Lloyd Cole & The Commotions - Biography
BY Scott Feemster
Though only around a short period of time, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions made a sizable impression upon the music world, especially in the United Kingdom. Their brand of orchestrated and highly literate pop would go on to influence many musicians for years to come.
Lloyd Cole was born in Buxton, Derbyshire, England on January 31st, 1961, and spent most of his youth in the area. While a boy, he was not only a voracious reader, but also taught himself how to play guitar and took his first tentative steps at writing songs. When his parents took a job managing a golf course in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1980, Cole moved along with them, and enrolled in the University of Glasgow in 1981, taking classes in philosophy and English. Cole developed a reputation around school as being erudite and intelligent, but often held back from people, and could often be seen at parties sitting in a corner, taking notes on what he was observing and hearing. While at the University of Glasgow, he met fellow musicians guitarist Neil Clark and keyboardist Blair Cowan, and the three of them formed the nucleus of a large soul band that played R&B covers. Eventually, the group shrank down to just Cole, Clark, Cowan, and bassist Lawrence Donegan and drummer Stephen Irvine, and started working on fleshing out Cole's increasingly maturing songs.
The group demoed some of Cole's songs, and on the strength of the uncommon quality of the tunes, the band was signed to British Polydor in 1983. The group released their first album, Rattlesnakes (Polydor/Capitol), in 1984, and scored a British hit with the first single off of the record, “Perfect Skin”. Released at a time when the pop charts in both the U.K and the U.S. were dominated by photogenic bands relying on drum machines and synthesizers, Rattlesnakes was a departure in that it relied on Cole's literate and acerbic lyrics carried along by the Commotions understated yet muscular backing. Producer Paul Hardiman gave the album a clean production style similar to late '60's/early '70's 'country-politan albums, incorporating strings orchestrated by Anne Dudley, known for her work orchestrating ABC's Lexicon Of Love album and for being a member of The Art Of Noise. The album was also notable for Clark's standout guitar stylings. Though the album generally received positive reviews, some critics at the time accused Cole of being overly wordy and too clever. Regardless, the album has gone on to be considered a classic of early '80's pop by many fans and critics. The Commotions toured extensively in the U.K., Europe and the U.S., and while they did break through to the charts in their native U.K., they remained a somewhat underground presence in the U.S., getting play on mostly college stations. From there, the band went on to record their second album, 1985’s Easy Pieces (Polydor/Capitol) with the producing team of Clive Langer and Alan Wistanley, who were popular at the time, and were known for their hit-making abilities. As a result, Easy Pieces was a much slicker sounding record than was Rattlesnakes, with more of a modern production sheen. All the production couldn’t hide Cole’s acerbic lyrics, which continued to deal in such cheery subjects as romantic entanglements gone wrong, philosophical disillusionment, and general angst. Cole didn’t deliver the lyrics in anything above a detached singing style that further belied the gravity of his lyrics. Whether it was an ironic statement on the band’s success or a statement of intent, the band next collaborated with producer Ian Stanley, then the keyboardist for Tears For Fears, on their third album, Mainstream (Polydor/Capitol), released in 1987. The group scored a U.K. Top Forty hit with the song “Jennifer She Said” off of the album, and the record scored generally positive reviews from both critics and fans of the band. Mainstream seemed to split the difference between the first two albums, sounding both commercial enough for radio play, but, at the same time, keeping the bands instrumental edge and Cole’s lyrical bite. After the band completed touring in support of the album, Cole broke up the Commotions, reportedly due to personality differences within the band, moved to New York City, and established a solo career for himself. His solo albums have also never really broken through to the mainstream, and he remains something of a cult artist. Some of his solo albums include his self-titled first album in 1990, where he included Matthew Sweet, noted session drummer Fred Maher and ex-Voidoid guitarist Robert Quine as part of his backing band, 1991’s Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe (Capitol), where he explored a more fully-orchestrated sound, 1993’s Bad Vibes (Rykodisc), where Cole explored a more psychedelic side to his sound, and 1995’s Love Story (Rykodisc), which reunited him with the Commotions guitarist Neil Clark. In 2004, Lloyd Cole reunited with the Commotions to perform a limited mini-tour of the U.K. and Ireland in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the formation of the band. Cole resumed his solo career and released two more solo albums in the time since, 2004’s understated Music In A Foreign Language (Sanctuary), and 2006’s Anti-Depressant (Sanctuary).