Success was theirs to lose, but drugs, guilt and mental deterioration seemed to make deliberate failure a much more likely prospect. Issued in December 1981, this is the strange psychedelic story of the record that broke up the band: The Teardrop Explodes’ second and final album, Wilder.
The post-punk boom of the late ‘70s and early 1980s made stars of some quietly subversive Brits on the hunt for hits.
There was Marc Almond bringing his bangle-heavy brand of Soft Cell, high camp to the stuffy old BBC. The Human League’s Phil Oakey appearing in Jackie magazine with a chain proudly hanging between his pierced nipples. And Adam Ant, my first musical love, singing about Antmusic For Sexpeople while showing off his Pure Sex tattoo to theatres full of young fans: a tasty triumvirate just three examples of how a transgressive punk sensibility clashed with the “Victorian values” of a Thatcherite Britain not quite ready or willing to take it all in.
There is a sense with all of these of square pegs in round holes, of people perhaps not immediately cut out for mainstream fame, of bringing their baggage with them. Considerably. And none more so than the eccentric archdrood himself, the wholly cosmic Julian Cope.
Happily, we can certainly add several memorable Top Of The Pops turns to the list as well.
I’ve written about the episodes featuring show-stopping appearances from Bad Manners, Trio, Associates and Divine already, but The Teardrop Explodes’ more-front-than-frontman standing atop a piano, tripping his face off on LSD while wearing a night shirt as he desperately attempted to mime the words to Passionate Friend atop a piano he felt he was sinking into after nearly being knocked out by a swooping camera crane takes some beating.
That he failed pretty abysmally just adds to its legend, especially as there’s no video record of it on trusty YouTube. Received wisdom suggests it’s from an episode of the BBC’s weekly music show in February 1981, the very same week where Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face did the immovable and kept Ultravox’s Vienna off the top spot again. Whatever happened to them?
Anyway, JC (for he had the right initials) slightly revised his sackcloth and ashes look for the Christmas edition of TOTP, though he looks remarkably sober, more’s the pity.
When they first formed in 1978, Merseyside’s The Teardrop Explodes were a fine if slightly peculiar band formed in the embers of the punk scene that had raged through the UK.
Countless wannabes were inspired by the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash to pick up guitars and make music of their own. The post-punk purveyors covered themselves in glory by refusing to follow the path of identikit thrash that was well trod by second and third generation punk bands, and by applying their emerging musical abilities in a new and different way.
With pathological contrariness, these acts had an innate desire not to follow the crowd. This led to some of the most visceral music being committed to vinyl by bands who were not interested in fame or its trappings, doing what they were doing out of a need to create. It was in these post-punk outfits that the true spirit of the explosions of ’76/’77 bore fruit.
One of these bands was The Teardrop Explodes.
Their inception based around Liverpool’s holy trinity of Eric’s, Probe and the Armadillo Tea Rooms, local bands sprung up regularly, often lasting no longer than a day or two. Eventually though, some of them left the tea rooms for the rehearsal rooms and actually started putting pen to paper.
The indie shufflers wrote three songs, Sleeping Gas, Camera Camera and Kirby Worker’s Dream Fades. Bill Drummond, ex of Big In Japan and future KLF cohort, persuaded the band to record all three tunes, releasing them as the band’s first single, the first of a trilogy on his local Zoo label, before signing with Mercury in 1980.
Further 45s Bouncing Babies and Treason (It’s Just A Story) were released and The Teardrops were one of Liverpool’s brightest hopes, with Treason in particular being singled out for praise in the weekly inkies.
Their next release When I Dream grazed the Top 50, Suddenly The Teardrop Explodes found the spotlight shining on them for the first time.
However, major league success eluded them while friends-turned-rivals Echo And The Bunnymen signed to a major label and left Cope and co behind.
It wasn’t until fifth single Reward — a record so brilliantly bombastic, epic seems almost an understatement to describe it, such was its swagger and confidence — gained a prized position in the Top 10 that it seemed to be time for the Scouse four-piece to have their own chance at the big time.
Treason was subsequently remixed and reissued and despite its lower-key demeanour made it into the Top Twenty. The Teardrop Explodes had become pop stars.
Lacking a stable line up, Julian Cope became the band’s face and focus, essentially employing and firing a series of players who were little more than session musicians. Drummer Gary Dwyer was the Teardrops’ only other continuous member, and deserves great credit for his part in their story, and for being the prop that held the band up when falling apart may have seemed inevitable.
Released in October 1980, debut album Kilimanjaro gathered rave reviews and it seemed that everybody dug The Teardrop Explodes. What could possibly go wrong?
Well the answer to that is pretty much everything.
Pop fame sat uneasily on Cope’s mousy shoulders, and he took to consuming huge amounts of LSD and isolating himself. An American tour came to a messy end when Cope sacked most of the band, including bass-playing fan favourite Alfie Agius.
By now he had a reputation approaching that of The Fall’s Mark E Smith when it came to the ruthless way he dealt with band members. Nevertheless, anticipation for the Teardrop’s sophomore set was so high that Cope, with hilarious hubris, had, like its predecessor Kilimanjaro, wanted to call it Everybody Wants To Shag The Teardrop Explodes.
“Arrogance has it” in spades then.
The alternative universe title for the album was the even worse: Ten More Belters from Whopper. Wisely, the LP was eventually titled Wilder, and, Difficult Second Album Syndrome notwithstanding, it was in part designed to turn off the band’s new audience of pop fans.
There is still a rich vein of Cope’s love of classic pop running through Wilder, but it has an angular, awkward and arty approach that belied his status as a glossy staple of Smash Hits magazine, where teenage girls were coo-ing over his good looks and soaraway hair.
Opening track Bent Out Of Shape is underpinned by a skittering rhythm that snakes through the song, giving it an insouciant bounce as Cope complains, “All my life I’ve been bent out of shape, can’t you see it’s killing me?”, before adding “these are dreams that I never had” as if he has already had enough of the fame that had landed at his feet.
Next up is Colours Fly Away, starting with a brass band section that harks back to the glory days of Reward. Fans could be forgiven that The Teardrop Explodes have picked up from where Kilimanjaro left off.
But again, the opening lines show Cope’s unease with his success: “More by luck than judgement here I am, smiling at the fighting once again.”
Seven Views Of Jerusalem is a jumble of beats and squawks with Cope seemingly in stream of consciousness territory, singing “I cut off my nose to spite my face, look at all pests around the place. Everyone’s laughing they think it’s disguise, but haven’t you seen all the lines round my eyes.” It goes with our saying that lyrics such as these seem a long way from the same person who burst into the public’s affections by singing “Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news!”
The incisive guitars and thrilling tattoos of drums on Pure Joy have a similar air of focused intensity, and it’s a pleasant enough interlude, if a trifle trite and throwaway.
Pure Joy is succeeded by one of the album’s highlights, Falling Down Around Me. Built around a stuttering mix of bass and drums that seem to have little in common with the guitar track, the song is a curious hybrid: it starts off all dissonant, sounding like a Japan outtake then Cope comes across a little Mockney, his vocals echoing the nascent David Robert Jones, in particular his sixties curios on Deram’s The World Of David Bowie album that was pretty popular amongst the Liverpool post punk cognoscenti.
Incorporating all of the band’s best tropes, The Culture Bunker is top drawer Teardrops and even reflects on the mythology that surrounded them by referring to Cope’s early days in Liverpool as one third of The Crucial Three, the short-lived trio he formed with Pete Wylie and Ian McCulloch. It’s a gem of a song as he sings “I’ve been waiting so long, waiting for The Crucial Three, wondering what went wrong.”
Only its author knew in advance that the album’s lead single was going to be even more poppy, lighter and catchier than anything else he’d ever written. From its crashing intro and impenetrable lyric, through to its killer chorus and joyous ba-ba-ba-ba-ba sing-a-long moments, Passionate Friend was, naturally, a birrova pop moment, and apparently more than a little inspired by the Julian’s brief relationship with Ian McCulloch’s sister, thus deepening the rift that had grown up between the two former friends.
Not only that but Passionate Friend was very probably the first single on the upper echelons of the British charts to feature a sitar in at least a decade and a half, echoing local legends The Beatles and pre-dating Blancmange’s Living On The Ceiling by a whole year. Never before had a the instrument sounded so good.
There’s retro-shades of late-period The Jam in its horn-driven delivery, too. Indeed, the song’s instrumentation is as an unabashed utterly delectable ’60s pastiche; one that didn’t think twice about purloining the melody to Marianne Faithfull’s As Tears Go By for a backing vocal line in its outro — written, of course, by the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
In a year chocca with future classics, Passionate Friend represented one of the more perfect 3 ½ minutes in 1981’s pop history. It was also the one Teardrops tune that was my gateway to discovering their catalogue. Because, lightly incongruously, Passionate Friend happened to be the first Teardrops track we owned in our house. In early 1982, my father bought a filled-to-the-brim two-LP set called Action Trax, compiled by compilation kings K-Tel but manufactured by CBS Records twenty minutes from from us at their Aston Clinton pressing plant near Aylesbury.
Nestled in between Stiff Little Fingers and XTC at track one, side two was Passionate Friend, joining other medium to well done chart fodder from the tail end of 1981, which included recent 45s from ABBA, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Daryl Hall & John Oates and Kim Wilde.
From Wilde back to Wilder then, as the rest of this album gets distinctly darker and odder. Reading them back now, some of Julian’s lyrics seem to be as despondent and confessional as those from Joy Divison’s then recently deceased frontman Ian Curtis.
Taking things down several sombre notches, Tiny Children made for an unlikely follow up to Passionate Friend, comprised of only Cope’s sweet vocal touched with delicate synth washes and the barest hint of guitar until the song’s conclusion, when some drumbeats shockingly manifest.
The lyrics cast Julian as a lonely figure writing his disquiet and depression down for us all to read. Listeners to these emotional admissions can almost feel guilty, as if we were sneaking secret glances through a nobody’s diary.
Choice lines like “I could make a meal of that wonderful despair I feel” provide a glimpse into a troubled psyche and his approach to the people he now has to deal with is detailed when he sings “but each character is plundering my home and taking everything that is my own.” The chorus of “Oh no, I’m not sure about those things that I cared about/ Oh no, I’m not sure, not anymore” give the impression of an unhappy soul, rocking himself in a dark corner.
From here on out the closure of the album attains a dreamlike-vibe with the final trio of tracks attaining a closely matched, elegiac tone of contemplation.
Suddenly, Smash Hits seems a long way off.
Like Leila Khaled Said further details a doomy outlook, for some reason juxtaposed with Leila Khaled, militant member of the revolutionary Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the first woman in history to hijack a plane.
…And The Fighting Takes Over continues the downbeat, introspective theme still further, reading like an examination of Julian’s failing marriage in a sad but blame free manner, concluding “we were just a pair of little children, two children, no surprise.”
Set closer The Great Dominions is perhaps the greatest The Teardrop Explodes song in their concise catalogue. It’s certainly their most impressive album track, and an open-hearted epic that again seems to look at a crumbling marriage.
The band provide a sympathetic backing as Julian pours his heart out in his own symbolic manner. It reads like the aftermath of a long and emotional argument, with Cope singing “Suddenly, I came to my senses. A night on fire put out all traces of feeling.”
The ending refrain saw Julian reportedly singing naked in a dark studio, his voice cracking as the tears finally came towards the end of the repeated line “Mummy, I’ve been fighting again.” As he breaks down, the song climaxes around him. It may well be the most tender, most personal thing he ever did.
As emotional as this is, it is difficult to see that the young fans who bought Reward would take to this tearful soul bearing with the same enthusiasm. Of course, the post-punk monks that the band had brought with them were more than able to cherish the sounds they found on Wilder, it was the pop kids that might have found it a more challenging listen.
Cope’s aim was not to make difficult music, but to shake off his teenybopper image, a mantle that it is easy to imagine not sitting well on his shoulders. But before the band could finish their third album — an ill-fated turbulent project which eventually surfaced in revised form in April 1990 with the recycling of Wilder’s original and rejected title Everybody Wants To Shag… The Teardrop Explodes — it was all over for Cope and co.
And is it me or would The Teardrop Implodes have been a more fitting titular finale?
As with The Jam and The Smiths, the Teardrops remain one of the more revered bands who have never reformed, and probably for good reason. Theirs is a tale that has too much depth, too many messy relationships and involved too many bad trips, man.
But, despite Wilder perhaps starting the death knell of one of post-punk’s greatest acts, it’s a mighty statement and one that deserves returning to. As batty as he likes to appear, Julian Cope is a spacehopping pop star who’s prepared to open himself up to his public in a manner still far from the norm.
In that respect, we’re reminded of the troubled output of Syd Barrett and Tim Buckley — and possibly Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain — but presented in an indie pop arena that simultaneously celebrates their spirit of innovation and their impact.
Cope returned to Tamworth where he recorded many more records to varying degree of commercial and critical success, and even found time to dash off a couple of volumes of memoirs. In his second book, Repossessed, he said of the Teardrops’ first flush of success, “I lay morbidly fearful of Top Of The Pops. Was this to be my life from now on? Peering fearfully at the uncoolness of my more successful friends in a mute discontent of quivering impotent envy”
It’s probably useful here to recall the words of the band’s press officer, Mick Houghton, who wisely reflected that “Success does not breed success, success breeds confusion”. The Teardrop Explodes’ flame burned bright but brief, although time has been kind to them and their records, especially when you can hear their epic sensibilities on offerings by the likes of Morrissey and Blur and realise that they were the great ambassadors of psychedelia in the ’80s when the genre was all but dead.
And with the benefit of four decades of hindsight, Wilder is a bloody-minded and honest look into the downside of success, when all they had to do to ensure their continued triumph was to put on a happy face and smile for the pages of the pop glossies. And as such, it is one of the bravest documents a band hungry for fame have ever committed to tape.
Give it a whirl. You know you should.
My sincere gratitude to sun13banjo for the inspiration and source material