The art of noise
If, like me, you thought you knew your musical onions, if you pride yourself on knowing – or just owning – the work of musicians whose mothers don’t even know they exist, then reading Copendium is a humbling exercise.
I sometimes went for days before I encountered the name of a band or artist I’d heard of, let alone heard. In the 2000s section, for example, Cope assesses the work of Sacrificial Totem, Sunburned Hand of the Man, and Vibracathedral Orchestra. It was tempting to conclude that much of the book is fiction, and the Cope-is-having-us-on theory is nudged along by the quality of his prose.
In much the same way that many political pronouncements have come to sound like lines from The Life of Brian, a lot of rock-music writing seems to come from the script of This Is Spinal Tap. Cope’s writing is often like this, but read aloud by Jack Black standing two inches from your head.
Sometimes it works – the songs of Electric Eels, for example, are “ultra-brief explosions of sticky antipathy condensed into purely Orwellian, two-minute hate”. (He’s right.) Other times – too often – it grates; there are too many ain’ts and kindas and motherfuckers. Cope is a pagan, so, especially when he’s reviewing the heavy stuff, Norse gods are name-checked as frequently as Mary is in the rosary. He has interesting things to say about the musician and shamanism, but Odin, Thor and the lads just get in the way.
Sharp and funny
But, if a sometimes badly written book can still be a very good book, this is the book. Cope is sharp and often funny – who could resist “seal-clubbing drums”? Many of the essays are fascinating. My favourite is his description of the recording of Nico’s The Marble Index, in 1968. It’s a record I love, and now I love it even more. His defence of Miles Davis’s tricky mid-1970s records, when Miles ignored his trumpet and, instead, played the organ “wearing an oven glove”, is just brilliant. Cope is a musician writing about the men – mostly men – who have created the noise he loves.
His enthusiasm comes with studio experience. Unlike me, he knows his onions.
Every essay in Copendium is an adventure. As I write, I’m listening to Vibracathedral Orchestra. They do exist, and they’re wonderful. I hadn’t heard of Nathaniel Mayer before I read Copendium. An old RB singer with one minor hit in 1962, he went into a studio in 2007 at the age of 64, with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and some other young men with plaid shirts and beards. Together, they recorded a rough masterpiece, Why Don’t You Give It to Me?