John Cooper Clarke NME Jan 28th 1978

You may have noticed already that John Cooper Clarke looks like Dylan circa 1965 – the shades (National Heath jobs sprayed with the stuff used for tinting taxi windows), the carefully teased hair – though you’d never catch The Zim with a coke spoon dangling from his left ear-lobe, or, come to that, with a three-piece pin stripe complete with tab collar and carefully adjusted tie. And the accent is a dead give-away. He sounds more like Coronation Street’s Albert Tatlock than ‘owt else,’ although it’s doubtful whether The Street’s elder statesman would muse on the psychedelic qualities of a plastic carrier-bag he’d picked up on the journey from Manchester to London.
albert tatlock
John Cooper Clarke is a poet who, like Tom Robinson and Ian Dury, has been around for some time but has only started to come into his own since the advent of the New Wave. He’ll still do a turn at his local, but these days most of his work is confined to punk gigs. It’s highly unlikely that Clarke would be in town to iron over the creases in a five-figure contract with CBS were it not for the events of the last18 months. And the fact that Clarke should be entertained by CBS (of all record companies) is proof enough of his so far largely un-tried commerciality; his only record release, “Innocents EP,” put out by Manchester’s punk specialist label Rabid Records, has sold 7,000 – although outside Manchester the name Cooper Clarke is likely to draw a blank. Moreover, it says a lot for the current state of Old Blighty’s youth culture that a poet, and a 28-year-old one at that, should be adopted by ‘a movement’ supposedly narrow-minded and intolerant. True, the nervous Clarke was greeted with a hail of abuse when he opened for Manchester’s best known New Wavers Buzzcocks at London’s Vortex last year (“I think possibly they were a very chauvinistic audience,” he opines with Northern phlegm). And he’s not entirely without sympathy for a member of the audience who had a go at him for being “intellectual.”
“It’s probably a very good thing to maintain a mistrust of intellectuals. You can hear intellectuals all the time condoning some of the worse barbarities.” But in his home town audiences have been known to dance to his readings, despite the complete lack of any musical back-up. On “Innocents EP” he’s accompanied by his occasional band, The Curious Yellows, who produce Kraftwerk-like noises behind Clarke’s dead-pan Mancunian chant; if they sign him CBS want to make his recordings more musical and present him live in a more orthodox way. Images of All Things Late 20th Century bombard the consciousness as Clarke presents alternatively funny, sordid, and pessimistic pictures of Life In The UK post – 1945.
If anything, the poems on the EP are too thick with imagery. This is especially so on the magnum opus, the two-part “Psycle Sluts,” a pun on the Los Angeles sub-Tubes weird sex revue ‘Cycle Sluts,’ though Clarke, not only hideously long-sighted but the victim of an exceedingly poor memory, is convinced the ‘Cycle Sluts’ is a pornographic movie. Whether in “Psycle Sluts” he is sending up self-conscious intellectuals (“Twin wheeled existentialists steeped in a sterile excrement of a doomed democracy / Whose post-Nieztschian sensibilities rejects the bovine gregariousness of a senile oligarchy”) he isn’t telling – “It’s just the taste that those kind of subjects leave behind. If you see what I mean…”
Weeelll.
Hands shaking at the ordeal of it all, he continues: “It’s not pointing the finger at anything definitely. It’s hopefully hitting more than one target at a time.”
Such as?
“I don’t want to put a meaning onto it.” Clarke refuses to specify what, if any, themes dominate his writing, merely saying that anything evocative enough for him to remember stands a good chance of summoning up the Cooper Clarke muse. That his writing is a reflection of Life As We Know It from a stance that a pop or rock (as you wish) fan can relate to is clear from titles like “You Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express,׏ “Kung Fu International,” “Majorca,” and “Gimmicks,” a poem which he hopes will be his next single.
“Gimmicks” is devoid of the excessive imagery of “Psycle Sluts,” though every bit as relevant – perhaps more so – to these modern times, with amusing ironic lines like:
“Since the balmy days of the hoola hoop craze
To the skate board panic of today
Experts say that gimmicks are a phase
But I believe they are here to stay”
And inspired ones like:
“I’m one of the Pepsi generation going places fast
On a two day expenses paid vacation where nothing is built to last”
or
“What’s going on behind the green door
Is it the Watutsi or is it the Hop
The condition of admission is a haircut
A Tony Curtis or a Crop”
So what does he have in common with those New Wave Apostles Les Pistols? “Well, class. He’s a Catholic too, isn’t he?” Don’t let the apparently double-barrelled name fool you, John Cooper Clarke’s working class credentials are impeccable. Cooper is in fact his middle name, adopted to avoid confusion with another poet called John Clarke gigging the same circuit.
His father, an engineer, recently died of a form of cancer caused by asbestos poisoning. The firm he worked for is currently under-going investigation. John still lives where he was born, Manchester’s largely insalubrious Salford area, renowned for its high incidence of bronchial ailments. Clarke himself had a nasty bout of TB when he was a kid. No doubt because of this, outdoor activities have always been anathema to him, and he spent his childhood reading anything he could lay his hands on (surprisingly, he isn’t over-familiar with the American beat writers), listening to the radio, undeterred by Radio Luxembourg’s built-in deterrent, its static (he does a great impression), going to the cinema, and “manufacturing phlegm.” He was in his last year at the local Secondary Modern Catholic School when he wrote his first poem – at any rate, what he remembers as his first poem. The previous Sunday the parish priest had farted mid-service. Finding the incident something of a chuckle, he wrote a poem about it – “My mates didn’t believe it happened, but they laughed.”
He still wants audiences to laugh at his material, but also for it to leave something with them afterwards. “I don’t want it to be family entertainment and all that implies.” (One A&R man has described Cooper Clarke as a New Wave George Formby.)
Leaving school at 15, he had a succession of jobs: apprentice motor mechanic, window cleaner, fire-watcher at the docks (“I got more than the firemen get now”), culminating in a two-year stint as a lab technician (“It sounds very technical, but all I did was hand out chisels”) at Salford Tech. He jacked that in last year because of the upswing in his popularity. He’d played bass in obscure psychedelic bands in the late 60’s, but, like so many others involved in the New Wave, had become bored with the state of rock in the mid-70s. “Before the New Wave there was just nostalgia. Like glitter-rock. Very Sophie Tucker. I like Gary Glitter. Me mate’s daughter loves him.”
Understandably he’s big on Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited” being the first album he ever bought. He doesn’t deny or confirm any attempts to consciously look like Dylan when he says, “He’s a handsome fella, isn’t he? I used to have a Salvador Dali moustache.”
As for Dylan influencing his writing, he says, “As he says ‘Open your eyes and your ears and you’re influenced.’” Other favourites are Beefheart, some Zappa, The Velvet Underground and reggae. He mentions The Wailers and I Roy. And a current hit with Cooper Clarke is Ian Dury.
His first exposure to the New Wave was a gig the Pistols played with Buzzcocks and Slaughter And The Dogs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in ’76. By no means a regular gig-goer, he was motivated by having read a piece on the Pistols in a college rag. Rotten reminded him of Johnny Ray. Cooper Clarke’s view of the New Wave is refreshing. “It’s the nearest thing that there’s ever been,” he says, “to the working classes going into areas like surrealism and Dada. Until now they’ve been the domain of the middle classes.”
You can look at things like Dada and surrealism and reject it for being a middle-class phenomenon. I think people in the New Wave have done the smart thing and walked into those areas. Now you’ve got a kind of working class vision of things.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a punk rock group that didn’t have something very imaginative about it. It’s not being a traitor to your class to go into those areas. It only widens your perspective.”
“I think the New Wave has revived an interest in words. Initially, because you couldn’t hear them. You’re always interested to find out words you can’t hear. You get odd words jumping out of the mish-mash. If those odd words that jump out are potent, it gives you the impetus to find out what the rest of them are.”
“I like punk rock because it allows the softness to come through. It’s not like hard-rock – throwing somebody’s crutch in your face. They’re human beings singing about being human beings.”
“Any new wave in anything throws a few more possibilities in. It’s stupid to say that people who don’t act like rapists can’t play rock ‘n’ roll. Where it wasn’t somewhere else – decadent, limp-wristed, wishy-washy or self-indulgent – the trend in the early ’70s was towards things brutish and moronic.
“Now you’ve got all facets of a particular performer’s personality being articulated one way of another. Buzzcocks get romantic, for fuck’s sake. But never for too long. I like that. Anything that gives you room to move and which is anti-stupidity is great. “The Pistols put you in a context where it’s possible to understand more. I mean, it’s probably a cliché now, but words like fascist and fascism jumped out. Things like that just weren’t in pop songs. ‘I don’t know about politics but I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star.’ I hate that kind of stupidity.” But surely Rotten never comes out and lays anything on the line? “No. No. But that’s propagandist and then it would become left-field in no time, appealing to the few who don’t need telling anyway.”
Surely the way Sid Vicious handles himself is stupid?
“He’s an incongruity. You have one geezer acting one way and another geezer telling him how stupid it is to act that way. I mean, everybody has stupid mates. It’s better than David Soul, isn’t it?”
Cooper Clarke thinks the New Wave has benefitted him because for the first time in ages, imagination is being encouraged. He doesn’t find any punks resenting him because of him age? “Age has got nothing to do with anything. It’s a complete accident.”
“It’s really stupid to hold store by age. I think that everybody who was born after the War has something in common. I think possibly there’s a generation gap before that.”
“I’m not going to turn round to a 14 year-old and tell him I had it tough, because they’ve had it tough as well. Anybody born after the last war who gets into an argument with a fella over the age of 50 invariably gets that one thrown at him, about how he had to fight for you. If they had any sense they’d realise they were fighting the Nazis to defend themselves not to defend people who hadn’t even been thought of.”
But there is the punk credo which states that once you’re over 23 you’ve had it? “Well, a lot of people are bankrupt by then. Bob Dylan went down the nick for a bit, didn’t he? The cowboy songs…”
So how does he want people to see him?
“People see me in very different lights. Some people see me a leftfield – you know, wilfully obscure. I don’t like going down well in that area. I like hearing myself on the radio. Watching myself on the tele. ‘Top Of The Pops’ doesn’t stick in my throat.”
“I’d like the leftfield to see it as great pop.”
How about ‘New Wave Poet?’
“That sounds okay. I suppose it’s quite logical people should call me that seeing as most of me gigs are at New Wave clubs. I’d like to see the personalities involved in New Wave become more diverse.” “I try to talk in tune. I guess that’s what I do – talk in tune.””

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