UK pop music in the mid-1980s was a costume party that everyone was invited to, so long as they could deliver good tunes. And among the shoulder pads, pirate suits and blow waves, in a dark corner at the back of the room sat Lloyd Cole: the frowning, turtlenecked student type bringing out an acoustic guitar and finding a niche singing intellectual, folky pop.
Cole’s debut album with his band the Commotions, Rattlesnakes, was like a book of short stories by Steinbeck or Carver or Didion, delivered with lots of twanging riffs and an insouciant, mid-Atlantic singing voice. The songs were littered with references to literature and classic Hollywood; their heroes were young and hedonistic but well read too (Cole famously rhymed ‘Norman Mailer’ with ‘get a new tailor’). The band took on the pop world exactly like it was a smoky New York coffee house in the early ’60s and Bob Dylan had just come offstage.
So when they toured Australia in 1986 on the back of second album Easy Pieces, they were unprepared for international adulation. “I remember arriving in Brisbane and that was the first time anyone treated us like rock stars,” Cole recalls, on the phone from his home in a small town in Massachusetts (he moved to the US at the end of the 1980s). “We played big entertainment centres and we felt like little children in these gigantic rooms.
“We were being promoted by somebody that promoted the Rolling Stones and they put us in these presidential suites. It was all very exciting. For a few minutes.”
Cole is self-deprecating on the subject of (fleeting) fame. The Commotions made just three albums before combusting; their leader became a US-based solo artist, releasing four critically praised albums that sold middling numbers until a fifth was rejected by Polygram and shelved.
He has since formed other bands including the Negatives and the Small Ensemble; released an album of synthesiser instrumentals, Plastic Wood; and worked on numerous more compilations and solo records. He and the Commotions reformed briefly in 2004 for a commemorative tour of the UK and Ireland but Cole himself has never done a tour focusing on the older material, till now.
“Last year Universal released a box set of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and they sold more than they expected to. It was generally very warmly received and so they asked, could we make another one of the early solo material? So if I was ever going to be an ‘oldie’ singer then now seems to make some sense.”
Lloyd Cole: The Retrospective will see him perform exclusively from the Commotions catalogue and the solo albums Lloyd Cole (1989), Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991), Bad Vibes (1993) and Love Story (1995) as well as material from the ‘lost’ fifth album. Cole will be in solo mode, but he’ll have a special guest for the second half of the evening. “It’s not really a secret, it’s my [elder] son [William]. He’s a great musician.” (William, born in 1993, plays in Brooklyn-based power pop band EZTV.)
"I feel very fortunate in retrospect. We did not pay our dues”
Cole was born in Derbyshire in 1961 and was studying liberal arts at the University of Glasgow when he put a notice on the wall of the student union for a keyboard player. Blair Cowan answered it, and the two started writing songs together, soon joined by guitarist Neil Clark. “By summer of ’83 we were playing quite large crowds in Glasgow and we had to leave university. By November we had a publishing deal and by the following March we had a record deal. I feel very fortunate in retrospect. We did not pay our dues.”
Cole acknowledges that everything fell into place for their debut album. “We were lucky that we had a very specific idea of what we wanted to sound like and we found the right people to work with and we got it right.” Why did the band break up just two albums later then? “I think, for want of a better idea. I didn’t really want to be in a band anymore, but if there’d been a great idea for a fourth Commotions album we certainly would have given it a try.”
The new Australian solo tour will wind up three hours before the moment of the inauguration of Donald Trump back in Cole’s adopted home country, an event that he regards pragmatically as “just the culmination of the way things have been going. And there’s a good chance what’s happened will end up being a positive in the long term.
“People are asking ‘how can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ And the answer is not just voting, but in ripping up the system. Any country that wants 250 grand for a kid to go to college has got something wrong with it.”
Lloyd Cole plays City Recital Hall on Sun Jan 15.