Julian Cope and the psychic underworld

A visionary and ambitious cultural critic.

Julian Cope in concert in 2010
Julian Cope in concert in 2010. Photograph: Surprise Truck on Flickr, via Creative Commons

Copendium: an Expedition into the Rock’n’Roll Underworld
Julian Cope
Faber & Faber, 736pp, £30

“Babies”, “kiddies”, “chil’en”, “brothers’n’sisters”, “motherfuckers” – Julian Cope’s address to his readers throughout Copendium is magnificently direct. He is always didactic, never patronising. He doesn’t assume he knows more about this stuff than we babies do; he knows he knows more.

The main reason for Cope’s ex cathedra tone is that Copendium began not as a self-contained book but as a series of album-of-the-month reviews on Cope’s Head Heritage website. So, although they were entirely public, available to anyone with browser access, they were also a private conversation between Cope and his remaining/growing/mutating – I won’t say “audience” – devotees.

Ever since 1995, when Cope self-published his Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards, I have been among his followers, verbally and musically, if not ethically. He began earlier than this with his raggedly glorious autobiography, Head- On, reliving his 1980s pop fame in the Teardrop Explodes. He has since wandered wherever the fuck he wanted, detailing “how the postwar Japanese blew their minds on rock’n’roll” in Japrocksampler and completing an erudite odyssey between prehistoric sites in The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European.

Although Cope consistently talks down to his devotees, it’s mainly because he is sure we’re down to begin with. Because we’re the heads, we’re already hip to the mind-expansion trip – all he’s doing is pointing us towards certain instances of it that we might have missed.

At a couple of points in Copendium, Cope references his culture heroes. One, Robert Graves, might be predictable. Cope’s writing includes numerous riffs on The White Goddess. His latest concludes, as it must, with a mini-hymn to Dorian, his long-term muse and incarnation of “the Diva whose beauty, fertility and timeless and effortless ensnaring of men’s hearts has made her the subject of all the great rock’n’roll songs”. Fine and dandy in the underworld. But how many rock’n’roll writers would ever know the name of, let alone feel moved to quote, Thomas Carlyle? Cope does this to the effect, central to his beliefs, that: “The obscene fudge of western culture’s hobbling, guilt-obsessed political correctness can never be more than ‘asemblance of the truth’.”

Cope believes, as all heads do, that music is worthless unless it is truly social; that the musician is a nomadic outlaw who visits sedentary conurbations and uses highly technological means (drums, lyres, Gibson Flying Vs, Moogs) to blow the tiny minds of the straights; that the tiny minds need to be blown and that the most efficient ways to achieve this are loud music and strong drugs. Many of the reviews here contain an encouragement to get out of it in order to get properly into it.

One of the things that makes Cope the best music writer going is that he listens to these albums more intensely, more bodily and psychically, than others. He won’t accept just being a music writer. He’s a Gravesian, Carlylean social critic. He’s more than prepared to boom, when necessary. He’ll even prophesy. And this is where there’s a potential problem. Although Cope still releases songs with “revolution” in the titles and eagerly anticipates the end of the obscene fudge of western culture, when he finally offers a vision of the future, it becomes extremely bathetic:

OK, as ye heathen with a grievance against the organised religion and a belief in the will of rock’n’rollers and other activists to change things, it’s my estimation that by the mid-2050s, the Way of [Black] Sabbath will have become recognised by society as a strange but acceptable route for a young heathen man to follow. The mass return of organised religion in the early 21st century will inevitably have spurred true rebels and stimulated refuseniks to defy the incoming conservatism by acts of flagrancy and non-collective thinking . . . Even hardy outsider heathens would start to consider the possibilities, as the government, recognising the zeitgeist and themselves raised on loud rebel music, cut tax breaks to those who admit to practising “rock’n’roll”.

No, Julian, no! This isn’t worthy of the “archdrude” you claim to be. You’re not just after a cheap cut from the Kapitalist Kash Kow (as you would put it). You’re after a righteous social reconfiguration, in which the forces of unreason find their many anarchic places.

I feel like I’m being some old Frankfurt school Marxist, demanding of the latest sonic barricade-builder, “Jah, vot will be your zocial brogramme?” Yet there is a real split – a real tear down the fabric of the universe – between the words “head” and “heritage”. The question is whether the latter succeeds in totally negating the former.

On the glibbest surface, there is little to connect Cope’s passions for megalithic stone circles with the collected works of the Swedish freak-out merchants Pärson Sound. There’s an aside possible here about Julian being into all forms of cock rock. More deeply, though, there is an utter kinship between stone circles and vinyl discs. Both are vestiges of lost social occasions.

We don’t know for certain what “happenings” took place at Stonehenge. Similarly, the utopian expectations of every drumbeat on the Pärson Sound LPs are gone from us. This is why both have become heritage, not praxis, and why the shaman/showman Cope has taken on the unlikely role of creating Alfred Wainwright-type hill-walking guides to the Munro peaks of psychedelic experience. Here’s the thing, though: how do you curate vastation? Is it really enough to point out the public right of way to the psychic underworld?

When I began writing this, I thought I might (apparently incongruously) review Copendium alongside Caitlin Moran’s similarly punningly titled grab-bag of cultural commentary, Moranthology. There are lots of parallels to be drawn. Both writers are, within their arena, the best; both craft world-class one-liners and putdowns; both establish themselves very often as their own fall guys; both know that the way we live now is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Cope is clearly the more ambitious cultural critic of the two, because he is the more visionary. Moran can’t get heavy on her audience, because then she would lose the lightness of touch that is her all-in-all. People don’t want thumbtacks in their cupcakes. Moran addresses social beings rather than, as Cope does, gods who are failing to fulfil their transcendental destiny.

That Cope brings such cosmic questions into play shows how far beyond most mere music writers or cultural critics he is. And his judgements are invariably right. He says things that have long needed to be said: “Hell, a good deal of the more lysergic offerings of the early 21st century actually cacked big logs from a great height upon the heads of many so-called original British and US Sixties ‘psyche classics’.” The same holds true of rock’n’roll writing. Cope is better than Lester Bangs, because he is vaster.