It must be bloody annoying to be Lloyd Cole and every single damned article written about you for the past two decades mentions that your career never lived up to your talent and potential and that you’re one of the most unheralded singer-songwriters around.
Although both assertions are, well, somewhat true, I’ll dispense with them upfront. I’d blame being ahead of his time and the music industry in general, more than I would anything that this criminally under-rated troubadour has produced (Cole had the bad luck to be caught up in Universal Music’s takeover of Polygram in the mid-90s and his contract was terminated with two unreleased albums locked in their vaults). For me, the music was never in question. If ever there was a middle-aged rocker ripe for rediscovery and critical evaluation, trust this rock snob’s opinion, it’s Lloyd fucking Cole, man. No time like the present, sez me…
We have a songwriting genius in our midst who should be celebrated and yet the guy gets so little respect it’s… well, it’s fucked up. It’s wrong, that’s what it is!
Formed in 1982, the same year as The Smiths, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions broke out of the gate two-years later with a jangly guitar sound that called to mind Orange Juice on their hit single “Perfect Skin.” Philosophy student Cole’s hyper literate—some would say purposefully pretentious—lyrics namechecked the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion while painting portraits of complex and idiosyncratic females.
I was totally hooked on the group and will admit to adding “Perfect Skin” to a mixed CD I made for my future wife—who does indeed have perfect skin—when I was courting her (Okay, coming completely clean, I’ve put that song on several mixed tapes and CDs I’ve compiled for women I was courting over the years…but I digress…)
When The Commotions split, Lloyd Cole went solo in New York, recording with the likes of Fred Maher, Matthew Sweet, Anton Fier, Voidoid Robert Quine and one of my dearest friends, Adam Peters—now a Hollywood film composer—who collaborated closely with Cole, although I didn’t know Adam then.
In terms of being “ahead of his time,” Cole was on the Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, Scott Walker tip fairly early on, adding soaring strings (via the great arranger Paul Buckmaster) to what I think is his best album, 1991’s Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe. Other than Nick Cave or Marc Almond, there were few other artists treading into that territory at the time. And his lyrics were as good as Leonard Cohen’s (if not actually better). I cherished this album. Loved it. I played it nonstop for a year.
Apparently, although it is considered his best work, Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe tanked and caused his American label at the time, Capitol, to drop him. I thought then, and I still think, that it’s a minor masterpiece and one of the very best under-appreciated cult albums of the 90s. (If you’re curious, you can actually buy a copy of Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe for a penny. Trust me, it’s the best cent you’ll ever spend on music).
None of this is to say that Lloyd Cole isn’t still a wonderful and productive working musician today, because he most certainly is. Much of his work during the past decade was in an unplugged acoustic “folk singer” mode, but he’s also gone on tour with a reformed Commotions, formed his “Small Ensemble” band, and performed with one of his sons. Lately he’s been making avant garde electronic music with Cluster’s Hans Joachim Rodelius that was released earlier this year, as Selected Studies Vol. 1.
For my purposes here, though, I’m going to concentrate mainly on the Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe, Bad Vibes and Love Story era of Cole’s solo work from the early to mid 1990s because those years yielded the best video clips. First up, the lead off track from Don’t Get Weird On Me, Babe, the amazing “Butterfly.” If this song doesn’t blow your mind, then I just don’t know what I can do to help you…
“Butterfly” performed live, with small orchestra, on An Eye On The Music, in 1991:
“Weeping Wine” on Wogan in 1991:
“Morning Is Broken” from Bad Vibes:
“She’s A Girl and I’m A Man” on Late Night with David Letterman, 1992:
“There for Her,” 1991:
Lloyd Cole and The Commotions performing “Perfect Skin” on March 11, 1985 in Munich:
“A Long Way Down,” 1991:
“Like Lovers Do” from 1995’s Love Story: