In this era of endless group reformations and nostalgia, one of the most interesting and talented stars of the 80s and 90s indie scene seems to have slipped through the net. Julian Cope started life as singer, songwriter and bass player in the Teardrop Explodes, recording two glorious albums in the early 80s, Kilimanjaro and Wilder. Cope had one of the most distinctive voices of the era, and combining sharp lyrics, great pop bass-lines and smart use of keyboards, his band created a sound quite distinct from their post-punk peers. Having split the band, Cope wandered ever further from the mainstream, reaching his acid frazzled extreme with Fried, which although about as off the wall as a record can be, still contains some of Cope’s most beautiful and fragile melodies.
Peggy Suicide is almost the antithesis of the somewhat deranged ramblings of Fried, as Cope produces a wonderfully coherent double album. Peggy Suicide serves as a state of the nation address, a portrait of England deep in the death throes of Thatcherism and the outrageous imposition of a medieval taxation system. The record addresses all of the key issues of the time – global warming, police brutality, AIDS, unemployment and the cold hearted, survival-of-the-fittest mantra of the political classes- yet manages to do so without ever becoming overly earnest and many tracks are laced with humour.
The album opens with Pristeen, a seductively repetitive croon that slowly smoulders into an angry bewilderment at man’s bottomless greed and shameless destruction of Mother Earth. Track three East Easy Rider returns to similar eco themes, weighing up the rights and wrongs of taking his bike out for a spin::
“It’s a bruising, shattering ride
But I cannot get off my selfish luxury”
In one poetic couplet Cope nails one of the great dilemmas of the modern age. Musically, the track is an irresistible mix of Donald Ross Skinner’s shimmering funk blues guitar work and Cope’s best Jim Morrison impression.
The mood changes again on Promised Land, a sombre piece where Cope wanders the nation, genuinely dismayed at what Thatcher has done to the land:
“The hatred that she inspires
Has to be seen to be believed”
Next up, Cope lets his hair down and his rockist side emerges in its full glory. Hanging out and Hung up on a Line has an irresistible guitar hook and is a great adrenaline drenched sing along.
Hot on its heels is the slower, but equally heavy, Safe Surfer , dripping with Ross Skinner’s sleazy, molten guitar work. Together, these two tracks form the core of the album, but what makes this such a great record is the range of styles and mood. Later on we have the excellent Soldier Blue, which rails against Police brutality, but also the hard hearted lawmakers that lie behind it.
Elsewhere, Cope shows us his pop sensibilities, and Beautiful Love is a real gem, with piano and trumpet helping to create a song reminiscent of Penny Lane in its unrestrained joy.
After a roller coaster ride, the album comes to rest on the beautifully melodic, late night come down of Las Vegas Basement
“Its not easy,
When life’s a bitter pill you swallow down….
I was born to make mistakes, so here I go”
Enjoy this interview snippet where St Julian reveals his wonderfully idiosyncratic song-writing approach, reflects on his first brush with stardom and performs a pitch perfect rendition of Las Vegas Basement.
Julian Cope is a talent to savour: a true British original and an unusually thoughtful and self aware pop star. To find out more, his two volume biography- Head On and Repossessed -is truly essential reading.