Monday, 26 January 2015

Floored Genius

JULIAN COPE - Birmingham Glee Club

Julian Cope, it has to be said, has committed some atrocities in the name of music. The former Teardrop Explodes frontman is an expert on obscure '60s and '70s rock, and has written several books on the topic. But sometimes these influences creep into his music, especially in recent years. This, along with his inclination for long meditative pieces, can lead to results that would have been best left in the studio bin. Brain Donor, his Kiss-inspired side project, is excruciatingly painful and I'm not entirely sure that it was meant to be ironic.

Now I have nothing against experimentation, indeed there is plenty of it in my record collection, but Cope is such an outstanding songwriter that he shouldn't need to rely on gimmicks. His live shows should always be approached with caution, but when he walks onstage with no backing band and just an acoustic guitar, as is the case tonight, you should be safe.

It soon becomes apparent what a constant presence Cope has been in my life since I bought his "Saint Julian" album back in 1987. He has been there watching over me for so long that I no longer notice. He's released seven albums just in this century and although I'm pretty certain I've bought them all, I don't think I could name them or recognise many of the songs. At least that's what I think until he launches into the opening number, "Living In The Room They Found Saddam In" - possibly one of the best songs he's penned in his solo career. I immediately remember what I was doing in 2005 when this came out. The same is true for the rest of the set; Cope has been so prolific that there is a section of his back catalogue intrinsically linked with pretty much every period of my life.

It's his early-90s releases that mean the most to me, particularly "Peggy Suicide" and "Jehovahkill", where he began to move away from the quirky pop of the earlier albums. The songs became slightly more complex without being overblown, but at the same time those records feature some beautiful stripped-down moments. The opening songs from these two albums, "Pristeen" and "Soul Desert" respectively, are similar in structure, with each one having just one very basic set of words repeated throughout. They remind me of the simpler times we lived in back then. The two songs are the highlights of tonight's set, and Cope remains more or less faithful to the simplicity of the originals, although he does attempt to turn the ending of "Soul Desert" into an all-out rocker. Well, as much as you can rock out with just an acoustic guitar anyway. He wisely brings the song to a close just as it starts to become comical.

His live sets often contain songs that are still in development or were written years ago but not recorded. There are song titles that are often mentioned on fansites but are probably apocryphal. Does a song called "I Could Strangle Pete Wylie" really exist? Cope's erstwhile Crucial Three colleague does get a mention tonight though. The title of Wylie's hit "Heart As Big As Liverpool" has been corrupted to give us a song about the perils of drinking, called "Liver As Big As Hartlepool". Another new (to me, anyway) song has a title that I won't repeat here in case there are any children reading, but Cope explains that it is intended to offend or at least confuse Americans, simply because they use the same four-letter words but in a different format.

It's not just the songs but also the anecdotes between that make for a memorable evening. He takes a self-deprecating look at his career and how the Teardrop Explodes failed to achieve their full potential, referring to himself as an "intuitive non-career mover". Sometimes it's not clear whether he's talking about his own experiences or those of an exaggerated cartoon character and even in his own mind the boundaries have become blurred; he took what he describes as a method actor approach when writing his first novel. During "Sunspots", he stops to tell us about the lyric insert that was required for the Japanese release. After a lengthy discourse about the part in the chorus that "sounds like a car going past" causing problems for the poor sod given the task of transcribing, he remembers that he still owes us the final verse and resumes the song. Few performers could get away with that.

When he returns for an encore, he tells us that the previous night, the crowd had shouted for "Robert Redford". He hasn't had time to write a song on that topic on the way to tonight's gig, so instead we have to make do with "Robert Mitchum". I suspect he tells the same story every night, but we will forgive him that little bit of artistic licence. Despite my reservations about some of his work, and some of the live sets I've seen him play, he has proved tonight that those minor blips only make up a small percentage of his career. I'm not sure what 2015 is going to bring for me but I hope he will provide me with some new songs as a soundtrack that I will still remember when I look back in 20 years' time.

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