By Kevin Quinn
Polymath pioneer of “frazzle rock” and bovine lover of cows Julian Cope waxes lyrical and cynical, pulling no punches in a rousting, jousting chat in the margins. He recounts his role within the history of drinking and back-to-nature thinking, and throws himself into an aggro-cultural exchange covering the meaning of meaning, the historicity of “things”, the stagecraft of the ancients, just who would beat the skins for the reformed Crucial Three, life on and offline and why standing still is anathema – still. Being on the periphery is “the place to be” and where the journey perennially trumps the destination. Hop along for the ride.
KQ: You’re playing the Shiiine On one-dayer at the Genting Arena, Birmingham in September, your only gig this year. What are your thoughts?
JC: I’m writing two books and the venue’s close to home, plus it’s central so people can come in from anywhere, even the Outer Hebrides. Where I live, Tamworth’s the nearest town and now it’s kind of like Las Vegas or something. As I was growing up it was a bit like a Birmingham overspill, but then again, the West Midlands is a Birmingham overspill. Some of my favourite places in Britain are places like Barton-in-the-Beans. What kind of name’s that? It’s great as well.
In 2017 you released the Drunken Songs EP, six odes to the intoxicating power of ale. How many units are you partaking a week? Honestly.
Honestly? This is a conversation for me and my postman. We both fly under the same amount – he’s a bit younger than me so he’s always worried. I’m a generous middle-aged man. I’m very generous to myself.
Is that the result of experience?
Yeeeeaaah. In truth, I think the whole adulthood experience is so long and drawn out that I can forgive anybody for spending probably 70 per cent of the time quite c***ed. Where we’re coming from, one of the reasons why I started to study the very ancient times was I wanted to know how divorced from those times we’ve become. I didn’t really see a big difference. One of the big archaeological discoveries when it came to the public was that they came to the conclusion that ancient agricultural human beings were just as likely – possibly more likely – to use those first bits of farming for beer rather than food. I just think we’re always attuned to tuning out. We live next door to a field of cattle and I really like to get bovine. It’s easy. I used to like getting amphibian as a kid and just dog-paddle around and go, “Uuuuurrrrggggh,” and quickly you’re just reduced to your lower self. I think we should be spending more time with our lower self.
The terms “bovine” and “amphibian” obviously describe something, but as you say in terms of human behaviour, they articulate a form of behaviour. Bovine has negative connotations.
You know why that is? The connotations are probably made by urbanites about other urbanites generally. I’m living in the absolute rural Midlands, the middle of it. I tell you what, there’s nothing wrong with being bovine.
Cows are my favourite animal.
They’re amazing aren’t they? Overnight we had another calf. There were three calves yesterday, now there’s four. For me that’s my reason for being alive. Hold on, there’s a plane going over. Let me go and see what that is. [Two minutes later] It’s mental, there’s airshows going on all the time at this time of year.
A mix between the rural and the agricultural, then you’ve got these flying machines that typify modernism, death and destruction.
Yeah, one of the things that I learnt when I was doing The Modern Antiquarian (Thorsons, 2011] was that whenever you’re in the middle of nowhere you’d get a Hercules flying over.
With a song like “Liver Big As Hartlepool”, it’s a psychogeographical drive through the “Mersey-sides” and it’s funny to hear the term “woolyback” in song. It’s a recollection of yourselves, but is it also a comment on parochialism and insularism?
Yeah, I would say Liverpool is an enclave and one of the finest enclaves there can be. I don’t have a problem with enclaves. They are what they. There’s nothing you can do about it. Detroit’s quite an enclave. I’ve always thought Liverpool and Detroit are similar – there’s something end of the line about them. Even hitching into Liverpool, everything about it was a terminus. It’s different. I wrote Head-On [Head Heritage, 1994] because it was an outsider’s tale. Pete Wylie could get out of bed, get an 8p bus and he’d be in Eric’s. Mine was a really convoluted story to get there so I really appreciated what they… not took for granted, but considered was their entitlement. That’s one of the reasons I continue to be fascinated by things, because I came in from quite an interesting journey. It’s always been a good journey.
On new LP Skellington 3, there’s “Seel Street Waltz”. Another homage to Liverpool?
I tell you what brought on “Seel Street Waltz” was we were schlepping up after the Liverpool show and we couldn’t move. It was contra-jamming and it was all the women and it was fantastic. I just thought, again, I’ll write it from the point of view of the outsider, but I’m an outsider who knows all those points and knows how far it is down Bold Street in really high heels because I’ve walked with them. Pete Burns included!
Also on the new album there’s “Stop Harping On About The Way Life Used To Be”. It seems that as with the Drunken Songs EP there’s a clearing of detritus, a re-enacting of memories. Is that true?
I think it was Augustine who said that people, men especially as they get older, look back and laugh at the idealism of their youth and I just laugh at it. I think it’s essential that you have constant renewal so I’m always trying to do something that I haven’t done before. I don’t mean, “Oh, I’ll do this then I’ll be a jack of all trades,” but go into it really thoroughly so when I come out, I’m different. I don’t believe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. What you’ve got to do as an artist is you’ve got to be defiantly forward-moving, but you’ve got to look back and see where you came from. If you don’t do that then you end up sagging like a Spanish galleon overladen with gold. But life’s brief and you’ve got to keep moving, keep moving up the incline. The problem with “Stop Harping…” is for a lot of people life used to be better because they’ve had more years in which to be beaten again and again and that’s the problem about ageing.
If you’ve constantly got that desire for renewal and change, and the passion to do it, then it’s just going to continue fuelling that passion.
Exactly. I’m very motivated by the way of the English Civil War. The Roundheads always said, “Keep your musket handy and your powder dry,” and that’s really important. If an Avro Lancaster flew over today that’d be quite historic, but if I don’t have my camera handy then it’s just a personal conceit that I saw it. That’s what I’m about, recording something through the lens of somebody who’s still a bit in shock about the whole life deal.
Have you been back to Liverpool and the new Eric’s?
No, I’m not interested in anything that’s the “old”, but I’ve played Liverpool a couple of times in the last four years and it astounds me how much it’s changed – but very positively. It looks like a future centre of commerce and a place people can enjoy themselves at night.
You’ve re-discovered Krautrock, Japrock and obscure Detroit rock. Are there any more hidden histories to unearth?
Probably. Sometimes I just write out of a sense of duty. The main reason I wrote the Japanese book [Japrocksampler, Bloomsbury, 2007] was because I didn’t think anyone would write about the original rock’n’roll spirit arriving in Japan. About four years ago a BBC producer got in touch with me and said, “We’re doing a programme on Japanese culture and we’ve got a guy talking about Japanese food, we’ve got a guy talking about Japanese architecture and we wanted you to come and talk about music.” And I said, “I hate Japanese culture.” The main reason I wrote the Japanese book was because I was inspired by the people – because they didn’t want to be Japanese. They brought something new, which involved Japan without being Japanese. I was looking for something that wasn’t just them trying to be American. It’s like when people go [adopts American twang], “I really love the Geordies.” How can you say that? Most people are c***s. There are some people who are Geordies and you love them, that’s because there are some lovely Geordies. It doesn’t mean to say you love everybody. That’s just mental.
You wrote a memorable article on garage music in NME in 1983. Re-reading it now, there’s a sense of history passing. Can you imagine 2015 being excavated and reappraised in years to come?
The underground is the underground and it always was. When I was listening to Neu!, I was listening to them because John Peel was playing them. He had a show that was right next to Annie Nightingale – and Annie Nightingale played some great underground stuff, but she could have been on for 100 years and she’d never have played Neu!. I think the most important thing is there’s a great underground all the time and to a certain extent the underground gets better because as we get more control of technology. We can make even longer, more excruciatingly far-out pieces. We don’t have the limits of vinyl any more.
Is social media an equalising force or tranquilising farce?
When mobile phones came in, loads of my mates were like, “Uurrgh, I’m not getting a mobile phone.” And I was like, “We’re part of the ‘beam-me-up-Scotty’ generation, of course you’ve got to get a mobile phone.” That’s just like saying, “I’ll never be in the middle of nowhere.” Those who live by social media will inevitably die by it. For years, I was writing a monthly column of comments on my website and in the end I gave up because I’d get people writing irate notes saying, “Julian’s forgotten to write an obituary for Billy out of Snotgobbler who died last week.” And I’d be like, “Is this all it’s come to?” One thing I do know is people of my age who are rock’n’rollers are going to be dying every month. All I’d be doing is writing obituaries, so in the end I stopped making any comments. It’s not time to be shouting your mouth off about things that you haven’t really thought about.
On your website Head Heritage you’re selling toys, instruments, paraphernalia, memorabilia and artefacts. What made you decide to do that?
My mind’s been totally blasted over the years with all the mad artefacts that I’ve interfaded with. You imagine in order to write the Krautrock book [Krautrocksampler, Head Heritage, 1995] I had to buy a lot of crap. It wasn’t just a case of listening on YouTube. Also, we were moving around for years so I’d end up with, “Shit, I’ve got three Amon Düül albums of the same name.” I just don’t want to have this big, fat past that I’d bequeath to my kids, who don’t really want it themselves. I decided that it would be more interesting to get rid of things. I‘d buy a book by an archaeologist and then he’d get to know me and send me that same book so I’d have doubles of things.
Do you find it interesting that fans of yours are bidding to buy a toy car that you bought 30 years ago?
Let’s say Mark [E] Smith had collected, I don’t know, Howard Johnson toothpaste and soaps from all The Fall tours in America, then suddenly, once he’d died his missus sells all that stuff. I would completely understand people thinking that was interesting and wanting something because it was his. The way I see it, rock’n’roll has always been a good substitute for religion. When I was in Bath, I saw, in a classic guitar shop, Jimmy Page’s original Danelectro. I’m not even a Zeppelin fan but I was really pleased to see it because it was just such a beaten-up piece of fantastic history. Looking at it, that probably cost him about £80 and he’s done all that history on that piece of shit – because technically, it’s rubbish. I’ve been selling experimental guitars and sometimes people come and pick them up and it’s interesting because you just meet people who are into rock’n’roll – not to sound like Oasis, but to sound like something that hasn’t yet happened. They think, “One of Cope’s relics from his arsenal is going to give me more balls.” And I think, “Well, maybe it will.” Because I am a kind of magical.
Like a transference of energy?
I wouldn’t be surprised by it, knowing from the energy that I got from being into The 13th Floor Elevators – and they were doing that from Texas. That’s why I’m such a big fan of electricity. Think of Ike Turner’s ice-blue fender Stratocaster without electricity. It’s a f***ing slab of… nothing. Leo Fender didn’t even attempt to make it look like the guitars of the past. He said, “Look, I’m just gonna slap some car paint on it.” Cos there’s a body shop down the road. He gives it to Ike Turner and it becomes the most futuristic thing since the jet plane. And that’s all because of Thomas Edison. To a certain extent rock’n’roll is run by the gods, it’s just that our gods are Thomas Edison and all the other people that Edison ripped off along the way.
Most people cite rock’n’ roll within a Fifties/birth-of-the-teenager context. You seem to locate rock’n’roll within a much older context. Do you think rock’n’roll draws on performance as a sacred space, the shaman as deity, rituals and habituals, idols and gods?
What makes rock’n’roll so in touch with the past is that it’s not quite nomadic but it’s still pastoral, so when we moved out of our nomadic phase it was because we’d gone round the landscape long enough to go, “You know what, let’s spend summer by that lake and then we can go to the mountains in the autumn and we can get those bits of fruit that we love.” And they’d go round. Rock’n’roll’s like that. You don’t know quite where you’re gonna have to set up your temple. The temple is where you’re booked so it means that you retain a lot of that shamanic element because you have to go in, look around and make a judgement based on the size of the stage, where the audience is going to be coming in and how you do your show. Are you going to be able to use shock-and awe-tactics? Are you going to be able to be a show-off? Or are you going to have to work really hard just to get them on side? It’s thinking on your feet – rock’n’roll has to have an element of thinking on your feet. When rock’n’roll was at its height, it was still trying to prove itself as something more than just Saturday-night entertainment, so it tried really hard. I’m always trying to inject myself with the spirit that forced The Monkees to do seven albums in the first three years, that forced Grand Funk Railroad to do four albums in the first 14 months. If you can do that, force yourself, you end up like Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington did a film score and the producer said, “Do you need more time?” Duke Ellington said, “Don’t ever give me more time, just give me a deadline!” The reason I did Skellington 3 was I wanted to write something and record it very quickly and didn’t want to worry about the themes being coherent. Could I achieve it in a couple of days, and still make a good performance and make a good report of the songs?
To a certain extent, as you get older you have to force what the shaman had to do every day before he got his temple and became cosy as the priest.
In 1981 there was going to be a second Teardrops album called The Great Dominions. Some songs turned up on Wilder, and some in quite different forms than they had been toured. Was this a great lost album? Is it likely to be dug up some day?
No, I wouldn’t have thought it could be. In truth, we were too out of it to finish things without being bullied. Me and Balfey had such a dream that once it changed from The Great Dominions it could have been several different names. It’s hard to explain now, but The Teardrops were started more just to create what I would term a psychedelic soul band. I had a drummer who could play a great soul beat and a great reggae beat and what was difficult was writing songs that were simple enough – not for the us to play, but simple enough for them to remember in the next rehearsal. By the time of Wilder, the band had got sucked along seemingly so quickly that we were suddenly this professional band, but we weren’t remotely professional, so anything could upend us. So although there’s lots of songs, so many of them are just like drawing board.
You once said that rock’n’ roll wasn’t an excuse for sloth, it was made by forward-thinking mofos. From that, early Teardrop Explodes songs seemed to contain a lot of wandering around. Do you feel more purposeful now?
I’m probably feeling in a more generous mode nowadays. Some people make great, brilliant art just by being the selfish b******s they always were. I can’t say that it’s ever bothered me that Mick Jagger seems like a prick because it’s almost a bit like, “No shit, Sherlock.” My expectations are different. I just have more expectations for me. I think from my beginnings to where I am, it’s been a really long, unfolding, sometimes dogged journey, so if I ever have days or even weeks of just looking out the window lolling like a dog then I’m quite generous to myself and just think, “Go ahead and do it.”
If everyone has a price, what would it cost to get the Crucial Three [the mythical band comprised of Cope, Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie that lasted six weeks in 1977] back together for one night only? Even as holograms?
[Long pause] The only problem with that is… who’d play drums? Would it have to be Clem Burke?
You tell me, you’re naming the price.
Who else? Tell you what, it’d have to be one person who’s in every reformation – maybe The Pretenders’ Martin Chambers. It would have been Cozy Powell if Cozy hadn’t gone. I don’t know, how much would it cost to get the Crucial Three back together even as holograms? The only way it would ever work would be as holograms of us all at different phases of our careers.
ABBA are doing it and I think they are all frozen from 1979.
That’s really, really amazing, but the thing is, ABBA were always w**k. You can read past them ironically as many times as you like, but to me they’re lower than Queen. So really, I don’t know, the Crucial Three? Maybe when we’re 80, if we make it to 80, maybe that’s when we’ll do it. We’ll do it just to embarrass everybody. I’ve often thought it’d be good to have a band just for your sanatorium, like three of you sat in wheelchairs on the hillside, but then again I suppose Van Halen will do that.
You’re working on two books?
I’m writing a book for Faber & Faber called The Rise Of The Prophets: A New Perspective – all the biblical prophets that have informed all the great religions, but it’s seeing them in context with what would they be like now and who else in history could have been considered prophet-like in the manner that they established themselves. That’s a right old kerfuffle.
Would that incorporate rock stars, film stars and people that purport to be spokespeople?
There seem to be times throughout history of revelation and then there’s great swathes of time when there’s no revelation and nobody dares says f*** all. Then suddenly, there’s loads and loads of messiahs. After the English Civil War, during the Commonwealth, the original leader of the Quakers was so troublesome to the authorities that the Quakers themselves have written him out of their history. They now talk about a guy called George Fox because the man who originally started Quakerism believed that he was Jesus Christ. But then again there were lots of Jesus Christ wannabees at that time. You go back to the time of Jesus Christ, there were several prophets all claiming.
When’s that likely to be finished and published?
I’ve no idea. It’s a thorny book, you can imagine.
And what’s the other one?
The other one is a very weird novel in three parts that’s really f***ing wild.
The prophets book is more of a text book but it’s a spirited appraisal to say the least. The novel is mind-boggling, but I think I’m going to make up for that by just being fascinating and interesting. A juicy read.
Julian Cope is appearing at Shiiine On Birmingham, Genting Arena, NEC, Birmingham, 8 September. Prices from £59. shiiineon.com