by / February 8th, 2013 /

Julian Cope – Saint Julian


Consider these quotations from Julian Cope, which can be found in a Q & A on his excellently maintained website, Head Heritage:

Q: What do you think of the current spate of re-issues of your old material?
A: Oh man, I can’t stand that shit. How many times can they re-issue the same
Q: Which is your favourite album and what do you think of Saint Julian, which
is pure distilled pop brilliance. I love all your stuff but another great flashy pop
album would be fab!
A: I’d never rule out a ‘flashy pop album’ as you term it. But probably not in the
next few years. Saint Julian is not one of my favourites, but it has its moments.

And that, in essence, is probably all you need to know about the Arch Drude’s third solo album (although The Teardrop Explodes was pretty much Julian and whoever happened to stay in the same room for long enough to be a band member, so the difference between the two is often pretty hard to detect, and the transition from one to the other more seamless that it might seem), released in 1987, and Island’s contemporary reissue of it.

As Ian Harrison writes in the liner notes, referring to the second volume of Cope’s memoirs, Repossessed, ‘Cope declared that his objective was to channel “all my frustrations at god and evil into this next album… (but) in order to explain my fears to the world I had to take on the guise of the people I most detested.” Accordingly, the songs would draw on the raging ego of the performer, his midlands surroundings, the sins of organised religion and the messianic self-righteousness found in the kind of stadium rock peddled by U2.’ It’s a neat piece of revisionism, but what happens if, in trying to be as big as U2, you wind up just sounding like them? Long suppressed adolescent memories of Julian in full leathers getting quite intimate with his patented climbable mike stand on The Tube spring to mind. We can laugh about it now, but it was terrible at the time. As Cope admits elsewhere in Repossessed, Saint Julian wasn’t him at all.

Of course, it is sheer snobbery to construct a binary opposition between Rock and Pop, and then privilege the former at the expense of the latter. We’re supposed to appreciate ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ as much as ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Please, Please Me’ as much as ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, Rubber Soul as much as The White Album. Plus, it’s not like Saint Julian doesn’t do its best to rock out in places, particularly on ‘Spacehopper’ (perhaps tellingly, a left over from Crucial Three days’ writing sessions with Ian McCullogh) and the hard-riffing ‘Pulsar’. Plus, ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ is a great pop song, by anyone’s standards.

The problem is that much of the record, Cope’s big bid for mainstream recognition and success, is marred by high gloss ’80s synthetic production, courtesy first of Ed Stasium, who helmed an initial three tracks, and then Warne Livesey, who did the rest. You know the kind of thing I mean here, that huge-ass Steve Lillywhite/Bob Clearmountain-esque snare drum sound, overlaid with swathes of trebly keyboard washes. The big drums that open ‘Planet Ride’ are a typical example. In places, you could just as easily be listening to The Thompson Twins, or Duran Duran. It’s a period sound that makes a critically-lauded band like The Blue Nile virtually unlistenable for me – although their great contemporaries Talk Talk never fell for it, leastways not in the latter, jazz ambient masterpieces, part of their career. For Julian, this was not the way to go commercial.

On the credit side, one can contextualise the release as Cope emerging from a serious trough, where he was regularly referred to condescendingly in the music press as ‘Dear Julian’ or the more outrightly pejorative ‘Droolian’, his fondness for hallucinogenics leading many to conclude that, post-Fried, he’d gone the way of Syd Barrett. That he came out fighting and roaring is admirable, and he’s in fine voice throughout. Just check out opener ‘Trampoline’ for someone who’s bright as a daisy and game as a pebble.

This reissue features a bonus disc of b-sides and remixes which amounts to a coupling of the original album with the 1997 rarities compilation The Followers Of Saint Julian, although ‘Spacehopper Annexe’ wasn’t on the ’97 release. Faithful covers of The 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘I’ve Got Levitation’ and Pere Ubu’s ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ show which way Julian was heading, when he wasn’t thinking about total world domination.

Cope went on to make much better albums than Saint Julian (and also publish some great books), when he gave up on his ill-judged attempt to drive in the middle of the road and, to paraphrase Neil Young, ‘headed for the ditch.’ Great albums like Peggy Suicide, Jehovakill or You Gotta Problem With Me. But as a snapshot of an artist in transition and overcoming adversity, even if it is ultimately a failed direction, Saint Julian is a valuable document, if inessential for hardcore fans. In an alternative, better universe, Julian Cope would be a megastar. In this one, as he subsequently sang on Peggy Suicide track ‘Las Vegas Basement’, ‘I was born to entertain, so here I go.’

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