As Rattlesnakes is listed on the Best Ever Albums countdown today I thought I'd give another repost for this. Written a few years back:
This is pretty much a perfect record. There aren't that many in my collection. I've got a great deal of history with it as do a lot of people of my age and background. My own copy is worn and approaching a stage of vague decrepitude as I am myself and jumps irretrievably on occasion like my own slightly irregular heart but I'm reluctant to replace the copy I bought on its release in 1984 just yet, because it's seen me through more than half of my given span and I'll be listening through to it, whether this copy or another, 'til that span expires, whenever that is. Because, perhaps more than any other album it speaks of the emotions and experience I was going through while first listening to it.
A good friend of mine, who follows this blog, said something along the lines that it was amongst the best records ever made by a minor league artist. I'd agree with that. Cole himself has I imagine seldom reached these heights since, (though he still puts out very good stuff and is excellent live by all accounts). I guess he knows the truth of this very well. It was an album and a statement he could never possibly trump because it was so much of its time. It defined forever a moment, an age of life and a perspective on it better than almost any record I know
I bought it at the time when my life was changing, more quite than it has ever done, before or since. I was eighteen, finishing off my A Levels and thinking about university. I knew very little idea about relationships, the opposite sex or pretty much the world. Records coming out at the time like Rattlesnakes, Murmur, High Land, Hard Rain and The Smiths were the stuff I constructed my identity around along with books, films and politics they referenced and drew on. I could make a list but I wouldn't want to bore you. It was stuff to aspire to and identify with, to construct yourself around in terms of the things you wore and I bought into it. I was far from alone.
Cole suffered slightly at the time from being bracketed with R.E.M, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and also Prefab Sprout who were coming at things from a similar angle. He seemed a minor talent by comparison as perhaps in retrospect he has proved. But it was a perfectly formed minor talent. He also meant a lot to quite a lot of people. I imagine many of those who fell for this record, what he was saying and the way he was saying it have never entirely grown out of it. I haven't.
Fast forward a couple of years from the record's purchase to the Summer term of my first year at University. There's a girl there that I'm falling for and something is starting to happen with. It's a university disco. She lives on campus and I'm at residences a few miles away. It's coming to the end of the night and I have to get on the pre-arranged minibus with the others who stay there. Perfect Skin comes on. We close dance to it, an odd song to close dance to, it's more of a giddy jig really. I go get the bus without a kiss but she's taking me over. We start going out together shortly afterwards, do so for the next four years. I fall completely in love with her. There's talk of marriage but with one thing and another it doesn't happen. Lloyd and the Commotions were there at the start of it all. I'll never hear Perfect Skin without being transported back to that brief pocket of time as it all began. She had a teddy bear called Bloomingdale and eyes like sin. She went into journalism. Wrote something for The Face. But not Cosmopolitan.
Back from myself to the record itself. All in all it's a flawlessly constructed album; track-listing, arrangements, lyrics, length. Nothing outstays its welcome. It's tasteful. Refined. It speaks of an ingrained love of all things America. Lloyd half sings half speaks in immaculately assembled American Beat prose hip-speak throughout. He and the band's sound yearns for the open road and also New York in particular in all its Sixties glory. America as dreamed of in youth spent in Buxton, Derbyshire and nailed into achievable reality as a university student, meeting and mixing with the right people, soaking up the sights and sounds of Glasgow, a city forever in thrall to the States. It's no great wonder that Lloyd ended up moving there permanently himself. Rattlesnakes is choc full of namedrops. Eve Marie-Saint, Greta Garbo, Leonard Cohen, Simone De Beauvoir, Grace Kelly, Norman Mailer, Arthur Lee, Truman Capote. The kind of people and culture that you were gobbling up at this point of life, so desperate to impress, with the youth to get away with it sometimes but without the raw and real experience or knowhow to really back it up. It's a life learned, soaked up through books, films and music.
But there's pain there too. It's marrying these books, films and this music against the intense, brief, rites of passage experience you were actually going through. About wasting precious time as he says himself at one point. It's about first and failed relationships. The ones that hurt the most. It's about trying to understand women that are impossibly attractive, elusive and unobtainable, or even if they are obtained, the moment of possession is sure to be only fleeting. Because you're only twenty one once. It's about being flippant and eager to impress with surface cool and charm whilst all along underneath beats a desperate, yearning heart.
The playing is remarkably tight. I'd pick out Neil Clark the lead guitar but the whole band are hugely adept. Because really they're grounded in Soul. They know their Stax and incredibly they pull off a truly astonishing approximation of its gleam, spark and sheer discipline. And it's in this understanding of the essence of great Sixties American music, not just Dylan and The Velvet Underground but The Temptations, Staple Singers, Aretha and Booker T & the MGs that's the foundation of the record's success. They have the chops. Three of the band were in a Soul group before the Commotions formed. They made a point of playing with vintage equipment and using basic recording techniques rather than letting Eighties sounds and effects leak into the mix. These are some of the reasons the record has lasted.
There are five songs on either side of the album and they all fit as snug as can be. There's not a note too many, a line that doesn't work or a hook too laboured. They can speed it up and slow it down. It's funny and smart and touching by turns. It's a record of ten potential 45s. Lloyd is centre stage of course. The band took his name and it's his artfully constructed self that defines the record. Observant, wry, cynical, but really you suspect beneath the veneer, bruised and hurting.
The band had their brief moment in the sun. The record was feted and they had chart and critical success. They made follow up records, some of which recaptured the glory, most of which in retrospect didn't. Because they'd already made their statement. I played second record Easy Pieces a lot when it came out as it was part of the soundtrack to the great romance I talked of earlier which I was busy experiencing. I'd recommend a few songs from it that would fit right in on Rattlesnakes, Why I Love Country Music, Pretty Gone, Grace. Some of it doesn't work though. It tries too hard. Or else not enough. I didn't bother with the third. The band seemed to care less themselves by this point and split shortly thereafter. They'd run their course. They split shortly before the relationship of mine which they'd played their small part in did.
This is over thirty years ago. Lloyd is back. His latest album got his best reviews in years and his songwriting has aged gracefully. He has a silver flock of hair, barely receded from where it sat in its prime. He's not trying to be twenty, hasn't lost his looks and the man could certainly always write a lyric. He still can. He's always asked about Rattlesnakes of course and answers patiently and honestly. He seems like a good bloke though he still seems to find it hard to suffer fools. But he knows his place in the scheme of things.
So listen to his and his band's first record if you don't know it already. It's forever somewhere amongst my Top Thirty. It always makes me slightly lovelorn and nostalgic, for obvious reasons. I haven't gone into the songs individually here because they speak for themselves and are of a piece. I'd be here forever if I did but it would be all description and not enough feeling. Like I said it speaks for itself. A perfectly assembled row of books on a bookshelf. It's a record which within the dimensions and parameters it constructs for itself, frankly could not be bettered.
There it is. Always sitting there silently in the assembled ranks of albums stacked in boxes on my living room floor demanding to be played again. And again. From the first song, 'When she smiles my way. My eyes go out in vain,' to the last, 'Are you ready to be heartbroken.' I decided at the end of my first Lloyd Cole & the Commotions phase and the end of that relationship that I wasn't ready. I've learned since that the heart always finds a way to miraculously mend itself, work once more and need to love again. Meanwhile, Rattlesnakes plays on in the background. Never changing because it doesn't need to. It will outlast Lloyd. And me.