Friday, 11 November 2011


Concorde, Brighton, 18th Oct

“I was thrown out of the crib into the snow
I was born to entertain so here I go”

How do you define a cult act?  Well, when a frontman promises “near-hit after near-hit, plus a few obscure B-sides and unreleased stuff” and receives an uproarious cheer... that’s a pretty good sign. (The frontman being the only man on stage might be construed as another clue.) It was perhaps a peculiarity of the early Eighties that so many chart-topping pop stars became cult acts shortly after. But of course most succumbed to the lure of reforming. Even Howard Devoto reformed Magazine, (though he baulked at rejoining the Buzzcocks). Beyond Cope, it may only be Morrissey and Paul Weller who have resisted.

Yet Cope stands steadfast even in that select company. You would guess that most of Morrissey’s cult fans would be secretly delighted were the Smiths to reform. Yet stock in Cope’s original outfit the Teardrop Explodes has if anything gone down in the intervening years. Those that still think of Cope tend to think higher of him now, that he got better as he got weirder. (For example, I think that.)

Ironic then, that this must be the most Teardrop-derived set I’ve seen him do! Admittedly, most of these come from their second album. (Which in retrospect, along with his first solo work, seems transitional to his solo years proper.) His haunting version of the Teardrops track ’The Great Dominions’ was a particular highlight. (Shown below, in Brighton but from his previous visit.)

In point of fact, there’s very few new songs. There’s a very Fugs-influenced drum-basher which rails against Cromwell. (A protest song about Cromwell is surely something only Cope would try to do and only Cope would get away with.) That may have been it! Instead he tells us about his forthcoming book about the prophets. (“Messed-up dudes”, to a man, so we hear.) A friend suggests the gig’s whole purpose may be that the book advance is now all spent. But it was still a worthwhile night.

Cult appeal may lie in seeing someone stride like a star in a small room, interact with his audience, extemporise, change his mind. Which is actually something that suits Cope down to the ground. As I’ve argued before, the very purpose of the rock star is to be saviour and screw-up, tragic hero and clown, all simultaneously. I quoted John Lennon: “part of me thinks I’m a loser. The other that I’m Christ Almighty.”

But I may as well have used the quote from ’Las Vegas Basement’ above, for Cope may be the epitome of this more than any other man. He has said himself, “What I'm trying to do is strike a balance between triteness and greatness.” In his leathers and cap, he looks simultaneously like a rock star on a cover shoot and someone on their way to a fancy dress party. There’s lots of laughter, yet any with-him vs. at-him distinction soon erodes.

Why should Cope epitomise those early Eighties era so well, perhaps even better than Weller or Morrissey? Punk had still believed it could act as a radical and transformative force, an idea soon lost to musical commodification. Early Eighties types could still take to the Top Of the Pops studio yet still feel like musical outsiders. Pretty soon after that, you were asked to choose.

I will admit to slightly mixed feelings about the solo shtick. A song like ’Great Dominions’ benefits from the spotlight intimacy, but the set as a whole might gain something in variety were the occasional extra hand aboard. Cope’s appeal, after all, isn’t as a singer or player. In fact, what he’s really good at is being Julian Cope. I reckon he wouldn’t lose much of that in a crowd.

But don’t expect any objective assessments from me. I found myself smitten many years ago. As, I would guess, was everyone else here...

With the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Mermaid Theatre, London, 19th Oct ...oh, okay, I only heard this one on the radio!

Peter Gabriel rediscovers his back catalogue with the assistance of symphony orchestra... no, thankfully, not what you’re thinking. Of course we have Simon Reynolds to tell us that music has become too self-referential and backward-looking of late. But worse, when singers use orchestras they’re not normally interested in using the orchestra. The orchestra is just like the stretch limo that takes them to their award ceremonies, it’s not about taking them any better or any differently. It’s merely musical bling (except perhaps for that musical part). Barely altered arrangements wrap themselves round a saccharine approach to melody, a regressive attitude even compared to the things Stravinsky was doing with orchestras more than a century ago.

But here, take for example ’Rhythm of the Heat’ (see vidclip). After the final line (“the rhythm has my soul”), the recorded version breaks into a frenzy of African drumming. This version neither emulates nor diminishes that but strikes off somewhere new, a cacophonous cross-currents of lines, a veritable jungle of sound. (It sounds almost like Stravinsky now I come to think of it, but at least that takes us within the last century.)

Perhaps we should have guessed we were in for something better than nostalgia given a gimmick. Gabriel is not one for looking back, pretty much eschewing his back catalogue with Genesis from the day he left the band. So it may be significant that the only track from the first two solo albums, his first single ’Solsbury Hill’, is the only significant mis-step. It’s one song which simply isn’t suited to being dressed up in orchestration, it pretty much is the simple flute line and spirit of jaunty innocence. Gabriel, I would guess, felt obliged to include his hit.

Coming Soon! More of this sort of thing...


  1. That Rhythm of the Heat is interesting. Shame the audio quality is so horrible. (I suspect Gabriel would be one of the few musicians we agree on. I love how restlessly he seems to be always looking for something new.)

  2. All these reworked tracks have appeared on a studio album, 'New Blood', where presumably the sound is better. It's probably on Spotify and stuff, but I haven't got round to seeking it out to be honest.

    You're not a Julian Cope fan, then?