I was very pleasantly surprised with the level of feedback when I had a nostalgic look back at Easy Pieces, the sophomore LP from Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, released in November 1985. And in trying to keep with the mantra of the public getting what the public wants, I thought it would make sense to offer up some thoughts on Mainstream, the band’s third and final LP released back in October 1987.
This was an album I was really looking forward to hitting the shops, purely on the basis of the strength of the advance single which was so different from any other track the band had released up to that point:-
mp3 : Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – My Bag
An infectiously catchy number that was impossible not to want to groove to and up there with the best songs the band ever made. And yet it flopped, failing to crack the UK Top 40. Part of this would have been down to a failure to get much radio airplay – a song so blatantly about drug misuse would have scared away almost all DJs – but what was just as worrying was the thought that much of the fan base might have moved on in the two-year hiatus since the previous album caused by the band’s inability to find the right producer for the new material which Lloyd had been indicating would surprise many who were expecting more of the same.
Even before the music began this fan was really surprised thanks to an album cover with its stark monochrome image of just the lead singer with the rest of the band also having similarly styled individual photos on either the back or inner sleeves. The exception being keyboardist Blair Cowan who has a smaller photo on the lyrics sheet underneath which were the words ‘This album is dedicated to Blair’. At the time I thought he had taken seriously ill and was perhaps dying (partly related to reading too much into the closing track on the album!!) but it transpired that he had in fact left the band between the conclusion of its recording and it being mixed and pressed for release.
40 minutes or so after putting the needle into the groove I found myself totally bemused. I wasn’t the least bit prepared, for the most part, how downbeat a record it was. Lloyd’s lyrics came across as a being those of a man thoroughly fed up with his lot and who felt, having crammed so much into the first part of his life, wasn’t looking forward to what lay ahead. Over the next few weeks, I tried and tried again to fall for the album and although I did eventually warm to some of its charms, there just wasn’t enough to really win me over. So much so, that a couple of years later I gave the LP to someone without much of an afterthought and indeed during the 90s when, like many others I fell for the con of buying CDs of music I already owned, I only purchased the first two of the bands LPs.
About five years ago however, on the back of getting the blog up and running, I picked up a second-hand copy of Mainstream in a charity shop for £1.99 and consequently gave it a listen to again for the first time in around twenty years. I’m happy to admit that my musical tastes had grown somewhat in that intervening period. I’d become more of a fan of many of the influences that Lloyd Cole has had on his songwriting craft and so couls now an appreciate things a lot more.
I’m repared to admit that Mainstream has more than a few decent tunes. But…..and it is a huge but………..it also contains some of the worst things the Commotions ever put down on vinyl as well as suffering from a production that has dated very badly in places.
Side One opens with the previously mentioned and still loved My Bag which is rather strangely followed by three downbeat numbers before closing with one of the most infectiously catchy numbers in the band’s career, all of which makes for a very disjointed and difficult listen.
Until I reassessed the album I had always dismissed the three slow number as sub-standard. But I was wrong, certainly in the case of From The Hip a song that not only contains one of Lloyd’s most heartfelt lyrics responding to the criticisms levelled at him about his pretentiousness over a tune that REM would have been lauded for.
mp3 : Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – From The Hip
However, both of 29 and Mainstream, the tracks that immediately follow are dull and uninspiring. The side closes with Jennifer She Said, a song that I like and loath in equal measures. For the most part it is very listenable but there’s a section in the middle where a short guitar solo sounds like a tribute to Dire Straits that I just can’t abide. It’s only 10-15 seconds in length (if that) but I hate it so much that I can’t really listen to it nowadays without getting annoyed.
Flipping the record over and Side Two, despite also having a similar mix of upbeat and downbeat numbers is a far more enjoyable listen thanks in part to the sequencing but more importantly the better quality of songs.
Mister Malcontent is maybe a bit Commotions by numbers but it is one the most underrated songs they ever recorded – particularly the opening two thirds which is as good as anything on the debut record; Sean Penn Blues is a witty sideways swipe at the life of the man who, in those days was known only for being married to Madonna but who would go on to enjoy a critical renaissance in later years; Big Snake was, and remains, a genuinely disturbing and creepy song with a sublime backing vocal from Tracey Thorn; Hey Rusty is a magnificent anthem for the mid-late 20-somethings who had emerged blinking from the shelter of student days and into the big wide world of commerce – folk just like me when the album came out; These Days is a thing of beauty – at a time when AIDS was new and was thought to be a disease that was going to wipe out much of the human race, Lloyd composed a simple, lovely and hugely effective song that advised you to be careful….
mp3 : Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – Hey Rusty
mp3 : Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – These Days
Overall, Mainstream is a record that suffers from comparions to the flawless debut LP and is an album that the listener needs to devote some time and energy to in order to fully appreciate its nuances and its attractions. Two duff tracks and a duff 10-second guitar solo do not make it a duff record.
Now I think it’s time to try and put together one of the 10-track imaginary albums…….