Julian Cope’s career has been a long, curious one – and if nothing else, the man earns considerable credit for integrity: he seemingly has never done anything but what he wants to do. And considering that all observers of his early career saw him headed straight for superstardom, it was more than an empty room he turned his back on.
That said, musically at least his career seems a headlong retreat away from his greatest compositional strengths. Cope’s first band, The Teardrop Explodes, was among the early ’80s British acts regarded as “neo-psychedelic” – and indeed, the music of the late sixties has exerted an ongoing power over Cope’s muse. The problem is, what we generically refer to as “psychedelia” is really at least two, rather distinct musical approaches: the British approach, and the American (primarily West Coast) approach. The British approach is exemplified by Syd Barrett’s work with early Pink Floyd, while probably the best representative of the West Coast style is the Grateful Dead…or at least, a stereotype of the Grateful Dead, including its jam-band descendants. What was valued most was freedom, spontaneity, living in the musical moment…and so bands tended to jam, to stretch songs out to the breaking point, sometimes dispensing with “songs” altogether: their formal constraints were non-conducive to freedom. This aesthetic preference even extends to (stereotypical) wardrobe: loose-fitting, flowing, in a seemingly uncoordinated riot of colors and fabrics – and hairstyle: just let it grow. Another reductive but useful way of looking at this is that the music is essentially outward-looking – even the emphasis on feeding one’s head, freeing one’s mind, were essentially about tearing down the walls of consciousness, breaking down the doors of perception, letting the sunshine in: making the indoors outdoors.
By contrast, Barrett’s music retreated inward, to a candy-colored, pseudo-Victorian children’s world, often nostalgic, emotionally muted yet intense. Sonically, this played out in tightly constructed songs whose psychedelic elaboration worked essentially inward, in ever-more detailed arrangements and tone coloration. Similarly, British psychedelic bands of this era tended to favor colorful but carefully tailored clothing, and hairstyles also were a bit more controlled, even nostalgic, with Victorian and Edwardian fashion pieces making momentary comebacks. (Consider the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper: a small-town, military band of an earlier era, exuberant mustaches exploding into technicolor satin uniforms.) And if latterday jam bands represented West Coast psychedelia’s descent into sheer, flatulent slackness, latterday British psych turned ever inward, traceable actually in Pink Floyd’s own post-Barrett evolution into a vehicle for the exploration of Roger Waters’ neuroses, whose musical nadir was maybe that band’s The Final Cut – an album which, in my memory (haven’t listened to it for years), is entirely at the tempo of a dying man’s last few heartbeats, and is seemingly recorded by attaching a contact mic to Waters’ tonsils.
So what’s this got to do with Julian H. Cope? He’s a real dead loss, that’s what: his early stuff (both with The Teardrop Explodes and solo) is a brilliant flowering of British neo-psychedelia, cunningly composed songs jammed full of lively arranging detail. The Teardrop Explodes “Colours Fly Away” is a fine example: after a Pepperish burst of horns, Cope constructs a melody that constantly balances on precarious harmonic peaks, a strategy echoed in the chorus chords, which move tentatively, stepwise, while the bass repeats the same figure beneath them. Cope’s own “Quizmaster” (from his first solo album) is another example, beginning with a classic descending chord sequence (what Cope would later call a “glam descend”) that gradually effloresces into less expected sequence, before resolving into a simple two-chord turnaround that leads back to the opening descending sequence.
But some time in the last two decades, Cope moved away from songwriting and toward a sort of performance-oriented, real-time rock’n’roll. At its best, with a good band (and live, I’d imagine), it can be powerful and bracing…but too often it’s merely slack, predictable chord sequences carrying dull pentatonic melodies artlessly sung and recorded. “Feed My Rock’n’Roll” is a fairly dire example (it’s from Cope’s most recent release, Black Sheep), although Cope’s last few releases (available solely through his Head Heritage site) have shown glimmers of his craftsmanship. For the most part, though, Cope’s gone for the jam-oriented spontaneity that’s a direct descendant of West Coast psychedelic rock…and in recordings, at least, it seems noisy and attenuated, because neither his players nor the quality of his recording techniques represent the most important element of that musical approach: its power and capacity for surprise.
And I want to like this stuff. As I said, I admire Cope’s bullheaded integrity, and although he tends to follow the implications of his political and spiritual beliefs far further than I’d ever be comfortable with, those beliefs are consistent and ultimately far more humane than the beliefs he’s most strongly opposed to. (Probably why everyone thinks he’s just crazy…) But even though I’ll probably continue to buy whatever he releases, the pattern for nearly everything he’s released since the ’90s has been a couple-few good songs surrounded by a lot of forgettable ones.
update: the broken link to the Teardrop Explodes track has been fixed.