“Before we start, I should warn you we’re in the middle of nowhere. If we keep cutting out, it might be because of the heavy snowfall we’ve had. If I suddenly disappear, you’ll have to ring back.”
Julian Cope, legendary frontman of The Teardrop Explodes turned successful solo artist and self-confessed nutcase, is out in the wilds again.
He’s based with his wife Dorian in Avebury, Wiltshire these days, researching and writing between tour dates and family engagements with his grown-up daughters.
While Julian was raised in Tamworth and made his name as one of the leading post-punk forces in Liverpool, his current base seems practical for an artist now often better associated with neolithic burial chambers and standing stones.
And his home – “literally a terminus” – is just the place he needs to work on the follow-up to recent novel, One Three One, and prepare for a forthcoming seven-date tour.
Julian’s no stranger to writing, having penned a wealth of great songs over the years and receiving plenty of acclaim for autobiographical works Head On and Repossessed. Then there are the further books on underground musicology – not least his works on krautrock – as well as Neolithic culture and archaeology.
You can add to that the musical side-projects, in bands like Queen Elizabeth, Brain Donor and Black Sheep (although, let’s face it, there are few bands like them).
So, which title sits best with him – visionary rock musician, musicologist, cultural commentator, post-punk icon, Arch-drude, modern antiquarian or novelist?
“To be honest, I’ve just been lucky to hit rock’n’roll at a time when I could be all these things. If I’d started maybe five years earlier I wouldn’t have been accepted as all these things.
“You needed people like Patti Smith coming in, demanding to be a poet and rock’n’roller. And people have adopted a very generous spirit towards me.
“I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that it’s not how good I am or how good my projects are, but the fact that I do finish them, and punt them out into the wider world.
“A lot of people might think, ‘I don’t give a damn about ancient monuments, but Cope writes in a way that makes them intriguing – this tripping, psychedelic rock’n’roller.”
A case in point is his year 2000 BBC Bristol film documentary The Modern Antiquarian, the arch-drude’s megalithic roadtrip to accompany his 1998 book of the same name, Julian travelling the length and breadth of the UK, mainland and offshore – adding his own soundtrack – to showcase our wealth of ancient monuments and historic sites.
Let’s be honest. If presented by someone else, I might have switched off within 20 minutes, but it all seems mightily unpredictable in Julian’s hands – not least to see what bizarre outfit he might be wearing in the next scene.
“As an artist, a poet or rock’n’roller, you’ve got to be interesting and also genuinely have an obsession. You can’t manufacture interestingness.
“When I did The Modern Antiquarian, the only reason the book got finished was because I just wanted to know what was going on, all the way up to the Shetlands.”
He’s also plugging his latest album at present, Trip Advizer, a compilation covering the period from 1999 to date. Is it a bit of a Julian Cope musical CV for the last 15 years?
“That’s a good one! Yeah, I like that. It’s a musical CV.”
It also appears to be a celebration of his move away from the established music industry ‘greedheads’, as he would have it. And he even voices his own promo advert.
Of course, Julian famously had a fiery relationship with his first label boss, Bill Drummond. These days, it’s his own label, led by the mysterious Lord Yatesbury.
I asked him what the venerable peer makes of it all, but before Julian could comment on how Drummond and Yatesbury compare, the phone is snatched away from him, and I hear these plummy tones roaring down the telephone line.
“Lord Yatesbury always adopts a generous attitude towards the greedheads, because hopefully it’s not a dynasty we’re fighting against. They’re all individuals, so at least their greediness is brought on because we have such a doubtful meritocracy.”
At that point, Julian wrestles back the phone, adding his own explanation of where he’s at.
“I think because I came out of punk, there were antecedents to punk, and the best were people who were unbeatable in their own way.
“Jim Morrison as a person demanded he was able to use terms like ‘shaman’ at a time when rock’n’roll wasn’t really far past being Saturday night entertainment. All my heroes have turned out to be cheeky monkeys! It’s like, ‘Who are you to do this?’”
He goes on to explain how The Modern Antiquarian led to a link with The British Museum, Julian going on to present two shows at this iconic location, its hierarchy more or less giving him free rein too.
“This director, who was in his 70s, wore golf spats and looked like Bing Crosby, said, ‘I think this is going to be so much fun, but would you do me a favour? You don’t dress very conventionally – would you dress the same way when you present?’
“I told him I’d be delighted. It had never occurred to me for it to be any other way.
“So when I did my mini-Cope festival, they were delighted, not only as it sold out, but also because I looked like a rock’n’roll maniac. And it went so well that they offered me the same thing the next year.
“To a certain extent, I think people have a place in their heart for at least one full-on mentalist, and people know that ultimately my goal is education and enlightenment rather than a big wad of dosh.”
True. And I don’t suppose the word ‘compromise’ comes into it for Julian.
“That’s the thing. But I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been with my wife 33 years, and she’s driven in no way anything other than changing people’s attitudes to things.
“I’ve tried to explain these things to her family too, but of course it’s just abstract. To them, something that’s old is something that pre-dates the American Civil War.”
Regarding the need for self-promotion in today’s music industry today, it’s fair to say it’s all changed immeasurably since The Teardrop Explodes imploded. Does it frustrate Julian that he needs to do a bit more self-promotion today? Or does that complement his sense of independent spirit?
“It’s something I’ve always done. One of the things very marked about punk was that it allowed people to release material on independent labels and be very much their own spokesmen.
“Of course, some punks were opportunists who leapt onto a major label to become the new Rod Stewart. But for everybody who did that, there were people like Mark E. Smith and Howard Devoto, who really brought an erudite and wise side to something that is also still mental!
“I think that’s the important thing – to be able to sustain a long career and be considered an outsider and a maverick yet still be able to keep a conversation together and finish a book … an album … to deliver. And that’s been my most successful side.”
Aside from all the side-projects and writing, I get the feeling there’s still a competitive edge driving Julian – wanting to let the wider world know he’s still a happening artist, ‘and look, here’s another seven albums you might have missed’.
“This is another thing – you’re only as good as your partner. If you don’t have a partner who’s gung-ho for the whole thing, eventually they’ll start to tire of your singularity.
“If my wife was like, ‘Okay, I’ll facilitate this in the hope it all comes out nice’, I wouldn’t have been successful.
“The reason projects like The Modern Antiquarian were successful was because they had to take on archaeology at almost university level. And the only way I could do that was to go to more places and take photos and have experience of places that no archaeologist could even hope to get to – because it would just cost too much time.
“It was a bit depressing at the time. We went to the Orkneys for seven days then went the next year for another seven days. On the last day, I said to my wife, ‘I hate to say this, but we’re going to have to come up here for a third year’.
“By that time we had two baby daughters, but she was fine, and said ‘get in the car … that’s what we do.’
“And then when that book came out, there was a great review from someone in Southampton University’s archaeology department, also the editor of a magazine called Antiquity, saying, ‘Whatever we believe Cope has brought to this archaeological party, what we know is that in order to supercede this book we’re going to have to bring forth an even bigger book!’
“That’s the attitude I’ve adopted pretty much with everything – so long as I’m thorough, it doesn’t really matter what my conclusions are. People will now trust that my conclusion is based on evidence I have found.”
Fearing this is turning into a university lecture, I try to divert Julian into slightly more rock’n’roll waters, commenting that – judging by the cover shot on the new CD – for all his recent acceptance in academic circles, he clearly still has a hankering for dressing up in old military gear.
“I think that in order to make the best impression, it’s best to disguise myself as an invader. The opportunities of rock’n’roll are that you can still look an absolute fierce knobhound. Also, I’d ask. ‘who put the fist in pacifist?’”
On that same documentary, Julian talks about not having learned to drive until he was 34, but how he couldn’t face the idea of not being in control now. Again, that seems to fit in with his view of taking hold of his music career after those formative Teardrop days.
“Yeah, the worry is that it’s very important for a man – and I only say that because I don’t feel I’m in a position to talk for women as well – not to fall into middle age, but constantly try something new you didn’t know how to do.
“Pablo Picasso said, ‘I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.’
“Where I was brought up, nobody had a car, and by the time everybody was driving I was a rock’n’roller, being ferried everywhere.
“So when I finally learned to drive, there was a certain sense of freedom. I still live with that sense of freedom, and I’m always trying to serve new apprenticeships.
“When I did my book about Ancient Europe ….”
At that point we lose our signal, this scribe spending the next few minutes trying to reconnect with Avebury’s Arctic wasteland until Julian finally picks up and growls out a deep and slightly seedy ‘hello!”
I tell him I was worried he’s disappeared down his own personal fogou, in keeping with his love of the Iron Age underground movement.
Did he remember what he was saying? He sure did, and carried straight on.
“For the European book I did all the drawings myself. I’m not an artist but needed lots of drawings to show some of the beautiful stones people in Britain didn’t know.
“I ended up going to my favourite artist of archaeological drawings to pick his brains. He said, ‘All you need to do is draw everything four times as big. Then, when it’s reduced it will look pretty good’.
“I did precisely that, spent ages, and looking back now, nobody’s ever commented that I got a right shit artist in!
“You see, punk taught me to adopt an attitude of positivity, then you can achieve something. And what makes me more useful than most is that I just won’t be beaten. I’ll always struggle on to some kind of conclusion.”
Back to the music, and I understand we have Julian’s mum’s love of poetry to thank for his desire to produce a neat opening line in his songs, something I first appreciated on The Teardrop Explodes’ breakthrough hit Reward in 1981, with “Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news!”
“Absolutely. When I got into rock’n’roll, there were maybe only two Doors fans at my school – I was one, and the other became my girlfriend. And it’s through them that I figured you’ve got to grab people with that first line, as it’s meant to be a pop art culture.
“I’ll even deploy very dubious first line in order to ensnare people. In an art form that started off as Saturday night entertainment, you’ve still got to come over like that, because people won’t walk away humming your song if it’s merely a beautiful idea.”
I mention Reward, although I have to admit – having heard it first aged around 13 – I had thought for some time that Julian was singing, ‘Where’s my cotton socks? I’m in the nude’.
“That’s the thing though – it got your attention! Loads of people thought it was ‘in the nude’. It’s a bit like Hendrix’s ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ rather than ‘the sky’.
“It grabs you, and with Reward, it’s all so hectic that it’s actually finished before you’ve realised. It’s just a rush.
“And I do find that people will give me more of a generous attitude because that will have been their opening interface with me.”
Incidentally, whatever became of the Austin Champ jeep used in the accompanying video, the one driven around Liverpool’s early-‘80s dock wasteland by his band and a few notable hangers-on?
“I think one of our tour managers sold it. You see, Bill Drummond never paid him ….
Now there’s a surprise!
Sorry, carry on …
“That Austin Champ had been around since the Korean War. I said, ‘Look, we’ve got to have a military vehicle’, and we first found a DUKW amphibious vehicle. I said, ‘I want to be at the prowl of that!’ But it turned out it did about four miles to the gallon.
“So that was the first time we did compromise. We went for the Austin Champ instead, although it turned out it had a Rolls Royce engine and only did eight miles to the gallon!
“Yeah man, looking back though, it sorted us out, separating us from the rest of the pop groups.”
It certainly did, and although you went on record to say you weren’t into the idea of promo videos, that one will always stick in the memory.
“That’s the great thing. And the video very much reflected the way we were living.”
“I remember a guy from the record company arriving for the video, which Don Letts was directing, when Gary (Dwyer, his Teardrop Explodes bandmate) and I were tripping.
“He said to Bill, ‘How’s Julian going to work this?’ And Bill said (adopts a Scottish accent), ‘Julian’s got a great respect for Don. He won’t let LSD get in the way!”
We both laugh.
“And of course it didn’t. Besides, years later it makes a good story as well.
“Funnily enough though, I was talking to someone from the Liverpool Echo and they were asking about those locations, and I said, ‘You know what? I haven’t got a clue!”
I take it your professionalism hadn’t fully kicked in after all then?
“Mmmm .. and then people just drove me home.”
While we’re on the subject of Liverpool, Julian will be near old haunts like the legendary Eric’s nightspot when he plays the Epstein Theatre as part of this new tour. So when did he last visit Billy Fury’s Wondrous Place?
“I’ve been quite a lot lately, as I’m writing a follow-up novel to One Three One, as the first one did much better than I expected … and my publishers expected. And a few stories I want to tell take place in the great bowl of the Irish Sea, in the area between Ormskirk and the Wirral.
“So I’ve been doing a lot of research there. In fact, I was driving through the Mersey Tunnel this time last week.”
I suggest he should donate something to mark his own part in the story. And if we can’t track down the old Reward jeep, perhaps one of his infamous revolving microphone stands from his post-Teardrop solo career will do instead.
“There were three of those stands, and I broke the first one but couldn’t bear to throw it away. The second I gave away to a goth. . Looking back, I wish I hadn’t, because he never did anything with it. I thought he might have some kind of maverick career in the ’90s.
“I still have the final one, but don’t know if I could bear to give it away. It’s got a fantastic quote from William Blake painted on it, that took me weeks.”
All the same, I think he should be commemorated in the museum somewhere at least.
”Erm …I think my time will come, you know. The problem with Pete Wylie was that he was always too busy thinking of what he represented and didn’t actually get on with much art.
“What I’m trying to do is the opposite, trying to just get on with the art. The personality cult can come after I’m dead!”
We move on then, and as a result I probably miss out on a chance to get Julian on to the subject of the other third of The Crucial Three, Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch. Ah well, maybe next time. But we stick with those heady days a while longer.
I’m a bit late, but I’ve only recently finished Head On. And although I shouldn’t really be surprised, I have to say Julian’s a cracking writer. There’s a lot of detail in there, despite the fact that there have been a few chemical interludes since, shall we say. So was he a meticulous diary writer back then?
“I was. I also lived a life that was very well recorded, so to a certain extent I could call up friends and ask, ‘After that gig, we did that journey from so-and-so to so-and-so. Did I really fall out of the van?’ And they’d say, ‘Course you did, you nutcase!’
“I wouldn’t say I was proud of Head On, but I was proud of the fact that considering The Teardrop Explodes was quite a failure in terms of having a long-term cultural impact, at least it makes for a great story!”
I’d disagree with Julian over the impact the band made, not least when you think of all those great singles and album tracks like The Great Dominions. Then there were all the bands that followed in their wake, not least The Mighty Lemon Drops – who also did a cracking, speedier version of When I Dream -and Inspiral Carpets, both of whom took the Teardrop influence on to great effect. But that’s another story.
Instead, I point out that – while it seems wrong to say it – his novels’ descriptions of his acid trips were extremely entertaining.
“I think that’s the thing, isn’t it. Coming out of punk, we weren’t really going to have Grateful Dead-like acid trips. There was going to be a lot of slobbering and drooling, and a lot of pure danger, I think, looking back.”
You’re not wrong. I’m still traumatised at his description of a ‘game’ in which the singer, stoned in the back, climbed out of a vehicle traveling at speed, and across the roof to drop back into the other passenger window – several times.
Having read that, and some of the other lurid tales involving him and notable others, I wonder how he’s still with us today!
“I look back now and think I wouldn’t have wanted to be our tour manager. And it’s noticeable that Bill Drummond would always invite people to look after us who didn’t have much to lose!”
That takes us on to a tale about one such tour manager, a Liverpudlian called Bill Procter.
“He was the one who sold the jeep and that Bill never paid. He lived on this amazing gunboat on the Thames.
“The only time I ever went there I was tripping, so it was probably a bit bigger than I remember it. Actually, I don’t think I even mentioned the gunboat in my book.
“He kept wine bottles down the torpedo tube! He was an amazing person.”
That was then, but this is now, with Julian happily resettled in another historic setting, one arguably poles apart from Liverpool.
I mention how I remember being a little freaked out as a nine-year-old seeing the Children of the Stones BBC 1 children’s drama, which was filmed in Avebury – something that seemed no less disturbing when I saw an episode again recently as part of a screenwriting session on my university masters course.
Clearly, Julian’s seen it too.
“Wasn’t that freaky! And now I’m going to make you even more scared …”
I’m not going to repeat the story he then imparts, although maybe Julian will if you ask him nicely, involving a little ‘life imitating art’ in his adopted home village.
I will annoyingly give you the last line though, in which Julian concludes, “If I wrote that in a novel, you’d say, ‘Not only is that gross, but it’s not got any foot in reality! So yeah, Children of the Stones – a little bit over the top, but maybe not that over the top.”
Seeing as I’ve caught him just after midday, I ask how a typical day – if there’s such a thing – starts for Julian Cope at present.
“I wake up about half six, and I’m doing lots of research, so the first hour and half involves internet research.
“This time of year the days are too short for doing any really good field-work. I have lots of maps of the Irish Sea area I’m concentrating on though.
“Then my wife comes in, has a cup of tea with me, then we’re both on a schedule of writing. Writing together in the same room, we’re like two informers looking at each other – making sure we’re not both on Ebay!
“I also do a lot of my own artwork, hand-rendered, and while I find the short days problematic, I actually work harder as I know the day’s coming to an end quicker.”
Does he ever revisit his hometown, Tamworth, or nearby Drayton Bassett, where he set up home with Dorian after The Teardrop Explodes years, and the location for the cover of 1986 album Fried – with a stoned Julian famously disguised as a tortoise.
“Yes, last time about a year ago. My daughters are both fascinated by a period when their Dad would appear naked underneath a turtle shell for a record sleeve!
“Last time we were there,I was ferrying them around as I was on my way to Sheffield to do some work with my web guy. We do a lot of stuff like that. They’re very interested, saying “Dad, you really get away with a lot of stuff!
It’s a fair point.
“Yeah man! And I have to agree with that! My youngest daughter worked at Faber & Faber for a while and spent most of the time fending off questions from older staff members asking, ‘Is it true your Dad did so-and-so?’
“She was quite surprised that these people were interested in these mad stories. And I think both girls are intrigued by Western culture based on quite extreme characters.”
I know I’ve missed a few big moments, but last time I saw Julian live was at Guildford Civic Hall on 1987’s Saint Julian tour, not long after a hit single with World Shut Your Mouth, probably coincidng with the Trampolene single.
Was that album the last time you felt the need to prove you could still play this pop game?
“I think I was just surprised to be in a position to have another stab at it. I think I’d gone just a bit too far with the psychedelic.
“Being the way I am though, I guess my natural propensity for being a weird sod is just around the corner!
More chart success followed with the glorious Charlotte Anne from 1988’s My Nation Underground and Beautiful Love from 1991’s Peggy Suicide, the latter reminding me of an entertaining fella I was travelling with in New Zealand who loved to dance to that particular track every night.
My point in mentioning this to Julian is that there seem to be certain pockets in time which you remember when you hear certain music.
“I like that, and I think that’s still the great power of rock’n’roll, isn’t it! Ultimately, it can always be reduced to being great Saturday night entertainment.”
So is the Julian Cope that Dorian puts up with in 2014 a little easier than the one she first latched on to in 1981?
“She says I’m more difficult. She knows precisely what my end-game is, so finds it more difficult to keep control of me.
“But what I like is that she had mad parents, including a very mad father. Whenever her father and I got together we were close friends. He was a real nutcase.
“My mother-in-law would say, ‘Oh, Julian’s always very easy to manage, compared to Steve’. And my wife’s always said to me, ‘You’ve never ever bored me’.”
Having children – with his daughters Albany and Avalon now 23 and 20 respectively – also brought Julian a new focus.
“I think that’s really good for someone known as a nutcase artist. In order to become a successful father, you’ve either not got to be yourself, or be yourself but have a good explanation. And I’ve chosen the latter!”
Finally, what advice might 57-year-old Julian offer his 17-year-old student self in 1975, or even his 27-year-old shell-clad self in 1985?
“I would say keep going, and it will all turn out fine. Just persist!”
Julian Cope is at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on Thursday, February 5, with tickets £23 in advance (£25 on the door) via 0844 888 4411, online at www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk or in person at the venue.
This is a revised and mightily-expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature first published in the Lancashire Evening Post on Thursday, January 22.
Thanks to fellow writer Jim Wilkinson for steering me towards Julian’s written works a couple of years back.
For more about the Arch-drude’s many projects, live shows and the Trip Advizer album, head over to his website here.