Why on earth haven’t we played this album yet? This could be a question asked by the arch Drude himself, so full of ego (or ergot) he is, was, that the man seeks attention. Perhaps it is the cocky swagger of this debut of Mr Cope that sets a precedent of many more pretenders to come. All leather trousered and snake hips, snapping the minds of the youth. Yet, few have sounded quite like this album. Few sounded like it at the time. A post-punk psychedelic revival? XTC would later develop their own psychedelia through the Dukes of the Stratosphear, but nobody else had the gall surely? Here was a man astride a white piano on Top of the Pops LSD’d up to the eyeballs, appearing on the front cover of Smash Hits and sharing a house with a pre-Nirvana Courtney Love. Please God this is rock and roll! But enough of the image and the what for the music?
The opener ‘Ha Ha I’m Drowning’ has a horn section on it, which immediately jarred with me when I first heard it against a backdrop of punk. This combined however with the ghostly mellotron (I think it is a mellotron) and the crashing guitars, incredibly tight rhythmic drumming sends you immediately into an off-kilter bonkers go crazy dance across the floor. The horns and repeating lyrics (“You can watch rafferty turn into a serial”….”I just wander around”….”It’s just like Sleeping Gas. Oh so ethereal”) on ‘Sleeping Gas’ also lead you into what seems to be describing a drug induced nightmare. Is it a bad trip? He’s babbling, but trying to make sense of it all at the same time. Cope’s dalliances with hallucinogenic substances are well documented, and yet it is documented here so vividly and yet in a jolly distinctly English style. Perhaps the analogies with Syd Barrett are fair here, although there’s a distinctly post-punk feeling to this. It’s not the psychedelia of the 60s, nor the 80s. Cope interprets his descent himself, wobbling out of control. ‘Treason’ was the first single I think. I knew Cope’s nephew at University in Leeds and he told me the whole family had to buy a copy of the 45 when it came out. They viewed young Julian with some despair apparently. Later on in the album, on my favourite track (‘Bouncing Babies’) he sees his poisoned status in the family unit
“I was a poisoned child
I was fighting for my life
Clinging to something
Fighting for anything”
On ‘Brave Boys Keep Their Promises’ he notes
“Fighting with your relatives
You’ve got your mother and your father and your brothers to Your aunts and your uncles are all against you”
‘Poppies in the Field’ is perhaps one of the weaker tracks on the first side, but there’s an accomplished range of instrumentation, with sounds that can only be fitted into a psyche of the late 70s/early 80s. The album’s production, by Bill Drummond (later of KLF of course, who we have covered and talked about a lot) and Dave Balfe future-proofs the sound like Martin Hannett did with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (what we haven’t covered that album either…with arguably the best opener of any post-punk album?). Cope growls on the first track on the second side (‘Went Crazy’), more overtly talking about his evolving and declining mental state (“Je suis suicide, je suis pain. Jabber indecision here we go again, I’m going (insane?)”). Perhaps this fame thing is too much for him? Drummond is alleged to have pushed him a little too far in his creative approach (there were legends about sliding acid tabs down a ruler into his mouth). He’s also alleged to have manipulated the Teardops and Echo and the Bunneymen to play simultaneous gigs in Rekjayvik and New Zealand along an ancient ley-line (you couldn’t make this up?). The chronicling of chronic depression and loss of mind through drug induced mania is no celebration of youthful abandon on this album. Far from it, more a warning to the intrepid journeyman. Cope exiled himself in Barrett-like seclusion in Tamworth (where he lived as a pre-Teardrop), an image he has tried to shake off. He re-emerged later with odd solo excursions (‘World Shut Your Mouth’ and ‘Fried’ being two examples) and we are of course indebted to him for chronicling Krautrock, Japrock and standing stones (‘Krautrocksampler’, ‘Japrocksampler’ and ‘The Modern Antiquarian’). Cope the scholar, or literary agent of the mind is brought to the fore on the last 3 tracks on this album, pointing to more eclectic musical styles, and less reliance on verse-chorus-verse structure that would sell singles at the time. ‘Thief of Baghdad’ is story-like, prosaic, with eastern influences milking through the patchwork of a wandering and fractured mind. The last track opens like early Depeche Mode (maybe they got their influence from here?) but quickly descends from the tight pop structure to the more open and surreal. And there it is. The end. For two glorious years Julian Cope was pinup number 1, on Top of the Pops and yet helter skeltering uncontrollably into a drug psychosis. Hardly what the established Radio 1 vanguards of the youth in the 1980s would call an example to teenage children, drowning drowning, and so the track fades and we hear no more like it then, or will hear it like it since……down the rabbit hole we go. Utterly brilliant.