England’s king of psychedelic punk blues keeps evolving regardless of age
Julian Cope celebrated his 65th birthday on October 21st, a milestone that probably comes as a surprise to anyone who followed the psychedelic warlord in the days when he sang – with unabashed honesty – about being “Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed.”
But decades into a career that’s seen him explore everything from the murkier recesses of vintage Krautrock to the megalithic sites of rural Britain, Julian David Cope – the “H” adopted for his Jehovakill album was just an affectation – remains vital, intellectually curious and capable of digging deep into the crown of creation for the materials of terrifically adventurous thought.
Julian Cope, like so many of the best minds of his generation, had his creative gears set into motion by the first fumes of British punk, circa 1976. But unlike the majority of his peers, he didn’t arrive by way of pub rock, or even glam. No, the teenager was already immersed in the headspace-altering sounds of bands like Neu!, Hawkwind and the hyper-obscure psychedelic acts whose albums generated minuscule pressings that found their way into the charity shops around his native Tamworth.
Since there wasn’t a lot going on in his hometown – Tamworth, at the time, was best known for having a perpetually losing football squad and the highest obesity rate in the U.K. – Cope packed up for Liverpool, where he became a linchpin in one of the country’s most envelope-pushing nascent punk scenes. He quickly formed a love-hate collaborative partnership with future Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, who, along with vastly underrated Wah! Leader Pete Wylie, joined Cope in The Crucial Three.
That band would morph a number of times, shedding names and personae – Uh? and A Shallow Madness among them — before splitting for good. They did leave a trail of sonic breadcrumbs, notably the song “Books,” which McCulloch and Cope each claimed as their own and each released shortly after forming their respective bands –the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. Cope took the wheel as the unquestioned captain of that latter ship and began steering it into vividly scenic if often choppy waters.
In 2015, he told The Guardian “I was the last member of the Teardrops to take drugs. I’d loved Jim Morrison since I was 14, but I wanted to be like Captain Beefheart, who’d said: ‘I don’t need drugs. I’m naturally psychedelic.’ Unfortunately, I wasn’t. Our keyboard-player, David Balfe, gave me acid. It was a revelation. I went from drug puritan to acid king.”
While Cope was a late bloomer, he was a fast learner. Undeniably catchy chart singles like “Reward” and “Treason” carried traces of lysergia deep inside, but that vibe quickly took over for intriguing and disturbing forays like “Strange House in the Snow” and “Seven Views of Jerusalem.” Cope had a similar evolution as a performer, growing more volatile, dancing on keyboards during acid-fueled TV appearances and going into trances during live shows.
It all came to a head on April 21st, 1982, which was to be a triumphant headline show at the Ritz in New York City. It didn’t work out that way. Vanessa Briscoe Hay of Pylon, who opened the sold-out show, recalls the debacle in detail.
VIDEO: Teardrop Explodes “Reward”
Hay says, “I remember laying on the floor of the Ritz at soundcheck with the New York Times spread out around me chatting with a woman writer I knew. Teardrop Explodes’ soundcheck seemed to take forever. It was looking like we might not get one. I had no interaction with them, but did make some eye contact while they were sound checking. The dB’s played first and then Pylon played and then it was announced that Teardrop Explodes weren’t playing and it turned into a near riot situation. I remember being told to get out of there and run.
“It was a bit scary for just a bit. We made it outside okay. They broke up after soundcheck and I guess they couldn’t be talked into going on and doing the show.”
The advice about running turned out to be wise. The 1500 or so people crammed into the over-sold crowd were far from happy about waiting more than an hour post-Pylon only to be told “The Teardrop Explodes will not be performing tonight because Julian Cope is … [long pause] … ill.”
Looking back on his decision to split the band, Cope made no real apologies “I lay morbidly fearful of Top of the Pops. Was this to be my life from now on? Peering fearfully at the uncoolness of my more successful friends in a mute discontent of quivering impotent envy.”
He retreated into a protective shell – quite literally. After returning to his native Staffordshire, he isolated himself to work on his first solo effort, Fried, a title that pretty well sums up the musical contents. On its cover, Cope appears nude, on all fours, carrying a huge tortoise shell – a talisman he admits clinging to during the emotional unraveling he was experiencing at the time. The album had a certain Syd Barrett-like charm, and it seemed to serve as a jumping off point for Cope’s return to more conventional sounds – a year later, he’d release “World Shut Your Mouth,” his most commercial (and most commercially successful) song ever.
In the mid-1980s, he’d seemingly regained his emotional footing. He’d spend some time in New York, the birthplace of his wife Dorian, who was herself well entrenched in the city’s underground rock scene. He’d hark back to the sunnier side of the sixties with Saint Julian, which produced a minor hit in a cover of the Vogues’ “Five O’ Clock World” and Skellington, a furtive folk offering with a few frayed edges.
From there, Cope started to burrow deeper and deeper into his own obsessions, folding them into each other like cosmic origami. His environmental advocacy, which long bubbled under the surface, burst into full bloom on conceptual works like Jehovahkill, a loving embrace of pagan and animist worldviews, and Autogeddon, a fierce album-length diatribe against car culture and all of its outgrowths. The albums painted a picture of a man who was looking for a way to withdraw from the modern world – and more importantly, had a clue as to how to achieve that goal.
And, then, like so many others had done before – and have done since – Julian Cope declared himself a free agent, no longer beholden to the music industry. But like few others, he proved he really meant it – by creating his own eco-system to sustain his ever-more iconoclastic worldview. Sure, Head Heritage is a label that Cope has used to release nearly two dozen albums, many of which harken back to his earlier releases, along with others that explore a heliocentric world not dissimilar to the one Sun Ra created. Cope’s hagiography doesn’t include being birthed on Saturn – not yet, at least – but he has built a universe that encompasses his many obsessions in surprisingly neat fashion.
Yes, Cope’s own musical manifestations remain mostly fascinating – lack of an editor, or, in some cases, even a single collaborator, has led to bouts of navel gazing. But he’s made an even bigger impact with his incongruously intertwined efforts as a historian – spelunking in both the medieval monuments of his native country and the darker corners of the music that inspired him, from Blue Cheer to private-press zither-rock from the furthest reaches of North Wales. He’s chronicled all of it in extraordinarily detailed websites and a gathering of books that attest to his not-quite-completed university training as a teacher – about which he told the Guardian his goal is still “To educate and edify, but to hoodwink people into thinking they’re only being entertained. So I’m a sneaky motherfucker. The reprobate image allows me to be more full-on and say things that are more dubious than if I was just wearing country casuals.”
That comes through quite clearly in his most ambitious book, the Megalithic European, one of the most exhaustive modern forays into less-traveled paths through Britain’s history, from 4,000-year-old porridge recipes to Iron Age dietary practices. Cope is particularly fluent in ancient stone circles, replete with historical detail, modern observations and – not surprisingly – more than a hint of spiritual icing. Cope has often delved into religion in song. Much like Patti Smith, he’s alternated between belief and ambivalence about the subject, but never strayed from a core belief that there is some sort of higher power. He’s called himself a polytheist, but has admitted to a particular fondness for one deity, saying “Odin is the giver of the ode, the bringer of the poem. Odin’s a very powerful god, but he’s got an extraordinarily gentle heart.”
Cope’s Head Heritage output has been anything but “gentle,” as evidenced by albums like You Gotta Problem With Me, Revolutionary Suicide and this year’s outing, England Expectorates. In relative isolation, he’s grown more confrontational in some senses, more introspective in others, but cut off from the need to reach a mass audience, he’s come to terms with the core of his being – part wizard, part true star, part self-described “violent psycho.”
Julian Cope’s quest has been tireless, and to borrow from one of his most memorable tunes, it’s taken him to both the greatest imperfection of love and the greatness and perfection of love – and shown us how they can live together in oddly perfect harmony.