The art of noise

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

MUSIC:Julian Cope’s sharp, often funny guide to underground rock homes in on the unknown, unloved and even unreleased

Copendium: An Expedition into the Rock’n’Roll Underwerld, By Julian Cope, Faber and Faber, 721pp, £30

History told as a straight line is almost irresistible. The first World War led to the Versailles Treaty and that led to Hitler and the second World War. Ireland was a poor country and then it became a rich country and then it went back to being a poor country. Sam Phillips discovered Elvis, and The Beatles went to Hamburg.

The straight line is useful; it can clarify. “And” is a great little word. But, often, complexity is flattened and – there we go — tricky questions are ignored or pushed aside. The line becomes official, and attempts at presenting history as something less straight are “alternative”, “extreme”, “daft” or just “unhelpful”. But, nevertheless, Hitler was always on his way; expensive handbags are still available at Brown Thomas; and rock’n’roll would still be with us if Elvis Presley had never walked through the door of Sun Records and if The Beatles had settled in Hamburg and become German.

I mention Elvis and The Beatles because they don’t get mentioned very often in Copendium: An Expedition into the Rock’n’Roll Underwerld.

It’s a huge book, a genuine tome, more than 700 double-columned pages, with discographies and footnotes but, unusually for a book about rock music, no photographs. I’d never heard of many of the bands and individuals that Julian Cope writes about in Copendium, and I still don’t know what they look like. But I now know what they sound like. This is not straight-line, Memphis to Liverpool history. Strictly speaking, it isn’t history at all.

Yet it is. And it’s very interesting.

Julian Cope is, according to his Wikipedia entry, a “rock musician, author, antiquary, musicologist, poet and cultural commentator”, “a recognised authority on Neolithic culture, an outspoken political and cultural activist with a noted and public interest in occultism and paganism”. He could only be English. As the leader of The Teardrop Explodes, he recorded great songs such as Reward and Treason (It’s Just A Story) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He has continued to record as a solo artist – his album Jehovakill (1992) is terrific – and has had numerous musical side projects, including Brain Donor and Black Sheep.

Copendium is a collection of album reviews, exactly 10 years’ worth, which Cope wrote for his own Head Heritage website. He homes in on the “unsung”, music that is unknown, unloved, even unreleased. The reviews weren’t written in any chronological order, but that is how they are presented in Copendium, the 1950s through to the 2000s, its one concession to history as a straight line.

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?

The history is in the references and the geography. The bands and artists that Cope most frequently refers to add doglegs and sometimes just break the straight line from Memphis to Liverpool. (Its Irish variant, Memphis to Dublin, doesn’t exist. There are no references at all to U2 or My Bloody Valentine.)

Düsseldorf is, perhaps, the book’s biggest city. Again and again, Cope refers to Krautrock bands – Neu!, Kraftwerk, Can, Harmonia, Amon Düül II – and argues the case for their central position in the history of rock music. Listen to Neu!, then listen to everything worth hearing since 1972. (Back in the 1970s, I thought Kraftwerk looked like little smooth-skinned oul’ fellas. Now they sound so young – and even better.) The expected citations – The Beatles, the Pistols, Nirvana – are rarely there. The forgotten and the embarrassing – Black Sabbath, The Moody Blues – often are. If the history of rock music is often simplified as the fight between The Beatles and the Stones, Cope seems to offer a different bout, The Beatles versus The Velvet Underground, and he has slipped the horseshoe into Lou Reed’s glove.

Reed “made songs that we could never anticipate”, and he’s also taken his music past the three minutes, beyond melody and hook lines, away from song, into sound and noise. Many of the artists in Copendium, including Cope himself, have tried to do the same. At its best, Copendium reminds me of The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross’s superb exploration of 20th-century classical music. The penultimate chapter of that book is called “Beethoven Was Wrong”. The assertion itself might be wrong, but it’s the only attitude to take with you when you’re getting behind your first drum kit.

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