By Jim DeRogatis
In theory, at least, rock ‘n’ roll is the music of freedom and individuality and antiauthoritarianism, so it follows that we make heroes (if not millionaires) of those who forge their own distinctive paths, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to George Clinton to that guy who used to be called Prince, and from Roger McGuinn to Alex Chilton to Polly Jean Harvey. This phenomenon can be traced to the old romantic idea of the lunatic as speaker of truth. As often as not, rockers not born loony have tried to reach this state with what Rimbaud called “a systematic derangement of all the senses,” or what the rest of us call “drugs.” Unfortunately, some of the best have paid the steep price of losing their minds for good, as evidenced by premature dropouts Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, and Brian Wilson.
Genuine rock eccentrics are so hard to come by these days that we settle for transparent poseurs in bad Halloween makeup. “Never has there been a rock star quite as complex as Marilyn Manson, frontman of the band of the same name,” New York Times rock critic Neil Strauss recently told us in the pages of Rolling Stone. Obviously, he’s never met Julian Cope. Whether Cope’s insanity is organic or the result of being “out of my mind on dope and speed,” as he once sang, he has successfully eluded the straitjacket and prolifically delivered great rock records for more than two decades now. His 20th album, Interpreter–available only as an independent import because Cope proved too strange for Mercury, Island, and even American Recordings, the label that embraced Wesley Willis–is one of the finest efforts of his long and twisted career.
That career can be divided into three phases: Cope’s early days in the Liverpool “bubblegum trance” group The Teardrop Explodes, which produced the sort of moody but infectious new wave you hear in mid-80s John Hughes movies; part one of his solo work, which veered erratically but effectively from acoustic “acid campfire songs” to brilliantly bombastic MTV hits (“World Shut Your Mouth”); and the third and current phase of sounds, which can only be described as “Julian Cope music”–which is, perhaps, the ultimate compliment.
Starting with 1991’s Peggy Suicide, Cope began crafting elaborate, sprawling conceptual paeans to his various obsessions. The title character in Peggy Suicide was an earth-mother goddess being raped by pollution-spewing technology. Jehovahkill (1992) was about a conspiracy by the Christian church to destroy paganism and its sacred stone circles, which of course were built by aliens. Autogeddon (1994) returned to a subtheme of Peggy, how cars are poisoning our atmosphere and killing their drivers, and 20 Mothers (1995) was a heartfelt homage to incest, in the sense that Cope believes we’re all related and we all ought to really love one another (at least, I think that’s what he was talking about).
There’s a basic New Age subtext to all of this, but Cope is no Tori Amos. His vocal role model is Iggy Pop, and his attitude is vintage Johnny Rotten, which is to say sarcastic, self-deflating, and bitingly funny. His musical approach is equal parts punk and psychedelic. It’s his ability to merge these contradictory impulses–to annihilate and to transcend–that saves the self-professed Saint Julian from the pitfalls of either.
Cope divides all of his albums in the style of old vinyl LP sides. On the first half of his latest, he offers six of his strongest tunes since Peggy Suicide, embellishing the massive hooks in songs such as “I Come From Another Planet, Baby” and “The Battle for the Trees” with beautiful Mellotron and real string parts, driving acid guitars, burbling analog synths, and rollicking rhythms. On what would be side two, he offers a thumbnail history of psychedelia, showing his mastery of ornate Beatles-esque pop (“Arthur Drugstore”), Krautrock (“S.P.A.C.E.R.O.C.K. With Me”), Clinton-style freak-funk (“Re-Directed Male”), and prog rock (“Maid of Constant Sorrow”) before building to a spectacular finale with “The Loveboat” and “Dust,” grand anthems built around the eccentrics’ rallying cry, “Celebrate who you are.”
All of Cope’s favorite topics are represented–environmental panic, pagan mystery, goddess worship, technological fascism–but this time he explains how they fit together. See, aliens visited earth in ancient times and gave us the secrets to personal happiness and preserving the health of our planet. We’ve turned a deaf ear to them, but the clues remain if you know where to look (say, Stonehenge, or the local acid dealer’s pad). Salvation is ours if we tolerate our differences and care for each other and Mother Earth. This theme echoes in the liner notes through quotes from Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, and MC5 manager John Sinclair, and in lyrics that can be taken as pure goof, strict gospel, or a little of both, as I believe Cope intends. (After all, he named his indie label Kak, which is English slang for “shit.”)
“I was feeling that time was peeling from the 20th century / And I was given to warmth and healing–the patterns of eternity / The beauty of life force is all over me,” Cope sings, then delivers the chorus, the title of the song, and his all-purpose motto: “Since I lost my head, it’s alright.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.