The Tragedy of Julian Cope

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.

The Teardrop Explodes “Colours Fly Away” (Wilder, 1982)
Julian Cope “Quizmaster” (World Shut Your Mouth, 1983)
Julian Cope “Feed My Rock’n’Roll” (Black Sheep, 2008)

update: the broken link to the Teardrop Explodes track has been fixed.



Filed under noise

6 responses to “The Tragedy of Julian Cope

  1. B

    I really struggle with Cope. He’s a hero of mine musically — almost everything up through Interpreter is great — so I have a really tough time with him abandoning the things that made him special as a songwriter. I can also no longer really ignore the serious implications of his philosophy. It’s one thing to really admire the cultural accomplishments and spiritual beliefs of an ancient culture, and I love his academic work in that field, but his anti-christian rants are embarassing and fairly ignorant. When it seemed to be part of his process of self-exploration and it was surrounded by great music, I could look past it somewhat, but it’s become a kind of knuckleheaded dogma without even the benefit of a personal story or good tunes. And his willingness to embrace an “acceptable level of violence” in society (my quotes) suggests to me that his love affair with pre-Christian cultures has something of a reactionary stink, at worst, about it. At best, ignorant.

  2. Alex V. Cook

    I love his 1992 album Jehovahkill which sits at the center of the triangle formed by his pastoral Teardrops psychedelia, XTC-prefect pop ala Peggy Suicide and 20 Mothers, and ragged Odinist excess of his later albums, channeling orgone rock brilliance, with Cope cast as an experimenter surprised to find this “magick” thing actually works. It’s an album that, for me, gets weirder and better with each listen.

  3. 2fs

    B – I’m less bothered by the anti-Christian stuff: it seems directed at the real excesses of organized religion, both in its organizational capacity and in its psychological effects – but to the extent it shades over into contempt for individual Christians (who may, themselves, be well aware of both of the harms I describe), yeah, it’s a problem. I’m more worried by the proto-fascistic implications of Cope’s whole “Druid” thing: you can almost imagine him ranting about blood and soil. At least Cope’s aware of that potential: at least I hope that he’s only playing with it in the red and black imagery of his latest album (which also finds his band dressed in leathers and looking like Blue Cheer’s road crew). I don’t recall reading anything about an “acceptable level of violence” – but if so, yes, that’s troubling.

    Alex: I agree that his earlier moves away from the psych-pop of TDX and his first solo albums is brilliant stuff (I’m pretty much with B. on the greatness of everything up through Interpreter – and I even like the more focused stuff on An Audience with the Cope), but I think the roots of his “ragged Odinist excess” (perfect phrase) lie there, and are more visible in retrospect than at the time.

  4. Flasshe

    Very interesting post with some insightful analysis. Great title. I especially liked your comparison of the different “psychedelia” labeled genres.

    Cope is a tough one for me. At one point, I nearly worshipped him. I even read Head-On. World Shut Your Mouth was the first CD I ever bought, before I even had a CD player. Brilliant album from start to finish, one of my all-time favorites. Fried worried me, but St Julian reassured me that he hadn’t lost it. But then One Nation Underground totally bored me. And then with Peggy Suicide onward, he pretty much stopped recording songs per se, and instead decided to just repetitively chant catch phrases or poetry fragments over uninteresting rock guitar riffs. I could almost forgive the descent into musical simplicity if the lyrics didn’t also take a big hit. It seemed like most songs didn’t have more than a few lines of words, repeated over and over again. Everything just sounded so undeveloped, like he couldn’t be bothered to finish a song. Write an actual verse, for chrissakes! Add some real drums in! Maybe I’m just misremembering and my impressions are based on a few objectionable songs rather than the works as a whole, but I have no desire to go back and listen to the whole catalog again to try to connect with it. I didn’t care much whether he was pro-Druid or anti-Christian or any of his weird views, I just wanted some actual songs with actual singing. Sure, there were some bright spots here and there. “Fear Loves This Place” from Jehovahkill is wonderful, and there are some real songs on 20 Mothers, IIRC. The last album I bought was Interpreter. Cope going to an all self-distributed business model for his new recordings made it easier for me to finally cut the cord, though it pained me to do so and I still hold out hope for some return to genius.

    Cool, my captcha is “dyingly”.

  5. Anonymous

    Couldn’t disagree more. I love his more recent stuff, All the Blowing Themselves Up Muthafuckers etc rock!

  6. rishigajria

    A fellow Julian Cope fan at UWM. Nice! I know him through top of the pops and The Teardrop Explodes. Great Band. Very talented artist who has been criminally underrated.

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