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Erratic historian of alternative pop

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

Copendium: An Expedition into theRock’n’Roll Underworld Julian Cope

Faber, pp.736, £30

Julian Cope, the well-read jester of English pop, was the founder member of the 1980s art-rock combo The Teardrop Explodes. With his antic appearance (Rommel overcoat, wild tawny hair), he falls into the erratic genius category. Drugs have played their part. By his own account, Cope has undertaken some dangerous chemical expeditions to the mind’s antipodes by means of lysergic acid. Yet he is no tiresome advert for drug-induced excess (still less for English whimsy). He is a recognised authority on the neolithic culture of Britain, for one thing, and has written two winningly eccentric volumes of musicology, Krautrocksampler and Japrock-sampler.

Copendium, his humorously titled history of alternative popular music from the 1950s to the present, contains many nifty turns of phrase and comic insights. (‘If this guy owned a car,’ we read of an experimental bluesman, ‘it was a kaput Model T drawn by mules.’) The book gathers an impressive array of album reviews, fiery polemics and paeans to the most off-piste and unsung singers and songwriters imaginable. (Only Cope could extol the virtues of a 1960s Danish beat group called Ola and the Janglers.) Running to over 700 pages, Copendium has the look and feel of a Bible; it would make a welcome gift for any pop obsessive, and is fun to dip into.

Among Cope’s quirky enthusiasms is the now forgotten comedian-singer Lord Buckley, whose hip-jive stand-up routines apparently influenced Bob Dylan. In appearance Lord Buckley was said to resemble a hybrid of Salvador Dali and a Raj colonel. Cope makes a good case for rehabilitating his Frank Zappa-released album A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat, a hodge-podge of surreal observations on life. Sadly, Lord Buckley lived for only two years after the album’s release, dying in 1960 at the age of 54.

Many will be familiar with Tom Lehrer. Cope first heard him in his native Wales in the late 1950s, at the age of three and a half; the singer was constantly on his mother’s ‘walnut radiogram’. Lehrer was an outwardly chipper Harvard mathematician, who sang in the sweetest tones of the most off-colour subjects, ranging from incest to necrophilia to violence done to animals (‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’). In Cope’s view, Lehrer was a musical trend-setter who anticipated the permissive 1960s.

Cope’s enthusiasm for early Soft Machine is equally infectious. Under the guidance of the drummer-singer Robert Wyatt (‘a burning warrior-elf with a dulcet tone like Dionne Warwick’), the jazzy, Canterbury-centred Soft Machine exuded a haunting, otherworldly soulfulness as well as a very English self-mockery.

Cope’s most adored album from 1968 is The Marble Index, by the ice-maiden chanteuse and former model Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico. A protégé of both Fellini and Andy Warhol, Nico died in 1988 while taking exercise on her pushbike. In Cope’s view, her work is unparalleled for its shimmering, doom-laden Germanic atmospherics. Her dirge-like harmonium-playing lent a low church intensity and sepulchral tone to her voice.

Cope is an archaeologist of sorts, digging up forgotten sub-cultural singers like the Italian Franco Battiato, whose 1972 album Foetus is apparently ‘a stunningly catchy but impossibly strange record’. (I hadn’t heard of it either.) Some readers may find the author’s enthusiasms too arcane. The Desperate Bicycles were just about known to me as a DIY British punk band, but the six-piece Swedish outfit Pärson Sound? Sorry, no. Intriguingly, Cope compares them to the American minimalist composer Terry Riley, who wrote In C; the band’s long, repetitive threnodies influenced by Viking and Norse culture might have hailed from the smoky throne rooms of Northern Europe. Yowzah.

To Philip Larkin, the Stockhausen-meets-Africa formula of late Miles Davis was an insufferable Muzak drone, but Cope strongly disagrees. The mature Davis (with its hypnotic space-grooves) is manna to his ears. Cope likes pretty well anything with Africa in it. Rightly, he hails James Brown’s Payback as one of the great soul albums of all time. Rarely were Brown’s dancehall exhortations to ‘Get up’ and ‘Get on Up’ put to such electric usage. From the Harlem theatre showman of the 1960s Brown had evolved into a full-fledged Afrocentric shaman. All right!

This gorgeous plum pudding of a book is bolstered with allusions to Andrew Marvell, T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth and Carlyle. As a guide to forgotten pop culture, it is hard to beat. Copendium is fabulously authoritative, well-researched and certainly mad. Can we Cope? Yes we can.

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