One of the great Scottish bands to come out of the immediate post-Punk era of the late nineteen seventies – think Associates, Simple Minds, Altered Images, Josef K and Orange Juice – Cocteau Twins formed at a Grangemouth disco in 1979. Named after a Johnny and the Self Abusers song (the band that presaged Simple Minds), the band signed to the nascent 4AD in 1981, just a year after its inception. The sound of their first album was hard and steely, washed through with distortion and punctuated by early drum machines. Quite unlike anything else around, even in those fiercely experimental times, it raised eyebrows and the band soon reached the NME’s independent charts, and gained a vocal champion in Radio One DJ John Peel. Garlands, hinted at the potential to come…
Head Over Heels, the band’s second waxing in 1982, followed the excellent Lullabies EP, and we began to see deeper and more textured sounds mixed with some well-hidden but nevertheless infectious melodies. The loss of bass player Will Heggie opened up space for a less ‘orthodox punk’ sound, and guitarist Robin Guthrie and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser began to do more layered songs with subtly ambient feel. Fraser’s voice was used to greater effect as a musical instrument, and her ‘nonsense vocals’ began to integrate with the music in a highly cohesive way.
Bass guitarist Simon Raymonde joined the band in 1983, and added a new dimension to the Cocteau Twins sound which reached its best expression in Treasure, released on the 1st November, 1984. As per all 4AD releases, it sported a visually arresting Vaughn Oliver sleeve (albeit one of his less colourful!), and contained ten songs which were quite unlike anything the band’s contemporaries were doing. It reached Number 29 in the UK album chart, finally managing to cross over from the independent charts to the mainstream.
Many think it to be the band’s finest hour – although Victorialand which followed makes a very strong bid for this accolade too. It certainly crystallised the band’s sound, with Fraser’s histrionic but plaintive vocal fragments backed by Guthrie’s soaring melodies and dense, powerful guitar-driven arrangements. The subtle addition of chiming digital synthesisers, in very moderate measure, adds an extra texture to this great, expansive, ethereal sounding album. It is variously uplifting, hypnotic and infectious, as well as being at times dour and brooding – whatever it is, it always carries your mood, and is absolutely not background listening.
Bizarrely, the band themselves aren’t fond of it – Guthrie describing it as “an abortion”, and Raymonde saying it was rushed and unfinished. Yet its dreamy, ambient, multi-layered feel is unique and went on to inspire everyone from The Jesus and Mary Chain (Psychocandy owes a debt) to My Bloody Valentine (without this, their magnum opus Loveless might have sounded a lot different). The artwork, with its dressmaker’s dummy shrouded by a net curtain, alludes to the dreamy, fragile, gothic feel of the album – something not lost on the many bands that the Cocteaus went on to influence.
Perhaps because Treasure sounded like absolutely nothing else when released some thirty one years ago, it has dated surprisingly well. Indeed, it has a timeless feel that sounds incredibly fresh even today. It’s certainly the best introduction to the band’s vast canon of work, and has proved a more significant album in the great scheme of pop music things than anyone imagined when it was first released. Iconically ‘indie’ yet strangely universal in its appeal, it’s an essential purchase for anyone receptive to powerful, passionate music.