There are essentially three phases to the long and twisted career of Julian Cope, the man who merged Iggy Pop and Syd Barrett with his own warped psychedelic punk/pop sensibility. Born in Wales but raised in the small mining town of Tamworth, he undertook the first part of his tale in the druggy saga of Liverpool’s premier new wave “bubblegum trance” band, The Teardrop Explodes. (The full story can be read in the first volume of Cope’s autobiography, Head-On: Memories of the Liverpool Punk Scene and the Story of The Teardrop Explodes, 1976-82, published by his own Ma-Gog Books.) The second phase encompasses Cope’s efforts to fine-tune different elements of his sound as a solo artist — the big, bouncy pop tunes and the stark acid campfire songs — starting with World Shut Your Mouth in 1984 and stretching through a pair of do-it-yourself releases in ’90, Skellington and Droolian. The two Floored Genius collections offer a condensed but very rewarding overview of both of these periods, and they’re highly recommended for anyone who wants a quick introduction before exploring Cope’s ’90s work, which in many ways is his strongest and most original.
Aided by Teardrops drummer Gary Dwyer and a new guitarist/producer, Steve Lovell, Cope — by then resettled in the ancient English town of Tamworth — took the songs he’d written for the band’s aborted third album and finished them as World Shut Your Mouth (which does not contain the song of that title), a highly inventive take on ’60s psychedelia. Mainly blending weird sounds with charming pop, his acceptably inelegant voice and period organ playing add substantial personality to the non-nostalgic venture. The humorous and sensitive lyrics may be a touch too sensitive in spots, but Cope’s openness and fanciful streak undercut any semblance of pretentiousness.
The title and sleeve photos (he’s pictured on all fours, nude, under a huge tortoise shell) of Fried suggest Cope’s Barrett-like mental state at the time. This flaky collection is energetic and less stylized than the first; rocking forthrightness, intuitive musicianship and a strong backing quartet keep it from drifting away on disoriented meanderings like “Bill Drummond Said,” “Laughing Boy” and “O King of Chaos.” A fine, disturbing document of a man on the edge.
The confident stomp of “World Shut Your Mouth,” a brilliant 1986 British hit first issued in the US on the waters-testing Julian Cope EP and the following year included as the centerpiece of the triumphant Saint Julian album, proudly announced Cope’s recovery and return to action. The rip-roaring eponymous EP adds two originals and brilliant covers of Pere Ubu (“Non Alignment Pact”) and the 13th Floor Elevators (“I’ve Got Levitation”). Saint Julian, produced by Ed Stasium, proceeds from there, a loud and melodic collection of uniformly delectable tunes that reflect Cope’s idiosyncratic personality and imagination.
My Nation Underground follows in the same vein as Saint Julian, with Cope sounding more confident and dynamic than ever, striking a brilliant balance between his dual personae as serious artiste and preening pop star. The album opens with an ingeniously apocalyptic reading of the Vogues’ 1966 “5 O’Clock World” (intercut with the old Petula Clark hit “I Know a Place”). The originals are equally effective, examining various pet themes, most notably Cope’s ongoing artist-as-con-man obsession.
Finally released as an authorized bootleg years after its recording (right after Fried), the mostly acoustic Skellington is a primal-scream folk record: twelve short, primitive and sporadically fascinating demo-quality ditties. Basically a footnote for devoted fans, but an enjoyable and revealing one.
An equally far cry from Cope’s usual well-crafted studio output is the mysterious Droolian, on which Cope’s name does not actually appear. Walking the thin line between demystification and pretension that’s inspired much of his work, the artist — with spare instrumental backing this time — messes around on thirteen songs with varying degrees of seriousness. In its own casual way, Droolian is nearly as compelling as Cope’s official releases, with the addition of a mischievous sense of experimentalism.
Then, leaving behind his late-’80s image as a cynical, burned-out Barrett-like character (“Namdam am I, I’m a madman,” he had announced in the liner notes to Fried), Cope reinvented himself as an elder statesman of weirdness, a stay-at-home family man who nevertheless has a burning desire to make rock that explores such esoteric interests as environmentalism, stone circles, religious conspiracies and incest. Peggy Suicide is a surprising introduction to this new Cope; it’s also a masterpiece of pop-rock weirdness and the single best album of his career. The sprawling record is a concept effort about the sorry plight of the title character, essentially a stand-in for Mother Earth. But unlike bloated concept efforts from the ’70s, every one of the eighteen songs is strong enough to stand on its own. Raw, immediate tunes such as “Beautiful Love,” “East Easy Rider” and “Safesurfer” draw you in with seductive grooves, bubbling synthesizers, echoed guitars and singalong choruses that work even if you don’t quite buy the lyrical messages about the destructive power of automobiles or the horrors of love in the age of AIDS.
Cope tried to repeat the formula of Peggy Suicide on his next two concept efforts, which veer a bit closer to trippy wankery. Jehovahkill tackles the themes of ancient stone formations such as Stonehenge and what Cope considers a Christian conspiracy to suppress pagan symbols. (The album’s subtitle, That’ll Be the Deicide — like Peggy Suicide, a violent pun on a Buddy Holly song — was mangled in the US so the cover reads That’ll Be the Decide.) After a bitter split with Island, Cope moved to American Records for Autogeddon, an album prompted by the spontaneous explosion of his car in the driveway one Christmas Eve. Lyrically, it continues the anti-auto tirades and environmental concerns of Peggy Suicide, but Cope neglects hooks in favor of a jam-happy sound derived from such early ’70s German psychedelic bands as Amon Düül II, Neu! and Can, favorites from his teenage years. He continued to pay tribute to these groups in another book, Krautrocksampler, and two DIY instrumental albums, Rite and Queen Elizabeth, which are only for true krautrock aficionados. A little bit of gurgling analog synthesizer and echoplexed guitar goes an awfully long way.
The man who once declared himself Saint Julian quit the noodling and returned to crafting short, sharp pop songs in 1995. Ostensibly a concept disc about incest (though that storyline is pretty hard to detect), the 20 tunes on 20 Mothers again feature those trademark bouncy hooks, in addition to the weird synth sounds and production tricks and Cope’s strong Iggy-inflected baritone. Cope did a handful of gigs to support the album — he generally shied away from the stage throughout the ’90s — but hopes for a full-blown tour were short-lived. Meanwhile, the prolific artist shows no signs of slowing down.
The stones of Jehovahkill are the launching pad for Interpreter, an at-times luxuriously produced album (with electric guitars, synthesizers and strings!) of everything from acoustic folk to idiosyncratic glam-rock about extra-terrestrial travel (“I Come From Another Planet, Baby,” “S.p.a.c.e.r.o.c.k. With Me,” “Planetary Sit-In”) that comes complete with a colorful foldout Julian Cope’s Mythological Mind Map of the Marlborough Downs. Thrust by Cope’s boundless enthusiasm, the blend of wit, intelligence and unhinged nuttiness is irresistible, one of those experiences that’s best accepted without much deliberation.
After that, all vestiges of restraint vanished, as Cope launched his Head Heritage label and began releasing live records, musical tour souvenirs, spoken word, compilations and more. The deluge continues.