The 1970s British punk rock scene introduced us to all manner of oddballs and quirky characters. The movement was a magnet for the disenfranchised, and all (good and bad) were attracted to a form of music that appeared to celebrate lawlessness and, as cliché as it sounds today, anarchy. One such character was John Cooper Clarke.
Strictly speaking, Clarke wasn’t and isn’t a musician, at all, but rather a poet. Yet still, his acerbic wit, his anger, his anti-government rantings, fit in perfectly as he joined the likes of The Clash and fellow Mancunians the Buzzcocks on punk bills up and down that country.
Clarke was born in Salford, near Manchester, in 1949. Influenced by his English teacher John Malone and comedic poet Pam Ayres, he began performing in northern folk clubs, developing his craft with the band The Ferrets.
His debut album, Où est la maison de fromage, came out in ’78 and that album was more about humor than politics.
“Outside the take-away, Saturday night A bald adolescent, asks me out for a fight He was no bigger than a two-penny fart He was a deft exponent of the martial art He gave me three warnings: Trod on me toes, stuck his fingers in my eyes And kicked me in the nose A rabbit punch made me eyes explode My head went dead, I fell in the road.” John Cooper Clarke – “Kung Fu International”
More was to follow, as Clarke cemented his reputation as the “punk rock poet” of Britain, releasing a string of wonderful albums. But it’s 1980’s Snap, Crackle & Bop that we want to take a close look at here. It’s on this record that Clarke’s fury really seemed to flood out. One of the better known songs/pieces on the album is “Beasley Street”, which took a hard look at poverty in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
“Far from crazy pavements The taste of silver spoons A clinical arrangement On a dirty afternoon Where the fecal germs of Mr Freud Are rendered obsolete The legal term is “null and void” In the case of Beasley Street.” John Cooper Clarke – “Beasley Street”
Straight away, the concept of being far away from silver spoons transports us to a place where things are grim. The words alone are vivid, though Clarke’s reading of it on the record only amps up the feel-bad factor.
“The boys are on the wagon The girls are on the shelf Their common problem is That they’re not someone else The dirt blows out The dust blows in You can’t keep it neat It’s a fully furnished dustbin Sixteen Beasley Street.” John Cooper Clarke – “Beasley Street”
Similarly, “Evidently Chickentown” on the same album conveys a desperate sense of frustration.
“The bloody cops are bloody keen To bloody keep it bloody clean The bloody chief’s a bloody swine Who bloody draws a bloody line At bloody fun and bloody games The bloody kids he bloody blames Are nowhere to be bloody found Anywhere in chicken town.” John Cooper Clarke – “Evidently Chickentown”
Considering the fact that Clarke had such a gift for articulating the British public’s frustrations with the political system at the time, it seems somewhat ironic that he felt turned off by the UK punk movement’s politicized nature, preferring instead the drug-fueled beat poet-inspired New York punk. In April of 2019 Clarke told Huck Mag:
“Punk rock in England was very different to the scene in New York. It only really lasted two years in England. It got sort of politicised into oblivion and became rubbish very quickly. In New York, it never dealt with narrow politics, and it was all about narcotics. As I’d already acquired a taste for that, the whole thing was very attractive to me.”
Others might be surprised that, despite his overt cynicism, he’s a man of faith (raised Catholic). In 2012, he told The Guardian that, “People who believe in God are happier than those who don’t. I’ve never met a happy atheist.”
In 1982, Clarke released the Zip Style Method album, and he was back to his acerbic best:
“Deafening whispers loud and clear The sound of nothing meets my ears I get the message – i know the drill This is the day the world stood still The day the world stood still The day the world stood still No traffic noise or sparrows trill From the dead flowers on the window sill This is the day the world stood still.” John Cooper Clarke – “The Day the World Stood Still”
Then he disappeared for a long time. Clarke admits that he fell under the spell of heroin willingly. He lived in Salford with, extraordinarily, Nico of the Velvet Underground — the pair living a plutonic, unhealthy, beatnik existence colored by the very squalor that Clark wrote about. But when the new millennium arrived so too did Clarke’s passion for writing. He released a couple of poetry collections in print, and then in 2016 a new album with Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers (This Time It’s Personal). In 2012, he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Salford. (Yep, it’s Dr. John Cooper Clarke now).
Nowadays, the influence of John Cooper Clarke can be heard everywhere. The harsh, cold tones that vividly eviscerate the world that we live in have influenced many punk rock artists, and perhaps even a few political rappers. The Arctic Monkeys recently printed Clarke’s lyrics on the sleeve of their album. But what we do know is that John Cooper Clarke is a one-off.