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Cosmic Cuckoos 

Julian Cope and pagans against the machine

Wednesday, May 10 2000
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AMERICAN RECORDINGS

Because we have our own aural tradition and need for congregation with like minds . . . because we can’t, not all of us, get our knickers in a twist about the muffler-rock of Testosterostock 2000 (Metallica, Korn and Kid Rock at the Coliseum, July 15, mark your calendars!) . . . because the airwaves are clean and there‘s nobody singing to me . . . Because of all that, I find myself here in London, jet-lagged and double-lagered, listening to Julian Cope.

Yes, that Julian Cope. Ex-leader of the Teardrop Explodes, the early-’80s Liverpudlian post-punk group with a sizable cult following. Solo artist with a minor pre-alternative hit (the anthemic “World Shut Your Mouth”). A petulant, paranoid near--rock star freakoid who in true “VH1 Behind the Music” fashion succeeded in alienating his band, his fans, his record label and, finally, himself before a series of revelations in 1989 shifted him in a newly “aware” direction.

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Cope went hypernova and deep-historical -- from town frier to town crier, from “Saint Julian” to “The Arch-Drood,” from Syd Barrett--esque acid-gobbler to full-throttle goddess-worshippin‘ Mystic Brother No. 1, becoming a self-conscious subscriber to Dadaist artist Hugo Ball’s dictum that “Artists are Gnostics, and practice what the priests think is long forgotten.” Now confident in his role as “Shamanic Rock & Rolling Inner-Space Cadet,” Cope released an extraordinary series of artistically ambitious albums on Island (and, later, American) that, in the music-industry scheme of things, were underperforming commercial failures, and he ended up without a major-label recording contract.

Today, Cope spends his days out on Ur--Pagan Patrol near Silbury Hill, raising a family, self-releasing a number of limited-edition mail-order records, overseeing a fantastic Web site (www.headheritage.co.uk) and, in the last six years, laboring over a clutch of obsessive, entertaining books, including two hilarious autobiographies (Head-on in ‘94 and Repossessed in ’99, now out in one convenient $19.95 paperback volume), a crash course in Krautrock (‘95’s essential Krautrocksampler), and ‘98’s The Modern Antiquarian, a scholarly study of Britain‘s pre-Christian megalithic sacred sites, now in its third printing.

Clad in leopard-skin tights and knee-high platform jackboots, Cope ventures into the city rarely and reluctantly to report, bardexplorerlike, his findings to The People. And so “Cornucopea”: two early-spring weekend nights at London’s South Bank Centre of Cope-curated space-rock ambient-glitter bubble-metal protest-blues, starring a host of artists and, of course, Mr. Cope himself. A sounding of the horn of plenty. A celebration of mystery, whimsy, eccentricity -- of Supreme Oddness. A festival for the cuckoos.

SATURDAY, APRIL 1: FOOL‘S DAY

Scene report from the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer: giant blue-and-yellow Cosmic Jokers album-cover banners; the Doctors of Madness’ World‘s Smallest Disco -- a closet space with a DJ, a lit dance floor and a five-person maximum occupancy; a glass case containing Julian’s own vinyl copy of Amon Duul‘s Disaster LP, the grand prize in the evening’s Krautrock Coloring Contest, in which participants take magick marker to the black-and-white psych-op undulations of the Faust Tapes album cover. Young witches in hand-holding covens. Close-shaved black-clad post-cocaine spiritualists. Longhair Eurollectuals. Thirtysomething artheads. It‘s an alchemical underground happening, a Freak-Out(ting). We are here, as Julian puts it in the program, to “re-connect with our rock & roll past whilst propelling ourselves headlong into the mysteries of the twenty hundreds.”

The rooms are abuzzing; it’s as if anyone within 50 yards of Mr. Cope is catching the cumulative zoom! of his thousands of early-‘80s acid trips. Opening the evening with a solo set, Cope is the human contact high, a Star reborn as a post-cynical entertainer for a post-cool crowd, offering shamanic bozo charisma with an arched eyebrow -- a preening card who sneaks a song in between the banter and bar patter, preluding the evening with guitars, Mellotron, exhortations, classic tunes and a running commentary on his own performance. A delight.

Next door in the Purcell Room, Cope cronies Universal Panzies ride their glitter-garage riffs and hallucinatory anti-Roman rants into the silvery-golden dawn. It’s high (-concept) infidelity, with obvious affinities (glam, pre-Christian England) to many of Cope‘s interests. Same goes for guitarist-singer Tony McPhee and his near-blues trio the Groundhogs; McPhee’s unique combination of sarcastic protest songs and outre rock guitar is a clear antecedent for Cope‘s post-’89 eccentrica. Tonight, even if the hired-hands rhythm section aren‘t close to being up to the task of accompanying Mr. McPhee, the old grayhair himself is all galloping, ferocious rawktonics, showing off the inventive instrumental chops that still fall in some weird space between folk blues, Hendrix, Cream, Television and the Minutemen.

Not nearly as impressive are the white-suited New Ageist instrogroup Skyray, led by Teardrop Explodes’ Paul Simpson, whose nap-worthy keyboard cheese doodles fail to transform the Queen Elizabeth Hall into an aquarium, despite some occasionally nifty marine slide projections. The evening‘s other ambient-instro combo is, of course, Queen Elizabeth, Cope’s ongoing collaboration with Spiritualized keyboard sideman Thighpaulsandra. Q.E. battles banks of special-effects-loaded Powerbooks, manned by guys with frizz curls and sleeveless shirts. It‘d work better outdoors, under real stars, at some sort of sacred standing-stone cave rave.

Still, the Queen is out-there stuff, and much more satisfying than Braindonor, Cope’s new “false metal” trio, and the evening‘s (Butt-)headliner. The Slade--meets--Van Halen ’donor is Copey‘s attempt at “getting high by aiming low” via two double-guitarists, one drummer, lotsa face paint and endless tongue-out soloing; in short, playing the fool on Fool’s Day and diggin‘ it. Amusing for a little while -- how could a 6-foot-2 black-leotarded Julian Cope done up like Gene Simmons not be? -- but the ’tween-song Manowar jokes soon become more fun than the tunes, which, aside from the two-word song titled “You Know,” have been tragically shorted in the Crucial Hook department. They‘re just not base enough, not reptile-brain enough, not, er, Coliseum enough.

SUNDAY, APRIL 2: MOTHER’S DAY

Worst first, even though they played last: guitarist Manuel Gottsching and drummer Klaus Schultze in their first appearance in 25 years under the holy name Ash Ra Tempel. In the early ‘70s, these guys (with bassist Hartmut Enke) emerged from the deepest of German stoner hazes to produce albums of senses-deranging heavy drama. But the men who come onstage tonight to thunderous applause are less the spacerocketeers of legend than kindly, cardigan-clad seniors here to play the most insufferable keyboards-and-effects-pedaled-guitar cosmic snoozery you’ve ever heard. The only place this transports me is out the door, quickly.

The evening opens with a playful ritual, beneath the Royal Hall‘s softly folded ceiling, by the beguiling electronicists Coil, this time appearing in their Time Machines guise. The white-robed quartet play keyboards within briefcases atop cloth-draped tables, as if this were a corporate presentation (with fog machine and occasional furry creature) at an industry convention for the Technoccult. Their drumless, tuneless whistles, tweeterings and phasings sound like the motorbeast throb of Quatermass and the Pit’s Martian-devil swarms, those horned arthropods whose visages match Coil‘s Time Machines logo, which is, in turn, based on the personal monad of Sir John Dee, the Elizabethan court astrologer, scientist and Enochian occultist. See? Sci-fi techno-music magick, uh-huh.

Just as spellbinding is Cope’s 60-minute solo set. He plays the “hits” and the rarities: “Pristeen” and “Double Vegetation,” “Soul Desert” and “The Great Dominions,” “Jellypop Perky Jean” and the new “Conspiracist Blues.” He displays his doubleneck guitar and says, “Surfers are mystified by it!” He nods in agreement with the notes he hits, finishing songs with a self-satisfied “Yeahhhh.” He explains that every rock & roller is an Odinist priest because the original Odin was “poetic, dress-wearing and fierce as hell!”

And then we‘re off with a repeating guitar figure on a lengthy Julian-narrated journey, in which the auditorium becomes the Festival Hall mothership floating across the English countryside toward Silbury, piloted by George Clinton until Julian takes the wheel (“George is righteous, but he’s a bad driver!”); we wave hello to the late Johnny Morris (the Voice of the Animals on many a BBC nature documentary) down below, and then there‘s a return flight back to London, finally landing here next to the Thames, with Julian at the edge of the stage, whispering to goose-bump-inducing, pindrop silence, “This . . . space . . . I neeeeeed . . . this space . . .”

And that’s where we always end up, right? Beyond music, beyond words, beyond gesture: in stillness, listening to the silence -- to the sound, as someone once said, of spirits approaching.

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