On the day this album was released I was in Leamington Spa, which in 1988 had three record stores, and I managed to pick up a copy for the going rate of £4.99. We had an Our Price, Woolworths and an independent. I forget what the independent was called, Sound something or other, it was in Gloucester Street, off Bath Street and was a bit ‘High Fidelity”, in that you felt as though you were being judged on every purchase. I didn’t buy ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ from there, I bought it from Woolworths, after looking in the other two and not finding it there. I do miss Woolworths on the high street (it’s all online now) as, not only did they discount records quite often, but they also had a fabulous Pick ‘N Mix for sweets.
‘Blue Bell Knoll’ received mixed reviews upon its release, all of which I ignored, because I didn’t care, for me, The Twins could do no wrong. I pretty much loved everything they had released up to this point and wasn’t even slightly disappointed when I first played the album. I’ve seen some retrospective reviews online as well which don’t place it that highly, claiming that Carolyn’s Fingers is the only real high point, but they miss the point. What we had before this album was ‘Garlands’, ‘Head over Heels’, ‘Treasure’, ‘Victorialand’ & ‘The Moon and the Melodies’ all of which I loved for different reasons. We also had the 12” EP’s ‘Lullabies’, ‘Peppermint Pig’, ‘Sunburst and Snowblind’, ‘Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops’, ‘The Spangle Maker’, ‘Aikea-Guinea’, ‘Tiny Dynamine’, ‘Echoes in a Shallow Bay’ and finally ‘Love’s Easy Tears’. I had all of them on vinyl. Taken all together this was a fabulous back catalogue all released in a 6 year period. However, at this point in time there was no ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’, which seems to be widely acknowledged as the pinnacle of their output, nor did any of the later releases exist. While ‘Victorialand’ and ‘The Moon and the Melodies’ are lovely pieces of work, they are in my opinion, both eclipsed by the return to the full band format of ‘Blue Bell Knoll’.
I have previously had trouble explaining in words just what it is about the music of The Cocteau Twins that I like. The word ‘Ethereal’ is appropriate, but overused and doesn’t encapsulate everything. Here are some words, beginning with Ethereal, shimmering, sparkly, mysterious, enigmatic, mystical, glistening, mystifying, cryptic, dark, bright, obscure, esoteric, transcendental, unfathomable and shimmering again. These are the sort of words that have been used in reviews over the years, but few, if any, that I remember reading mention joyous. There are moments of pure beauty that occur and cause the heart to soar, and I’m not overstating it, there really are. Well, that’s what I hear, I’m sure others think it an unbearable noise.
||“Blue Bell Knoll”
||“For Phoebe Still a Baby”
||“The Itchy Glowbo Blow”
||“Suckling the Mender”
||“Spooning Good Singing Gum”
||“A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”
||“Ella Megalast Burls Forever”
Far from being an ‘also ran’ that some reviewers suggest, Blue Bell Knoll is triumph, which has been an inspiration for the likes of Sigur Ros, My Bloody Valentine, Stina Nordenstam, Tori Amos and more. Robert Smith of the Cure is a fan, and that’s a pretty good recommendation in itself. Here he is saying so himself (admittedly not mentioning this particular album):
Just in case you don’t know much about The Cocteau Twins, here’s some history culled from Wikipedia:
Guthrie and Heggie, both from Grangemouth, Scotland, formed the band in 1979. At a local disco called Nash they met Fraser, also from Grangemouth, who would eventually provide vocals. The band’s influences at the time included The Birthday Party, Sex Pistols, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The band was named after the song “The Cocteau Twins” by fellow Scotsmen ‘Johnny and the Self-Abusers’ (who later renamed themselves Simple Minds; the song “The Cocteau Twins” was also re-penned as “No Cure”). Their debut recording, Garlands (released by 4AD Records in 1982), was an instant success, as was the subsequent Lullabies EP.Around that time, NME ’s Don Watson compared the style of the band to goth bands like Gene Loves Jezebel and Xmal Deutschland., while SPIN magazine’s Sue Cummings compared it retrospectively to Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus.
Heggie left the group after the tour that followed the 1983 release of the band’s second EP, Peppermint Pig. He subsequently joined Lowlife. The band’s sound on its first three recordings relied on the combination of Heggie’s rhythmic basslines, Guthrie’s minimalist guitar melodies, and Fraser’s voice; the Cocteau Twins’ next full-length LP, Head over Heels, relied solely on the latter two. This led to the growth of the band’s characteristic sound: Fraser’s voice, by turns ethereal and operatic, combined with Guthrie’s effects-heavy guitars. Guthrie has often said that he is far more interested in the way the guitar is recorded, than in the actual notes being played, though he later admitted the effects and layering were due to his own technical limitations.
“The Cocteau Twins are still the best by far at the 4AD ethereal dreamscape, thanks largely to the extraordinary voice of Liz Fraser. Somehow she’s found a voice that falls completely outside ‘Rock’ or ‘Pop’.”
– Simon Reynolds, New Statesman, 1987
In 1983, the band participated in 4AD’s This Mortal Coil project (this spawned a cover version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” performed by Guthrie and Fraser), and during their work for that, they got to know multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde (formerly a member of Drowning Craze), who joined the group later that year. In 2012, Dawn French selected “Song to the Siren” on Desert Island Discs as, in her words, “The song that made me fall in love again”.
There is a much more comprehensive history of the band here if you are at all interested:-
Back when the Cocteau Twins were still a band there really weren’t that many TV performances to watch. I had some videoed and I bought a few bootleg VHS tapes, the quality of which was truly terrible, but until ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ you just didn’t see much of them. This is why I bought a ticket to see them live in Birmingham, unfortunately, for a number of reasons that weren’t my fault, circumstances colluded against me resulting in me missing the concert, which still annoys me now, and it was over 20 years ago. I never did get to see them.
Let’s talk lyrics for a moment, just to confirm that they don’t really matter here. Elizabeth Fraser uses her voice more as an instrument, a provider of melody, than as a vehicle to convey words. I have listened to the opening track of this album hundreds of times and I have never bothered even attempting to understand a single word of what is sung, it is of no real consequence, however, as I was writing this I thought I would see if anybody else had, and they have. Now it is best read as you listen to it, wherein you will possibly agree with me, that they aren’t quite right, but close. Try it:
Blue Bell Knoll
Each is not my love, moan I for what
I make up hundreds so I know how to make love
There, you can have my youth, I know I have loved
Started to see him, till when I married him
To yearn admits you’re outside to me
I have seen these all my life, perhaps a lot more
And I have been so naive
All move and try he knew not
And your spangle, how it hurts and I have feelings
To yearn admits you’re outside to me
To yearn admits you’re outside to me
FRASER, ELIZABETH/GUTHRIE, ROBIN/RAYMONDE, SIMON
Not far off I think, but the ‘Outside to me’ bit is highly questionable. Now I will never think of it again unless somebody mentions it. Although, I did stumble across an interview with Elizabeth Fraser who explains that some of the lyrics are, in fact, complete gibberish.
Here are a couple of promo videos from Blue Bell Knoll and a live concert which isn’t great footage but it’s a really nice quality soundboard recording.