Julian Cope at the Barbican Hall review ****

Julian Cope

Barbican Hall, 8th February 2020

February 21st 1982 if I am to believe t’Internet. Which, given that the source, Setlist.fm, is not associated with the hate and porn that comprises the vast majority of the web, seems reasonable in this case. The sorely missed Hammersmith Palais. The Teardrop Explodes. (Supported by The Ravishing Beauties of which I have no recollection whatsoever). One of the last indoor gigs on their major tour before they set off to Oz and the US. Not the last time I saw them however as, unbelievably, they supported Queen for a few stadium gigs that summer. That’s right Queen, along with Heart and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. So there was I, with MGF1, at Milton Keynes Bowl, probably the only diehard Teardrops fan in a sea of rocker types. Who, by that time, despite my own dubious musical history pre punk, I loathed. MGF1 wouldn’t let me leave before the headliners came on though, for which I am eternally grateful. For Queen, and Freddy, were predictably amazing.

Anyway as if that weren’t enough in the way of incongruous line ups I know that it was the 21st at the Palais and not the following second night because I was back there on the 23rd. To see Aztec Camera. Supporting Killing Joke. With UK Decay as warm up. Yes. You read that right. Aztec Camera. Not sure if Roddy Frame and the boys made it past 5 songs before being gobbed off. Glad I knew my way round the Joke’s first, brilliant, couple of albums since, revealing myself to be a devotee of jangly Scottish pop, however perfect, was clearly a BAD IDEA that night. As the punk mate of a mate I went with reminded me. especially when he introduced me to a mate of one of his mates. He was a sight. Think Wez from Mad Max II. Y’know. “You can run but you can’t hide”. Didn’t catch the fella’s name but he cut an impressive dash when the Joke arrived as he fashioned a ten foot diameter personal dance floor through the simple stratagem of unhooking his giant studded belt and wildly swinging it for a few minutes. Glad I was up on the balcony.

Happy days.

Anyway this was the setlist I gather that night. How good is that. And Cope-y was simply a mesmeric presence. Wild barnet, frenetic dancing. Notably when he stripped to the waste and doused himself in beer. Or maybe juice. I can’t remember. But it was thrilling whatever. Mind you he famously went on to more dramatic and disturbing stage interventions. That’s all part of his charm.

Anyway read this and savour the memories. Personal favourites away from the big singles; Seven Views of Jerusalem, Ha Ha I’m Drowning, Bouncing Babies and Sleeping Gas and I am a sucker for the “ballads”, Falling Down Around Me, And the Fighting Takes Over and Tiny Children. Barely remember Log Cabin and and no recollection of Clematis (was never a completist and to pick up the ephemera outside of the two genius albums, Kilimanjaro and Wilder, and the fraught reunion, Everybody Wants to Shag …, is a costly business now).

  1. Like Leila Khaled Said
  2. Seven Views of Jerusalem
  3. Ha Ha I’m Drowning
  4. Falling Down Around Me
  5. Log Cabin
  6. … And the Fighting Takes Over
  7. Passionate Friend
  8. Bouncing Babies
  9. Suffocate
  10. Tiny Children
  11. You Disappear From View
  12. Clematis
  13. Treason (It’s Just a Story)
  14. Colours Fly Away
  15. Reward
  16. The Culture Bunker
  17. Just to See Me
  18. Screaming Secrets
  19. Sleeping Gas

38 years later. St Julian is now 62. Though not like any other 62 year old you may know. He’s been through a lot. What with the music, (punk, post-punk, pop, psychedelia, funk, rock, folk, lo-fi, Krautrock, space-rock, metal, ambient noise, drone and everything in between) , drink, drugs, arguments, production, blogging, social commentary, protesting, activism, counter-culturalism, fantastical fiction, autobiography, musicology and cutting edge antiquarian research. The look is unchanged from the flattering, if dated, picture above. Military cap, shades ,(for medical not sartorial reasons), black sleeveless hoodie, long tresses, the beard matted and flecked with grey, the shorts a bit freer and the boots a bit comfier. Cool in a hippy/eco-warrior/biker/crazy farmer kind of way.

And the set covers most of the career highlights. Teardrops highlights (Passionate Friend, Treason and a brilliant drone version of The Great Dominions which is near the top of all Teardrop, a duet with roadie Chris), the doomed to fail attempt at pop star years, (Greatness and Perfection, showing perhaps why Mercury Records didn’t try too hard) and the brilliant Sunspots, the beginning of real Julian, with encore Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed from Skellington, as well as Pristeen from the pristine Peggy Suicide, Soul Desert from its near equal Jehovahkill, Autogeddon Blues from Autogeddon, I’m Your Daddy from 20 Mothers, Cromwell in Ireland from Psychedelic Revolution, They Were on Hard Drugs from return-to-form Revolutionary Suicide and Your Facebook, My Laptop and Immortal from the latest album Self Civil War. Oh and crowd pleasing piss-take Cunts Can Fuck Off, which takes direct aim at the great man’s detractors, US mostly, complete with ba-ba-ba chorus.

  1. Soul Desert
  2. Your Facebook My Laptop
  3. Autogeddon Blues
  4. The Greatness & Perfection of Love
  5. They Were on Hard Drugs
  6. The Great Dominions
  7. Cunts Can Fuck Off
  8. Passionate Friend
  9. Cromwell in Ireland
  10. I’m Your Daddy
  11. Immortal
  12. Sunspots
  13. Treason
  14. Pristeen
  15. Out of My Mind on Dope and Speed

Now I confess not all of these were familiar. After Autogeddon, with the exception of Revolutionary Suicide, I kind of lost track of his output and there are vast unexplored tracts and tracks, which will likely remain that way. (Odin for example is 70 mins of JC humming). He has made 34 solo albums apparently, most of which since the bust up with Island in the early 1990s, released on his Head Heritage label/website/radio station/review site/manifesto/discussion forum site.

Now I doubt there are many people who can say they have lived a life remotely like JC’s, and a lot of what he bangs on about doesn’t touch my mainstream world, but you have to admire him even if you may not quite understand him. His gigs reflect his concerns. Him, his guitars, wah-wah pedal, roadie Chris and a load of chat, which is at turns funny, scathing and self-deprecating. As are the arrangements of the songs. Of course it would be great to hear them in all their full rhythmic, melodic and harmonic beauty, given JC’s prodigious musical gifts, but they are his and he can do WTF he likes with them.

An impassioned, eccentric, iconoclastic head for our, or any other, times.

Cave at the Printworks review ****

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Cave

The Printworks, Surrey Quays, 23rd June 2018

Cave is the second collaboration between composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake. Their last work, Between Worlds, which took as its subject the Twin Towers on 9/11, was superb. It was an immensely moving and sensitive elegy which focussed on the last conversations with loved ones of just five victims trapped together on one floor watched over by a benign Shaman or spirit, superbly directed by Deborah Warner. The audience I saw it with was floored (even if a couple of jaded critics were a bit sniffy).

I have since heard a few of Ms Davies’s very fine works including the premiere of her Concerto for four horns, entitled Forest. She has a way of finding the right shape, sound or phrase to match the intent and mood of her music, without ever serving up the obvious or banal. There is a rhythmic underpinning which I think reflects her familiarity with popular music genres, especially funk and post-rock. Her music can be muscular, industrial if you will, but, equally, she is capable of great lyricism. In more recent commissions she has been afforded the opportunity to work at a larger scale, but there is still a chamber like intimacy to her work, even when it is belting out in full on forte. In short she has the gift, and, even if contemporary classical music isn’t your bag, in fact maybe especially if contemporary classical music isn’t you bag, I defy you not to hear it.

She is also pretty keen on conveying a message in her music. As is librettist Nick Drake. Cave is set in a world disfigured by ecological catastrophe. A man (Mark Padmore) stumbles into a cave. He probably nibbles on some crazy mushrooms. He remembers his daughter Hannah, played and sung by Elaine Mitchener, and, when young, played by Akilah Mantock at my performance. Her spirits fills the cave. That is pretty much the long and the short of it. There are seven scenes in total beginning with the entry of the audience into The Lost River which runs through the cave.

The Printworks in Surrey Quays used to be where the Evening Standard was printed in the pre-digital era. It is a cavernous industrial space, as I discovered on my pre-prandial hike to the loo just ahead of the opening of the opera, which plays host to a variety of events, united in there “alternative” vibe. Perfect for this work. The audience was lined up along both sides of a very narrow, very long space in Mike Britton’s set, covered with, I think, wood bark. and with the seven members of the London Sinfonietta at one end and vast plastic hanging “doors” at the other. It was largely left to the marvellous lighting of Jack Knowles, who despite looking about 5 years old, has a massively impressive list of credits behind him, to conjure up the required magic, along with a sound design from, usual culprits, Sound Intermedia, as well as the electronics of Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin.

Even with the principals moving up and down the space there were times when the “action” was a bit “laterally compromised”, especially for those of us pig-headed enough to go right along to the end where the ensemble was positioned. On the other hand this perch did afford a perfect insight into all the moving parts of the score, and, at one key point, the vocal pyrotechnics of Elaine Mitchener. She is not your opera mezzo diva. Thank goodness. Usually to be found in repertoire which is even more boundary-pushing than this, she has an extraordinary range of expression. I was spell-bound. For those of us who are regular listeners to Bach, Britten and Baroque, Mark Padmore needs no introduction at all. Here his singing was predictably exquisite. He also put in an acting shift as the Man plagued by his memories and a world that has literally fallen apart around him. I also suspect this won’t be the last I see of the precocious ten year old Akilah Mantock – no fear at all in what must have seemed a slightly odd role when she went to the audition.

Mr Drake’s other job is a poet. No kidding. The second scene, the Echoes, starts out with the Man hearing Hannah’s voice before he goes into an astonishing quasi aria describing his journey into the cave. This is when we see the connection that Ms Davies and Mr Drake intended to make to some of the very first human impacts on the earth. Apparently they went for a trip to have a peek at cave paintings in Niaux in the Pyrenees, which proved a crucial inspiration. I am not surprised, this is where art and nature recognisably first collided.

Scene three, the Cave of Birds, has the Man describing the onset of ecological catastrophe, and some sort of vision, scene four, The Mirror Cracks, is a “rave of agony” as the Man recalls losing Hannah, who “responds” by singing the last part of his “song” backwards. The Tree of Shadows starts with the Man and Hannah remembering a past holiday and then Hannah going a bit preachy as she describes how she wants to save the world from the havoc wrought by the generations which preceded her. A powerful instrumental interlude (with electronics I think) follows, The Storm, which then gives way to a lullaby shared by the two principals which shows off their superb singing. The final scene The River sees the man leaving the cave, presumably to die, but probably healed.

This is an epic myth, or more exactly a parable, and, in that, I was reminded of Britten’s Church Parables, which I don’t think were a direct inspiration, but, for me, have a similar vibe. The scoring is sparse, under the expert baton of Geoffrey Paterson, with most of the colour coming from the winds and brass, the clarinet/bass clarinet of Timothy Lines, contra bassoon of John Orford and horn of Michael Thompson, contrasted with the prominent harp of Helen Tunstall, set against a sort of continuo from Jonathan Morton’s violin and Enno Senft’s double bass. Elaine Mitchener gets to give a hefty whack to a drum at one point and, as I have said, electronics and some other sound effects (plenty of echo) play a major part. Overall you have no difficulty in musically distinguishing the scenes, there are some breathtaking sounds here and no little drama. I was not entirely convinced about the articulation between music, words and message but that probably says more about my pessimism than the creative talent on show here. It is certainly not the fault of director Lucy Bailey.

I don’t want to get more frightened of, and helpless about, the world around me as I get older, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. It certainly does feel like we humans are accelerating towards our inevitable extinction event despite the apparent gift of consciousness. Mother Earth will get over us I suppose. Anyway it is good that Tansy Davies and Nick Drake are not engulfed by this sort of negativity and prepared to make an ambitious stand of sorts in their art. It is also good that they are not cynical about all things “spiritual”. As this piece is sub-titled, courtesy of modern day environmental shaman and prodigious psychedelic drug-taker Terence McKenna, “Nature loves courage”.

At the end, Ms Davies was zipping by to thank the performers. I briefly thanked her. No doubt she thought I was a nutter so apologies but I felt compelled to offer up my appreciation. Thank you.