Satan Dies Screaming
(Julian Cope’s Cornucopea - Part Two)
Sunday 2nd April 2000.
I’m in bed watching Forbidden Planet when my mobile rings. It’s Liz at the Royal Festival Hall. She tells me she has been trying to reach me all day and would I like to play ‘Sleeping Gas’ on stage with Julian tonight? My silence stretches from here to the moon. “You don’t sound too keen” she says. We only met for the first time yesterday, so festival organiser Liz hasn’t quite got the measure of me yet. She’s yet to discover that no matter how positively I present, I’m as negative as an electron. I kid myself that my auto-response of Nein-Danke to just about everything I’m offered is discernment, but the truth is it’s fear. A still active phobia from childhood about being caught up in events beyond my control. I performed to an almost full house at the festival last night and no one died, so what am I scared of? Well, it’s been 21-years since Julian Cope and I last played on stage together and a lot of dirty water has flowed in and out of the mouth of the Mersey since then. So this invitation is a big deal for both of us. Because I’ve been drinking Malbec since 11am, and because I love Copey to bits for asking me, I’m absolutely horrified to hear myself say “I’ll be right over.”
Julian beams as I arrive. We hug and I scan the vast stage, wondering where the keyboard is. I’d kill to play his M400 Mellotron, but I’m anticipating some sort of high-end Yamaha portable, duct-taped to a stand. His grin widens Loki style, as he gestures to the leviathan that occupies the entire rear wall of the venue. Holy mother of Odin. Does he mean to tell me that I, Paul Simpson, two-finger Joe, am expected to play a song I haven’t heard in ten years and haven’t played in over twenty, to an audience of over two-thousand people, in a venue renowned for having the best acoustics in the world? On one of the largest and most spectacular pipe-organs-in the country? This Satanic torture device could block out the sun. It has four, five-octave keyboards, 103 drawer stops, dozens upon dozens of thankfully disabled bass pedals and an unbelievable, 7,866 individual pipes. The organ I played with The Teardrop Explodes had vibrato and an on-off button.
With the house doors about to open and no time for a sound check, Julian quickly cycles the riff on his 12-string while I find my bearings. At Ju’s insistence, his lovely sidekick, Thighpaulsandra puts black tape on the notes that make up a D chord. Julian’s saying it’s so I can see them in the gloom at the back of the auditorium, but I suspect it’s really so he has something to joke about with the audience when he next plays in Liverpool. Northern audiences are frequently regaled with his story of how, in the early Teardrop Explodes, I couldn’t play the keyboards properly. He’s right. I couldn’t. With The Fall, Suicide and This Heat as reference points, I wasn’t trying to. Anyway, right now my old bandmate doesn’t trust me not to fuck up and he’s absolutely right. There is no monitoring back here, the organ console is lit by what look like children’s torch bulbs and let’s face it, I can barely remember my way back to the hotel, let alone the upbeat and opiated kinder-drone of ‘Sleeping Gas’.
Because tonight has been sprung on me, I’ve nothing remotely suitable to wear. Julian is channelling some kind of Viking berserker meets outer-space yoga instructor look so I can’t possibly wear the tweed suit and brogues I came in or we’ll look like George Jetson jamming with Sherlock Holmes. All I have in my overnight bag is dark brown leather cut in the style of a Levi jacket and some slim, stone-coloured trousers. Brilliant. I finally get a chance of performing to an audience of thousands and I have to do it dressed like I’m in Tight Fit’s ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ video.
Finally, it’s show-time. Incredibly, I’ve not seen Copey perform for over two decades, and only once as a member of the audience when The Wild Swans supported the third incarnation of the Teardrops as part of Bill Drummond’s Club Zoo shenanigans back in December 1981. Apart from a couple of his 80’s hits and a handful of songs from his Fried and Interpreter albums, I don’t know much from tonight’s repertoire. But they all sound uniformly brilliant. He’s going down a storm and the between-song anecdotes delivered in his understated Kevin Ayers-circa-1971 speak are hilarious.
A terrible thought steals into my mind. What if I really screw this up? Play some godawful howler note that makes the entire audience wince and throws Julian completely off his game? Not only could I destroy the Teardrop’s defining song but, by ruining the Festival set-closer, I could neutralise the magic of this entire event. You see, I’ve got it into my head that under the guise of entertainment, beneath the surface-layer of this festival, secret and subtle forces are at work. With support artist Coil’s hidden-in-plain-sight ceremonial magic ritual disguised as a gig earlier, and Krautrock mystics’ Ash Ra Tempel’s sorcery, Copey’s had some heavy-duty shamans collaborating on the construction of a significant cone-of-power here. And I desperately don’t want to be the one to break the spell.
Eyeing the exit doors, I consider doing a Stephen Fry. 10:05pm from Liverpool Street to Harwich – night boat to the Hoek of Holland – first train to Amsterdam Centraal. I could be canal side, drinking coffee with a selection of delicious pastries by 6 am. I’m on after the next song. In a last minute attempt to appear more Red Army Faction than Mike Nolan from Buck’s Fizz, I button up my jacket to the neck and prepare to enter Planet Cope.
“Now I’d like to introduce a very special guest. Co-founder of The Teardrop Explodes. Paul Simpson!”
Climbing the steps to the stage, I pause momentarily to draw down some protection before walking out of the darkness and into a pool of brilliant white light. Greeted by genuine whoops of surprise and thunderous applause from the packed auditorium, I smile and I wave as if this Dalinian situation were in any way normal for me. A quick ‘Let’s do this’ nod to Copey and I stride upstage in the direction of the steps that lead up to the mighty organ. But something’s wrong. Very wrong.
To be continued…