[24 March 2010]
By 1991, former Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope had released two post-Teardrop solo albums for Mercury, two more for Island, and two oddities for independent label Zippo. These last two, Skellington and Droolian, were both released in 1990 (the latter only in Texas), despite Cope still being under contract with Island. Both works signaled a return to his earlier, more psychedelic style, while also bringing to the fore a newfound love of soul, funk, and house music that would form much of the soundscape for his new album. When it appeared, Peggy Suicide was greeted enthusiastically by fans, press, and a relieved Island Records. The album, a double LP in its vinyl form, is loosely built around an apocalyptic political-ecological vision (Peggy=Mother Earth) which unfolds over four “Phases”.
Phase One begins with “Pristeen”, about an idealized woman who turns out to be not as ideal as imagined, and which is apparently a metaphor for humans’ treatment of the planet. “Trusting in me was your major mistake”, Cope sings in the sort of blank croon that was popular among 1980s indie bands (Robert Forster’s work with the Go-Betweens bears comparison) and which traced a lineage back to the Velvet Underground. The ringing almost-drones of the backing instruments back up the Velvets feel, as does the gradual Reed-like build up of anger in Cope’s voice. It’s an effective, non-obvious opener to the album. “Double Vegetation” presents rather more standard pop-rock fare, but delivers a lyric prescient with its anti-anti-Islamic message, a reminder of the spate of songs written in response to the Gulf War and the perception of growing fundamentalism.
“East Easy Rider” is an altogether groovier affair, driven by funk-referencing percussion, dual guitars, and some well-placed Hammond organ. “Promised Land” presents more Copian dystopia, a travelogue of a country devastated by Thatcherism and coasting idly along the deceptively calm country lanes of Majorite conservatism. If “Promised Land” is a walking movie, its initial steps taken to a slowly strummed acoustic guitar, “Hanging Out & Hung Up on the Line” is a frazzled autogeddon road trip—“a psychic driving song,” in Cope’s words—which sticks to the classic rock template for most of the route.
Single “Safesurfer” kicks off Phase Two, the album version running to eight minutes and building up gradually to the twin guitars of Cope and Michael “Moon-Eye”, before Cope’s spoken word section comes in to lead the track to its repeated, catchy refrain. The guitars erupt again shortly after the five-minute mark, joined by piano and Moog effects for a lengthy outro. The soundworld on this standout track is reminiscent of Funkadelic at their spaciest, Moon-Eye’s guitar pyrotechnics echoing the contortions of “Maggot Brain”. While “Safesurfer” dominates this part of the album, there is much invention to be found also in the Iggy-like snaking vocal of “If You Loved Me at All” and “Drive, She Said”, an “anti-driving anthem” that utilizes backing vocals to signal a classic pop sound.
Phase Three’ s “Soldier Blue” uses samples and processed beats to achieve a contemporary edge, not unlike the Primal Scream of Screamadelica. Cope signaled a continued interest here with the psychedelia of his earlier years, though, as David Cavanagh points out in his liner notes to this deluxe edition, it was a psychedelia informed by a far greater political commitment than before. “You…” and “Not Raving but Drowning”, while not without interesting sonic ideas, contribute to making this arguably the least interesting quarter of the album, though it does contain another single (“Head”) and the anti-Poll Tax classic, “Leperskin”. Here was a track that married protest with contemporary beats and Cope’s particular brand of sloganeering (“She’s the apostolic hag! / She’s screaming…Screaming mad!”). As Cope himself points out, in an addendum to his excellent original liner notes, one of the successes of Peggy Suicide was its ability to make political points without sacrificing catchiness.
“Beautiful Love”, the first track of Phase Four and marked by Aaf Verkade’s sprightly trumpet, was another single released in 1991. “Western Front 1992 C.E.”, which 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 send a stark message about environmental responsibility. The more experimental thread is continued in the fuzzed-out instrumental “Hung Up & Hanging Out to Dry”—“this is as loose as I get,” writes Cope, “and it’s still tense.” “The American Lite” is a love song that just about manages to avoid late ‘80s bombast (think Simple Minds). Things wind down with the mournful “Las Vegas Basement”, which sports a moving, grainy vocal from Cope and an affective lyric.
That’s it for the original album, or at least for the 1991 CD. The record and cassette contained a 19th track, “Uptight”, a song that fans might well expect to see reinstated to its “rightful” place on the deluxe edition. For whatever reason, it’s not here. What we get instead are a number of remixes of Peggy tracks and material from the 1991 singles. “East Easy Rider” is mixed into “Easty Rider”, a version that makes the most of its funk references (New Orleans legends the Meters are one port of call, Sly and the Family Stone another). “Ravebury Stones”, which would later be extended for the Rite album, is a nod to the rave scene and to the preoccupation with megalithic sites that would lead Cope to embark on his mammoth book project The Modern Antiquarian. “Love L.U.V.”, which originally appeared on the “Beautiful Love” EP, is a dance remix of that song.
The 11 tracks on Disc Two also include “Butterfly E”, a 1983 track which received overdubs in 1990 and was subsequently included on the “East Easy Rider” EP. “Dragonfly” is a fascinating experimental “funkathon” that gives a good sense of the kind of instrumental and studio invention that went into the making of Peggy Suicide. “Heed: Of Penetration and the City-Dweller” is a remix of “Head”; like the other Hugoth Nicholson remixes here, it’s full of rave-inspired bleeps, shimmering keyboards, and haunted, dubby vocals. “Anyway at All”, recorded live in Austin, Texas, features Cope on cello and chant-like vocal, closing the deluxe edition in a suitably odd manner.
The Cope faithful will likely be disappointed with this “deluxe” treatment, let down as it is by the inclusion of previously available material and the leaving out of one original album track and other, rarer material. But it’s good to have this 1991 album back in focus for a while, to witness again the political and ecological reawakening of Julian Cope, and to recall the musical experiments of a bunch of plugged-in psychedelic funk fans in the dark days of Poll Tax-era Britain.