Graded on a Curve:
Julian Cope,
Psychedelic Revolution

Rock and revolution have always made for odd bedfellows. The MC5 talked a good game, but did mostly nothing, which is more than you can say for The Clash, whose revolution consisted mostly of wearing camouflage pants. And what is one to make of Revolution Girl Style Now or that risible exercise in self-congratulatory futility, DC’s Revolution Summer? They all neglected Mao’s dictum that “Revolution grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and achieved nothing, and I bring all this up because Julian Cope, the so-called “Archdrude” and former front man of The Teardrop Explodes, has spent his recent albums musing about revolution.

Cope, whom I would call a Renaissance Man if Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu founded the Renaissance in question, has written numerous songs with revolutionary themes. But in Cope’s case, the question lies in whether he is endorsing revolution or critiquing it. Or whether he’s ambivalent on the issue, in the same way that John Lennon was when he sang both “count me in” and “out” in the slow version of “Revolution.” In some cases Cope seems to endorse violent revolution; in others, he seems to see it as a sort of organized suicide cult, an idea he co-opted from Black Panther ideologue Huey Newton, who entitled his 1973 autobiography Revolutionary Suicide.

In any event, Cope dedicates side one of his 2012 LP Psychedelic Revolution to Cuba’s revolutionary martyr to Che Guevara, and side two to Leila Khaled, the airplane hijacker and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. So he obviously has some sympathy for the notion of violent revolution, but is he really advocating it? Or just playing revolutionary like the folks in the previous paragraph?

On Psychedelic Revolution Cope at some points seems to be saying that the revolution must be one of the mind, and in one song replaces Mao’s gun with a mass dosing of the population with LSD. He says lots more than that—he’s a chatty fellow, and infuriatingly knowledgeable—but in the end his beliefs are inscrutable, or perhaps simply too complex to communicate on a single LP.

Psychedelic Revolution opens on a powerful note with the folk-rock tune “Raving on the Moor,” which he introduces by title before some acoustic guitars come in alongside some ethereal vocals. It’s about a revolutionary being hunted by the authorities, and after a brief English folk interim he sings about subordination and the secret police, before the guitars pick up the tempo to the accompaniment of some explosions. And it ends with Cope repeating “And maybe this could work for you” over and over again as a distorted guitar groans like a dinosaur behind him. What is his message? I can’t tell you. I can say I’m hindered by the lack of a lyric sheet. What’s a revolution without a lyric sheet?

The excellent follow-up “Vive Le Suicide” opens with a big English folk fanfare, and decries the suicides of young Muslim fanatics—Cope is no friend of religion, no matter what the stripe, and his endorsement of revolution does not extend to those that are religious in nature—and the honor that is bestowed upon them by their ruthless elders. He then turns to the (arguable) suicides of the four imprisoned leaders of West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang (“They offed themselves and rode that train right out of here… self-reliant to the bitter end”) before the song picks up speed and some singers repeat “Vive Le Suicide.” Does he agree with the Baader-Meinhof suicides? Once again he doesn’t say.

“Cromwell in Ireland” is a big sing-along and features Cope railing against all those revolutionaries—from Hitler to Mao to Cromwell and America’s John Brown—who were no more than vicious killers. Me, I like it because it boasts a wonderful chorus (“This is a folk song/A what the fuck song/This ain’t a love song/So what the fuck”) and some great group shouts of “HEY!” Next up is “Revolutionary Man,” a perky ditty with great percussion that begins with Cope singing nonsense syllables before launching into a tale of capture and betrayal. “Oh, I wish that I had ran,” he sings, before launching into more nonsense syllables. It’s the least revolutionary-sounding song you’ll ever hear, and has a semi-happy ending with the revolutionary man making his escape into the underground, but giving up on the idea of the urban guerilla. Instead he vows to fight on in the countryside, before returning to the subject of the Baader-Meinhof Gang with the lines, “Random violence is the future/Baader-Meinhof style/The city life is not for me/I walk a country mile/And bomb a local country house where the gentry lives in style/For guerrilla war is the best bet yet for the revolutionary man.” The big repeated chorus of “Revolutionary/Revolutionary/Revolutionary man” is funnier than serious, and I hope Cope meant it to be. But it adds yet another layer of ambiguity to Cope’s attitude on violent revolution. Is he simpatico or no?

The lugubrious “As The Beer Flows Over Me” is folk-oriented too, with its singer being a dead revolutionary at his wake, and it’s both short and sweet and doesn’t give one a clue as to where Cope really stands on the issue of violent revolution. As for “Hooded & Benign” it’s a relatively slow and quiet tune that suddenly explodes, then returns to Cope’s singing about the Grim Reaper, death, walking along hooded and benign. Then the drums beat a frantic tattoo and Cope speed sings before a big orchestral flourish, which ends in some piano and more folk-inflected music, at which point Cope predicts his message will fade and that he’ll walk, a shade, amongst us. There then comes a drum-propelled instrumental, with lots of cymbals and a big bass, followed by the return of the song’s melody and Cope singing in a big bombastic voice about how he chooses to place his faith in death. I’m not certain what it all means, and it’s not the catchiest tune ever written by a long shot, but it’s certainly captivating, and I really wish I could point Mao’s gun of revolution at Cope and demand he tell me what the fuck he’s singing about.

Next up on Side Leila Khaled comes the big electric sound of “Psychedelic Revolution,” which features the vocals of Lucy Brownhills, who promises to “spike some fuckers tonight,” presumably with good old hallucinogens. She’s out to settle old scores, and elucidates her list of victims: “If you’re a greedhead you’re going down/If you’re a fat cat you’re going down/If you’re a [unintelligible] you’re going down/If you’re a moneybags you’re going down.” Cope then joins in to sing, “They have to realize the revolution can never be compromised,” to the sound of bells, cries of “Psychedelic revolution!”, a big guitar, and some cool backing vocals. Why, it makes me want to find the nearest water tower and spike it with about 10,000 hits of strong acid. But where am I going to find 10,000 hits of strong acid? My old acid dealer is long dead, and I’m a lazy man, far too lazy to join the revolution, much less carry it to the people.

“X-Mass in the Woman’s Shelter” opens with some ethereal female vocals and a catchy synth beat, before Cope comes in to repeat, “Hey sister can you escape?/Or will you be sucked in like the rest of them?” It may be—shit, it has to be—the first protest song against women’s shelters ever written, because Cope’s animosity towards Christianity is every bit as vehement as his hatred for radical Islam. He then sings to the operators of such shelters, “You fools must make amends/For the filthy lives you praise/And that of women across the world/Will cheer when your temples are razed.” After that he repeats the mantra, “Get strong, get well, get educated in the shelter,” and it’s hard to know whether he’s being ironic and mocking the shelters of today, or advocating a new type of shelter where women, rather than remaining victims of not only life but a pernicious religion, can truly actualize and empower themselves. “Roswell” is a slow number, featuring just Cope and an acoustic guitar, before a horn comes in. “Way past your bedtime,” he sings, “the machinery starts again,” and it’s hard to know what machinery he’s talking about. Then some alien whistling starts up, and the song slowly builds until Cope begins to strain to hit a note higher than any alien over Roswell. Then he lets out a horrendous howl, obviously of alien origin, as the acoustic guitar is joined by a fantastically distorted electric guitar. Weird tune, no idea what it has to do with revolution. Unless he foresees one that is intergalactic in origin.

“Because He Was Wooden” joins weird space noise to a perky English folk song, throws in some more explosions and a tambourine, and adds chimes, and what you’ve got is an infectious song about God knows what. I love the conjunction of catchy melody and dissonant noise, and the strange vocal warbling at the 4:15 mark, and the explosions of course, but not as much as I love album closer “The Death of Rock’n’Roll,” a simple song with a beautiful melody that is far more folk than rock. A tambourine, some synths, and a simple guitar figure accompany Cope as he sings about the death of one of the few things I love. I can hardly make out a word he’s saying, until he begins to chant, “the death of rock’n’roll” to the accompaniment of first an organ, and then a choir, and this one is just plain beautiful, people, beautiful.

To reiterate: Is Cope in or out? I can’t say, but I suspect that, like Lennon, he was conflicted. The world as it stands is an atrocity and revolution on the face of it sounds great, but you never know where a revolution is going to lead you, and besides, too many innocents end up getting killed. Like the folks I mentioned in the first paragraph Cope will never pick up a gun, but he’s more of revolutionary than those shams The Clash, for whom revolution was more of a fashion statement than a deeply considered option.

Or perhaps I simply want to differentiate Cope from the others because I like his music, and don’t like theirs. In the end his songs will achieve nothing, and will stand or fall on their quality in the realm of entertainment, as opposed to the realm of revolution. I suspect Cope knows his role as a rock’n’revolutionary is futile, whereas the others really were (with the exception of The Clash again) out to change the world in their different ways.

Me, I don’t think the world can be changed, either by music, revolution, or anything else. Man is an absurd and abysmal creature, and that will never change, Che and Leila be damned. I admire them the same way he does, just as I admire the original Baader-Meinhof Gang, because they were all willing to fight for what they believed in. But I will always also believe they were fighting a phantom enemy. The real fight is against human nature, and that’s a fight that cannot and will not be won. All you can do, in the end, is write off our species as an evolutionary disaster, and take whatever pleasure you can from the absurd antics of the only species that is out to destroy itself.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • mm

    he’s saying “boer whore”

  • mm

    (in psychedelic revolution song)

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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