Review Summary: Cope produces what is possibly a career high whilst managing to preach his own gospel without losing site of the tunes.Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide 1991 (Best UK album Chart Position 23)
As a lover of Teardrop Explodes, with their quaint Englishness, horns and hook laden songs, I was surprised to see Julian Cope, with acoustic guitar, on the now defunct TV show ‘The Roxy’ singing what was, upon first impression, a travesty of a folky song called ‘Pristeen’. Was this the reward I was expected to learn to accept?
How much can you take?
Well I know how much I can take, and of this I thought at the time, not very much, I would have liked nothing more than for Cope to shut his own mouth for a change. His latest album, “My Nation Underground”, contained three singles, including “Charlotte Anne”, which I rather liked and had actually managed to trouble the top 40 by poking its nose in at 35. Why wasn’t he promoting his latest album by playing tracks from it? This was 1988, three years before the opening track of “Peggy Suicide” appeared on record (or on cassette tape for me when, still filled with a sense of hope and forgiveness, I bought it on release). How very wrong my first impression turned out to be. Perhaps it was my low expectations, or my living through the times that he railed against, but this perfectly formed double was a revelation. It was loose, but still tight, it was a sonic mess, but coherent, it confused me but delighted in equal measure, but none of these occurred immediately. The album was, for me, a grower. I listened to it a couple of times, put it in my tape box, and forgot about it for a good 6 months before it went back in the tape player and, as was my way at the time, remained playing for hour after hour, looping around, as I did other things around my apartment.. Without really thinking about it I found myself singing along to bits of the songs. I would catch myself singing: “She’s the apostolic hag! / She’s the apostolic hag!/She’s screaming…Screaming mad!” (Leperskin) , when I had no idea what the word apostolic actually meant, and now that I do I’m not sure the lyric even makes sense, but no matter, the moment when I caught myself singing lyrics from ‘Pristeen’ was the moment that I began to properly realise that I had found something special. When a song I have disliked as much as I did manages to convert me, well, then I have to sit up and take notice.
I read the extensive liner notes, which is when I realised that the Pristeen of the song was a representation of the Earth, and not an actual woman at all, giving the, frankly, hateful lyric, “Now, how much does it take/To go down on someone - someone that you hate?’, a different meaning. Cope stated that the entire album was a meditation on humanity's relationship to Mother Earth, which is a bit tenuous, but Cope has said a lot of things over the years that were not entirely sensible. The album as a whole actually also covers topics such as his hatred of organised religion, women's rights, the occult, alternative spirituality (including paganism and Goddess worship), animal rights, and ecology.
The aforementioned ‘Leperskin’ told of the Poll Tax protests of the early 90’s and it was the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to whom Cope refers to as the apostolic hag. In fact, much of the album is a product of the political climate of the times, along with Cope’s own self discovery. It was potentially an exercise in self indulgence, and some may still see it as such, but it has songs, and good, listenable ones at that.. Also, the inclusion of a retro organ and, at times, layers upon layer of guitar succeed in not making the sound dated and rooted in the politics of the past, on the contrary, it is somewhat sonically timeless.
4 years after the release of ‘Peggy Suicide’ Cope went on to write (the now out of Print) Krautrock Sampler, a book describing the underground music scene in Germany from 1968 through the 1970s, and the influence of the included bands can already be seen creeping in to many of the tracks. Think of Faust, Can, Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel or Neu!, and Cluster and you will find the correlation, from thrash outs to repetitive grooves, but without severing the link to his own recent past of ‘St. Julian’ and ‘My Nation Underground’. ‘Safesurfer’, which appears to be about a guy who wears a condom (well, more a rather epic meditation on AIDS and its consequences) “You don't have to be afraid love/'Cause I'm a safesurfer, darling”, also wears it’s Krautrock influences on it’s sleeve, or perhaps waves them about on a big flag as, stylistically, we are very much in Can/Faust territory.
The album spawned, in various guises, four singles, "Beautiful Love (UK Chart Position - 32)", "Safesurfer (-)" ,"East Easy Rider (51)" and "Head (57)" , which did reasonably well considering his best prior chart position was for “World Shut Your Mouth” from “St Julian” which peaked at 19. “Beautiful Love”, with it’s accompanying video of swimming with dolphins and brass adornment (faintly indicative of his previous incarnation with the Teardrop Explodes, with a Calypso feel), had the potential to do better than it did, but the singles charts were a different beast then and by numbers sold it would have gone in at Number 1 had it been able to generate the same now. This being 1991, the year the 1.5 million selling "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)" by Bryan Adams spent sixteen weeks at number-one and five more weeks in the top ten, Cope never really stood much chance of bothering the top 10, particularly as his reputation as a pop star had long since been shattered, by a hammer he wielded himself.
“East Easy Rider” appears to be a simple song about riding a motorbike, and despite my best efforts, I can’t find any real hidden meaning in it, unless it is the subtlest anti-motoring song that was ever written, so subtle that the message isn’t actually there. It does fall into a great groove and has some nice guitar work, as does much of the album, with this role being taken up for the most part by future Spitiritualized guitarist Michael Watts and by Donald Ross Skinner. “Drive She Said” is most certainly an anti-driving anthem delivered with classic pop sensibilities and lyrical sparsness, “Face it, it's not very civilized/Yeah, we could crawl/But I'd rather drive, she said”. The anti-driving message later became contradictory when Cope actually learned to drive, an issue that he addressed in the 1994 release, “Autogeddon”.
The opening to “Soldier Blue”, which is a tirade against the police, samples Lenny Bruce's live album The Berkeley Concert and also mixes in samples of the Poll Tax Riot. The title of “Not Raving But Drowning” is a direct reference to the 1957 Stevie Smith poem “Not Waving But Drowning” which describes a man whose distressed thrashing in the sea causes onlookers to believe that he is waving to them. “The Sealink is here x 3/then gone/ Well I cried for help x 3/ I’m gone, my little doggie get along.” This is probably a reference to the great storm of 1987 where a Sealink cross-channel ferry, the MV Hengist, was driven ashore at Folkestone, although there were number of ferry disaster around the time.
“Western Front 1992 C.E.”, opens with a recording from a French anti-war demonstration, uses skeletal instrumentation and three female voices singing “it’ll all wash down when it rains” to push it’s message about environmental responsibility.
What we can be sure of, is that ‘Peggy Suicide’ by accident or design, is a wonderfully sequenced album, the tracks sit alongside each and flow from each other quite marvellously, and the chosen song topics are often presented more as a feeling or mood rather than a full on frontal assault, allowing the casual listener the opportunity to listen without feeling preached at.
This is a collection of songs that, for Cope, are at least approaching, if not mounting, the summit of a career high.
02. Double Vegitation
03. East Easy Rider
04. Promised Land
05. Hanging Out & Hung Up On The Line
07. If You Loved Me At All
08. Drive, She Said
09. Soldier Blue
12. Not Raving But Drowning
15. Beautiful Love
16. Western Front 1992 CE
17. Hung Up & Hanging Out To Dry
18. The American Lite
19. Las Vegas Basement
Julian Cope (also credited as "DeHarrison" or "Double DeHarrison") - vocals, electric & acoustic 12-string/wah-wah guitars, bass guitar, Moog synthesizer, string arrangements
Donald Ross Skinner - bass guitar, electric guitar, organ, Omnichord
Michael "Moon-Eye" Watts - electric & infinite guitar
Ron Fair - piano
G.S. Butterworth - Moog synthesizer
Rooster Cosby - drums, percussion, congas
Mike Joyce - drums on "Hanging Out & Hung Up On The Line", "You..." & "Las Vegas Basement"
J.D. Hassinger - electronic drums, tambourine
Ronnie Ross - baritone saxophone
Aaf Verkade - trumpet
Dan Levett - cello
Lulu Chivers, Edwin Vernon, Camilla Mayer - background vocals
Hugo Nicolson – engineer