Elizabeth Fraser never intended to become a pop star. Perhaps that’s why she turned her back on the public after she co-invented an entire genre and made many fans cry. Together with The Cocteau Twins she created a lot of magical moments and came up with completely new sounds – less consciously than accidentally they have become one of the most style-defining bands in music history.
It all starts in 1979, the year The Clash release London Calling. Liz Fraser is 17 and meets her future bandmates Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie in their hometown of Grangemouth on the east coast of Scotland. A place that has nothing to offer but an oil refinery and a port. Liz Fraser is a punk who copied her look – as she says herself – from Wilma Feuerstein. Because her parents don’t like it, she is put out on the streets. At least there’s this club in Grangemouth where Robin Guthrie regularly plays punk records. Without punk, Liz Fraser later said in an interview with the British music magazine Sounds, she probably would not have been interested in music at all and would have been hired in a fast food shop. The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and The Stooges saved her from that.
The three form a band together and name themselves after a demo song by the Glaswegian Simple Minds, who were still a punk band at the time, and who in turn were referring to the French filmmaker Jean Cocteau in their song “Cocteau Twins”. Instead of spending their money on leather jackets, The Cocteau Twins prefer to spend their money on effect pedals, making them pioneers in a genre that will later be called Shoegaze. At that time, however, nobody knew the expression.
Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie have been a couple since The Cocteau Twins were founded. And at least at first glance, they were very similar – shy and quiet. Robin Guthrie openly admitted that he never learned to play the guitar, which also allowed him to experiment without guidance. With effects and reverb, he was primarily trying to hide what he could not do on the guitar, namely play chords. With this idiosyncratic technique, he managed that his guitars sounded unlike anything else at the time.
“It gives me more freedom. And I just didn’t have the courage to sing in English. Maybe I was just too shy for that.”Elizabeth Fraser
What echoes and fuzz were to the guitarist was fantasy language to Liz Fraser. She herself didn’t even understand what she was singing. She found her lyrics mostly in books and dictionaries written in foreign languages. As a singer, she has always been more about sound than meaning. But there is also another reason why she didn’t sing in English for a while: “It gives me more freedom. And I just didn’t have the courage to sing in English. Maybe I was just too shy for that”, as she says. This shyness is also what made Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie so likeable. They never intended to tell the world where to go with their music. Still, the music of the Cocteau Twins is a statement. In trying to hide their inability, they invented new things and came up with songs that are so much bigger than either of them would have ever suspected.
In the early 1990s however, Liz Fraser’s language slowly became clearer. She said goodbye to her fantasy language and started singing in English. Many of the songs on the album Heaven or Las Vegas deal with a new topic – the newborn daughter of Fraser and Guthrie. The album is the Cocteau Twins’ greatest commercial success. At the same time, however, the band slowly started turning towards a crisis. They left their label 4AD and were about to split up as a couple. Robin Guthrie started struggling with alcohol and drug problems and Liz Fraser was confronted with trauma from her childhood. She eventually separates from Robin Guthrie and five years later, after eighteen years, they also split up as a band. The wounds have apparently not healed to this day.
Anyone who listens to The Cocteau Twins has their own way of doing so. On a website called Cocteau Cafe fans not only organise annual meetings and collect every little piece of news about the band but also tell each other about the situations in which they prefer to listen to their music. Some lie on a meadow and stare at the sky while others recommend boat trips, painting pictures or taking drugs. Robert Smith even swears by The Cocteau Twins’ Treasures album when preparing for his own wedding. What can be said with certainty, is that they were one of the most important bands that evolved out of the eighties. Their atmospheric music makes them unmistakable and they still stand for their own, mysterious world.