The Mother Of Reinvention: Julian Cope’s Peggy Suicide 30 Years On

Peggy Suicide was the first marking and mapping out of a new Julian Cope, says Richard Foster; one who kept us sane and questing for new ideas at the dawn of the 90s

You could argue that the opening notes of Julian Cope’s double album, Peggy Suicide, can be heard on the last few pages of his ever-entertaining autobiography, Head On/ Repossessed. The book chronicles the rise and fall of his band, The Teardrop Explodes and the often painful road towards chart success as a solo artist in the mid-to-late 1980s. On the very last pages, whilst documenting a private memorial ceremony in Tamworth on New Year’s Eve 1989 in honour of his late friend, Echo And The Bunnymen’s totemic drummer Pete de Freitas, Cope writes of experiencing a vision in the form of “a current of truthful gas”.

The powerful spiritual experience this ceremony invoked seems to have compelled Cope to radically reshape his public image, his music and writings over the following decade. The wan existentialism and cartoonish, “Dark Ages boy’s gang” pop that had shaped his output in the 1980s was scrapped. In its place came an open-hearted, community-oriented music drawing on the likes of the MC5 and Funkadelic and the gnostic howls of Roky Erikson, the universality of the human spirit found in Mikhail Bulgakov’s epic novel, The Master And Margarita and the kind of heated socio-cultural confessions found in the writing of Lester Bangs and John Sinclair. From now on, Cope’s songs, actions and public utterances would consciously adopt George Gurdjieff’s “Being-duty”, the “moral code of the mystic”.

Cope finished writing Repossessed in 1999. Maybe his tale of communing with de Freitas on the astral plane could be seen as a way of quantifying his actions in the decade that followed. But before anyone thinks all of this sounds like an alternative take on the classic 80s popstar crise morale (Hey, Sting! Hey, Bono!), the results were more than worth it. Peggy Suicide is a brilliant record and the first in a run of vital, socially concerned albums that spoke directly to a post-rave, pre-millennial audience. Possibly the first major release of Cope’s that can be considered a full socio-cultural package, the record (split into four phases), threw a bright spotlight on four key subjects of concern that are now widely regarded as pillars of an enlightened society: the acceptance of alternative forms of religion, protecting the environment, supporting feminism, and being part of an active and inclusive protest culture. Peggy Suicide is the sort of document Greta Thunberg could be mining to take even more moral ammunition from. It’s a record that can, and should, reboot everyone’s mindset, right now.

To those still suckling on the dried-up tit of the existential 1980s, this new approach came as something of a shock. For one, the sound was radically different from his previous work, especially the chrome polished – and, let’s be honest, unlistenable – posturings found on 1988’s My Nation Underground. Gone were the twee trumpets, Nuggets-style nods to odd 60s pop, yodelling vocals and a production you could break your teeth on. In came a loose, maybe Buckley-esque guitar sound on an Ovation 12 string (wah-wahed to a point of abstraction), a Clintonesque bass grumble, and psychotic blasts of lead guitar forming serpentine jams with briskly executed wind and key parts, making previous Cope records sound gauche. Driving all, the Loki-esque percussion work of the great Rooster Cosby. This new instrumentation propelled a veritable folio of styles, interests and musical standpoints; from a light, boppy kind of ska, bar room blues, sound collages and screeching wig-outs, funky jams and cod-soul torch songs. Peggy Suicide offered up songs about safe sex and AIDs, killing Margaret Thatcher, the wisdom of fighting the police, pollution and the “nascent” climate emergency, swimming with dolphins, drowning on hallucinogens, the Poll Tax, and a late night taproom band comprising a rat, a cat and a barman. All in all, a lot to take in.

The Julian Cope of old had clearly been swallowed whole in some huge, poptastic Crack Of Doom and a new model, long haired and loose, deep of voice and feisty, had been spat out of the same smouldering fissure, ready to do battle with everyone in his path. These changes that Peggy Suicide heralded had, along with Pete de Freitas’s death, obviously been profoundly felt on a personal level. The album is essentially a visionary one; named after a figure representing Mother Earth who appeared to Cope in a dream in the “loose fit” summer of 1990. The sleeve notes to his sparkling love song, ‘Beautiful Love’, (dedicated to the dolphin Fungie, with whom he’d swum off the Irish coast in the same year), also reveal the confession that he’d become “intolerably aware of life and my Creator”. The record is also populated by characters real or imagined, most notably the mysterious Sqwubbsy, who became something of a mascot for Cope’s public actions around this time.

How had it come to this? The only way to receive the rum thoughts running through Copey’s head at the turn of the decade was to listen in to the flipsides of his singles and the odd session or interview for the established media of the time. The last single release off My Nation Underground, ‘China Doll’, had boasted some fantastic, very wyrd takes in ‘Crazy Farm Animal’, ‘Desi’ and the unhinged ‘Rail On’. But then Cope singles had always boasted great b-sides. Perhaps the best clue was the great session made for Richard Skinner’s BBC Radio 1 show in the summer of 1989, which, for those of us who taped it, did hint at a more powerful sound. The version of ‘Hanging Out And Hung Up On The Line’ now sounds like a heavy, drag racer conversion of ‘Elevation’ by The 13th Floor Elevators.

In fact, Cope’s sound had been developing rapidly through 1989 and 1990, if out of the record buying public’s eye. This sound – and a new, innate understanding of the unfathomable natures of space and time – also has a great deal to do with his co-conspirators. The band around him, built through a painstaking, five year process of trial and error, was now like a shifting group of mates, recusants, mystics and oddballs who had found their true refuge at Cope HQ from the shiny, Bros-eyed, late Thatcherite pop music biz. People like guitarists Donald Ross Skinner and Mike Mooney, and the talismanic percussionist Rooster Cosby formed a strong backbone. Allies like Mike Joyce, Frazer Kent and Andy Eastwood also seemed to share Cope’s worldview, being the vibe merchants “in his gang”. All of this created an ease of manner and a trust in the playing that isn’t really noticeable on his previous LPs. Cope’s music from Skellington onwards doesn’t feel like a relentless tale of pursuit, whether driven by his own demons, creditors or the music biz. Peggy Suicide also picked up on the free spirit found in the “private”, tripped-out campfire albums The Skellington Chronicles (1989) and Droolian (1990). This spirit can be heard on the sensational ‘Soul Medley’ jam cooked up for a John Peel session in April 1991, where the band indulge in some hearty bleating and getting on-the-one whilst breezing through Zappa’s ‘Are You Hung Up?’ and snippets of Skellington and Peggy tracks. Everything seemed possible.

Another sign of confidence and change was a noticeable drop in Cope’s voice and the places he seemed to be using it. These newly sonorous tones catered for a preacher-style delivery and allowed deft switches in tone and meaning; ones that could be applied to the wider range of material, sonically and thematically. Cope’s addiction to falling on his arse and keeping the serious blues at bay suddenly came to his aid artistically, courtesy of some fantastic rants and strung out pleadings throughout the record. Two classic examples on Peggy Suicide are heard in the radiant love song to his wife Dorian, ‘The American Lite’, where Julian worries whether a new song “sounds like The Boss”. Then there is the tail out on ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, where Cope puts some pixies and sea serpents in their place, a soliloquy that neatly ties this lunatic rave-up of a track up. Peggy Suicide was also a record for the great outdoors, with Copey preaching his gospel from under a bramble hedge, like a Beatnik 30 years late to the party. No longer sat in his room looking at an empty chair, he’d put on his walking shoes, Piers Plowman style, and was babbling in a new tongue. The spirit that made beautiful, abstract love songs such as ‘Laughing Boy’ and ‘Me Singing’ was chucked out on the street and made to sing for its supper in front of a potentially wider audience, in the form of the uncompromising opener, ‘Pristine’ and the walking-talking, state-of-the-nation lament, ‘Promised Land’.

If we accept the fact that Peggy Suicide is a “how to” for righteous living, it’s only right to point out the key tracks. The listener can see them as portals. Right from the off, Julian Cope’s impatience with intolerance, greed and lazy thinking in the world, and his band’s brilliance in interpreting his vision, is clear. The killer “simple” metaphorical opener ‘Pristine’ sets the template, creating a spirit of what can only be described as “giddy heaviness”, heard in the groovy ‘East Easy Rider’ and the cavernous guitar wig outs of ‘Double Vegetation’ and’ ‘Hanging Out And Hung Up On The Line’. There is no let up with phase two where the listener is crushed like a tin can under a tyre by the long luxuriant guitar squall of ‘Safesurfer’, a tale of passive male aggression and blind arrogance towards casual sex. This was a track that hit a particularly sensitive spot at the height of the AIDS crisis, and possibly the stand out track on the album, if only in terms of its huge, brooding presence. It bore no resemblance to the slight sketch of the same name found on Droolian. Playing counterpoint was the ironic strut of ‘Drive She Said’, another track whose (anti car) message seems only to grow with time. Phase three is shaped by the acerbic protest songs of ‘Leperskin’ and ‘Soldier Blue’, two sermons that capture the widespread indignation of the Poll Tax protests that engulfed Britain in 1990. Phase four reveals a softer, more ambient side to the record; the soundscape of ‘Western Front 1992 C.E.’ bleeding into the glorious ‘The American Lite’ and the weirdly accommodating endnote, ‘Las Vegas Basement’. Throughout, even on tracks that were happier doing their thing in the background, Cope’s overall message was sharp eyed, clear, and overwhelmingly convincing.

The idea of endless possibilities heralded by Cope’s new, gargantuan headspace seems to have seeped, however clandestinely, into the decision making at his label, Island Records. It’s maybe hindsight on my part again, but I find it significant that, round about the time of Peggy Suicide’s official release in April 1991, Team Cope at Island felt it right and proper to release two limited edition 12” picture discs (encased in infuriatingly flimsy box-style packaging) which showcased another new direction; long, on-the-one instrumental jams. These tracks (‘Heed: Of Penetration And The City Dweller’, ‘Bring Cherill Down’ and ‘Ravebury Stones’), eventually surfaced as the backbone of the first of his killer meditational albums, Rite. They are also one of the first indications of Cope morphing into a pop version of the Long Man of Wilmington, holding the door open to initiates for further explorations into the land and its history, as well as tapping into the intellectual and societal restlessness that the recent summers of love had unleashed. One shouldn’t underestimate the influence the music of Julian Cope, “no peace freak”, had for a certain demographic in Britain at the time. Jeremy Deller’s recent film, Everybody In The Place, may centre its explorations of the social history of the UK between 1985 and 1993 on acid house and rave music, but there is a vital showcase for the new alternative protest and eco-lifestyle cultures that were increasingly tied to the British countryside during the 1980s. The British countryside was a far tougher, and more liminal place than the Thatcherite Home Counties dream would lead you to believe. And, over the following decade, Cope’s music tapped directly into many of the concerns and aspirations these bolshy, assertive and colourful tribes had.

One of the samples on the track ‘Western Front 1992 C.E.’ captures the crowd chant at a demo against the first Gulf War in Paris that Cope and his wife Dorian had been caught up in. In hindsight the chant, “Retrait! Retrait! Les Troupes Impérialistes!" is an apt snippet, as the new attitudes ushered in by Peggy Suicide eventually heralded changes in the House of Cope. Maybe this record also marks the gradual retreat of the troops of cultural and economic imperialism from Cope’s own life. The follow up album, 1992’s supremely trippy polemic, Jehovakill, would be the trigger for him to leave Island Records, being seen by the label as old and irrelevant. After this, his releases would be brought out through a mix of labels and self-releases to a devoted fanbase; a strange precursor to how many independent artists have operated since the downloading revolution in music. And soon, another prophetic socio-cultural decision would slowly take hold; something which would grip an ever-widening audience and be a major factor in the nascent reissue culture. This decision was seen in codified form with the title of the opener on Jehovahkill, ‘Soul Desert’, and which would find full expression in 1995’s iconic book, Krautrocksampler. Cope’s ability to inspire from the margins and remind the disparate alternative tribes of a common cause was, at this period, bordering on the magical. After all, (something hinted at in Peggy Suicide with a quote nicked from The Residents, the Californian band that captured the imagination of many of the more artistically inclined members of the Eric’s scene), “Ignorance of Your Culture is Not Considered Cool”.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today