in News | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Ancient Briton

'An Audience with The Cope'

in News | 09 SEP 01

Julian Cope isn't afraid of anyone. The former Teardrop Explodes frontman and self-proclaimed 'head' strides around the front of the stage, hands on hips, surveying his audience. He leers at us like a pantomime ugly sister. He wears a sleeveless blue camouflage jacket, matching trousers and black rubber Frankenstein bondage boots with platform soles. His face is painted tangerine, with one black eye and black lips. His straggly, greying hair hangs past his shoulders. Julian Cope? Acid casualty? Noooo.

He's introduced as 'Julian Cope of Great Britain' because 'when I die, every part of this nation is gonna want a piece of my ass!' 'I've played everywhere!' he drawls into his headmike in a mid-Atlantic 'rock' accent. 'I recently played at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, here in London [burst of applause] and someone that night shouted out the best thing I've ever been told at a gig. They said, Julian ...', then he is joined in chorus from the front row, '... You're so Local!' Cope is thrilled and bounces over. 'Yeah! Lady! You're here! You are so cool!' The crowd go mad, Julian has bonded, and the tone for the evening is set.

The tour is called 'An Audience with The Cope', and that is what it is. Cope has us exactly where he wants, and he's gonna tell us how he feels about the world. And he's gonna rock. Which he does very well, it has to be said. People positively beam up at him, swaying in their seats like evangelists in an ecstasy of total belief. Cope may not have a record deal anymore, but he certainly has one of the most dedicated followings of anyone performing today - especially for a 1980s Indie pin-up now living as a semi-recluse in rural Wiltshire. It goes without saying that he is very, very unfashionable. He knows it and his fans do too - but that only fuels their adoration. Copey's been into a bit of everything over the years, and his fanbase reflects this: Hippies, Freaks, Skinheads and Goths; middle-aged couples who look like they're attending a meeting of a dissident offshoot of the Labour Party; eco-warriors and tree-lovers. They are all here, seeing in Cope something they can all relate to, and, like him, holding firm against the ebb and flow of mainstream fashionability. It's strangely heart-warming to see, a sort of alternative vision of what 'community' in Britain can mean today.

The sparsity of Cope's stage kit - a Mellotron covered in green netting, an iMac, a few guitars and Donald Ross Skinner on drums - demonstrates the enforced economy of his enterprise nowadays, but he couldn't care less. He holds his twin-necked guitar aloft like a sword, and proclaims 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the twin-necked guitar was a hateful thing in the hands of the Progressive Rock musician. In the hands of a funk-lovin' modern druid, however, it rocks!' and then straps it on, before launching into a rendition of 'Sunspots' that gets everyone moving. Cope shakes a lot of 'booty' when he performs these days. That's his terminology, by the way, and we hear it often as he turns to one side, waggling his skinny rump at us and grinning. He is having so much fun it's impossible not to be affected. 'I am now going to perform my ultimate baa baa song' he says, and people start giggling at his matter-of-fact honesty. 'I wrote a lot of baa baa songs over the years.' Which he did. He then does a beautiful rendition of 'Greatness and Perfection', a song that combines a driving tempo with delicate vocals and, well, a lot of 'baa baa's. Cope's influences have always been diverse, if not downright perverse; the show plucks seemingly randomly from his back catalogue and could leave the uninitiated wondering whether they've stumbled across an unusually talented, utterly mad busker. From Indie to Funk, Glam Rock to Protest Song, Cope moves fluidly through genres as if it's the natural thing to do. There is also something very English Pastoral about a lot of Cope's post-Teardrop material. From 'Reynard the Fox' through 'Charlotte Ann' to 'Lunatic and Fire-Pistol' he is unashamedly romantic about the English countryside of a previous age, a rural idyll long since gone, if it ever really existed. It would be toe-curlingly bad coming from anyone else, but his wonderful sincerity, macabre humour and sarcasm balance things out.

Cope isn't one really to get into new things unless they fit his eccentric agenda. He occasionally wanders over to his iMac, jiggles the mouse and looks closely at the screen. It's when he starts playing with his greying locks that he gives the game away. Finally he confesses: 'Sorry, I don't actually use the computer for anything, I just check out my reflection in the screen. It makes me look a bit more modern. And it sits nicely on the Mellotron, which I use a lot.' People cheer loudly; the Luddite faction has its moment.

It's just possible that Cope's extreme un-trendiness could lead to another spell of wider popularity. His interests (he is considered an expert on the ancient and pagan sites of Britain and The Modern Antiquarian, his 1998 book on the subject, was a best-seller) have gained ground in recent years. His views as a disaffected left-winger (or 'forward thinking muthafucker', as he puts it) concerned about the power of government and the state of the environment are shared by many who feel the same sense of indifference towards Blair's Labour Party. 'I ain't gonna vote this time,' he announces at one point, as if there might be a single person present who imagined otherwise. He can orate with the best of them: at one point he starts raving about kids reading too many books, and I sense the person next to me bristle slightly. 'Education, Julian!' he shouts out. 'Yeah, exactly, education!' Cope shouts back, putting more spin on it than a junior minister. His passion for music and life is infectious. He could be big - if only he went easy on the tangerine facepaint and black lippy. Julian Cope of Great Britain, shake your booty.