20 Mothers Turns 20

by Elliot Davies

Julian Cope 20 Mothers

Julian Cope’s 20 Mothers was originally released Halloween 1995. 20 years later it sounds sprightly yet poignant: a number of dark prophecies contained within the songs are only now being realised, yet a number of hopeful predictions didn’t quite come to pass.


This is an album of love songs, devotional songs, surrender songs – things for anyone who can still FEEL something… around my house, my neighbourhood, my country, and especially for our children, who are the only reason to keep going and the only hope for the future. The American writer, Mark Harris, wrote that at desperate times in Human-history Harbingers of Hope have always been scorned and ridiculed. Nere. I reckon it’s gonna be an easy ride all the way. The next millennium, James. And don’t spare the Christians!

The Arch-D., Wessex, England.

20 Mothers is a hidden gem in a back catalogue comprised entirely of hidden gems. It’s a Julian Cope album, so you know vaguely what to expect: sprightly tightly-wound psyche-pop songs, didactic lyrics that meditate on history, social justice, and enlightenment.

The album is subtitled “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” And as the above quote indicates, it’s a collection of songs that’s intended to provide some joy and guidance for those who are struggling through troubled times.

Well, times might have been troubled in 1995, but they’re much, much worse now. We’re living an uneasy existence between a couple of global financial crises under the sneering, contemptuous, incapable rule of a rabble of cruel chinless pork-boning yobs whose survival strategy is to take care of their own and leave the remaining 99% to the dogs.

It won’t do. But can a candle lit 20 years ago continue to emit encouraging warmth and light, or does 20 Mothers now sound like a relic from a much simpler time?

Julian Cope 20 Mothers

The answer, as ever, is somewhere in the middle. The idea that ideas alone can save us might seem quaint, but imagine how utterly hopeless you’d feel now if you didn’t have your music, your books, your friends, or whatever crutch you rely on to get you through your darkest days?

And if you read between the lines, it seems that the darkness the Arch-Drood was attempting to combat in 1995 is distressingly similar to the darkness that’s threatening to engulf us in 2015. Things don’t change unless they get worse. But it doesn’t bear thinking about how bad things would be were it not for the likes of Cope – those who endeavour to light their candles where others would prefer to languish in the gloom.

Cope quotes Israel Regardie:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Things are bad now because the world is run by dicks, and they’re persistent buggers. But things would be even worse were it not for the others – less powerful but perhaps even more persistent – keeping them in check.

It’s an exhausting and depressing idea, but what other choice do we have?

The Sound of 20 Mothers

20 Mothers features four “phases”, each containing ~5 songs. When taken as a whole some might find the album to be slightly overwhelming. It’s 71 minutes long and it delves into some strange and disorientating places. I think it flows beautifully, but others might prefer to tackle the album in four bite-sized chunks, treating each phase as its own self-contained EP.

Phase 1 is about as perfect a collection of psych-pop you’re ever likely to hear. Here you’ll find perhaps the most personal songs Cope’s ever written. Opener Wheelbarrow Man is an expression of pure, unmitigated joy, written after Cope had spoken to his brother for the first time in years. “We haven’t spoken since, mind you,” he says in the liner notes. “It’s not worth the risks.”

And that, I’m afraid, is the bittersweet truth encountered again and again throughout 20 Mothers – all joys come with caveats, the gloom is the only dependable constant. The need to persevere becomes a desperate mantra almost immediately. It’s exhausting, but I repeat – what other choice do we have?

Phase 1 also contains Try Try Try, the only single released from 20 Mothers. This one’s about Cope’s own mother, who, he laments, “has never seen me play live, never heard my records, didn’t read my book, wouldn’t even eat the jam I made with the plums from the tree in my garden. Where did she go?”

Indeed, almost every song on Phase 1 seems to focus on some kind of fractured relationship, but it ends with I’m Your Daddy. This is a simple song dedicated to Cope’s wife and daughters. You get the impression that, feeling let down by those that raised him, Cope’s going to give it his all when it comes to the clan he’s created.

And he did. When I saw Cope talk about his novel at Glastonbury last year, he brought his wife and daughters along. They give every impression of being a harmonious whole. Perseverance pays-off.

Phase 2 is the spiritual enlightenment suite. “Gnosis, man.” Here the sort of themes are explored that have preoccupied Cope for as long as he’s had a mind willing to be preoccupied. It opens with Highway to the Sun, one of Cope’s slow-burning psych rock epics, which sounds like an admonishment addressed to one who refuses to open their mind. 1995 is written from the perspective of “a person of the Old-ways”, and it challenges the “ignorance of the standard Judeo-Christian One God way of thinking.”

By The Light of the Silbury Moon is an unhinged anthem for the modern antiquarian, and Adam & Eve Hit The Road is one of Cope’s many damning condemnations of our slavish devotion to cars and convenience. But then he falls down the rabbit hole. Just Like Pooh Bear is a bizarre space disco groove, and the only explanation Cope provides is that he met Christopher Robin once, in a bookshop in Dartmouth.

From this point, 20 Mothers is never quite as clear and focused as it is during its initial phase, but it still offers quite a trip for the dedicated drude. Phase 3 features Greedhead Detector, which viciously slays all who it sets its sights on – the fat cats of private industry, Bono and other false-prophets, and even The Stone Roses, who swore they’d never sell-out, but did. Don’t Take Roots is described as “post-visionary Blue-eyes Soul-music…3rd Eye Laval-flowin’ Awesome dreams”, and… well, it’s quite hard to argue with that.

Phase 3 closes with The Lonely Guy, which is perhaps the finest song on the whole album. It’s a desolate jam in which Cope sings like he’s floating in space over music that sounds like it was recorded in the decaying ballroom of a sunken luxury liner. It sets the tone perfectly for the quiet, reflective Phase 4, which features a song for Cope’s wife, and a dedication to a Leli B. – instrumental, because “she’d freakout if I wrote how I really felt about her.”

Considering its lightning-fast changes of pace of mood, its dizzying range of styles, and its often-unhinged delivery, 20 Mothers is a surprisingly tight collection of songs. It’s 71 minutes long, but not a minute feels wasted. Some might argue that its sprawl dilutes its message, that it could do with a trimming, but I struggle to see what could comfortably be cut. It’s all here – brutal condemnations of those who espouse darkness and ignorance beautifully balanced with heartfelt celebrations of all who make life worth living.

Perseverance, you see. Persevere through 20 Mothers and the rewards are great. Persevere through the darkness and…you get the idea.

The Poetry of 20 Mothers

This being a Julian Cope album, it’s more than a mere collection of songs. The liner notes are surging with ideas, quotes, and poetry, and it’s here where the album’s true worth might be found. But can a coping mechanism for 1995 see us right in 2015?

Are we so blinded that we cannot see a home is more important than lining a rich man’s pockets? Are we so numb that we cannot tell this is wrong. The Children of Thatcher have all grown up. Those with jobs are braying asses jeering at the ones without. The community was destroyed by Thatcher’s appealing to the basest of Mankind’s loves – Oneself first above all, She wittered. Her architects work still, night & day dismantling the structure of the Welfare State. They prefer the money in the rich man’s pockets. His true LOVE of the stuff ensures that it doesn’t get frittered away, as it would with those damned Bleeding-heart liberals. Education is next. We don’t want the population of 20 years’ time to have a chance. It’s worked in Brazil. Let’s take the money out of the inner-city schools and pour it into the private sector – to create a new-breed of Braying jawless no-marks. These people will precipitate the end in a huge & final Rush of True-Greedheadism. Me me me. I I I I … But when everyone has nothing, then we shall be equal at last. And what a family we shall be. And what a time we shall see.

Plus ça change, oui? 20 years ago, the seeds had been planted, and we’re finally reaping their hideous fruit. Had the above been written yesterday, the only difference would be in the terminology used. Thatchers “architects” would be referred to as libertarians and neocons, and he’d doubtlessly throw in a pork-poking pun or two.

The only problem is the solution he suggests. Anybody who’s forced to resort to using a food banks would probably have something to say about the idea that their poverty is somehow ennobling. And the new age ideas explored in Cope’s poetry and his carefully curated quotes would probably bring very little comfort indeed to those who are seeing their every opportunity and safety net systematically dismantled by gleeful sadists who insist it’s for their own good.

20 Mothers is a defiant album, a triumphant cry of “don’t let those bastards grind you down.” One might take a look at the world today and declare it a failure – the bastards have won. But I’d like to look beyond the defeatist politics, beyond the new age ideas, and beyond all this talk of third-eyes and gnosis, and instead focus on the beating heart of the album. It is, at its core, a celebration of the things that truly matter – home, family, and friends.

Not everyone will be able to get behind the idea that the answers to our modern problems are written in the stars and the ley lines, but you’d have to be pretty far-gone to reject the idea that we can overcome this if we work together.