Armed with intellectual acumen, the arch druid baits religion - and the Turks...
Armed with intellectual acumen, the arch druid baits religion – and the Turks…
In the same month that the MC5’s Wayne Kramer tells an interviewer that “embracing violence as a viable political strategy” was “the biggest mistake we made”, Julian Cope – an MC5 fan and John Sinclair scholar – releases an album with an AK-47 flaunted on the cover and a quote from Les Rallizes Dénudés inside: “Sometimes you have a guitar. Sometimes you arm yourself.” Reading the booklet, we find a block of text printed above the word ‘Kalashnikov’, asking if the time “could be right for suicide”. Faced with this kind of rhetoric, one wonders what kind of endgame Cope envisages.
Since his politicisation on Peggy Suicide (1991), Cope’s albums have documented the world around him in indignant polemics and idiosyncratic gonzo verse. Revolutionary Suicide is among his finest recent work, equal parts mission statement and sonic eccentricity, an album produced with one foot on a Mellotron pedal and the other in Lee Perry’s Black Ark. There’s a terrific pop song (“Paradise Mislaid”) about a pair of ex-clubbers regretting that they got married. More beatific melody follows (“In His Cups”) as though Cope has channelled “Sunspots”. The soapbox rag “Mexican Revolution Blues” surrenders to a sublime coda that materialises like a Harold Budd interlude in a Phil Ochs tune. Cope, who performs most of the album himself, has given his listeners plenty to like.
But other parts of Revolutionary Suicide are far from blissful. One of his most controversial themes – that Christianity and Islam have no place in an enlightened society – shows signs of hardening into an obsession. The 11-minute “Destroy Religion”, a sound collage featuring bizarre vocalisations and an erratic synthesiser, may not be quite the diatribe one expects from its title, but other songs go much, much further. “Hymn To The Odin” calls for priests to be “erased” and “every mosque” to be felled. Specifically identifying Islam as homophobic and misogynistic, “Why Did The Chicken Cross My Mind?” attacks liberals who decline to debate the issue, implying that they’re no better than Neville Chamberlain backing out of a confrontation with Hitler. Cope’s criticism of Islam is some of the most outspoken to come from a public figure – while at the same time being lucid and in no way open to misinterpretation. The song is an open address to an entire religion. If it circulates beyond his usual fanbase, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen.
Those jaw-dropping sentiments are followed by “The Armenian Genocide”, lasting just over a quarter of an hour, in which Cope excoriates modern-day Turkey for refusing to recognise the crimes of the Ottoman Empire. Adopting the character of an Armenian traveller caught up in the death marches of 1915, Cope is initially implausible as he recounts the tale of a brutal mass starvation while strumming four simple chords over and over. But then something extraordinary happens. He may not have the accent for it, let alone the personal experience, but he has knowledge and outrage on his side. He adds more and more musical ingredients to the mix, symbolically mirroring the desecrations heaped on the marchers at each stage of their route, and our disbelief is suspended long before his narrative unfolds into a 20th century catastrophe. Reiterating a one-word humanitarian mantra (“people…”) for minutes on end, this intensely moving song points a bony finger at the world’s conscience and demands the ratification that Armenians have awaited for a century. Cope has, in the space of two very different pieces lasting a combined 24 minutes, shown himself to be compassionate, erudite, condemnatory and shockingly unafraid of whom he angers.
In 2007, Cope released an album called You Gotta Problem With Me. Nobody did have a problem with him, because he was preaching to the converted. But that album title may prove prophetic. An outsider in every sense now, Cope has described himself as a “shaman standing on the edge of whatever is current”. Protest singers write about the news, and Revolutionary Suicide brings Cope’s shamanic reportage into the sharpest possible focus. It asks us to accept that Cope is not just clever (“Mao and Nixon sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G-E-R”) but intellectually correct. It asks us to explain what we defend, and why. It asks what precisely we want, and how much we can sanction, from Julian Cope.
What do you mean by revolutionary suicide?
The album is named after [Black Panther leader] Huey Newton’s autobiography. Huey Newton made this really important comment. He said that all revolutionaries are doomed. I take him to mean doomed in the ancient sense of ‘judgment’ – as in the Domesday Book. What is revolutionary suicide? For me, it’s Hunter S. Thompson, a practitioner of Western thought to the max, who did all he could and quit honourably [i.e. committed suicide]. It’s the idea of ultimate freedom. In a secular country, where we’re all supposed to be our own Pope, surely we can also be our own hangman if it gets too much?
You mention Peggy Suicide in your sleevenotes. Are the two albums connected in your mind?
They both recognise what I call atavisms. Revolutionary Suicide reconfirms the links to everything that I value. I’m really on the same riff as ever, but now I’m saying I’m armed and extremely dangerous. I’ve got extra information. I don’t have to be fearful of using an alarmist symbol like the AK-47, because I know that the AK-47 stands for freedom, so much so that it appears on the flag of Mozambique.
You end the album with an 11-minute song called “Destroy Religion”.
Everyone’ll be going, ‘Oh, he’s slagging off religion again,’ but I just thought it was an opportunity to say it the best way. And the best way is doing it like Amon Düül I with William Blake on lead vocals. It’s true that I find all these cultures wanting – but remember, I find [i]our[i] culture more wanting than any of them. I’m somebody who found Christianity wanting for the first 11 years of my career. Then, when I learned more, I found the other religions wanting too.
INTERVIEW: DAVID CAVANAGH
Visit our dedicated features section, with plenty of our best long pieces archived there. You can find it here.