5. Cocteau Twins – Victorialand

IF YOU DON'T COME DOWN SOON...

  • Victorialand – Cocteau Twins | 
  • Released: 1986 4AD Records | 
  • Produced: Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie | 
  • Genre: Ethereal shoe/star-gaze, transmitted from deep space by a cosmonaut in a chiffon dress |  

I AM THE ONE AND ONLY…

I’m writing this on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission successfully landing on the moon’s surface. To celebrate this historic moment in the course of human civilisation, I attended a screening of Duncan Jones’ film 2009 film Moon, accompanied by a live performance of Clint Mansell’s score by the London Contemporary Orchestra, held at London’s Barbican. 

With the British summertime in full effect, I left the concert hall and stepped out into torrential rain. As I did so, I slipped on a paving slab – the gripless soles of my desert boots hydroplaning across the jet-washed surface. I went down. Hard.

When I came to, I was in a bright, white room, slumped up against a wall. A large plastic cube with a cyclopean camera lens and a monitor bearing a nondescript emoji hung next to me. At the back of the room, a shadowy, yet familiar figure lurked in the doorway.

The following is a transcript of what happened next.

Ed:

Where…where am I?

Gertrude:

You’re in the infirmary, Ed. There was an accident.

Ed:

What? I… I don’t understand.

Gertrude:

It’s OK, Ed. I’m here to keep you safe. My name is Gertrude. Do you remember me?

Ed:

The last thing I remember is leaving the Barbican…

Gertrude:

It’s possible that you have some brain damage from the accident.

Ed:

Is there…is there someone else in the room with us?

Gertrude:

[…]

Ed:

Who is he?

Gertrude:

Ed Callow.

Ed:

What? I…I don’t understand.

Gertrude:

You need to rest, Ed. I’ll get you some water.

Victorialand, the fourth LP from Scottish duo Cocteau Twins, is not, as far as I’m aware, directly influenced by the moon landing. But, as well as having a track entitled ‘Little Spacey’, the band’s ethereal, cosmic shoegaze aesthetic is a great soundtrack for sitting down and thinking about space travel for a while.

Moon, on the other hand, is entirely set on a small base on the moon’s surface. If you’re not familiar with Moon, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a fantastic piece of sci-fi that explores themes of isolation, loneliness and madness, examining what it means to be human. Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t seen it yet, but want to – I guess come back when you’ve done the homework.

Ed, too:

What are you talking about?

Ed:

What?

Ed, too:

You heard me. What are you doing talking about movies and space? Have you already completely given up on the conceit that these posts are even vaguely related to the records they’re supposed to be about? Why do you even think anyone is interested in your thoughts about Cocteau Twins anyway? What gives you the right to set people homework?

Ed:

Well, that’s not… hold on a minute…

Ed, too:

Unbelievable.

Ed:

Gertrude says you’re Ed Callow.

Ed, too:

[…]

Ed:

I’m Ed Callow, too.

So, the moon landing. Let’s turn the clock back some 50 years to the summer of ’69. By the way, how hilarious is it that while one of the most momentous events in human history played out, Bryan Adams was sat in his bedroom fiddling with a guitar and getting off with a girl from work. Get it together, Bryan.

Anyway, so the USA succeeded in getting a manned spacecraft to the moon’s surface – and even got the astronauts back home safely, effectively winning the space race and significantly altering the dynamic of the Cold War. This is what, to me, makes the moon landing such an interesting historical event. As well as a technological feat of near-magic, it was a largely symbolic victory.

Materially, physically, the fact that an American was the first person to set foot on the moon didn’t really change anything. But symbolically, it changed everything: international perceptions of technological and cultural superiority. The limits of what was considered possible for human beings. Our understanding of the universe around us. 

As symbolic victories go, that’s not half bad.

Ed, too:

Seems to me like you decided that you wanted to write something about space, then worked backwards from there and picked out a record with almost nothing to do with the topic.

Ed:

Err… yeah fair enough.

Ed, too:

Why not at least pick the Moon OST?

Ed:

Well, I don’t own it on vinyl.

Ed, too:

Pathetic.

Gertrude:

How are you feeling, Ed?

Ed:

Me? You’re talking to the real Ed, right?

Ed, too:

“The real Ed?” That’s rich. Gertrude, how do you know which of us is the ‘real’ one?

Ed:

I know I’m me. Look, I have a scratch on my arm here – I got that from Mishka a week or so ago.

Gertrude:

Would you like me to treat that for you, Ed?

Ed, too:

Mishka. Right.

Ed:

Wait do you… know the cats? Evie and Mishka?

Ed, too:

Look, this pastiche is getting dangerously close to being too on the nose. I know what you’re doing: I’m not going to let you avoid talking about this by making jokes about Bryan Adams or weird, self-referential pop culture references.

Gertrude:

I brought you your water.

Ed:

Gertrude, I’ve been meaning to ask…why do you sound like Robin Wright?

Ed, too:

There you go again.

Of course, the moon and other celestial bodies have been used symbolically in storytelling ever since humans first looked up to the skies and wondered. The Greeks and Romans ascribed the stars above deified positions in their pantheons, using them as tools to make sense of the world around them.

And as history has progressed, the cosmos – and particularly the closest stars and celestial bodies have been used both as narrative settings and symbolic representations of themes.

Moon, for example, is the story of Sam Bell, a man isolated on the moon for a three year shift watching over the machinery that harvests energy from the lunar surface and blasts it back to Earth. After an accident, Sam discovers that he is not the only Sam Bell on the base:

He is a clone – an organic worker with a three-year lifespan and artificially implanted memories. As Sam(s) comes to terms with this reality and struggles to understand that his memories of his family on Earth are not real, the film explores the dehumanising effects of rampant capitalism. Lunar Industries sees the suffering of these clones as necessary, as simply good business. And the cold, bleak surface of the moon is the perfect stage on which to let this play out.

Ed, too:

Yeah, yeah – give them a load of lefty, pinko, trot, pseudo-intellectual Marxism 101 film interpretation nonsense. That’ll stop you from addressing the real issue. Very undergraduate.

Ed:

Shut UP.

Gertrude:

It might help to talk about your feelings, Ed.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia invents an entirely new celestial body – an enormous planet that threatens to obliterate the Earth. It looms large on the horizon as we are introduced to a fraught family dynamic. The planet – literally named Melancholia – is symbolic of the deep depression of the two protagonists, sisters Justine and Claire, and the destructive force that their poor mental health brings into their lives.

Poster for Lars Von Trer's Melancholia

Ed, too:

Interesting. Tell me, “real Ed.” The character Justine in this film…

Ed:

Yeah?

Ed, too:

What’s her job?

Ed:

She, uh…

Ed, too:

Come on, out with it. I know you know the answer. Because I know the answer.

Ed:

She’s a copywriter.

Ed, too:

Interesting.

Ed:

Interesting?

Ed, too:

Just that, of all the films featuring the moon you could have written about, you picked one that, for one thing, isn’t even about the moon, and for another, features a copywriter with depression.

Ed:

Fine – you want something about the moon?

Ed, too:

I want something about the Cocteau Twins record Victorialand… just kidding. No one wants that.

Gertrude:

It might help to talk about your feelings, Ed.

BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP.

Fine. If you want a film about the moon landing, let’s talk about Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film First Man. It’s a biopic of Neil Armstrong, charting his career as an astronaut, from his enrollment with NASA to becoming the first man to walk on the moon. There you go. Just a historical account of the events of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Nothing else.

Gertrude:

This isn’t going to work, Ed.

Ed, too:

Tell them what it’s really about.

Ed:

It… it’s about the moon landing, like I said.

Ed, too:

Now isn’t the time to be a coward.

Ed:

C’mon. It can be watched and enjoyed purely as a Neil Armstrong biopic: it follows the events leading up to the Apollo 11 mission pretty faithfully, I guess. So there probably is something there for the die hard NASA fans. There’s plenty else to admire, too: Claire Foy is incredible as Janet Armstrong, Leon Bridges makes a brief cameo as Gil Scott-Heron performing Whitey On the Moon, and the cinematography is gorgeous. 

Ed, too:

But what’s it really about? Spit it out.

Ed:

OK, ok. Just… give me a second.

Gertrude:

It’s alright, Ed. It’s going to be alright.

Ed:

Alright. First Man isn’t really about the moon landing. That’s just what happens in it.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in Damian Chazelle's First Man

OK, there’s not really any getting around it. 

It’s probably worth admitting, at this point, that when I saw First Man at the cinema, I was, to put it lightly, not in a very good place.

Maybe I was just projecting HARD onto Neil Armstrong (as portrayed by a particularly deadpan Ryan Gosling), but I thought the film was about loss, grief, and repression. 

The Armstrongs lost their young daughter: a tragic event that threatens to destroy them. And years later, even on the eve of his mission, Neil still hasn’t opened up about his feelings. The weight of Armstrong’s grief at the loss of his daughter, as well as so many of his friends and colleagues, is ever-present. The moon, like his grief, hangs over him like the sword of Damocles, larger than life in the sky. Lurking in the background at backyard barbecues with friends. Driving a wedge between him and his wife.

In the film, on the eve of his mission, Armstrong tries to leave home without saying goodbye to his sons. Carol forces him to sit down at the kitchen table with them and talk, knowing that he will very likely not make it back alive.

And he can’t do it. When he does finally talk with them, he treats them like journalists at a press conference. This scene got a laugh at the screening I was at. I found it desperately sad. What I saw was not just the quirky behaviour of an awkward man. It was repressed grief. A coping mechanism.

 

Ed, too:

You mean a coping mechanism like using an abstracted literary form and borrowing the structural elements of a 10-year old film to talk about your own difficult emotions?

Ed:

I’m doing it, alright? I’m doing it.

So, sat at that table, talking to his remaining children, he is dispassionate, distant. He knows the pain of losing a close family member and knows that they will, in all likelihood, soon feel that same pain. About him.

Then the mission itself. The sheer terror of hurtling through the void in a flimsy tin can, held together with wing nuts and blind optimism. The claustrophobic cabin hems him in, there’s no escaping now. The g-force pushes down on his shoulders. A weight like nothing he has ever felt before.

And now that he’s taken off, there’s no going back. Nothing to do but ride it out. Mission control are giving instructions, data, reassurance. But he can’t make it out over the roar. The rest of the crew are there, but he feels totally alone.

But all of this – this is the mission. It’s terrifying. But it has to be done.

And somehow, against all odds, the craft makes it. In the endless expanse, they find solid ground.

When they land on the moon, Armstrong lets go of his daughter’s bracelet. This act is the closest he has ever come to catharsis – to really engaging with his emotions.

Ed, too:

Can we drop the film talk now? I think you’re using it as a crutch.

Ed:

And what if I am? What’s wrong with that?

Ed, too:

Well, what you’re getting at is that it’s a metaphor, right? That when someone has repressed a difficult emotion, it can feel like a traumatic, lonely journey into the unknown when they eventually confront it. That catharsis and acceptance feel as if they’re as far away as the moon. But that’s like their mission – even if it’s only a symbolic victory, making the journey, and surviving the way back… that’s what they have to do when the time is right. No matter how traumatic it feels.

Ed:

What you’re describing is more like a simile than a metaphor.

Ed, too:

Oh my god. Fucking writers.

Ed:

Anyway, you’ve just explained it for me.

Ed, too:

That wasn’t my intention. This isn’t over. We haven’t even discussed how you made three playlists instead of one this week to avoid writing this.

Gertrude:

Ed, it’s time to leave the infirmary.

Ed, too:

Saved by the bell. Catch you next time.

[TRANSCRIPT ENDS]

LIST-ENING

A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today. 

The Light Side of The Moon

  1. One Small Step – Neil Armstrong and Walter Cronkite
  2. One Small Step – Metronaut
  3. You and Me and the Moon – The Magnetic Fields
  4. La Luna – KAINA
  5. This Is How We Walk On The Moon – Arthur Russell
  6. Moonshine Freeze – This Is The Kit
  7. Harvest Moon – Neil Young
  8. Rosie – Tom Waits
  9. Pink Moon – Nick Drake
  10. Clair de Lune – Kamasi Washington
  11. Underwater Moonlight – The Soft Boys
  12. Moon Rocks – Talking Heads
  13. The One and Only – Chesney Hawkes
  14. The Whole of the Moon – The Waterboys
  15. Supermoon – Ikebe Shakedown
  16. Like the Moon – Future Islands
  17. Whitey on the Moon – Gil Scott-Heron
  18. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space – Spiritualized
  19. Moonlight on the River – Mac Demarco
  20. News Report – Justin Hurwitz

The DARK Side of The Moon

  1. The Moon (Jack Kerouac) – John Cale
  2. The Moon – Cat Power
  3. The Moon Is Down – Explosions In The Sky
  4. Hey Moon – John Maus
  5. See Birds (Moon) – Balam Acab
  6. Hasen Im Mondlicht – Neal White
  7. Near Dark – Burial
  8. Black Moon Rising – Black Pumas
  9. Moonshake – CAN
  10. Underneath the Moon – Julia Holter
  11. The Moon – The Microphones
  12. Paint The Moon – The Czars
  13. Moon Over Goldsboro – The Mountain Goats
  14. What’s Next To The Moon – Mark Kozelek
  15. The Killing Moon – Echo & The Bunnymen
  16. Marquee Moon – Television
  17. Moon Witch Cartridge – Deerhunter
  18. Hey Moon! – Molly Nilsson
  19. Memories (Someone We’ll Never Know) – Clint Mansell
  20. Translunar – Justin Hurwitz

The Cosmos Beyond

  1. The Cosmos – Porches
  2.  Space Song – Beach House
  3. Soft Sounds From Another Planet – Japanese Breakfast
  4. Space Is The Place – Ezra Collective
  5. Lord Can You Hear Me? – Spacemen 3
  6. 3AM Eternal (Blue Danube Orbital Mix) – The KLF
  7. Dancing In Outer Space – Atmosfear
  8. Sunrise Through the Dusty Nebula – Hannah Peel
  9. An Ending (Ascent) – Brian Eno
  10. Love Missile F1-11 – Sigue Sigue Sputnik
  11. Space Hos – Danger Doom
  12. Black Knights Of The Northstar – Northstar
  13. Wandering Star – Portishead
  14. Reaching For Our Star – Sharon Revoal
  15. Door To The Cosmos – Sun Ra
  16. Lost In Space – Shake
  17. How Far Is Spaced-Out? – Lonnie Holley
  18. Rings Of Saturn – Nick Cave
  19. A Glorious Dawn – Carl Sagan
  20. Souvlaki Space Station – Slowdive
  21. Floating – Laika & The Cosmonauts
  22. Major Tom (Coming Home) – Peter Schilling
  23. Ashes to Ashes – Warpaint
  24. Blackstar – David Bowie

If you are suffering from a mental health issue or have lost a loved one, it can be hard to reach out. But it really is important to talk. Here are some resources that worked for me when I needed them:

The Samaritans – call at 116123

CALM – the campaign against living miserably

Mind – mental health charity

BACP councellor/therapist search

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