Massive Attack is a trip-hop band from Bristol, England who have put out five proper albums since their inception in 1991. In their early days, they were more jazz/lounge/ “chill” -oriented, but they changed their style pretty dramatically for their critically acclaimed Mezzanine. That album was huge in the UK, but only a moderate success in the US. Outside the umbrella of college radio, that album saw very little play on this side of the Atlantic.
I didn’t know anything about Massive Attack before this album came out, and I haven’t listened to anything of theirs since. Let’s be completely honest here. The only reason that I sought this record out was that Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins contributed vocals to three songs. Tonight’s song is, of course, one of them. I write a lot about a handful of musicians who I call “royalty”, but I put Fraser into a much more elite class. She’s deity.
You’ve probably heard tonight’s song before. Or at least you’ve heard a modified version of it. If you’ve ever watched the teevee show House, that show uses a sample of “Teardrop” as the opening theme. It’s been in loads of movies and teevee commercials. Too many to list.
I’ve learned a lot about the song recently and I’ve had to unlearn some myths about it.
First, here’s the song:
“Teardrop” by Massive Attack (featuring Elizabeth Fraser)
The song was written by the band without any lyrics. It started as a harpsichord solo and was developed into something else before they got the lyrics written. One of the principal band members, Andrew Vowles, sent it off to Madonna, hoping that she would collaborate with them on the song. Meanwhile, the other two principal members wanted the same from Elizabeth Fraser. This actually caused a lot of friction within the band when it was put to a vote and Fraser got the job. Vowles was so upset that he ended up leaving the band. Apparently, Madonna was also upset.
Fraser wrote the lyrics and went to work in the studio. It was at this time that Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River near Memphis, Tennessee. Fraser and Buckley had some sort of magical, mysterious relationship that was part mutual respect for singing voice and part something else. Depending upon who you ask, they either had a passionate romantic relationship, or they were pen-pals. The common theory is that it was closer to the former. It’s safe to say that they were not “dating”, but they weren’t “not dating” either. Fraser has gone on record as saying that the relationship (whatever it was) came to an end because she was frustrated with his constant touring. By May of 1997, they had already drifted apart, but she says that she was thinking and reminiscing about Jeff Buckley as she was writing the song. It’s not “about him”, but it’s not “not about him” either.
She was crushed by the news of her friend’s death, and she’s often said that she feels guilty for not being more understanding and not “being there” for him. His death had nothing to do the collapse of their “relationship”, but she still to this day talks about it as if things would have played out differently on that day in May 1997 if she had been more patient.
By the time “Teardrop” was launched as a single to promote Mezzanine, Elizabeth Fraser had given birth to her second daughter, Lily Reece-Fraser. Damon Reece, who has played drums for Echo & The Bunnymen, Spiritualized, and Lupine Howl, is the father. Coincidentally, he has also played with Massive Attack, but not on “Teardrop”. Fraser and Reece had been an item since even before the Cocteaus split up, and I’m not sure where Jeff Buckley fit in on the timeline.
Anyway, there was some speculation at the time that the bass drum beat at the beginning of the song was actually the sound of Lily’s in utero heartbeat. It simply isn’t true. (However, see my post about Tanya Donelly) The math doesn’t even add up on that theory, but it was a theory that was bouncing around for a while. Probably fueled by the official video for the song, which prominently featured a cgi fetus.
On a bit of a tangent, Elizabeth Fraser and Jeff Buckley did record a song together called “All Flowers in Time Bend Towards The Sun”. It was never released, and it never will be. Fraser doesn’t want it to be released, and neither does Buckley’s mom. It’s floating around out there, and it’s easy to find, and it’s magnificent, but it isn’t official and it’s against the interested parties’ wishes.
With the birth of her second daughter, Fraser decided to back away from music for a while so she could watch her daughter grow up. She’s done some sporadic collaborations and she’s been offered a ton of money for some others, but she’s mostly been out of the biz for more than a decade.
In 2009, Fraser released a single called “Moses”, but it was never her intent to release it. A close friend of Fraser and Reece was killed in a motorcycle accident, and the release of the song was her tribute to him. At that time, there was speculation that she had written eight new songs and would have an album out in 2009 or 2010. It didn’t happen.
Rumors swirled a few years ago that the Cocteaus were reuniting for at least one night to play Coachella, and the word is that Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie were on board. However, Elizabeth Fraser stuck to her “I’m not playing with the Cocteaus anymore” guns, and that never panned out.
Last summer, Fraser played a couple of shows in London. Coincidentally, they were smack in the middle of the Olympics being in London. The tickets were reasonable enough, and I could have swallowed the pill on the airfare, but there wasn’t going to be a hotel room anywhere in the United Kingdom, so I didn’t go. Apparently, she was thrilled with her decision to play some shows, and that has revived some rumors that she’s got some new material in the works.
This ended up being about Elizabeth Fraser, but you probably knew that was going to happen.
You can buy Mezzanine here.