Listen to this track from former philosophy student turned singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole along with his cadre of musical enablers The Commotions. It’s “Perfect Skin”, their first single and a hit as taken from 1984’s Rattlesnakes. Upon it’s North American release the song would be re-mixed by Ric Ocasek of the Cars.
The song references basements and pavements in a very familiar way, written by Cole in an actual basement while living with his parents who ran a golf club in Glasgow, the same city in which Cole was going to university. The basement mentioned multiple times in this song was an allusion to the one that had appeared in another song, that being Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Maybe by the mid-eighties, source material from Dylan wasn’t exactly in the mainstream spotlight as the embers of new wave were still faintly a-glow. But, the idea of using densely arranged imagery to project the confusion of love and the uncertainty that very often goes along with it has yet to go out of style.
There’s another stream that comes out of all that in this song which is also pretty widely relatable, and taken on by songwriters of all stripes and eras; pursuit of the unattainable.
Structurally, and even in terms of its characters, Dylan and the Velvet Underground are primary DNA strands in his tune, with Cole’s voice being affectedly detached even if it’s pretty easy to hear that he’s invested. That’s one of the important tensions here, a key driver that makes this song compelling. This is not even to mention the bright jangle of the Commotions behind Cole’s youthfully sullen voice, creating a sort of post-punk and roots rock amalgam that seems as joyful as it is serious-minded. That’s yet another source of contrast. That musical backdrop perfectly frames the narrator’s pursuit of the unattainable embodied by Louise the weathergirl, she of the perfect skin that perhaps serves as the barrier to keep out unwanted attentions as much as it serves as an unblemished facade to be admired, if only at a distance.
Reviews for the Rattlesnakes record were generally good. But, many reviews pointed out the naivite that are found in some of the lines. Cole was a philosophy student fresh out of university. It was bound to come out in his writing. But to me this is what adds dimension to this song, which is a young man’s tune. The narrator in this song is someone who covers his longing for something he can’t have with affectation; references to Greta Garbo, Eva-Marie Saint, On The Waterfront, and a riot of Dylanesque imagery that helps to create an emotional buffer around himself.
That’s yet another strand that connects this song with youthful inexperience. “Perfect Skin” is about ideals and misconceptions and how they tend to become blurred when we’re young. It’s about feeling outside of something, and wanting to get in somehow. It’s a love song by someone who doesn’t know the first thing about love, and is bound to have another think coming when he makes his move toward it. That’s what makes it work so well, and is the centre of its charm. We can all relate to it, no matter which side of the innocence and experience side of the fence we happen to be on.
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions would endure as a formal unit from this point to 1989, at which point Cole went solo. They would reconvene briefly in 2004 to celebrate the release of Rattlesnakes, still lauded as one of the most impressive debut albums of the 1980s.
Learn more about Lloyd Cole at lloydcole.com.