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Lloyd Cole: ‘My younger self would probably be appalled I’m still performing with grey hair’

Singer Lloyd Cole spent his youth studying to be a pop star. These days he wishes he was in Scotland.

Lloyd Cole was born in Buxton, Derbyshire in 1961, and found fame in the 1980s with his band Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Following their 1988 split, he embarked on a successful solo career. In his Letter to My Younger Self he explains how being a pop star was something he was studying to be even as a very young man – but he wasn’t expecting to still be be packing them in at the age of 61.

When I was 16 my key interests were music, music, girls and music. I took the New Musical Express to school with me every Thursday and completed the crossword during the first period. I got glam rock when I was 11-12 and punk rock 16-17. Lucky boy. Lucky also that I didn’t hate school, didn’t hate my parents and the odd girl liked me. Almost every penny I had went towards buying records. I gave away the poster that came with [T. Rex’s] Electric Warrior to my first girlfriend, though. Maybe not my smartest move. 

I had a job at the pub my mum bartended at and next door was the local electrical appliance shop, which also sold records. The owner was a kind old lady who gave me credit. Every Saturday I gave her my 25p wage and she would let me take an LP and pay it off over time. Chapel-en-le-Frith was an awfully small town, but I had the first copy of Aladdin Sane in the area. I ordered it months in advance of its release and the little shop in Chapel got it before the Boots in Buxton! Corporations were still discovering leverage in 1973.

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The day that Never Mind The Bollocks… was released I played truant. By 1977 my parents had taken a job in Lancashire and I was at Runshaw Sixth Form College in Leyland. but Trevor Morris and I were both at the local record shop to buy it as it opened. Trevor was a better punk than me, though. By the time we arrived at college to display our purchases, he had ripped up his sleeve and taped it back together. It was his idea to name our band Vile Bodies. I didn’t know who Evelyn Waugh was. We never performed in public, but we rehearsed a lot.

I learned to play bass from one of those tall thin instructional books I think they still publish. That and playing along to 1969 Live by The Velvet Underground. Trevor taught me how to play chords on the guitar. I was good at maths and I may have stated that I wouldn’t mind becoming a maths teacher. But really, I spent my childhood studying to be a pop star. I think, subliminally, I always knew this is what I would do. 

Lloyd Cole passport photos
1978: His first passport photos aged around 17. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Cole

My parents moved to Glasgow just before my A-Levels. I stayed in a two-up, two-down in Chorley then decided to study law in London. Why is too long a story, but living near Westbourne Park tube – Clash territory, reggae territory – was pretty bloody exciting, and not a little scary for a northern lad who had one Black friend in Lancashire. It didn’t take long to figure out that law was a massive mistake, but I did a lot of living that year. A lot of growing up. I saw the Pretenders at the Marquee, The Clash at the Electric Ballroom, dated an Italian girl and a posh older English woman. She, in classic rich girl slumming-it fashion, had a squat in Camden Passage, just off Upper Street. I changed that to Charlotte Street in the song.

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When my landlord doubled my rent after the first term, I moved into a student house in Bloomsbury where my downstairs neighbour was Morris Gould, now Mixmaster Morris. He had a Wasp synth, which he let me borrow for my one and only solo performance at LSU. I also met Michael Atavar, then Osbourne, who became my best friend and introduced me to Kraftwerk. When I dropped out of UCL, Michael and I went to Europe with a Europass for the train, very little money, almost no contacts. But we were young. We dressed like queer rock stars. We paid for a few hostels, but mostly we met people and they invited us to stay. I desperately wanted to be bisexual, but by the time we returned to the UK, I was resigned to a straight life. That didn’t change my dress sense, though. Not for a little while. 

Lloyd Cole by Ziggy cover area
Cole at the site of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” LP cover photo. Courtesy of Lloyd Cole

Despite dropping out, the dean of UCL gave me a glowing reference and I was able to attend Glasgow University. I decided to study what I wasn’t good at but wanted to be: literature. And philosophy. My mathematical brain made philosophy fun, like a puzzle. I loved my time there.  

I dropped out again, after two years, because I had a job singing and writing songs in a pop group. When I arrived in Glasgow, the Postcard label was in its full pomp and record company A&R folk were up from London most weekends looking for the next Orange Juice. There was a wonderful peer pressure in the city. Nico’s was the place on Sauchiehall Street, the Art School was just across the street. So if you were in Nico’s and wanted to make friends, you had to be doing something creative. I got lucky early, met good people, and before you know it, I’m on stage with a band, singing my songs. I still sing many of those songs now.

I’m lucky my voice hasn’t changed much. My appearance has, certainly, but as I instruct my audience – you can close your eyes. Many of that first batch of songs that became [Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ 1984 debut album] Rattlesnakes were written by a young man who thought he was some sort of detached ‘new journalism’ writer à la Tom Wolfe. But after a few years, it became clear that the protagonist was me more often than I liked to admit. That year in London was full of material. I took my ideas wherever I found them and for a long time I thought this consumption of literature, cinema, etc was essential to my creative process. But after you’ve lived a while, that can be enough. And I’ve lived a long time. I’m not worried about running out of content. 

Rattlesnakes – title track of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ 1984 debut LP

My younger self would probably be appalled that I’m still performing with grey hair and an acoustic guitar. But young me didn’t know anything about being a father and a husband. Things were still looking pretty good when I accidentally moved to New York after the Commotions split in 1988. My life was good. I met a wonderful woman and she agreed to marry me. Despite my first two solo records not selling as well as expected, there was still plenty of optimism surrounding me in the early 1990s. My wife and I lived in an apartment that is now Jodie Foster’s. But 1994 was a very bad year. We lost that apartment and the studio I’d built in it. Since then I’ve been a working musician, my job is keeping a roof over my family.

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Regrets, of course, a few. The only one that stays with me is sticking with Polydor in 1993/4. It’s hard being with the same company for a decade or more. It’s like an imperfect marriage – when you’re new, you’re exciting, but that diminishes with time. Maybe I could have been exciting to another label for a while. When I finally asked the big boss Howard Berman if he’d let me go in 1998, I didn’t have to ask twice.

I’ve never made a record from a cynical point of view. I think young me would be happy about that. And when, in the late ‘90s, early 2000s my process had become one I wasn’t happy with – writing songs so that I could make albums, rather than the other way around – I decided to stop for a while. I toured acoustically instead, to pay the bills. Lucky, again, I suppose, in that this prepared me for the streaming world we now inhabit where musicians don’t really get paid anything for making records. We have to tour.

In the UK, we don’t want our pop stars to become middle aged. We would prefer them to somehow disappear and reappear as elder statesmen. I made records through the 2000s and the venues I performed at got smaller and the album reviews got smaller. Then, in 2013, I released an album called Standards and things started looking up. By the time I decided to tour Old Songs Only, the venues were larger and sold out. I’m no longer middle aged. I’m old. 

Lloyd Cole at Rewind Festival in 2016
2016: performing at Rewind South festival, Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames Photo: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Moving to America wasn’t planned.It just happened. Then I met my wife, and then we had kids, and then they went to school. If I had a job which dictated where I live, the chances are I wouldn’t still be here. I’m not comfortable with American politics, but we’re lucky to live in New England, where the insanity factor is about as low as it gets. I never took US citizenship. I’m British. I’m European. And I’m lucky – I’m still quite popular in lots of countries and get asked to play shows. And I’m happy to do so. Not experiencing different cultures for the last two years has been hard. Really hard

My favourite thing about touring in the UK used to be that I could make jokes on stage. Joking is all but impossible unless you have a deep knowledge of the language, but because I know English, I could ad-lib, make fun of your football team. That might be gone, now, after Brexit. I’d worry I might start a punch-up. For a long time I dreamed of retiring to a seaside town in Yorkshire, but I can’t do that. Not now. Scotland, maybe…

Lloyd Cole’s From Rattlesnakes to Guesswork tour visits the UK in April/ May. Buy tickets here

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