For a long time now, Julian Cope has been pretty much critic-proof, ploughing his Arch-Droodian furrow that isn’t just an approach to making music, but a way of living, well-documented in his books and long-running Head Heritage website. By this point, well, you’re either a Head, or you aren’t. But if there is one worrying aspect of a Cope legacy, it is that the percolating legend of his greatness and perfection hasn’t quite dripped down to the new generations.
The new rock and roll ‘heritage’ circuit (nostalgia for the grown-ups, a chance to see a legend in action for the kids) isn’t rubbing off much on his shows, which are now intermittent at best. In fact, the only under-40-year-olds in evidence wandering around here seem to be stray teenagers initiated into the cult by their parents. And this is a shame, as there is still a lot to learn from this disarmingly self-possessed man, who chooses to present himself to the public as a grizzled cartoon Acid Rock ‘n’ Roll Byker (Gaye or otherwise).
So to the music, then, where old and new unsurprisingly sit happily alongside each other (for all of his radicalism, experiments of musical style have never been Cope’s thing much). Aside from nostalgia, there are compelling reasons to revisit the past when his early ’90s trilogy of Peggy Suicide, Jehovakill and Autogeddon never fails to be the gift that keeps generously giving to the zeitgeist in earthy spadefuls. The opening Autogeddon Blues is one of the most righteous slices of anger committed to vinyl, tonight shredding across the polite sit-down seating arrangement of the Roundhouse’s In The Round series with added howls of indignation. Is Cope managing to express pent-up feelings of outrage and helplessness that the audience are surely experiencing right now?
However, yeasty rather than zeitgeisty new material from his recent EP Drunken Songs, such as Pour Beer Over Me, isn’t quite keeping pace with the seismic cultural and political shifts of the present, as Cope readily admits. Liver Big As Hartlepool is a great punning title, a fine ditty, and a suitable opportunity to take an acid trip down memory lane to his Crucial Three days (paired here with another ode to Liverpool, the old Teardrop Explodes song The Culture Bunker). It’s not going to help bring forth the coming revolution, but who cares though, when he has songs in his bag like sweary comfort blanket Cunts Can Fuck Off to make us feel a bit better about everything.
No stranger to showmanship, when technical issues bring the gig to a temporary halt, he simply switches gear and morphs into a roving bear-hug, generously bestowing the gift of his aura among the audience. Cope mostly performs solo these days with his guitar and pedals; to be honest, a band would be largely redundant. Why muddy such a perfect silhouette with something as distracting as other people on stage. And in any case, the transmission of ideas is far more direct this way.
In fact, at many points, the feeling is that we are less a gig, more ‘an audience with Julian Cope’. Is the entertaining patter here to punctuate the songs, or vice versa? Seeing himself more as a ‘teacher’ these days, whose method of transmission is rock ‘n’ roll, Cope would nonetheless probably thrive equally well doing stand-up or touring university lectures.