This month, our columnist looks back at his experiences creating and recording Cocteau Twins’ classic 1988 album, Blue Bell Knoll.
It’s exactly 30 years since Cocteau Twins wrote, recorded and released the album Blue Bell Knoll, which came out on 4AD on 19 September 1988. 4AD also licensed the album to major label Capitol Records in North America.
What I know now about record deals and contracts makes writing those words in that order quite difficult for me without grinding my teeth, as a record label should only ever have the right to license your material internationally to other labels if they paid significantly for those rights; otherwise, the licence should be with you, and you should be free to license wherever the host label are unable to. Anyhow, any festering residual bitterness about signing a two-page deal back in 1983, that granted worldwide master and publishing rights to 4AD/Beggars in perpetuity, should be reserved for a different time. As others would no doubt – and in fact do – argue, we weren’t forced to sign it!
‘Previously, once the 10th song was recorded, we never had the luxury of choosing the best 10 – it was the 10 we had!’
I’d been in the band about five years by the time we got around to making Blue Bell Knoll, yet things were still unpredictable and unstable. I think this added to the excitement and adrenaline we felt with where we were at.
Robin was deeply into the production side and he always had a brilliant film score playing in his head of what we should sound like. I learned a lot from him, but mostly that it was better to try it out for yourself than pay someone else to do it who couldn’t possibly know what you wanted that sound to be.
We loved buying bits of old gear to experiment with and once we got to the studio, he would gleefully rip open the box, plug a guitar in and start fiddling about with it, or tell me to get on the keyboards and he’d dial the effect in, and in seconds we’d start a new song.
We didn’t ‘write’ songs. We made shit up as we went along, the tunes inspired solely by the sound coming out of this new piece of outboard gear, be it a delay, chorus or a reverb, or most likely a combination of all three.
Robin would often say in interviews: “If you plug a guitar straight into the desk, it sounds boring. Uninspiring. So we don’t.” And that, in a nutshell, is how the ‘sound’ of the band came about, and ultimately developed. The better our records sold, the better the gear (in both senses of the word) we could buy for the next record.
The key to Blue Bell Knoll’s upgrade in sound was down to a lot of factors, but most notably, it was the first studio we’d built for ourselves. We all lived around West London and found an industrial unit in a set of huge warehouses in North Acton. It was out of the way, and all the better for it. The shell was probably a few hundred square feet and we set about planning how we were going to turn a cold white-brick space into our creative hub.
‘We’d been learning hard, making mistakes, and growing up in public’
Again, Robin led the charge, with his ‘studio’ head on and his background in engineering, and we were also dead lucky that our pals in fellow 4AD band Dif Juz were adept in building, plastering and decorating – they constructed the framework and did all the hard graft. We had a mixing room, a recording room and then a small office/workshop. We bought ourselves a second-hand mixing desk and a tape machine, and as soon as it was all wired up, we were like excited newlyweds bolting through the door and up the stairs of their first flat to start a family.
The huge difference we found was that no longer was each session a race against the ticking clock, to finish our album in, say, three weeks. Previously, 4AD booked our studio time and despite telling them we had all the songs written and ready to go, we would turn up with nothing and have to leave three weeks later with a finished album. We always managed it, but it was a lot of pressure and once the 10th song was recorded, we never had the luxury of choosing the best 10 – it was the 10 we had!
In our new hideaway, we could take our time, and while we didn’t really deviate from previous habits, at least we could ensure the 10 songs we finished were as good as we could make them. We were so spoilt with the 24-track recording (having made a lot of our earlier records on eight- and 16-tracks) and we got so carried away on the first few tunes Robin and I wrote in our new space, we didn’t realise we had recorded on pretty much 23 of the 24 tracks available, leaving Elizabeth with one track to record all her vocals.
Once we’d calmed down and settled in, on the whole, it was a hugely enjoyable record to have made. There was a freedom we felt that hadn’t been there before, and I guess a few years writing together in strange circumstances made our bond greater at this point, and I was more confident inside the group. It felt like the beginning of something. We’d been learning hard, making mistakes and growing up in public, and now a few years on, with Blue Bell Knoll, here was the first album we all truly loved.
Simon Raymonde is currently in Lost Horizons and was the bassist and keyboard player in Cocteau Twins. He founded the independent record label Bella Union