Ask a musician

Pub date December 17, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


There is a riddle wrapped in the central enigma of Stephen Kijak’s 2007 film Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. That riddle is Julian Cope. Dozens of musicians, including David Bowie and Brian Eno, listen to the elusive Walker’s music on-camera and testify to its impact. But Cope, who effectively revived Walker’s career and laid the foundation for his current cult legend status by compiling the ultrarare 1981 retrospective, Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker (Zoo), only communicates with Kijak via an e-mail that the filmmaker weaves into the web of commentary. In a movie dedicated to slowly revealing a famously mysterious figure, Cope cameos as an invisible man.

Cope’s role in 30 Century Man got me thinking about his position within popular music, a train of thought that led to the subject of musicians as creators and guardians of musical canons. In the ’80s, I’d bought albums by Cope’s group, the Teardrop Explodes, and early solo recordings such as 1984’s fox-y Fried (Polygram, 1984), where he wears a turtle shell and nothing else on the cover. Some close friends were so devoted to Cope that they named their first son Julian, but my interest in him fizzled. Checking back decades later, I soon realized that through writing, he’d generated new waves of enthusiasm around the "supreme Magic & Power" of Krautrock (via the self-published 1995 tome Krautrocksampler [Head Heritage]) and Japanese psychedelia (via Japrocksampler, published in 2007 by Bloomsbury). His Web site,, spotlights a favorite album each month and uses list-making as an opportunity to uncover unique tracks like Bloodrock’s 1970 death-rattle ambulance anthem "D.O.A." — a song one of my high school teachers used to introduce poetry to a class of burnouts.

Deemed a "rock musician, author, antiquary, musicologist, and poet" by Wikipedia, Cope is likely the most visionary canon creator or canon editor among those musicians given to the practice. The man who once sang a love song to Leila Khaled is now more ambivalent about terrorism — and about Cluster, even if Krautrocksampler helped remake their reputation. But his musical guides might also be sonic versions of the ancient megaliths he’s also studied and written about at length. Before I even began reading Cope’s notes on rock’s various formations, they’d put a spell on me — in other words, they influenced my listening habits. He’s like a benevolent musical version of Dr. Julian Karswell, the rune master in Jacques Tourneur’s 1959 film Night of the Demon.

Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne is a musician-canonist whose aesthetic has fewer aspirations to deep authority than Cope’s, but one that roves more freely. While Devendra Banhart is often credited with the rediscovery of pastoral folk priestess Vashti Bunyan, it was Stanley who first introduced her recordings to new generations: she appears on Dream Babes, Volume 5: Folkrock ‘n’ Faithfull (RPM), a 2003 entry in a ’60s girl-pop series he began in 1994, as well as his 2004 compilation, Gather in the Mushrooms: British Acid-Folk Underground, 1968-1974 (Castle Music). A keen expert regarding cult figures such as Joe Meek, Stanley recently traced Bon Iver’s current fringe hero status back to Thomas Chatterton in a piece for the UK Guardian. Saint Etienne’s revelatory 2004 contribution to the mix series The Trip alone has turned me on to the Left Banke, Gloria Scott’s neglected 1974 disco classic What Am I Gonna Do? (Casablanca, 1974) and its arranger, Gene Page, and Serge Gainsbourg’s 1970 Cannabis soundtrack (Universal, 2003).

The musician as critic, if not canonist, has a long tradition in the United Kingdom: Stanley wrote for Melody Maker before forming Saint Etienne, for example. Cope might be viewed as the butch authorial corollary of Morrissey, who has waved the banner for such alternate history icons as Sparks, Klaus Nomi, and Twinkle, the latter the subject of a Stanley RPM compilation. The rock star- or DJ-as-curator trend also manifests via compilation series such as Fabric and festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties. When My Bloody Valentine curated the 2008 New York installment of ATP, to some degree the musician-as-canonist idea came full circle, as the most evasive band from the mid-to-late-’80s reappeared amid a flurry of reissues from the era. If you’re frozen at the Googleplex crossroads of music circa 2008 and looking for a new old direction, it helps to ask a musician. (Johnny Ray Huston)


Beach House, Devotion (Carpark)

Coconut, Hello Fruity (Allone Co.)

Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours (Modular)

El Guincho, Alegranza! (XL/Young Turks)

Bruce Haack, The Electric Lucifer (Omni Recording) and "Party Machine" and "Icarus" from Haackula! (Omni Recording)

Tim Hardin, 1 (Water)

Nite Jewel, Good Evening (Gloriette)

The Present, World I See (Loaf)

Michael Rother, Fernwärme, Flammende Herzen, Katzenmusik, and Sterntaler (Water)

Arthur Russell, Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika)

Various artists, Space Oddities: A Compilation of European Library Grooves from 1975–1984 (Permanent Vacation)

Ricardo Villalobos, Vasco (Perlon)