In the mid-1990s, after almost two decades in the music business, Julian Cope had progressed from up-and-coming New Wave prankster to photogenic power-pop hero to a thought-provoking emeritus of the alternative era. His particular brand of songwriting, first honed in his early days fronting the Teardrop Explodes and later evidenced in the prolific releases of his solo career, has often found little appreciation outside of his native Great Britain; record companies have also run into difficulty trying to market Cope’s talents. Details contributor Tom Hibbert called him “the last remaining Great English Eccentric of Rock” and likened him to Pink Floyd’s forgotten founding member, the drug-soaked but brilliant Syd Barrett—a comparison that crops up frequently in discourses on Cope. Chicago Sun-Times music writer Jim DeRogatis described Cope’s body of work as the meeting point of “psychedelia and punk. His songs are full of droning, otherworldly melodies and wistful lyrics,” exemplified in the late 1960s works of the Beatles and Rolling Stones.” But, “DeRogatis contended, “they also have the edgy energy of punks from the 13th Floor Elevators to the Sex Pistols.”
Cope first ventured onto the exploding punk scene in England while a college student in Liverpool. In 1977 he formed a group called the Crucial Three along with lan McCulloch, who went on to fame as the frontman for Echo and the Bunnymen. Cope’s first live appearance was with the band at a Liverpool club in late 1978. By this time they had taken a new name from a comic book—the Teardrop Explodes. Their first record, Kilimanjaro, was released in late 1980 in England on Mercury Records and debuted the following year in the United States. Like much of Cope’s early work, it was hailed by the British music press, sold well in England and Europe, but was virtually ignored in the American market.
Additionally, the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle began to take their toll on the Teardrop Explodes. “Everybody thinks, ’Oh, the Teardrop Explodes, they got famous and then they went mad,’” Cope told Hibbert in Details. “The Teardrops went mad way before they were famous.” Cope became infamous himself for wild stage pranks that once included piercing his abdomen with a fractured microphone stand. The Teardrop Explodes disbanded in 1983 while working on their third record. Cope went solo, taking the band’s drummer and guitarist with him when he recorded 1984’s World Shut Your Mouth.
Cope had already written much of the material on World Shut Your Mouth for the aborted Teardrop Explodes album. Adam Sweeting of Melody Maker reviewed the
For the Record…
Born October 1957, in Deri, South Wales; married with children; wife’s name, Dorian. Education: Studied education and drama in Liverpool, England, late 1970s.
Singer, songwriter, performer, recording artist, and author. Formed first band, the Crucial Three, 1977; renamed themselves the Teardrop Explodes, 1978; first live performance in Liverpool, England, November 1978; first single, “Sleeping Gas,” released on Zoo Records, February 1979; signed with Mercury Records, c. 1979; began solo career, 1984, with release of World Shut Your Mouth; signed with Island Records, c. 1986; signed with American Recordings, 1994.
Addresses: Home —Wiltshire, England. Record company —American Recordings, Inc., 3500 W. Olive Ave., Suite 1550, Burbank, CA 91505.
solo effort and observed: “Spanning the sublime and the ridiculous with the ease of the truly uncritical, Julian Cope flies on (among other things) instinct, instability and incense.” Sweeting decried some of the cuts for their lyrical silliness but noted, “The best bits of “World” do at least reaffirm Cope’s addiction to the life-enhancing properties of pop fantasy (aural opiates).”
Later that year, Cope released his second solo album, Fried. On it, he let his quirky brilliance run full-throttle, prompting Melody Maker reviewer Steve Sutherland to call it “positively Shakespearean,” adding, “all of it bristles with the exaggerated paranoia that transforms the most banal daily occurrence into something sinister and symbolic.” Cope’s convoluted takes on life—apparent on “Reynard the Fox” and “Sunspots”—were combined in a collection of tracks that Sutherland called “a greater variety of gorgeous tunes than any other album this year (his earlier ’World Shut Your Mouth’ included).” Still, Fried garnered scant attention in the United States.
Little was heard from Cope for the next year or so until the Island Records issue of the EP World Shut Your Mouth in late 1986, which coincided with Cope’s signing with the label. Shortly thereafter, in 1987, Saint Julian was released in Britain. Cope finally made a name for himself in the States when the record reached American shores. (Saint Julian includes the track “World Shut Your Mouth”—the first time the song appeared on a full-length album, despite the 1984 work of the same name.) Less verbally daunting and more melodic than his past efforts, the release received major media attention as well as considerable MTV airplay.
During the years off from recording and touring that preceded Saint Julian, the flamboyant Cope pulled himself together emotionally, focused his energies in a new direction, and gave up some of his experiments with mind-altering chemicals. He told Melody Maker’s Helen FitzGerald: “It’s theinevitable white Western male coming back down off his secluded, womb-like mountaintop and charging back into town with all the answers.” Rolling Stone reviewer Parke Puterbaugh declared that nearly all of Saint Julian’s cuts “hurtle forward with a concise sense of mission and barely containable energy…. He delivers feverish visions about God, death, sex and the universe, with a kind of cosmic giggle underlying it all.”
Cope’s next effort was 1988’s My Nation Underground, whose first single was the love-obsession-tinged track “China Doll.” The record, as noted in The Trouser Press Record Guide, shares similarities with Saint Julian in its accessibility, with the singer-songwriter “striking a brilliant balance between his dual personae as serious artiste and preening pop star.” However, Cope’s follow-up, Skellington, marked a return to his former sound, perhaps in part because the work was actually recorded around 1984. The collection of previously unreleased, mostly acoustic tunes showcased Cope’s earlier trademark loopiness and penchant for wacky lyrics.
Cope claims that Skellington had not been issued in 1984 because he felt it too closely resembled Fried, but some industry insiders speculated that his label executives in England refused to issue the record because Fried failed commercially. On Skellington, Cope resurrected two tunes he had written for the Crucial Three—“Robert Mitchum,” a paean to the macho American film star, and “Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed,” a chronicle of self-abuse. Bob Stanley reviewed Skellington for Melody Maker and called it “classic Cope gobbledegook… set to the sparest acoustic guitar/organ backing. And, of course, it’s marvelous.”
Cope’s next full-length release was 1991’s Peggy Suicide. The 75-minute recording was conceived as the initial installment in a series of concept albums, alament against the environmental indignities inflicted upon the planet by civilization. Two tracks are diatribes against the pollution and the havoc wreaked by the automobile—and another relates Cope’s experience swimming in the ocean with a dolphin—but the work also includes some straightforward pop tunes. “The best songs,” wrote Washington Post contributor Mark Jenkins, “achieve an admirably relentless garage-rock groove.” A Stereo Review panel slotted Peggy Suicide as one of the best recordings of the summer of 1991, and the critique lauded Cope’s “bluesy, long-form psychedelia…. What keeps his kite from tearing loose and floating away is his grounding in the more succinct song structures of pop, the evocative type practiced by pioneers of the late Sixties.”
The next installment in Cope’s concept-album series was Jehovahkill, released in late 1992. By this time Cope had also embarked on a side project that began to consume his spare time—an investigation of the ancient stone monuments scattered around the British Isles, primitive monoliths of which Stonehenge is the most famous example. Jehovahkill is peppered with references to the stones, and Spin writer Ivan Kreilkamp called Cope’s obsession “distressingly Spinal Tap-one would think no post Smell the Glove rocker would dare to invoke ancient agronomic Druids as spiritual predecessors. But that’s Cope’s style.” The lyrical content of Jehovah-kill also touches on spirituality and contemporary religions as well as culturally determined gender roles.
Lengthy liner notes to Jehovahkill written by Cope attempt to explain some of his thoughts about the ancient peoples of the British Isles, the cross as a religious symbol, and the monoliths he was investigating. Despite the critical acclaim, however, Island Records unceremoniously dropped Cope soon after Jehovah-kill’s U.K. release. He had just sold out a number of British tour dates, and the record stood at Number 20 on the charts there. “I had a lot of problems getting Peggy Suicide out the way that I wanted it,” Cope told DeRogatis in the Chicago Sun-Times, “and with Jehovahkill they were even more hesitant…. I think people have a lot of preconceptions about what’s difficult and what’s obvious. I hear a lot of stuff that sounds like Nirvana nowadays, and I’m sure that Nirvana was a really difficult album until it sold 6 million copies.”
During his time between labels—while several record companies were courting him—Cope worked on The Modern Antiquarian, his book about the stone monuments of the British Isles. He also issued two works through a mail-order company he founded called Ma-Gog Records. Eventually Cope signed with American Records, and the label execs were happy to let him have full control over his music. The result was 1994’s Autogeddon, the third release in Cope’s epic environmental opus. Cope took the title from a Heathcote Williams poem predicting the end of the world by auto emissions.
Autogeddon is filled with such tracks as “s.t.a.r.c.a.r.” and “I Gotta Walk,” in which Cope rails against the gasoline culture but acknowledges that he himself is part of the problem; apparently, this realization was what spurred him to write the songs. Cope told Craig Rosen of Billboard that he and his wife had been traveling a lot in their Range Rover, searching for “all the mystical sights in the world before some developer builds on top of them,” and that inspired him to write Autogeddon. “You can be the most right-on person in the world, but by the mere fact that you exist you are killing something. There’s no easy answers.” Pulse! writer Scott Schinder called the record “a feral, deeply-felt epic that’s a consistently riveting listen.”
By mid-1995 Cope was working on an autobiography as well as a new album titled Twenty Mothers. His endurance in the alternative music industry and his distinct identity seemed to herald a promising future. And American Recordings seemed thrilled to have Cope on their roster of artists. “My dream is for Julian to have a 10-record catalog with American Recordings,” label honcho Mark Geiger told Billboard. “If American can do anything for Julian, it is to explain to the world the history of Cope and how vital and important he is.”
With the Teardrop Explodes
Kilimanjaro, Mercury, 1980.
Wilder, Mercury, 1981.
Piano (compilation), 1990.
Everybody Wants to Shag the Teardrop Explodes (compilation with previously unreleased material), Fontana, 1990.
World Shut Your Mouth, Mercury, 1984.
Fried, Mercury, 1984.
World Shut Your Mouth (EP), Island, 1986.
Saint Julian, Island, 1987.
My Nation Underground, Island, 1988.
Skellington, Island, 1989.
Droolian, Island, 1990.
Peggy Suicide, Island, 1991.
Floored Genius (compilation), Island, 1992.
Jehovahkill, Island, 1992.
Rite, K.A.K., 1993.
The Skellington Chronicles, K.A.K., 1993.
Queen Elizabeth, K.A.K., 1994.
Autogeddon, American, 1994.
Floored Genius 2: The Best of the BBC Sessions, 1983-91, Island, 1994.
Twenty Mothers, American, 1995.
The Trouser Press Record Guide, 4th edition, edited by Ira Robbins, Collier Books, 1991.
Billboard, May 18, 1991; December 19, 1992; January 16, 1993; July 2, 1994.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 21, 1993.
Details, January 1993; March 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 1994.
Independent, September 24, 1992; January 28, 1993.
Melody Maker, February 18, 1984, November 1, 1986; July 8, 1989; February 3, 1990.
New York Times, June 29, 1991.
Pulse!, September 1994.
Rolling Stone, May 21, 1987; June 4, 1987; June 16, 1994; October 20, 1994. Spin, May 1993.
Stereo Review, August 1991; October 1993.
Times (London), May 24, 1991; January 23, 1993.
Vox, September 1992.
Washington Post, June 26, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from promotional material provided by Mercury Records and American Records.
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