Neoprolific History: Julian Cope’s Copendium Reviewed

Jimmy Martin sets off on an expedition in to the rock 'n' roll underworld with the former frontman of The Teardrop Explodes by way of his new book

The world of the music writer can be a strange, and sometimes self-defeating one. Some embark on this doomed pursuit as if it’s some pathway, via careful lip service to whatever happens to be in vogue at any given time, to the sacred portals of an aftershow, complete with overpriced Kronenbourg and clandestinely sniffed charlie. Certain scribes, meanwhile, brandish their knowledge and musical worldview like some weapon to flummox the other contestants in an Ozymandian contest that no-one can ultimately win; tutting and eyebrow-rolling over misquoted Sun Ra catalogue numbers and inventing revisionist and contrarian perspectives just to get an enraged rise out of their cohorts.

Yet the ones who truly manage to realign perpsectives and enrich listening habits are almost always the ones who aren’t driven so much by ego, ambition or one-upmanship as by an unselfconscious zeal and a reckless drive to connect with others at all costs. It’s for this reason that this writer, for example, was driven to discover otherworldly treats like Seefeel and AR Kane in his late teens by Simon Reynolds. In the hands of Reynolds, a writer oft unfairly tagged as overly academic and cerebral, a Melody Maker description of the former band that might have looked like laughable overstatement (“billowing tapestries of sugar hiccupping, heart-in-mouth euphoria. They make your brain purr, your goosepimples glow”) instead became an evangelical call-to-arms, a gateway to new frontiers way beyond the lure of the bar.

It’s also for this reason that Julian Cope is one of the most fearsomely inspiring chroniclers of the rock mythos currently putting pen to paper. Not for him supposed journalistic virtues such as sober perspective and objectivity. A record isn’t worth dealing with in Cope’s terms if it doesn’t meet his definition of ‘useful’, and isn’t a revelation the merits of which are fit to be bellowed from the rooftops to all that will dig it and plenty who won’t. Bound aloft by such fiery passion and Herculean force of will, it comes as little surprise that Copendium, this mighty 719-page tome bound in black faux-snakeskin leather like some Rock Necronomicon and largely edited from the last fifteen years of ravings on Cope’s Head Heritage website, is an unequivocal joy to behold.

This is not only down to Cope’s unerring knack for tracking down the cream of experimental and psychedelic music through the ages, nor the relentless enthusiasm and gonzo bluster he employs, but the wry wit and insouciant charm with which he embarks on these missions into the aural wilderness. This is a man who does his research meticulously and accurately (anyone in any doubt about this should witness the chapters in his equally gripping book Japrocksampler on the origins of minimalism and avant-garde music in post-war Japan) yet revels in referring to his readership as ‘Motherfuckers’ in a shamelessly derived MC5 flourish. And indeed, a man who, in relating the merits of this here YouTube clip (below) as a 60s countercultural touchtone, is happy to refer to Pretty Things frontman Phil May as a ‘smirking cunt’. Yet rather than rendering his work less serious, these pecadiloes only make the average rock zealot more speedily waylaid by his hellfire preacher abandon and steely conviction. Like his hero and main influence Lester Bangs, Cope treats Rock ‘n’ Roll as a veritable matter of life and death, yet is a chronicler with a keen eye on the fundamental stupidity and absurdity of so many of its greatest adherents; thus even fish-in-a-barrel follies like Kim Fowley’s farcically cynical countercultural would-be cash-in-job ‘Outrageous’ are tackled here with exactly the perfect degree of both awestruck reverence and howling ridicule. Notions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art in Copendium are not so much blurred as either mocked or totally ignored, and for that Hosannas should be abundant.

The essential power of Copendium is all about its subjectivity; this is explicitly one man’s understanding of the more outlandish nether regions of rock, and the antithesis of the kind of drab classicism and canonical somnambulism that so often renders rock history a series of questions with a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer. Even the bands who’ve been widely covered before here have their merits stated frequently in the context of mixtapes that Cope has compiled himself. Whats more, even when Cope raises eyebrows with his choices, you’re with him every step of the way, and even when he’s wrong, he’s passionately and entertainingly wrong. Ye Gods, even Be Bop Deluxe, a band whose self-regarding pseudo-intellectual prog-glam symphonies have frequently been known to set the average 21st century listener running screaming from their back catalogue as if their hair was on fire, are documented here with such joyful aplomb that it’d take the hardest of hearts not to want to give them another listen.

Furthermore, many doomheads might be surprised on first viewing by the fact he singles out Ramesses’ The Tomb for praise rather than any album by the more conventionally celebrated Electric Wizard, from whence Ramesses came, for example. Yet the bizarre and compelling tale of how he first discovered this album, which involves a trip to Bristol’s The Croft venue to watch much-missed abstract doom titans Khanate (during which show he insisted on mooing in a manner not unlike a cow throughout. ‘”I booed all night,” I explained, for this had not been the lowing of failure but of almighty and rigorous success. The clapping and the exuberant cries of ‘Awl right!’ were inappropriate for such perpetrations of ruin’) and the matter of a large bag of records he acquired that night being fatefully destroyed by rainwater, all bar The Tomb itself, is more than enough to justify such an inclusion. For Cope, it really is all about those serendipitous moments when a startlingly new sound hits the listener like a ton of bricks.

There are contrarian aspects to this book, yet time and again Cope’s accuracy and zeal render the average trash connoisseur speechless with gratitude that finally someone has got their favourite band exactly spot on; If there’s been a sharper and more comprehensive summation of the somewhat dated and creaky yet awe-inspiringly other handiwork of Blue Oyster Cult, then this head has yet to come across it. Van Halen, meanwhile, a band almost never invested with a great deal of highbrow consideration, are another such, as Cope’s mixture of borderline-gormless enthusiasm, gentle mockery and critical panache is a perfect match for Dave Lee Roth and co’s gaudy oeuvre. ‘If they had a fault’, Cope ventures heroically, ‘it was just that they had two shamans in one group and both shamans were showmen’.

Yet most importantly of all, this book contains just as much material from the 21st century as it does from any perceived halcyon age of rock, and has no time whatsoever for retrocentric baggage; for Cope, the Rock ‘n’ Roll underworld is a thrilling continuum, and it follows that this book raises its pulse-rate just as much over the likes of Boredoms, Comets On Fire, Sunburned Hand Of The Man and Vibracathedral Orchestra as anyone a safer distance back into the realm of reissued gatefold sleeves and the vintage-clothes-store nostalgia that periodically threatens to mothball underground culture. (Referred to memorably by Cope as ‘these cynical days of Q magazine’s Nick Drake award for melancholic unshavenness.) The aforementioned subjectivity means that the 80s are largely ignored herein, being a period where by Cope’s own admission he was too bound up in his own musical career and much-documented personal travails to have a clear perspective on what else was going on. Yet any gripes about the fact that T’Pau occupy more pages on the exhaustive index of this tome than Sonic Youth do would be the very definition of churlishness.

Any serious music junkie will have at least one mate who’s want to enter into wide-eyed soliloquies after a few beers on the merits of some obscure, quixotic and potentially dubious outfit that only they truly understand the magnificence of. Indeed, listening to such epiphanies, the listener is oft less inclined to believe the boozy prophet as such. than bowled over by the transformative power of rock music itself. Yet every single one of these seers has been superseded by Copendium, whose sheer breadth of knowledge, depth of insight and playful self-confidence make Julian Cope, renaissance motherfucker that he is, the monarch of this particular kingdom. And long may he reign.

Copendium is out now on Faber & Faber

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