The arch druid goes POPTASTIC...

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Julian Cope – Saint Julian

The arch druid goes POPTASTIC…

We are now used to Julian Cope as the drug-damaged, Krautrock-obsessed arch druid who pens weighty tomes on prehistoric monuments and makes arcane psych-rock albums to a bijou audience. Saint Julian is a reminder that English rock’s last great eccentric was once a proper pop star. Just over a quarter of a century ago, Saint Julian put him all over the place: on Top Of The Pops, on Jonathan Ross and Terry Wogan’s chat shows, on Saturday-morning kids shows like Number 73 and Saturday Superstore, while his high cheekbones were splashed all over the pages of Smash Hits, Just Seventeen and Number One.

Newly signed to his dream record label, Island, Cope cut his hair, donned his Hamburg Beatles biker leathers, clambered aboard his faintly ridiculous 10-foot-high “Iggdrassil” mic stand (complete with integral step ladder) and decided – in his own words – “to compete” on pop’s battleground with the likes of Nick Berry, Sam Fox and Belouis Some.

Cope, along with a large section of his fanbase, is now rather dismissive of this period of his career, faintly ashamed to admit that he was “devastated” when the album’s lead single, “World Shut Your Mouth” stalled at No.19 in the UK chart and its follow-up, “Trampoline”, spent three weeks at No.31. When I last interviewed him he dismissed the LP as “patchy and largely rubbish” and appears not to be doing any promotion for its reissue. It’s a pity, because most of it certainly holds up.

After two slightly self-indulgent attempts to mix psychedelic whimsy with Scott Walker-ish baroque pop – 1983’s World Shut Your Mouth and 1984’s Fried – Saint Julian was a shit-or-bust attempt to go to the pop jugular. Cope’s template was Alice Cooper’s early singles, and at least half the album succeed in capturing that essence. You can certainly hear that snotty, longhaired garage rock sound in the album’s two lead singles, while the rabble-rousing “Pulsar”, the yelping live favourite “Spacehopper” and the Sonics-referencing “Shot Down” all owe much to Detroit. Cope described “World Shut Your Mouth”, with its Motown drumbeat and anthemic chorus, as somewhere between “Hang On Sloopy” and “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”, and it probably trumps “Reward” as his finest three minutes – closely followed by “Trampoline”.

Some of the album revisits other areas of Cope’s career. The title track and the waltzing “Crack In The Clouds” both hark back to the cleverly arranged orchestral pop of his 1983 post-Teardrops debut “Sunshine Playroom”, with Kate St John’s cor anglais nestling alongside a lovely tangle of chords. The tracks that don’t stand up so well are the ones that can be carbon-dated to 1987. The quirky 6/8 shuffle of “Eve’s Volcano” and the faux-gospel of “Planet Ride” are decent songs but both sound like Scritti Politti productions attempted on a low-budget, with tons of gated reverb on the snare drum, a kaleidoscope of processed guitars and even a hint of slap bass.

Nothing new has been unearthed from the vaults for disc two of this package, but we do get a pretty comprehensive collection of period ephemera. There are live versions of “Pulsar” and “Shot Down” (which showed up on flipsides) and a few inconsequential remixes, including the much-vaunted but rather useless Troublefunk mix of “World Shut Your Mouth”, which was supposed to indulge Cope’s fondness for DC Go-Go but which sounds like any other drearily superfluous ’80s 12” mix.

More interesting are the non-album songs. There are four tracks that were b-sides to various pressings of “World Shut Your Mouth”, including a thoroughly thrashy and dissolute cover of The 13th Floor Elevators’ “(I’ve Got) Levitation”, a jaunty country-and-western track called “Umpteenth Unnatural Blues”, a free-jazz odyssey called “Transportation” and a Ramones-ish run through Pere Ubu’s “Non-Alignment Pact”. There are three primeval punk oddities which made up the “Trampoline” EP: the stately, martial clarion call of “Disaster”; the cyclical, Can-like “Warwick The Kingmaker”; and the droney, organ-led “Mock Turtle”. There’s also a Morricone-ish instrumental called “Almost Beautiful”, the b-side to “Eve’s Volcano”.

Listening to the album again, 25 years on, one can see how it may retrospectively ruin Cope impeccably honed psych-rock credibility. But that’s the key to Saint Julian’s appeal – what it lacks in rockist credibility it more than makes up for in pop urgency. It shows that even an obscurantist cult messiah can benefit from the discipline of trying to write a hit single.
John Lewis