I have a peculiar relationship with Croydon, which seems appropriate as Croydon is a curious place. Growing up just outside Sutton, Croydon was Sutton’s scary big brother. The scary big brother everybody laughed at. Croydon had a reputation. It was ridiculous and people mocked it in a way you never seemed top get with nearby towns like Epsom, Sutton, Kingston or Bromley.
Perhaps as a result, I rarely went there, preferring to spend Saturday afternoons in the tedious safety of Sutton and then later in the West End. It was only in my late teens that I really discovered Croydon.
By then, I could drive, and that seems relevant as Croydon was a town built for cars. In the sixth form I’d drive into Croydon with schoolfriends during breaks in the timetable to shop at Beano’s and have lunch – with girls! – at McDonald’s. And at weekends, I’d meet friends in the goth-metal Ship or in the Firkin beer garden.
That drive was thrilling. I’d soundtrack it to Aladdin Sane, which is ironic given David Bowie’s later comments about Croydon. I always entered Croydon from the south, via the flyover and that flyover was extraordinary and intoxicating. It was like nothing else around, certainly not in the dull suburbs of south London.
As I approached Croydon from this elevated position, the 1920s terraces spread out below, I always had a lingering desire to drive straight over the side into oblivion. It wasn’t a suicidal or maudlin, it was more like Butch Cassidy or Thelma And Louise, to exit in triumph.
When I left home, I came to increasingly dislike Sutton for the atmosphere of violence, racism, desperation and small-mindedness that I noticed every time I returned, seemingly growing worse each time. But with the benefit of distance, Croydon seemed far more interesting, an adventure in creating a new kind of suburban living that hadn’t quite worked but still left behind a town centre that was unique.
I recently rediscovered this 2005 interview with Julian Cope from Time Out. It took place over the phone and my main recollection is that Cope went to the toilet halfway through, with the sound of his piss hitting the urinal adding a certain sonic tang to the transcription.
They say that every boy needs a hobby; over the years Julian Cope has had plenty. At first it was taking LSD on ‘Top Of The Tops’ and talking about Scott Walker. Later it was sitting beneath a tortoise shell and listening to krautrock. Now it’s playing monolithic sludge rock riffs and visiting ancient monuments. There’s no pattern, it’s just how things worked out.
But before we get into one of those ‘isn’t Julian Cope crazy?!’ mindsets, let’s clear one thing up: Cope isn’t a whacked-out, moondog, schizoid beam-chaser, or even a ga-ga, freaked-up, attention-seeking acid-eater, he’s just a lot more interesting (and, crucially, interested) than most rock stars. Let the man himself explain, as he prepares for his Friday night gig at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Playing the role of Julian Cope means I can hide behind what Julian Cope is supposed to be. People always say, “You’re a lot more normal than I thought you would be”, and I say, “Yeah, but if I was as weird as you thought, I wouldn’t be able to achieve fucking anything”. The whole point is that it’s the subject matter that’s weird, not the person behind it.’
These days such achievements are often literary – particularly best-selling books on standing stones (The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European). But Cope continues to record. His latest is Citizen Cain’d, an epic, guitar-shredding study of alienation and monotheism that is heavily informed by travels in Iran and stupidly heavy rock ’n’ roll.
‘We’ve all got an inner moron,’ he explains. ‘And rock ’n’ roll entertains your inner moron, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be smart as well. I thought it would be great to take garage rock and fuse it with genuinely amazing guitar. American punk bands always struck me as being better because they were great musicians playing down. One of the reasons I work with Doggen is that he’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. He’s amazing. But it’s context, I never put him in a good context. I’m never going to make him look like Eddie Van Halen if he’s got to come out of the swamp.’
Talking of swamp, support on Friday is from San Francisco’s Comets On Fire, quality purveyors of cosmic sludge, who are playing their first UK show. Cope has been a fan for a while. ‘The great thing about Comets is they very much know where they’re coming from. When I first got in touch with Ethan Miller (Comets main guy) I was saying, “Man, you’re totally Roky Erickson meets John Fogerty with Hawkwind backing”, and he said “Shit man, in my dreams that’s where we are”. But it’s not in their dreams, they’re there already.’
As he enthuses about favourite bands like Speed Glue And Shinky (‘I’m a fucking cunt for a singing drummer’) and Monoshock (‘They’re really vile. Like a sewer Stooges’), it’s clear that Cope is totally into this stuff. And when Cope gets into something, it normally gets into print. ‘I’m writing a book that’s just called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, but it has the most portentous subtitle in the world. I can’t even remember it. On the back we’re going to have a massive question mark and underneath say “Who will entertain your moron?”’
Will this be written in his trademark stream-of-consciousness style? ‘Actually, I’m probably no more stream of consciousness than Robert Graves, I’m just fucking great at giving that impression. One thing I do is write what I want to say, then I go into an internet translator and turn it into German, turn the German into French and then the French back into English, and then pick out the nuggets. It ends up sounding like Faust lyrics. I’m happy that secret being leaked: the people who hear it and don’t take it seriously won’t learn anything, and the people that know wisdom is everywhere will take it on board and start doing it. Part of my job is to reveal other ways. I’m trying to be a facilitator rather than somebody who hides behind a cloak of mystery.’
And Friday? ‘Expect generic dark psychedelia. I’m really punishing the cliché. Get there early because we’re going to play two sets, one as people arrive, then after the Comets we’ll come back and do that monolithic sludge. It’s going to be a real vibe. Healthy amounts of mushrooms will be good and women should dress for the occasion.’