Mark talks more about his days as poet and the start of his comedy career
Alternative Cabaret Crossover
Around the same time as the new performance poetry was spreading, the alternative cabaret scene was growing and the two easily gelled. Joolz was in the Cabaret Futura show at Edinburgh, founded by Richard Strange, along with singer/pianist Sharon Landau and Richard himself. And Swells was doing the Alternative Cabaret Tour with Tony Allen, Tymon Dogg, who was a maverick folk singer and mate of Joe Strummer’s, and Akimbo, a mixed race musical duo. He couldn’t do a few of the gigs and suggested I replace him, which I did, and fitted in immediately. I then went down to London to do a gig with them, with Swells too, and after, Tony Allen was compering the old Comedy Store, so he took us along to do open spots. This was now early 82, during The Falklands war. Swells would read in full skinhead gear with a Popeye style sailor’s cap on. Very surreal. On the bill was Jim Barclay, John Hegley, and Nick Revell. There were people like Rik Mayall and Pete Richardson in the audience. I went on and after a short while, got the traditional gonging off. But when Swells went on , in full skinhead gear, ranting about the Falklands, it really threw the audience. There was no gonging or booing or applause. They just listened and there was an uncomfortable silence. It was very surreal. You know what Swells was like, a total wind up, and he never let it drop that I got gonged off and he didn’t. I countered that, I did get one laugh at least, he got none!
There’s a book about the history of cabaret, called Cabaret, written by Lisa Appignanesi. She wanted to revise the book with a new chapter on alternative cabaret, so she came to a few of those gigs and did a piece on Swells, recognizing the link between cabaret and poetry. I have the book.
Life on the road
So we were all travelling around the country doing, poetry and cabaret gigs, and it was a very wandering minstrel lifestyle type of thing. We never stayed in B&Bs, always got put up by someone. A random Swells memory: We had been performing at a uni in West London and were being put up by some students on the rough South Acton Estate. About midnight, me, Swells and some students all got in the lift on the ground floor. The doors shut and the lift didn’t budge. We’d overloaded it, about 9 of us in a 6 capacity lift, and it was stuck, and very crowded. There was a lot of joshing, but it was quite worrying, the air was already getting stuffy and it was midweek, after midnight and quiet. People started shouting to try and get someone to hear us, then people were telling other people to stop shouting all at once and let once person shout. Someone lit a fag, unbelievably. I was getting a bit panicky and knelt down to get some less breathy air. Eventually we did attract someone’s attention, and after kidding us on that they were leaving us there, they called the fire brigade. Swells then revealed that he’d nicked a load of stationary from the uni and was worried that the police might also attend, and was getting ready to scarper when they let us out. Anyway, no police came, but it was 45 minutes we were stuck in there with not much air. Scary. We went into one of the student’s flats for a smoke and drink and Swells was taking the piss as usual about how he hadn’t been worried but I’d been bricking it. So after a couple of hours, it turns out that the student we were staying with lived a few floors down, so we went back into the stairwell and all looked at each other, stoned. Swells was like the goader, saying he wasn’t scared. So stupidly, we got back in the lift again! But it didn’t stick again, thank God.
Another time, me and Swells were at Birmingham New St and saw Tony Benn. We went over and Swells told him we were political poets playing in town, and invited to the gig then gave him an Attack on Bzag fanzine, which he accepted graciously.
There was one gig I remember, at The Brixton Ritzy, me, Swells and Little Brother, all supporting GBH and another band called The English Dogs. When the gig started, it wasn’t that full, just a smattering of mean looking skins all hugging the back wall and the sides of the venue, peering at us, out of the shadows, but it filled up gradually. I think I was on early and went down ok, not a great reaction, but no trouble. By the time Little Brother got on, he had a parka on, with the hood up, because of the spitting and during one poem he had a kid who’d jumped on stage, in a headlock under one arm, and the mic in the other hand. Little Brother used to carry a few props, one of which was a little medieval spikey mace, which he brandished during a poem called ‘Don’t call me possum in front of my mates’ supposedly aimed at his girlfriend. I think he had his bag checked on a flight, probably to Edinburgh, and had to explain the presence of this ‘weapon’ to the officials.
Porky I met a little later when we were both booked the same Cast gigs, and he turned up with Joe Norris, who went on stage with him during ‘Nobby’ to hold the cassette player. Porky was quite shy back then as I recall, and got to know better over time and during the Red Wedge days.
I started doing The Tube, on C4 and did several of my favourite poems from my old set, even though live, I had ceased to perform them. It felt like I was putting them to rest, marking a line in the sand and performing them for the last time.
(Part 3 follows)