 4AD had: Robin just gave him a tape.
"I was down in London seeing The Birthday Party and so was he [John Peel] so I plucked up courage and went up to him 'here's a tape for you mister.' I had to make two tapes. We didn't have it about us to make one tape and copy it. We had to play all the songs twice! I gave one to Ivo and one to John Peel. Quite a lucky combination." [Rorschach Testing, 1983].
Peel featured the band on his weekly radio broadcast, where they performed new versions of "Wax and Wane" and "Garlands." Although live performance was not yet their strongest attribute, the band also toured rather extensively in support of Garlands, playing mostly smaller venues as a supporting act to The Birthday Party and Modern English. Live performances of this period were punctuated by an urgent and agitated nervousness, and in this sense their punk roots were more evident. In more recent history, however, "Wax and Wane" was performed during the Milk & Kisses Tour—an entirely unexpected item—and was mixed live by the band's close friend Mark Clifford of the ambient experimentalist group Seefeel.
With Garlands firmly rooted in the charts, the hyperbolic UK music press and the band's enthusiastic new following were riveted, and sat holding their collective breath to hear how the Cocteau Twins would follow-up such an impressive debut. But the band themselves were keeping relatively quiet when probed about the subtleties and nuances of their music, and generally avoided the often prying inquisitiveness of the press. This self-effacing tendency only served to reinforce the quickly-evolving myth about the trio and their music that would persist for more than a decade.