ROCK / Ever-increasing circles: Julian Cope, new antiquarian, talks to Kevin Jackson about setting stones in rock
Thursday 24 September 1992
Shadows of this little ironic reversal tend to fall over encounters with Julian Cope these days. It is a matter of public record that Cope's early musical career was fuelled by enough pharmaceuticals to make the shareholders of La Roche envious; just last month, one of the rock glossies published an extract from Head On, one of Cope's three volumes of autobiography-in-progress, in which he recalled (well, just about) having appeared on Top of the Pops with The Teardrop Explodes while his cerebral synapses were ablaze with LSD. A song title from his 1990 album Skellington, reissued on this year's retrospective Floored Genius, sums up this aspect of the Cope persona neatly: 'Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed'.
The first Wayneian surprise in meeting this notorious drug fiend and party animal, then, is that his latest incarnation is that of a cheery, hospitable young husband and father who survives several hours of photo-session and interview on nothing more toxic or stimulating than nectarines and Rich Tea biscuits. The second is the incongruously pedantic nature of his discourse. Asked to name his principal influences, Cope unhesitatingly names three men: 'Lethbridge, Thom and Stukely'. Oh yes, how foolish of me, L T & S. Now let's see, didn't they make that legendary live album on the Devil's Den label, or was that . . . ?
There's no point turning to an encyclopaedia of rock'n'roll for enlightenment here, since the gentlemen in question are in fact the late T C Lethbridge, sometime Honorary Keeper of Anglo-Saxon Antiquities at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge; Alexander Thom, former Professor of Engineering at Oxford University; and - most improbable candidate of all for the role of rock idol - William Stukely (1687-1765), the Lincolnshire doctor, clergyman and antiquarian. What on earth is Cope driving at?
Like all myths and mysteries, this one has a hidden key. The factor which unites Lethbridge, Thom and Stukely in Cope's private pantheon is that they are among the great visionary explicators of Britain's ancient stone circles and dolmens, and that Cope is . . . well, interested would be too mild an adjective to describe his engagement with these megaliths. 'Obsessed' comes closer, since his study of such matters has affected just about every aspect of his life and music. When he alludes to 'the Stones', he's far more likely to mean the Rollrights than the Rolling.
In the past couple of years, Cope's desire to move in these circles has led him to relocate his family from south London to a small village in Wiltshire, barely a menhir's throw from the great Avebury ring. He is about 200 pages into the writing of a propagandistic illustrated guide book to Britain's neolithic remains, entitled The Modern Antiquarian, and has been organising his touring schedules so as to be able to visit the more remote structures. A few weeks ago, for example, he set up a series of solo dates in Orkney and the Western Isles which subsidised visits to Stenness and Callanish.
And now his stones have begun to make their way into his rock, with his new album Jehovahkill, subtitled - in a Buddy Holly pun to match the title of last year's double album Peggy Suicide - 'That'll be the Deicide'. Its sleeve notes give fair warning of the contents, being covered with cheeky verses bearing such titles as 'Ancient Monuments - In Anticipation of Now' and 'Megalithomania]'.
All of which leads to the obvious question of why? Not to mention, how on earth? Unfortunately, while Cope has been swotting up on the literature so assiduously that he's now able to quote chapter, verse and footnote about Stukely's (wildly erroneous) theories about the Druids, he's somewhat vaguer about the chronology and contours of his own idee fixe: 'I don't know, it just seemed to start from my life, I just found myself staggering towards it, really. It certainly wasn't anything I had been interested in before, but I found myself led down this route by reading people like Gurdjieff, then (Colin) Wilson and then on to Lethbridge.
'In about1 952, Lethbridge started to get into this thing he called 'Intuitive Archaeology', which was his way of saying, I think, that he was starting to have visions - did you know he uncovered the Gog and Magog hill figures? Unfortunately he was a great big fat man and he only lived another 12 years, but the last dozen years of his life was entirely visionary stuff, and he lost most of his friends because of it.'
There seems to be a warning implicit in this sting to Lethbridge's tale: doesn't Cope worry that by going on about prehistoric man, astro-archaeology and visionary states like this he's also going to lose friends, be branded as an old acid casualty or the music world's answer to David Icke? Worse still, won't all this harping on about geomancy tend to alienate a lot of his fans? 'Oh, loads,' he agrees. 'But I never started out my career with any intention of tugging along all of them, and I've alienated people throughout. If I've had a period of real obscurity, I've alienated people who want me to be a pop singer. I'll go back and have hits, and I alienate people who are so messed up they only want delicate flowers to be their heroes. But hopefully I'll haul a few more along as well.'
Some of the keener members of his constituency, he says, are already beginning to hit the road, or more precisely the ley-line, in his tracks, 'Though we'll have to wait two or three years to see whether that's just following fashion.' Fair comment, since the quality which seems to distinguish Cope's 'modern antiquarianism' from other forms of dabbling in the major arcana is precisely his willingness to do his homework. Plenty of pop musicians will trot out the old flannel about cosmic energies, but it's hard to think of anyone apart from Julian Cope who'd be willing to lash out a sizeable chunk of his royalties on a first edition of Aubrey.
Jehovahkill, too, offers some justification for Cope's claim that he knows how to present his ideas with a leavening of humour; it was originally going to be called Julian H. Cope, as in the American expletive 'Jesus H. Christ]', but the joke was lost on too many people. 'When I say that some of it is humorous, what I'm saying is that I mean every word of it, but that I know that to some people it will all sound ridiculous.'
If the sceptics should turn too ugly, Cope can always wheel out the big guns: Robert Graves is one of the authorities cited in The Modern Antiquarian, and T S Eliot is another. Moreover, if Cope's hobby-horse looks a bit dotty to us, we would do well to recall that people thought Stukely was dotty, and they thought William Blake - another megalithomaniac - was dotty. There's worse company for an English artist to keep, though it's fair to add that people also thought Wild Man Fisher was a loony, and they were right.
Shortly before I leave, Cope presents me with a small memento: a leather belt, its brass buckle inscribed with a maxim from Nietzsche: 'Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster.' And then he goes back to his photograph albums, his 17th-century antiquarian texts and his minutely inscribed notepads. Boy, this guy really knows how to party]
'Jehovahkill' is on Island Records and will be released next month to coincide with Julian Cope's nationwide tour.
Julian Cope: A Biography
Born in Deri, South Wales, in October 1957, Julian Cope disappears until the first Teardrop Explodes gig in Liverpool in November 1978. 'Sleeping Gas', their first single is released in February 1979. Mercury Records picks up the first album, Kilimanjaro, 'Reward' is a smash hit, then in November 1981 flop follows fame with the second album, Wilder. Cope repairs to Tamworth, his childhood home. In March 1984, World Shut Your Mouth is released: there is a tour and Fried is released the following October. Cope then records Skellington in Tamworth before signing to Island and, in September 1986, enjoying the success of the single 'World Shut Your Mouth'. 'Trampolene' also hits the charts; Saint Julian is released in March 1987 and My Nation Underground in October 1988. Skellington is finally released in March 1990 and in April Mercury releases Everybody Wants to Shag the Teardrop Explodes, an aborted third album. Peggy Suicide follows in March 1991, Floored Genius - The Best of the Teardrop Explodes and Julian Cope in August.
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