A vital contributor to his first two solo albums, oboeist and cor anglais player Kate St John originally met Cope when her band The Ravishing Beauties supported The Teardrop Explodes on a UK tour in early 1982.
“I’d just left university and jumped into this,” says St John, “which was brilliant. It was completely crazy. I used to watch the Teardrops’ set every night and I never got bored of it, they were fantastic. I remember on tour we were hanging out at the Columbia Hotel, getting up to no good. Very bizarre, all-night sessions of madness going on – with lots of other bands as well, Echo And The Bunnymen and that whole Liverpool thing. I remember we were very out of it one night at the Columbia and there was a mock wedding with me and one of the roadies – I wasn’t going out with him or anything – and Julian was the mock priest. It was that kind of mad, really. It all made sense at the time.”
Later that year, the Teardrops attempted to record their third LP – dubbed ‘Everybody Wants To Shag The Teardrop Explodes’ – as an in-vogue electronic trio after guitarist Troy Tate and bassist Ronnie François were sacked. As always, tensions were high between Cope and keyboardist Dave Balfe, with the frontman fed up with the band, but not confident enough to end it. Balfe would annoy Cope by subjecting his simpler songs, such as “The Greatness And Perfection Of Love”, to ill-fitting arrangements. In turn, Cope angered Balfe by playing everything on a tiny Japanese keyboard he’d bought from him for £40.
“Balfey made a lot of the songs unsingable,” explains Cope. “He turned ‘The Greatness And Perfection…’ into what I can only say was kind of a cha-cha. One of the reasons that Balfey and I split was because he said: ‘If you’re going to play on a toy keyboard, what’s there left for me?’ And I was like, ‘Well, hopefully not much room at all.’”
With the Teardrops over, Cope retreated to his new home in Tamworth with his American girlfriend Dorian, to play on his keyboard, collect Dinky toys and take drugs. “We were taking a lot of speed. Tamworth was a source of black and whites, which I think came in from Amsterdam. They were really weird pills, quite a mouthful – they looked like suppositories. It was a bit of a trip. A black and white would last about a day and a half.”
“He had just come out of the end of the Teardrops,” says Donald Ross Skinner, then a 17-year-old Tamworth Teardrops fan. “A little bit hallucinogenically worse for wear, I suppose, and he kind of hid out in Tamworth, really, moved away from it all.”
Smalltown life wasn’t as idyllic as Cope had imagined, though. With his wild hair and past chart fame, he was so recognisable that he’d regularly receive offensive comments in the street. He and Dorian ended up buying most of their food and supplies – “Mars Bars and skins, that’s how we lived then” – from the local petrol station.
Some fans’ attention swung too far the other way, too. Cope had acquired a stalker, a Catholic virgin in her thirties, who sent him candid photos she’d taken of him secretly on London’s Oxford Street, along with letters promising that she would come to his house, murder Dorian and then lose her virginity to him. Cope’s big-shot manager Paul King, who also represented Tears For Fears, shut the stalker down, and managed to get Cope a record deal with Polydor. In late 1983, Cope headed into The Point studio in London’s Victoria to record his debut solo album, World Shut Your Mouth. In the producer’s chair was Steve Lovell; Cope knew him from their Liverpool days, but they only became reacquainted when he stumbled upon him busking “some Ash Ra Tempel meets Tom Verlaine” guitar on the Tube.
“I was lucky because the Teardrops were just big enough for the record company to pick me up for a two-album deal,” says Cope. “After the Teardrops split up, all the crowds moved away but not only that, all the technicians moved away. So I went from being able to command the Top 20 producers to meeting a guy in Oxford Circus tube station busking and getting him to produce those two albums. It turned out to be the best thing that I could have done.”
World Shut Your Mouth was a thrilling debut, still much underrated, that included “The Greatness And Perfection Of Love”, “Metranil Vavin” and “Pussyface”, all tried out for the third Teardrops album, along with new songs like the propulsive, post-punk rush of “Bandy’s First Jump” or the elegiac ballad “Head Hang Low”. Cope played many of the instruments, layering up “Lunatic And Fire-Pistol”, “An Elegant Chaos” and “Strasbourg” with his £40 keyboard. The Teardrops’ Gary Dwyer and Ronnie François, meanwhile, returned on drums and bass. In contrast to his old band, there were no trumpets, expensive residential studios or up-to-date ’80s synths, though Kate St John returned, this time to play oboe and cor anglais.
“I really like Kate,” says Cope. “We wanted to have her play on the third Teardrops album, but because Balfey had taken it in such an electronic territory, oboe just didn’t work. But a lot of the songs on World Shut Your Mouth really suited oboe. Again, a rustic air that you wouldn’t have got if it had been a modern keyboard.”
“There was a Syd Barrett feel about some of the more psychedelic ones on Julian’s early solo stuff,” says St John. “There’s something very English about that, and an oboe’s got that English vibe about it, as well. I just think Julian was looking for un-obvious sounds. He was exploring something pastoral, but it’s also quite snake charmer-y and atmospheric, and that’s just where his head was at. Those albums are quite different from The Teardrop Explodes, aren’t they? The Teardrop Explodes were much more sort of male… thumping and horns and all that sort of stuff.”
Cope’s life and music were about to get even more pastoral, though, when he and Dorian left Tamworth for the nearby village of Drayton Bassett. Their house was surrounded by fields on three sides, and this rural isolation led Cope to see the world in a very different way; indeed, his later fascination with megalithic sites and druidic, shamanic matters undoubtedly stems from this time onwards.
“Moving to Drayton Bassett was fascinating, because I was seeing everything through the eyes of a 20-year-old New Yorker, and it astonished me. Seeing my everyday through a Manhattan worldview, it allowed me to kind of put a microscope to that lens and go, oh hang on, that Saxon church on the hill is really old.”
“Drayton Bassett is very rural, but it’s quite odd,” explains Donald Ross Skinner, who at just 17 became Cope’s chosen guitarist around this time. “It is small, but then it’s got a really big theme park and zoo. We’d go over there quite a bit. I’d drive us in my mum’s car.”
World Shut Your Mouth was released in March 1984, hitting No 40, while its accompanying single, “Sunshine Playroom”, limped in at 64. Reviews were poor, with NME’s Barney Hoskyns writing, “I fear we might shut our collective gob for the rest of time and we still wouldn’t get a good Julian Cope album.”
At London’s Hammersmith Palais, on the last night of the sparsely attended promotional tour for the album, Cope, tripping on acid, performed a new song, “Reynard The Fox” and, in a fit of desperation to make it a memorable performance, broke the microphone stand, repeatedly cut his stomach with the sharp metal and then disappeared into a crawl space in the venue’s ceiling.
With his confidence still low and his reputation as a weirdo in the Syd Barrett/Skip Spence mould growing, Cope quickly set about working on a follow-up, this time exorcising the ghost of the Teardrops for good. The songs were all new, and so were the musicians – including Skinner, who would remain as Cope’s right-hand man for the next decade.
“I needed new blood, but the only people who were gonna be interested in working with me at that point were non-career musicians,” recalls Cope. “It was almost beyond Donald’s imagination to do a John Peel session. So I was suddenly working with people that were deeply enthusiastic. And that’s what I needed. I had to replace being able to offer them a lot of dosh, with being able to offer them a lot of exciting experiences.”
One of those was Cope’s Peel session, produced by a young Mark Radcliffe on May 29, 1984, which saw Skinner’s debut and first outings for three songs that would become highlights on his second album, Fried – “Me Singing”, “Sunspots” and “Search Party”. These were darker tracks, deeply psychedelic, but enriched with acoustic guitars and hints of a more ancient, folkier feel. The singer was still in a vulnerable place, though, even going off for a cry when Radcliffe casually suggested putting a keyboard overdub on one song. “How pathetic!” he laughs today. “But then again, I was pathetic then.
“I said to Paul King, my manager, straight after World Shut Your Mouth, ‘I want to do another album quickly’, and he went, ‘Well, Copey, I’m not sure if people even want this album.’ And I said, ‘Paul, I’ve got to create back catalogue.’ I always had such a historical overview of all my favourite poets or artists, and I used the term ‘back catalogue’ at the time. I said, ‘If I spent hardly any money on it, will they release it?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I suppose they will.’”