The Teardrop Explodes
|Track||Single / EP / Album|
|Sleeping Gas||Zoo CAGE 003|
|Treason||Zoo CAGE 008|
|When I Dream||Mercury TEAR 1 / Kilimanjaro|
|Poppies In The Field||Kilimanjaro|
|Reward||Mercury TEAR 2|
|Passionate Friend||Mercury TEAR 5 / Wilder|
|The Culture Bunker||Wilder|
|The Great Dominions||Wilder|
|Rachael Built A Steamboat||Mercury TEAR 7|
|Ouch Monkeys||You Disappear From View EP|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
I was aware of the Teardrop Explodes during their period of success in 1981, certainly I would hear Reward and Treason on the radio and see the band performing on Top Of The Pops but I never thought of them as any different to the other gaudy pop bands around the scene. But then I was 12 and a few years away from making my own music choices. They had a few hits, then disappeared. In my mind they were just another one of the many transient pop thrills of the early 80s alongside the Associates and Altered Images and any other number of bands who didn’t appear to sustain a career in the charts. Hell, what did I know?
A few years later – 1985 to be precise – I chanced upon a copy of the Teardrop Explodes’ final single in my local charity shop, a double 7 inch single selling for 50p. I was a little more aware by that point of the band, had heard frontman Julian Cope’s early solo songs, read a few interviews with him in Melody Maker, and I was curious enough to make that small investment. I devoured that record, the gloomy sleeve pictures, the liner notes adding to the myth and mystery of Cope, but most of all I devoured the music. I had no real context for it, vaguely knew the title track You Disappear From View from hearing it on Radio Luxembourg in early ’83 when it was issued but the other four songs were intriguing. Suffocate was tense and moody, Soft Enough For You was a peculiar sea shanty with a queasy string arrangement, The In-Psychlopedia was manic synth pop and Ouch Monkeys was a dark yet strangely calm meditation on war, death and destruction over a thumping track of rhythm box, marimbas and ghostly choir voices. Cope intones “Oh such fun and games” with a hint of glee in his voice as kettle drums explode in the distance. A remarkable song, out of kilter with its times and totally different to the hit singles I knew by the band.
Now I was curious – how did the Teardrop Explodes get to that point? I started buying what records were available in stores, which didn’t take long as it was only their debut album Kilimanjaro which was still in print at the time. I spent most of 1985 hunting in second hand record shops, record fairs and the back pages of Record Collector magazine, picking up their singles and their second album Wilder, finding a very informative book called “Liverpool Explodes!” written by future Later… With Jools Holland producer Mark Cooper, piecing together the story of the band and falling in love with the music from all the stages of their short but prolific career. Once all the records were bought I continued finding bootlegs, live tapes, radio sessions, outtakes, even a bootleg video of their TV appearances. I soaked it all up and formed an opinion on the band which was so much more than their hit singles showed.
Even the most casual of pop fan must know a little information about the Teardrops (as I’ll call them from time to time) and that information usually is about their leader Julian Cope, his eccentric behaviour and his rivalry with other Liverpudlian pop stars of the era such as Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen and Pete Wylie of Wah! This rivalry goes back to May 1977 when the three men met at a gig by The Clash at Eric’s in Liverpool and decided to form a band The Crucial Three who only lasted for a few rehearsals. Personality clashes led to them breaking up and forming other bands around a nucleus of fellow musicians, but the rivalry was already there; to beat the others. It is ironic that Echo and the Bunnymen’s first gig was supporting the Teardrop Explodes on 15th November 1978, again at Eric’s. At this point the band consisted of Cope on bass guitar and vocals, Gary Dwyer on drums, Paul Simpson on organ and Mick Finkler on guitar.
The early Teardrop sound was post punk filtered through the Nuggets compilation, Seeds style organ mixed with the repetition of The Fall. Their debut single Sleeping Gas was minimal, disco drums underpinning droning organ and clunky guitar chords while Cope sang a selection of arresting pop art images. The single was issued on Zoo Records, run by Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe who would also manage the band, and Sleeping Gas made an immediate impact – single of the week in the music papers, radio play from Peel and good sales for an independent label from Liverpool. But there was already trouble; Simpson wanted more opportunities to express himself and was directing attention away from Cope so left to form The Wild Swans, allowing Balfe to take over on keyboards. Their second single Bouncing Babies was equally well received and the Teardrop Explodes toured with the Bunnymen who had issued their debut single The Pictures On My Wall on Zoo, leading to press stories of a new psychedelia emerging from Liverpool. Both bands finished 1979 by appearing in the music papers’ “Most promising new act” polls and much was anticipated for 1980.
The rivalry between the two bands was creative at this point and Cope channelled that into the Teardrops’ third single Treason (It’s Just A Story), issued in the spring of 1980. A glorious blast of melodic pop, full of hooks and charm, it sold over 25,000 copies, enough to make major labels take notice. By now the Bunnymen were signed to Korova, part of the Warner Brothers empire, and had grazed the charts with their second single Rescue. When the Bunnymen recorded their debut LP in Rockfield Studios, Drummond remortgaged his house to raise the funds to let the Teardrops record their debut LP there straight after, hoping to recoup the money through a major label deal. But what sounded fine on stage didn’t sound great in the studio; Finkler’s guitar sounded out of place, and Cope had ideas to expand their sound. Obsessed by Scott Walker and Forever Changes, he added a horn section to the band to add some righteous grandeur to their sound. Nobody was happy with what had been recorded – the album provisionally and jokingly titled Everybody Wants To Shag The Teardrop Explodes, and after a while Finkler was ousted and replaced with Alan Gill.
Gill’s influence over the band and Cope is immeasurable. His psychedelic guitar style was already established within the sparse electro pop of the Compass Kumpas LP by Dalek I, issued earlier in 1980, and it fitted well within the Teardrop sound. However a bigger influence would be Gill introducing Cope – at this point very anti drugs – to marijuana and LSD. Almost overnight Cope became evangelical about these mind altering substances and his whole outlook changed. Suddenly Phonogram were interested in signing the band, and offered to pay to rerecord the debut album. Newly signed through the Mercury subsidiary, the Teardrops completed their debut album Kilimanjaro for release in late 1980, preceded by the single When I Dream.
Kilimanjaro is a fine debut album, including re-recordings of their previous singles on Zoo, the horns beefing the songs up, but the limited palate of organ wash and horns can become tiresome towards the middle of side two. Still, the quality of the songs save the day, especially the longer songs which can become trance inducing. Poppies In The Field mixes backwards guitar over pulsing bass and drums, while When I Dream adds a simple toytown synth melody to the yearning lovelorn vocal. The album was well received and the band looked set to be a well respected cult act, as much a bubblegum psych band as the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
However Gill couldn’t stand the tension in the band – in particular that between Cope and Balfe which was violently physical and also full of mind games. But before Gill departed, he co-wrote a new song with Cope, a speedy blast which Cope said sounded like a spy theme. That song was Reward, performed a few times at the end of 1980 including a performance for Old Grey Whistle Test. Here the viewer can see the start of the development of the band’s image – bandanas, flying jackets, Gill throwing out shards of guitar, it sounds like a hit single.
After all, when Phonogram had signed the Teardrops, label manager David Bates had caused uproar when he said he believed Cope could become a pop idol. Oh how they laughed. Yet now the Teardrops were entering 1981 with what sounded like a hit. When Gill left, Cope also forced Balfe out and recruited new members for the band, moving himself centre stage on rhythm guitar and adding Troy Tate on lead guitar, Alfie Agius on bass and Jeff Hammer on keyboards. It was this line up that performed Reward on Top Of The Pops as it climbed to number six in the charts, Cope looking like a shaggy haired pop star, Agius looked like a fresh faced cherub and the female readers of Smash Hits had a new favourite band. Anyone flipping the single to play the B-side would be shocked by the discordant piano and violin scraping of Strange House In The Snow, including some blood curdling howling from Cope. It sounded like a mental ward had been given instruments and told to write a song. Very peculiar.
During the first six months of 1981 the Teardrops were huge. Treason was reissued and made the top 20, Kilimanjaro was reissued with Reward added and remained in the album charts most of the year. In Britain they were everywhere; Cope always provided a good interview and the media and the public were on his side. And the Teardrops had comprehensively beaten their rivals into the charts. In the UK they were pop stars, but touring America at the same time they were psychedelic voyagers, with Cope and Dwyer indulging in all kinds of chemicals including a “thousand trip bag” provided by a member of the Grateful Dead’s entourage. It was enough to make anyone go slightly over the edge and with the addition of mind altering substances … Of course it was going to be messy and Cope’s autobiography “Head-On” provides a lot of examples of the kind of excess that happened.
All of which can sometimes mask the music itself. Cope was remarkably productive during this period, writing the majority of the songs for the band’s second album, originally titled “The Great Dominions”. These songs would be played live during most of 1981 and recorded for numerous BBC sessions too. The title track was a grandiose piano ballad, while Like Leila Khaled Said had a strange Arabic groove. Best of all was The Culture Bunker, a bitter song about the rivalries in Liverpool, even mentioning The Crucial Three. This song also allowed the band to jam a little and expand the song into a real groove. When the Teardrops toured the UK in the Spring of ’81 it was these songs Cope wanted to impress with, but the new audience of teenyboppers screamed anyway, especially when Agius started doing his daft bopping dance. Girls would hold up signs with “I love you Alfie” and the like. It was a long way from sharing stages with Joy Division and The Fall only two years previously.
August 1981 saw the release of a new single, the first recordings by this line-up of the band. Passionate Friend was ripe with hooks, melodies, arresting imagery (“I’ve got all sleep’s secrets hidden in my bag” is a personal favourite) and even managed to include an electric sitar solo. Imagine a perfect mix of The Turtles at their most poptastic and a lysergic Paul McCartney without the cloying winsomeness and you’re halfway there. It was a perfect single and should have returned the Teardrops to the Top Ten. But it hovered around the mid twenties refusing to climb any higher. Even another memorable Top Of The Pops performance – Cope standing on a grand piano looking manic – didn’t help. Admittedly, Cope did say in “Head-On” that he was tripping and thought the piano was a cruise ship …
The supposed failure of such a great single hit hard, and Cope responded by cutting his long mane of hair and sacking Hammer and Agius, immediately alienating the teenyboppers. Cope then recruited Dave Balfe back in, who had apparently spent his time working on a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 synth. The four piece line-up recorded their second album, now entitled Wilder because it sounded wilder than their previous records.
Wilder is still a bit of a misunderstood album. It’s easy to laugh at some of Cope’s lyrical flights of fancy (“I’m still stuck in this pickle jar on a paper carpet” is frequently quoted, like nobody’s left a cake out in the rain before) but for me it’s a record full of joy and sadness, cloaking its feelings in melody. Bent Out Of Shape is their fourth hit single which never got issued, Seven Views Of Jerusalem builds on a rhythmic groove in the manner of Remain In Light era Talking Heads, The Culture Bunker kicks hard. Better still are the slower songs. Tiny Children is a minimalist synth ballad worthy of Scott Walker while …And The Fighting Takes Over builds upon Tate’s beautiful guitar arpeggios with lyrics about a relationship falling apart. Best of all is closer The Great Dominions, previously a dour piano ballad, now utilising Balfe’s synths to make a melancholy masterpiece, Tate’s single note guitars echoing, huge drums and Cope at his most passionate.
Colours Fly Away was chosen as the single to promote the album, if anything a little too much Teardrop-by-numbers, and failed to crack the Top 40 in the autumn of ’81. Those who did buy the single must have been baffled by the B-side Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns, full of droning minor key harmoniums, free form freak out trumpets, two overlapping Cope vocals and somewhere in the middle a beautiful piano and synth melody. Wilder was released a few weeks later to general indifference and incomprehension and poor sales and Phonogram’s big push (Wilder shopping bags?) couldn’t save it. The LP quickly slipped out of the charts and was soon deleted. They made their final appearance on Top Of The Pops on Christmas Day 1981 playing Reward, and it already felt like they belonged to a previous generation.
Bill Drummond’s next brilliant management idea was for the Teardrops to have a residency at a club in Liverpool, renamed Club Zoo for the occasion. With the addition of Ronnie Francois on bass, the band played two sets each day for three weeks in December. It certainly tightened them up and with the addition of more new material the Teardrops toured the UK in the early months of 1982, playing two hour sets, extrapolating The Culture Bunker, Sleeping Gas and new song Clematis. In April, the Teardrops played a live set for Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2, a stunning show with Cope on top form on the closing Culture Bunker, utterly mesmerising at the end. You can’t take your eyes off him while Tate plays sky scraping guitar, Francois adds funk bass and Balfe’s synths spit out noise.
The Teardrop Explodes played two high profile concerts as support for Queen at Milton Keynes Bowl in the summer of 1982, where Cope had abuse and bottles hurled at him, as well as insinuations on his sexuality from the macho crowd. As a form of promotion, Tiny Children was issued as a single half a year after its appearance on Wilder. It failed to reach the top 40 despite the best efforts of Radio One breakfast show host Mike Read who played it incessantly. The B-side was a rare recording by the five piece line-up; Rachael Built A Steamboat is a sweet story song and one of my favourite Teardrop Explodes songs.
At this point Cope started to retreat from the band, returning to his home town of Tamworth with his wife. He sacked Tate and Francois and allowed Balfe to direct the recording of their third album, leading to a synth heavy sound. Sometimes this worked – the proto acid house of Serious Danger and autumnal grace of Log Cabin – and sometimes it didn’t work, Cope’s lyric for Metranil Vavin sits awkwardly on top of the marimba dominated music. They even toured with this line up, bolstered by backing tapes of weedy synthetic brass on Reward. When the tapes snapped, Cope would get frustrated and smash things and be apologetic for the band’s inadequacy. On 15th November 1982, Cope announced that the Teardrop Explodes had split up, four years and six line-ups after their first gig and if you pardon me stealing the expression from the Grateful Dead, what a long strange trip it was. The third album was abandoned unfinished while five songs were issued on the farewell release You Disappear From View in early 1983, which is where I came in.
Julian Cope, of course, moved on to his own prolific solo career as detailed recently on this site by Craig Austin (see toppermost #382), while Dave Balfe started Food Records, struck lucky with Blur and became the subject of a number one single. Bill Drummond formed the KLF and that’s another story in itself. As for the Teardrops’ rivals, Echo and the Bunnymen had their own troubles over the years and split up just as acrimoniously in their own way.
The Teardrop Explodes’ small back catalogue of two albums and almost a dozen singles has been recycled and reissued numerous times, including almost all their BBC sessions which show a lot of their work in progress. Even the unfinished third album was issued in 1990, albeit remixed and not as good as the bootlegs I collected back in the day. I never tire of listening to the Teardrops’ music; it has given me immense pleasure over the years. They’ll never reform and spoil their legacy, and that attitude should be applauded. They may have burned briefly and brightly, but there’s still depth in their catalogue beyond Reward. Dive in, you won’t regret it.
Rob Morgan writes about music, and some other almost as important matters, at A Goldfish Called Regret.