Cocteau Twins, and a piece of burnt toast on a wire

“Did he just sing ‘I feel like a piece of burnt toast on a wire’?”

My brother-in-law Greg was even more baffled. He’d thought he’d heard something strange, but it wasn’t until I asked him my question that the possibility of those words existing in the same space became a possibility.

The singer continued to angrily attack his guitar, and he strode purposefully to the microphone to continue the song, spitting out the lyrics.

“I’ll be damned,” I said to Greg. “He DID sing ‘I feel like a piece of burnt toast on a wire’.”

I’d heard a few bands where two people stood on stage and played along with a tape playing a the track of a third instrument. I’ve generally never liked the practice. Seeing James Taylor sing along with a tape of his pre-recorded harmony lines on “Saturday Night Live” felt unnatural. Seeing bands with pre-recorded drum or bass tracks, concentrating on playing along with the click track that existed for the person playing the track but not them, well that just felt sad.

“Aww. What’s the matter? You can’t find a couple of friends to fill out the other spots for you? That’s kinda too bad. Do people just not like you?”

(Understand before I go further that I have a better idea now why it was that way then, and how much it is that way now. The point of this is how I took a huge step toward understanding it.)

As I began to lose patience with popular music in the early 1980s. That was after New Wave died its unceremonious death, as major labels signed anyone with a skinny tie and flooded the market with inferior material. (I mean, I like Any Trouble as much as the next guy, but why do I need that when Elvis Costello has already done the same thing, but better?) I somehow was lucky enough to encounter a record store that was deeply into what was going on in Great Britain at the time, weekly accepting shipments of strange vinyl, and stranger magazines, explaining what was on the strange vinyl, and the other, even stranger stuff that was coming out over there that no one Stateside had even heard of yet.

This is the place where I found and purchased my first Robyn Hitchcock albums. For that alone, I will never forget and always love it.

The 4AD label had recently launched, and was just coming into my atmosphere. I was taken by the band that sounded haunting, but whose lyrics I couldn’t understand at all. (Wikipedia’s description of Liz Fraser’s lyrics is that they “range from straightforward English to semi-comprehensible sentences (glossolalia) and abstract mouth music.”)

And she sounded amazing. This is the first song that grabbed me, and it probably remains my favorite.

(If this isn’t the official video, I want it to be. If it is, I never saw it back in the day. The images are as beautiful as the song.)

By the album that followed the one with “Sugar Hiccup,” I was totally overwhelmed. “Treasure” resides at No. 66 on The Big List. (Maybe I should claim that the blank space No. 67 is a tribute to the amount of room “Treasure” needs to take up.)

These guys were creating symphonies in studios. Consider all the sounds. Listen to those booms and echoes! (And, as I eventually realized, listen to how they use tone to fill the space in the mix, a drone that makes everything different from it stand out.)

They were going to undertake a tour of the United States. They were going to be a long way from where I was, but I’d tapped into a community, and we sent (snail) mail to one another pondering road trips and room sharing and all of the things you talk and think about until you get to about 30. Then, you either go all in (with all the limits and negatives there, but you’re probably happy) or say, “What the hell am I thinking?” (with all the regret and comformity pre-planned and reluctantly pre-accepted).

And I saw a picture of their concert setup. This wasn’t the exact photo, but this was what the photo looked like.

Cocteau-Twins-001

And I heard tapes that made me realize they weren’t a symphony, they were a “band” with pre-recorded bass and drum tracks, and live guitar and live vocals were the extent of their “performance.” And they were skilled enough to pull it off.

So two people on a stage with pre-recording, as it turned out, was just fine. I was just waiting for the right amount of soul.

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