John Cooper Clarke: The Punk Rock Poet

If you’ve ever gone deep in the UK punk scene of the 1970s, there’s no way you could have avoided John Cooper Clarke. Tall and shaggy with a mouth full of craggy teeth, JCC has been called punk rock’s first poet laureate. Now 66, he can still make people sit up and take notice.  Here’s one of his better known tracks:

JCC’s on the road again. The New York Observer has this feature:

When academics first thought to flatter (or co-opt) rock and roll in the 1960s by deeming its most ambitious lyrics “poetry,” the rightly honored Bob Dylan famously used the term to praise the songs of Smokey Robinson. In the following decade, Patti Smith and a few others made the idea more literal, presenting poetry as a form of rock music before embracing the wider appeal of songwriting.

Then there’s John Cooper Clarke, the shades-and-suits-wearing wraith who has been England’s sui generis punk-poet for four decades, a deft declaimer of words both clever and foul in sardonic pieces like “Twat,” “Bronze Adonis” and “Majorca.” In the late ‘70s, swept along by proximity, appearance and attitude into the coruscating vitriol of punk, he shared stages with the era’s top bands, including the Buzzcocks, the Fall, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Among that company, he sang, memorably:

“Like a death at a birthday party

You ruin all the fun

Like a sucked and spat-out Smartie

You’re no use to anyone.”

Speaking by phone from England on the eve of his first full-scale American tour since Ronald Reagan was president, the 66-year-old admits, “I was too old to be a punk.” Until Joy Division and their ilk came along to open up new opportunities, the budding poet’s show business role was a job at a Manchester cabaret called Mr. Smiths, which presented, he recalls, torch singers and comedians. “I was a kind of compere (a host) … tell a couple of jokes and bring on the main acts.”

Like a refugee from Desolation Boulevard, Mr. Clarke—who at the time could have passed for a picture on the cover of Blonde on Blonde—came of age in a land bereft of hope, gripped in a failing economy and wondering where it had all gone wrong. Borrowing a phrase from Bob Dylan that conjured up “some kind of third-rate place,” he produced a litany of complaints, small and large, and titled it “Evidently Chickentown.” (In concert, “bloody” is generally replaced by a stronger profanity.)

“The bloody pubs are bloody dull

The bloody clubs are bloody full

Of bloody girls and bloody guys

With bloody murder in their eyes

A bloody bloke got bloody stabbed

Waiting for a bloody cab

You bloody stay at bloody home

The bloody neighbors bloody moan

Keep the bloody racket down

This is bloody chicken town.”

Mr. Clarke signed to Britain’s CBS Records in 1978 and released a handful of albums with wonderfully inventive music created by the Invisible Girls. “I didn’t know most of the musicians very well. I left that end of it up to [Joy Division producer] Martin Hannett.” Most of the players were members of a local bar band called the Dougie James Soul Train. “They were all quite accomplished musicians and not punky at all.”

Read more here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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