All the seats are taken, all the rows I pass
So I walk a little further, an’ enter first class
6.30 in the morning, really out of the game
Body feeling tired, legs feeling lame
So I tried to get some sleep, legs across the seat
Then there’s a grunt opposite, from some middle class creep.
At first he said nothin’, I think he was a little scared.
He just sat doing his puzzle, and trying to find a word
But every now and then, he gave me a hard stare
I think he was trying to say something,
But I think he wouldn’t dare.
I started to laugh, I found it really funny
Him sitting next to me, him with all that money
Now I could see he was getting angry, and a little hurt
The thought of voting Conservative and seeing it not work
I decided to get up and go down the buffet
I could see what he was saying, I knew he was calling me scruffy.
As I walked down the aisle, I started to smile
I knew I could win, I could do him in
But that wasn’t it, that wasn’t the way
I knew if I did that, I’d have to pay
I’d just sit next to him all the way there
knowing he was a mug, who paid double fare
but as I got back, he’d gone
So then I knew I was the winner, I was the one
The working class hero had truly won
He never had the bottle to stand his ground
The capitalist bastard had lost his crown.
Mick Turpin was a Scouse, skinhead poet who had several poems in early ranting Oi ‘zine Another Day, Another Word from Liverpool.
This poem, along with appeared on the 1983 Son Of Oi album.
He also released a couple of cassettes: ‘Classic Fights Tape’ and ‘Bad to Worse’.
NME 13th November, 1982
The year when any gook could gatecrash the stage to read duff poetry and still be entertaining is drawing to a close.
Performance now is paramount and, if Seething Wells hasn’t built a comic act of quite the same quick-fire completeness as Little Brother, he has perfected his delivery, a harsher slickness, a more violent comic crack.
SWells still carries too much deadweight – a year in the act and Tetley Bittermen is just so much excess baggage – but his content sharpens all the time.
Tonight he covered all this week’s news items, trapped all your favourite taboos and threw them back fast at the audience’s brickwall liberal conscience.
The audience, of course, lapped it up. SWells patted them on the head, jibed mercilessly and, dutifully, the audience clapped more buckets.
Lots of sex and lots of speed, the new material flies all over the shop. SWells is a vicious gag.
Angry young poets tire easily if they fail to charge their spite with new fire, new rant, new targets. It’s not long before real nasty becomes real boring.
While he mocks himself, Seething Wells, the counter-culture hyper-fad, is still crucial – a working-class clown. The problem with working class heroes is that they take themselves too seriously.
Sat 2 Oct
Adams Arms, Conway St, W1
Attila the Stockbroker
Pete Murry & Glenn Smith
Out Bar Squeek
Sat 9 Oct
Sat 16 Oct
Bernie & Patric Cunnane
Sat 23 Oct
Staunch Poets & Players
Sat 30 Oct
In and Out
Sat 6 Nov
Sat 13 Nov
Slade the Leveller
Sat 20 Nov
Knife in the Light (Jay Ramsay, Ferenc Aszmann, Michele Roberts, Mark Schlossberg, Keith Jefferson)
Sat 27 Nov
Sat 4 Dec
Sat 11 Dec
Ana & the Allsorts
Sat 18 Dec
Andy D Poet
Stace the Face
Out Bar Squeek
Many thanks to Russell for this list of gigs from Apples & Snakes’ first year.
Seething Wells and Attila the Stockbroker
Contrast: “Biddy-biidy bong-bong, biddy bong-bong, biddy bong-bong, biddy men. Bong bong, biddy bong-bong, biddy bong-gong, biddy geng, biddah-men ahwooy biddy-men. Ehyaaah!” (Rough translation of intro to ‘Ganja Smuggling’, 1981)
With: “Deh was a man ‘oose name was Hih-Hitler, ‘im jus’ go like ‘im superior, while other races ‘im say is inferior . . . Jah Jah know dat it was really true, ‘ow Hitler ‘im kill millions of Jews. 200 thousan’ Polish children ‘e did kidnap, and they did not come back. All night all day long he provoke, ‘e use some of them skin and turn to soap. Remember dis is ‘istory and it ain’t no joke” (‘SS Nazi’, forthcoming).
And: You glean an idea of the stylistic breadth of the Jamaican singer under your eyes – concerns from unadulterated doggerel to “lyrics which make man know ‘imself”.
The person in question is Eek-A-Mouse, a name which by any standards displays a fine appreciation of absurdity, especially in view of the fact that Mouse wouldn’t need a ladder to take up first floor voyeurism. Tall seems such a short, stumpy word to describe his stature.
The world’s biggest rodent laughs crazily, something he does often, displaying a breezy gap between his upper incisors. The sort of gap you could spit a waterfall through.
“I used to bet on ‘orseracing, you know?” His voice scatters around the hazily out of order service flat he’s ensconced in a couple of waves away from the gaudy throwback of Portobello Road.
“All the while an’ ting there was a ‘orse named Eek-A-Mouse that used to run inna Jamaica. When I back the ‘orse it always lose. But one day I did not bet on the ‘orse and it ‘ave won and pay out a lot of money. Me friend dem thought that I catch the ‘orse. When I tell them ‘No’, they say ‘Chaaa! You really is an Eek-A-Mouse’. It came about like that . . . Some people feel that the name is for a short person. But I’m tall, you know? Six feet six inches above sea level. Yeah, huh-huh-huh!”
The chuckling rodent stoops down to play a while with Shaka, the young daughter of Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes, owner of Volcano records and – going by sleeve credits – currently Jamaica’s most successful producer.
Shaka, dressed in a Hatton Garden gathering of jewellery and looking like a line out of Mouse’s ‘Modelling Queen’, obviously enjoys the lanky man’s company. He has a natural affinity with kids, something I notice during our several meetings. No doubt this has something to do with his own pressurised upbringing . . . which follows shortly. . .
‘Modelling Queen’, a live-in-the-dancehall version of which has just emerged on the ‘DeeJay Explosion’ album via American label Heartbeat, is just one of a litter of hits which have tripped up the roots public’s imagination.
You see, prior to the recent outbreak of fever for Volcano/Greensleeves fellowman Yellowman, the rodent was – to mix metaphors – king rat in the Isle of Springs as can be judged from his spot with the Wailers on the ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ album – one of the few gems glittering in an otherwise dull package.
The song he performs on ‘Sunsplash’ is ‘Wa Do Dem’, a bendy blend of unique scat and idiosyncratic singing welding to offbeat lyrical contempt. One of the monsterpieces of 1981 when he recorded it with the omnipresent Radix band. ‘Wa Do Dem’ was Mouse’s first major success and glued itself to the zenith of the reggae charts, both here and in JA, for a period that seemed like forever.
As the vocal imitators began to breed in a frenzy spurred on by the cloying aroma of a money spinning formula, an LP also entitled ‘Wa Do Dem’ surfaced on Greensleeves in January followed by another, ‘Skidip’, in August.
Assessed by our own Michael Roots to be one of the sparklers of the year, ‘Skidip’ scuttled to number 61 in the national charts, outselling the label’s two baaad DJs, Eastwood and Saint, in the process.
However, some of most prime rodent droppings are to be discovered on pre: ‘Assassinator’ (56 Hope Road) and ‘For Hire And Removal’ (Volcano) to pick a crafty couple at random.
You can always tell when you enter the abode of an artist who has just arrived from Jamaica. You walk through the door, shake hands, and shortly thereafter your armpits turn into swimming pools of sweat as the cranked up to lethal heating hits.
Today the perspiration point is further aggravated by the number of people breathing in on the interview. Mouse offers to conduct the proceedings in private, but what the hell, the more involved the better as far as I’m concerned.
And more there certainly are. Apart from Shaka and Junjo, stable mate DJs the amiable ranking Trevor and the petulant Billy Boyo are among the people who’ve accompanied Mouse on his first trip to England en route to do some gigs in California.
Billy especially seems an odd character incorporating a permanently zonked 13 year old tetchy mentality in an 11 year old body. He doesn’t say much, just slouches on the couch, a blood red stare emanating from his bugged out eyes. A classic subject for child psychology is our Billy.
No wonder his last paean was to Janet Sinclair, the agony columnist of the Jamaican Gleaner! ‘One Spliff A Day’ is his theme tune. It’s definitely an underestimation, I reckon he stops counting after breakfast.
In between bursting into song, posing for photographs with unselfconsciousness, playing some stunning as yet unreleased songs – ‘SS Nazi’ – being one of many – and jumping up to do the odd skank step, the curly whiskered rodent holds forth. Since this is his first brush with the British music press, Mouse also records the proceedings (as a memento?!?). here’s an abridged report.
Your real name is Ripton Hylton and you come from Jones Town (described as “one of the first class ghettoes of the island” by Bob West from Zion Gate on the sleeve notes of ‘Bubble Yu Hip’ – the ‘Skidup’ import version)?
“Yeah. Kingston 10.”
That’s as much as I know. Tell me how you got involved in music?
“Well, from when I was a kid, I loved singig all the times, even when I was going to primary school. . . In 1974 was the first time I went to record. . . I cut two singles, ‘My Father’s Land’ and ‘Creation’. In those times I wasn’t singing in the Eek-A-Mouse style. Them was on the Eek-A-Mouse label but I sing as Ripton Hylton.
“So I jus’ say ‘Chuuuh! I got to find a style’. So I stop from 1974 until 1981 (when he was at secondary school). Then I met producer Junjo Lawes an’ ting. . . an’ I record this one called ‘Wa Do Dem’. It patois now, saying ‘what’s the matter with them?’”
‘Wa Do Dem’ had strange lyrics. Is it a true story?
“Yeah, mon! Ca’ my girl is short, four feet eleven, and every time we walk on the road people always jeer us, you know, ‘He’s too tall and she’s too short’. . . Reality, mon.”
So how did you develop that style? ‘Wa Do Dem’ is often seen as the first example of singjay.
“In London they say that I singjay. But I no singjay, nor toast nor deejay. I’m just singing and when I stop singing the lyrics I just slurring. . . The Eek-A-Mouse style now, well sometimes I go all the movie, you know? An’ I hear the Japanese man, the Chinese man, African, all kinda people, de white man dem, making a sound. So me just find a sound too . . .
“But at the same time now, I was a singer at a sound system. Beca’ in Jamaica for an artist to get famous yuh have fe hold the microphone at some sound business that going round.”
So what sounds did you work with?
“Well, uh, all kinda sound. Sound name Pappa Root, Gemini, Black Ark, Jah Life. . . Black Scorpion, Virgo, you know?. . .”
On the ‘Dee-jay Explosion’ album on your track you say something to the effect “Eek-A-Mouse inna de dance hall legal now”. And according to the sleeve notes you were arrested as you were about to take the microphone on the first night of recording. What was all that about?
“Well, dat’s just a minor happening an’ ting. A mix-up ting. I accidently break a bar (car?) glass an’ ting.”
It says it was due to a dispute between you and a producer?
“Yeah, but a cool profile now, you know? We ‘ad a small dispute but everything upfront now ca’ me an’ the producer is upfront. . .”
Which particular producer?
(Mmmm, no wonder Mouse doesn’t want to expand with the man in question next door in the bedroom.) How personal are the majority of your songs? Are they slices of your life?
“Yeah, mon. Part of my life and part of my bredren life. Ca’ I have a tune ‘For Hire And Removal’ Henry Lawes released up her. It go ‘Me momma, me momma… Jah know she grow me without a poppa. . . Me nly have one big sister and dem kill me breddah. Eeeyah! They say ‘im fight black power. . . Me live in area a no residential. Pure old car some of them marked For Hire And Removal.’
“Ca’ in a ghetto places you no see fancy cars inna Jamaica. Though in the ghetto area you some trucks marked For Hire And Removal. Beca’ every day we try to move out of poverty.”
So ‘Too Young To Understand’ (a plaintive lament concerning the young Mouse’s inability to comprehend the splitting up of his parents to be found on ‘Wa Do Dem’) is true as well?
“Yeah, when I was about six year old . . . The West Indian education system is not really up to standard, beac’ even when a man ‘im pass out of high school in Jamaica, ‘im ‘ave fe go abroad to some big university to study more. . . But differently, my father ‘im caught me gambling at that time. . . We wus gambling for ha’penny, playing Peter Pat, a three card game. An’ he caught me an’ call me in the house. Before dat ‘e ‘ad hardly come to the house cos him up and down ca’ ‘im a book man (student), very intellectual.
“But I don’t know why like ‘im don’t like me as a son, treat me hard as a youth, flog me rough. Sometime me mommy cry an’ ting. – I was afraid of him. I still love him ca’ ‘im brought me ‘pon earth, but ‘im supposed to owe me a lot of apology. . . Anyway ‘im call me in the house and say that I must spell a word name ‘Philosophy’. . . and I couldn’t spell it. So ‘in beat me up, box me in the mouth, and give me soap to eat, carbolic. . . Me mother say ‘im can’t do that, so ‘im decide to leave.
“So me mother alone she work at Kingston Public Hospital. . . the oldest hospital inna Jamaica right now, over 200 year old. An’ she cleaned mess an’ schooled me. Yeah, she work inna ward as a ward assistant. Sometimes a patient make urine or pass dem faeces and kyaan carry it out. An sometimes man mess on the floor and say ‘Wipe it up’. So, you know I just grow with the vibes that I must help her someday.”
Is that why you’ve got a sympathetic view towards women? Cos a lot of DJs (Billy Boyo, originator of some of the most misogynist lyrics around, begins to take interest) really degrade women?
“No, well women now. . . You see, why most men degrade women is just through one woman – Delilah. . . But if you hang(?) a woman that way, that mean you hang your mother that way too because she is a woman. And if she were Delilah she wouldn’t ‘ave bring you forth on the earth ca’ she feel a lot of pain.”
This is the somewhat convoluted reasoning behind why Mouse prefers to characterise females as virgin girls and modelling queens in his songs. Mind you, his concept of virginity is equally arcane. Every woman who he has not had a carnal relationship with is a virgin in Eek’s eyes regardless of whether she has 20 children and is 80 years old.
Although we don’t discuss it at the time, in retrospect this view strikes me as being an uncomfortable compromise between his obvious respect for women and the pull he must feel of the overtly sexist ideology running through most modern reggae propped up by religious interpretation. . . On the other hand, this piece of hack psychology might just be, uh, what’s the word. . . shit. On to different matters. . .
Errol Shorter (the DJ who toasted ‘Wild Inna 81 Style’ on the flip of ‘Wa Do Dem’) was killed a while back. Tell me about that?
“Yeah, Errol Shorter was a good friend of mine you know, ‘im also live in the area an’ ting. He died one morning ca’ he was where they (the police and army) claims is a wanted man called General Starky. . . But Errol was at the place sleeping. They’d been keeping a session an’ it finish. Some men decide fe go home and some decide to stay back. Well all those who stayed back died, about nine men including Errol Shorter. ‘Brains and marrow eat out’. That’s why I sing about ‘Operation Eradication’.”
‘Do You Remember’ (the current Greensleeves single) and ‘Tell Dem’ (Black and White) are a change for you, harder more social comment. Do you see that side of your act developing more in future?
“Yeah, it looks that way. Sometimes I sing a few songs pertaining to love and nature. . . ca’ you can’t leave out those two things. But me ‘ave fe sing sentiments of love and nature , beca’ some people just sing ‘I love you, I want you. I need you and come to me closely’. The whole world know about that.
“That music, ‘Do You Remember’, it show that ‘Do you remember the days of slavery’. It wasn’t black man alone who died through slavery. Though the Indian, the white man, the Chinese suffer as slaves, we the black men suffer the hardest way until today.”
With luck, not something that most reggae tours experience in this country, Mouse will return to warm up our dank shores with performances in January. Yellowman, who according to Junjo Lawes is being ripped off by pirating producers (hence the deluge of Yellow recording in the past two months), is also due at the same time.
If so it will be interesting to witness the showdown. Yellowman might still be the toast of the toasters, but in a different style altogether Mouse has a new armoury of wounding words.
“I want to say I hope to top the pop charts in due season, “ the rodent reasons. “Because I have the lyrics, the voice and the right music behind me.”
“Sweet as a nut? Just level vibes, seen?”
Recognise the refrain? No!
Where have you been? perhaps having an enforced holiday at the hands of what Smiley Culture calls, in his opus of dual interpretation, either “Old Bill” or, more appropriately, “Dirty Babylon”.
“Slam-bam, Jah-man, hail dem fashion,” I seem to recall were some of the MC’s opening shots on his debut slate. And that’s exactly what the reggae buying public did, going wild enough over ‘Cockney Translation’ to send the Minder speak-meets-patois-patter to the zenith of the charts for six weeks, as the ‘Real Rock’ rhythm lived from Hackney to up the Junction at Clapham.
The latter South London location is where myself and Smiley – given name Emmanuel Brown – bucked upon each other for a few hours. More specifically the gaff at Dub Vendor, the stable which has already spawned new-style deejaying in the forms of Papa Face and Laurel And Hardy.
“Hardly anyone knows me by that name (Emmanuel Brown), ever since primary school I’ve been called Smiley Culture. What it was, like, there was a group of boys in the school at that time, which was our posse, and we used to play this game,” explained the MC, gold chains and buzzer-shades shining.
“What this game was, meant any girl that passed us we’d have a go at talking to her,” the tall blade, with a distant facial resemblance to General Saint, continued. “The idea was to make the girl smile and look over at the posse to make them know you were getting through.
“But what I used to do was just ask the girls to look over at the posse and smile for me please, nothing else, and I used to get away with it. Since then I’ve just been called Smiley, and since I’ve been an MC it’s true in that I don’t preach slackness.”
It’s been a long road for the 24-year-old deejay between getting his moniker bestowed on him at Saint-Lee primary school in Brixton and the cutting and subsequent killer pay-off of ‘Cockney Translation’.
Like many entertainers in all fields, Smiley started off practising in front of the mirror at home, “not thinking I would ever chat at a dance, much less make a music.”
In the late 70s the London sound system scene was not as formalised as it is now., with each crew having its own exclusive selector of rhythms and deejay outriders, according to Mr Culture.
Round about the period he waved goodbye to the educational system at Tulse Hill, Smiley began to chat at blues with Buchanan Sound, now operating as Studio Mix, where he combined with his spar Asher Senator and formed a partnership which is still going strong today.
The pair gradually filtered through virtually every major London dance hall outfit, from Supertone and Black Harmony to murder-watt specialists like Coxsone, Frontline and others, eventually ending in a semi-permanent residence with the mighty Saxon, home of Philip Levi.
But Smiley and his partner Asher, though they are closely associated with Dennis Row’s sound, prefer to keep themselves freelance.
“Me and Asher, we don’t go full out to the dance halls and all that business. If we have got something directly to do we’ll go out but only then, or if we’re inspired.”
This preference for independence has, of course, been made all the easier by the success of ‘Cockney Translation’, a record which shifted enough copies to chart nationally, but in keeping with the discriminatory manner in which these things are compiled, didn’t figure in the top 100.
“Before (the hit) we used to do three, four, or five hours on a sound, not feeling no way about it, for £25 or whatever. Now I do three things (chats) and get fifty times that,” continued Smiley, dropping a heavy hint about his earning power.
Obviously there have been weeks when Mr Culture’s finances weren’t so healthy and if dances were scarce on the horizon he would supplement his income by hustling jewellery from connections in Hatton Garden in an above-board manner, or sell shave-ice during summer.
Like ‘Mi God Mi King’, the tune that broke Levi, the element which made ‘Cockney Translation’ stand apart from the competition was, indeed is, that it tells a whole story as opposed to being linked by loose and ill-fitting themes. And in a similar manner to Phillip’s approach, Smiley emphasises the necessity of getting the whole thing down on paper before entering the studio, a move that breaks with the traditional MC scam of improvising on the spot in the recording booth.
Tired of attempting to interest producers in his and Asher’s talents, Mr Culture decided to wait until the right people approached him at the right time with the right offer. Those people were Chris Lane and John of Dub Vendor, who were very impressed by Smiley’s slot on last year’s competition between JA’s Gemini Sound and Saxon.
“it happened that at the time I thought about doing a music about a split personality,” recalls the deejay on the genesis of ‘Cockney Translation’. The idea was that this would give him flexibility of drawing on a number of characters all rolled into one artist, and hence allow for complicated bit intelligible toasts.
The exact nature of this split-personality motif must remain a secret because, although it was superceded by ‘Translation’, which operates on a similar principle, Smiley plans to execute this sound excursion into schizophrenia on a slate at a later date.
While Mr Culture might be this month’s hottest deejay, unlike other practitioners of the genre he didn’t really check MC records as a kid… “The only time I can remember myself listening to deejay music was when I-Roy and Jazzbo were putting down each other.” Very viciously, it must be said.
“But I didn’t even really think about those works as MC’ing or deejaying at the time. I just thought of them as songs in the same way I get little white kids or little black kids coming up to me and saying ‘Oh, I got that song’ when they’re talking about ‘Cockney Translation’.
“Apart from them, I must mention Nicodemus who I heard much later on a Jamaican dance-hall tape which was another competition between him and Brigadier Jerry, who in fact never turned up for it. Respect is due anyway to Brigadier Jerry because a lot of his styles have been exploited by MCs. I respect anybody who does original things because they’re exciting to listen to.”
Smiley Culture goes international! Yep, on the many merits of his debut 45 the man suddenly found himself performing in Germany, an experience which he said made him think twice about the media coverage reggae gets in the UK. Jimmy Cliff, for example, was given four hours of peak viewing time on Kraut TV to strut his skank. It’s difficult to imagine the same thing happening here.
Still, the way the genre is still locked in its little ghetto by the BBC and other broadcasters doesn’t really aggravate the MC, who is as amicable as his name would suggest. In fact, the only thing over which he got steamed up about during our interview was the “burial business” prevalent in deejaying.
“Both me and my partner Asher are really against the MCs who go into the dance and mock another man’s name, saying things about their mothers and so on.
“It has never happened to us right from the days of Buchanan maybe because we know all the MCs personally. The other thing we don’t like is slackness, we prefer to teach and preach the truth or something sensible, and something sensible has obviously got to be the truth,” reckoned Smiley with Buddhist-like logic.
“Slackness is a thing I think MCs use as a gimmick. Because there was a time when General Echo was still alive and everybody went slackness crazy. Then Brigadier Jerry came along and chatted ‘Slackness bite the dust, culture must come first’. And suddenly everybody was onto his style again.”
At present, in the same way British based bands like Aswad and Misty are forging forward compared to most of their Jamaican brothers, deejays like Smiley and Phillip Levi are proving that we can expect England to spawn the next generation of genuine MC innovators.”
Or as Mr Culture would say, “Just level vibes, seen?”
NME, 5th December, 1981
Dread Broadcasting Corporation, London’s top ranking black pirate radio station, has changed frequencies – from 214 metres am to 92.8 fm – following a raid by Telecom officials and police. Two transmitters were seized, and the two DJs present, Dr Watt and Papa Lepke, were cautioned and told the case will be taken before a Home Office committee to decide.
It later transpired that Sunday 22 was a crackdown day, and several other London pirate outfits were busted.
Should the affair go to court, which seems very likely, DBC’s operators are determined to make it a test case. Lepke commented: “Our immediate aim is to continue broadcasting, then to extend our airtime and programme format to cover all aspects of black culture. But between now and when we go to court, we are trying to get as much support as we can in the form of petitions, letters of support and media coverage. We have also started a defence fund from donations, the sale of DBC merchandise and benefit dances to help with the cost of the court case.”
Letters of support, donations or details of goods on sale, will be dealt with at Rebel Radio, c/o Better Badges, 286 Portobello Road, London W10.
NME July 7th, 1979
Britain’s best dressed poet by Charles Shaar Murray
John Cooper Clarke is telling a joke. “There are these three fellers, see, all lined up to apply to join the Foreign Legion. The third one is the actual geezer we are concerned with on this occasion, though. Anyway, the first one goes up to the recruitin’ sergeant. who asks him, ‘Why do you want to join the Foreign Legion then?’
“‘E says ‘I’ve just been ‘urt in love and I can’t bear to even look at another woman’.
“‘Oh well,’ says the sergeant, ‘you certainly won’t get to see a lot of women here. Go over there and collect your ammunition’.
“Then it’s the second one’s turn and ‘e goes to the sergeant and the sergeant asks ‘im why ‘e wants to join the Foreign Legion. ‘Well,’ says the second bloke, ‘I just fancy the idea of killin’ people’.
“‘Well, you’ll be onto a good thing ‘ere,’ says the sergeant, ‘we kill quite a lot of people fairly regularly as it ‘appens. Nip over there and collect yer ammunition’.
“‘Finally, our ‘ero gets ‘is turn and the sergeant asks ‘im what ‘is motivations are for chusing this particular mode of employment an’ ‘e says, ‘I ‘ate Arabs’.
“‘Well you’re in luck then,’ says the sergeant, ‘I was just telling this other feller ‘ere that we get to kill loads of geezers ‘ere in the Foreign Legion an’ it just so ‘appens that most of ’em are Arabs. Go over there an’ pick up yer ammunition’.
“So they’re wawkin’ through the fortress like, and suddenly this lookout up on a tower yells ‘The Arabs are attacking! The Arabs are attacking!’. Our ‘ero swings up his gun and ‘e shoots the lookout dead. The sergeant grabs our young friend by the throat and screams, ‘What the bloody ‘ell did you do that for?’.
“So ‘e looks the sergeant straight in the eye an’ says ‘If there’s one thing I ‘ate more than an Arab, it’s a grasser.”
John Cooper Clarke is bounding on stage at Manchester Free Trade Hall, a cavernous building steeped in musty Victorian municipality, a room dusted with hard work and religion. It’s is Manchester’s principal venue, a hall which has played host to the likes of 10cc and Black Sabbath and David Bowie in its time, and now the headlining attraction is a man whose job it is to stand on stages with nothing but a microphone, a jug of vodka and orange juice and two plastic carrier bags stuffed with notebooks and scrawled sheets of paper.
He is not a singer, though he has been known to declaim in different keys when the occasion demands it. He is not a rock musician by trade, though he has been one in the past and owns a Fender Telecaster (which he intends to chip in for a Stratocaster at some unspecified date) and holds a Musicians’ card which lists his instrument as ‘drone guitar’.
He operates in a nebulous territory bounded by four corners: the points of his compass are poet, comic, musician and author. You could say he is an entertainer, and certainly none of the people filling between half and three-quarters of the Free Trade Hall seating would gainsay you. Laugh? Thought they’d wet themselves.
Hometown tonight! A lifetime’s worth of dues and time to pay off. Tonight Johnny Clarke, local character made good and gone national, takes his nationwide tour to the biggest venue in his old turf. From the interval spots at years of folk and jazz and pub and punk gigs to the main attraction at the Free Trade Hall: success, success, success (does it matter?). There’re a regiment of friends and acquaintances on the guest list and a journalist and photographer in tow to record the occasion. Three says later, a squib will appear in the rumours and speculation section of a London-based rock paper not renowned for encouraging either its staff or readers to develop any discernible capacity for thinking in the abstract: a paragraph to the effect that the local hero returned from London to bomb on his own turf. They didn’t know (or care) that Johnny Clarke still lives in Salford in a flat above a chemist’s shop “with an aroma of strange and wonderful pharmaceutical concoctions on the stairs”…
John Cooper Clarke is being asked how local tradespeople react to his newfound status as a celeb: “Me greengrocer sells me rotten spuds. ‘E thinks I can afford it.”
John Cooper Clarke is late on stage tonight in Manchester. He had arrived at the stage door in a cloud of well-wishers who had ambushed him in the streets as he stalked from where his manager’s car was parked outside the journalist’s hotel just after the first of his two support bands had left the stage. Once ensconced in his dressing room, attacking the vodka and picking incredulously at a display of salads and cold meats, he had discovered that a vital carrier bag full of stuff had been left in Didsbury, where his manager/producer/bass player/chauffeur Martin Hannett a/k/a Martin Zero maintains a desirable residence. A cab was dispatched to collect and deliver the bag – how many rock gigs have been shoved onto the back burner while a fast car noses dark streets to Pick Up Something In A Bag For The Band? – while, onstage, Joy Division ram dark slabs of organised noise at the audience while a scarecrow singer moves like James Brown in hell.
Acidrock a decade or so on. It is whispered that acid enjoys considerable allegiance from a lot of the young postpunks in Manchester. As the bassist triggers a synthesiser and a skin breaks on the snare drum and the band’s sound begins to resemble Awful Things carved out of smooth black marble, who could argue?
John Cooper Clarke is vibing up. He goes to the toilet a lot and returns with his hair more conscientiously erect than before. It is parted at the side like a black lace curtain to reveal an ear peering surreptitiously at the world. A tiny crucifix hangs where the coke spoon used to be. Heed why, “I gave up coke for Christ,” he offers. Strands of grey are beginning to appear in his hair. He has a slight cast in one eye.
John Cooper Clarke appears in a cold oval of light stage centre. The effect is comic. The stage has been built for choirs and brass bands, political meetings and rock shows, and across the vast acreage stalks a skinny streak like some elongated insect on its hind legs, carrier bags stuffed with plunder, a mutant centipede who’s just looted 1966. The only non-vocal sounds to be heard are the rhythmical splatsplatsplat of his spearmint gum and the shuffle of his olive-green Chuck Taylor basketball shoes on the boards.
He pulls the top section of the microphone stand to the horizontal, sight along it, mows down the audience with hi-octane verbiage like he owns the world’s first automatic-fire blowgun. A Ramones approach to poetry. Wham bam up an’ at ’em Sam! 1-2-3-4!
‘Ere ‘e cums naow!
Clarkie’s on=stage declaiming voice resembles that of an auctioneer with a grudge against the world and a sneer as permanently attached as a scar. He sprays the audience with words and saliva, revving up while he chews his gum right into the mike and runs on the spot like the Health Fanatic himself, heart, lungs and brain working overtime and getting paid off in adrenalin. His offstage conversational voice is slow and muted, words rolled round mouth and cortex, savoured for resonances and ambiguities and then allowed to drip from his nose and run down his shirtfront.
His vowels are in uproar. The ‘e’, ‘a’ and ‘i’ sounds slash like razor-edged Frisbees; the ‘o’ and ‘u’ sounds boom and reverberate like someone yelling down a corrugated-iron tunnel. He plays his accent like a virtuoso, moves like a shadowboxer, bopping and dodging and weaving to avoid blows, punching with his mouth, leading with his nose, a voice-triggered pneumatic drill buzzing into your brain.
John Cooper Clarke is asking someone if he goes too fast on stage. “I s’pose I do, really. It’s embarrassing to think about so I get me ‘ead down and rush. I’m used to werkin’ in clubs and not in sit-down places and you have to assume that the audience has a short attention span. That’s not to underestimate ’em or say they’re stupid ‘cuz when I’m in clubs I ‘ave a short attention span too…”
Running on the spot,ticktockticktock. Ruffle through the carrier bag, find the notebook, hit the vodka and give us another one just like the other one, do. He has three repertoires which overlap briefly: a stage repertoire, a studio repertoire and a load of other stuff: crime novels, a semi-fictional autobiography entitled Ten Years In An Open-Neck Shirt which is slated for publication sometime soon. The stage repertoire is hi-impact, rhythmical, packed with dense twisting internal rhymes, compressed, compact imagery, elbows to the rib, kicks to ankle. satire, scatology, painless social critique, honed and polished.
John Cooper Clarke is living on his wit.
Nonstop. Rapido rapido.Don’t let ’em get bored fer chrissake. Poems, jokes and banter jostle like compartments on an InterCity 125; epigrams and sardonic couplets, metaphors juxtaposed like sleeping partners in an arranged marriage flash by like telegraph poles, two images together make a third thing, bigger and different.
Detractors claim it’s doggerel (“his imagery is terribly gauche, darling, and what he’s doing is so old-fashioned”) or accuse him of being an intellectual Jasper carrot or – worst of all – of not being rock and roll. Ask him if he thinks it’s rock and roll and he laughs helplessly and says no.
John Cooper Clarke is being asked to define rock and roll and his relationship to same.
“Electric guitars, bass and drums … not much goin’ on across the beat. My relationship with rock and roll is like Lenny Bruce’s with modern jazz – I like the clothes and attitude.” He remembers groups in which he used to perform, operating guitar rather than microphone, but writing the words, one in which “we had two riffs: Bo Diddley an’ “Igh ‘Eel Sneekers’. We could do ’em at two speeds, fast an’ slow, which gave us four options.”
He recalls The Vendettas: “Me cousin Sid was the singer, because they told me I sounded too nasal. Sid ‘ad a sort of raspy quality to ‘is voice, an’ ‘e sounded somewhat redolent of ‘Owlin’ Wolf. Nowadays everybody’s got an electric guitar – people have bloody guitars cummin’ outer their ears – but then there weren’t that many people playin’. The lead guitarist got engaged an’ I was stuck with all these lyrics …”
Clarke vaguely recalls that there was one “about a man who sold ‘ats”, but none survive to the present day. He is deliberately vague about dates, and particularly vague about the age of some of his material. Gabby Mancunians recall him performing some of his current stuff several years ago, but ask him when The Vendettas were performing and he’ll just say, “the ’60s”. Push him a bit and he elucidates: “the late ’60s.”
So whatchareckon to the Rock Biz then John?
Shrugs. “Water off a duck’s back, reely.”
But it is your new home now, innit?
“I ‘aven’t moved in yet. I been round to put up some wallpaper, but I ‘aven’t moved in.”
There’s methedrine his madness. John Cooper Clarke is cranked up really high as he slams through ‘Twat’, a stream of sustained invective and distilled hate. The effect is somewhat akin to having someone piss on your shoes for five minutes. “Lahk a dose of scayyybiz ai’ve got yewoondermaskin/yew maike-lahfa feehrytail GRI-IH-IH-IH_IMMM!” He attacks as only the defenceless can: the only craft more vulnerable is that of the improvising comedian and Clarke knows it, which is why he eschews onstage improvisation.
“Y’mean like stream-of-consciousness … or unconsciousness? Naw, it could turn out to be reely borin’. I’d rather werk on the stuff at ‘ome. Besides, if you improvise in public you tend to reveal rather a lot, and I’m not particularly fond of barin’ me soul.”
“Well, I read rather too much Mickey Spillane.”
Squelchsquelchsquelch goes the gum.
Still, Clarkie’s got one in the book that has ‘Twat’ beat all hollow for sheer vituperative power. Like John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Bob Geldof and many others both more and less eminent in and out of rock. JCC is a sufferer from what we doctors generally refer to as A Catholic Education, and ‘Limbo’,
which can be found on the ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ live album, is the case history.
“The school was ruun by nuns. The ‘ead one was about 90. She used to wear these black Wulewerth’s plimsolls and you’d only ‘ear ‘er cummin’ because she ‘ad this pair ‘a scissors on a long string tied around ‘er waist … to break the embarrassin’ silences. You’d ‘ear this terrifyin’ scraaaapin’ sound an’ you’d knaw she was sumwhere nearby. WE never found out what she used them for.
“Me dad was in the Communist Party. I went to school at the insistence of ‘is sisters – I blame it all on my antie, actually. I was like ‘is ‘ostage to ‘eaven: lemme in or the kid gets it.”
So it as Catholicism at school and Communism at home?
“Naw, not reely. ‘E didn’t push it nearly as ‘ard as they did.”
John Cooper Clarke is knackered. He’s in the living room of Hannett Towers in Didsbury, slumped out by the gas fire in a room painted like a block of Neapolitan icecream and filled with records, tapes, electronic gear and wellworn furniture. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett is playing through a Phil Spector tape and Clarke is musing sleepily on the need to change his name on account of the ‘John Cooper Clarke’ moniker having been already nailed down by an already-registered member of Equity.
“What’s this other John Cooper Clarke like? I dunno, I ‘aven’t checked him out yet. I could change me name to a T.V. Lounge, reckon, or Richie Valence. Can you ‘ave dead people? Buddy ‘Olly. Winston Churchill …”
The JCC tour of the UK doesn’t exactly carry that marauding-army-of-rock-and-roll gypsys-come-for-our-daughters-and-your-money vibe. It’s more a three-people-in-an-estate-car sortathingy: Clarke, Hannett and the latter’s girlfriend Sue. hannett wears Oxfam-shop, postpunk threads, shades, no socks and long curly Ian Hunter hair. He describes his multifarious functions by pointing to his spindly ward and announcing “I’m his mother”. He vibes with Clarke, fights a losing battle against the Punk Poet’s peerless propensity for Losing Things (those precious carrier bags, for example, and the olive-green sneakers that went AWOL the following night in Newcastle, never to return. Hannett supervises the wordslinger’s career progress, writes, arranges and produces all his music, plays bass in The Invisible Girls, Clarke’s studio band, which is slowly evolving into a stage band for future use. He also makes toast: the power behind the throne.
He’s even diversified by producing legendary fun people Magazine for their next single. His conversations with Clarke are cryptic, semi-coded-semi-clear and hilarious to the participants. Clarke shacks on Hannetts couch hen – for any reason – he can’t make it back to the flat over the chemists’ in Salford. But Hannett is El Zonko – almost – as he occupies the couch for easy access to the tape deck. That leaves the cushions for Clarke. The shades are off and the slur is more pronounced. He begins to doze off, mumbles in his sleep, then wakes himself up.
His albums haven’t been released in the States, but they might be. CBS’ New York office is manifestly confused by the product they keep getting from London, as was aptly demonstrated by the sizzling acumen with which they assessed the first Clash album. Still, come hell or high water, America is getting the JCC experience, maybe in August.
“I’d like to do New York solo,” Clarke murmurs. “I believe a meaningful tour of key launderettes is bein’ seeriously mooooted.” He pronounces it “muted” and the ambiguity is pleasing. On first hearing ‘I Wanna Be Nice’ from the ‘Disguise In Love’ album, it was difficult for southern-jessie ears to discern whether Clarke was saying “Better look elsewhere” or “better luck elsewhere” until, by a process of rigorous analysis, it was determined that if it had been the former it would have come out as ‘better luke elsewhere.’ Ambiguities of Pinteresque proportions abound.
A discussion had been taking place in which Clarke had opined he felt more sympathy for Carl Jung than Sigmund Freud (two singer-song-writers currently signed respectively to Warners and Arista) because “I’d rather not believe that everything can be reduced to sex” when it was idly raised that a considerable amount of Pinter’s dialogue resembled the recorded conversations of schizophrenics.
Clarke is a devotee of Pinter’s work, and quotes from it extensively. (He also has large chunks of the work of Damon Runyon committed to memory, and Runyon’s prose sounds extraordinarily comfortable when rendered in Clarke’s lugubrious, sardonic Salford tones). He begins to enthuse about Pinter’s No Mans Land.
“It’s basically about this poet called Spune who finds ‘is way into this rich old geezer’s ‘ouse. This rich old geezer’s got these two incredibly sinister bodyguards, real psychos in their way. This geezer was the last person you’d expect to ‘ave two psycho bodyguards: ‘e was all doddery with a horrible propensity for fallin’ over. Everybody’s drinkin’ all the time. Then this geezer called Foster, who’s the more sinister of the two bodyguards because ‘e’s more affable, comes in an’ ‘e says ‘Pheeeeeeeew, what a day. Taxi drivers ‘ate me. They ‘ate me. What you drinkin’?’
“Then Spune tells Foster about this paintin’ which he was goin’ to do but ‘ad never got around to actually doin’ an’ ‘e says ‘I was sat outside this café by this river where a man ‘ad caught a fish. Three children were lookin’ at the talkin’ among themselves about what kind of fish it was. A travellin’ salesman walks in and there’s a guy leanin’ against the bar whistlin’. I was going to call it “The Whistler”. Would you ‘ave understood why I’d’ve called it “The Whistler”?’
“Andy Foster says, ‘Well I may not have understood it, but I would’ve been grateful for it. A good work of art tends to move me. I’m not a prat y’know’. “You should read that. You can read it an hour, and then you’ll read it again and again. I try and see as much of his stuff as I can, especially on TV. It adapts so well to TV. His basic premise – well not ‘is basic premise, but one of ’em – is that every sentence has at least 24 meanings. Any sentence that anyone can write can immediately be taken in any one of 24 ways.
“It’s a very sound approach. All ‘is plays have dead realistic dialogue where sumbody says sumthing and the other person isn’t listening properly or doesn’t hear it right and comes back with a really incongruous answer, and so on.”
Ever written plays yourself?
“No, but I’d like to.”
“No, but there’s only one sort of part I could play. I’d always be typecast.” He pauses a beat, awaits the raised eyebrow and when it comes, he smirks and drawls, “Juuuuuuveniles”.
Up on stage at the Free Trade Hall, Clarke’s breath comes in short pants and then goes home to change.
“AhcantgobakterSALfordthecoppersgotmemaaaaaaktenter-tha-daraaaagonexitJohnnyClaaakeTA!” and he’s off, carrier bags in one hand, glass in the other, slipping and sliding on the polished boards. The Amazing Talking Man! He’s mowed ’em down, kept them ‘angin’ on is every WERDlike for overanower, made ’em laugh, made ’em think (maybe), hit ’em in sore spots, tickled ’em in sensitive ones. For his first encore, he gives them ‘Beasley Street’, a massive epic delivered at dead march pace, bleak, grim and evocative, not entirely devoid of humour but definitely short on the cheap, easy laughs that he’s been accused of perpetually seeking, not revved-up cranked-high heads-down entertainment but an inkling of what lies behnd the jokey facade, a taste of the kind of material that Clarke had kept up his sleeve while doling out the tasty hors d’oeuvres that cinched his rep.
And he has ’em. Cold. It’s the payoff for all the failures, all the brush-offs, all the dismissals, all the years as a printers assistant or a night watchman or an assistant to a man whose job it was to photograph wounds for an insurance company, all the years on the Nat King Cole, all the times he dodged bottles and glasses and veg and other sundry missiles or been booed and roared off stages . . .
When did people stop throwing things at you, John?
“When I started getting in’t music press. That should give you sdome sort of idea of your readership! I did Glasgow Apollo with Be Bop Deluxe . . . it’s the biggest venue on the circuit int it, Glasgow Apollo. It ‘olds 3800 people and they all hated me. They all started to shout the moment I came on. I didne’t get a werd out. They got a 50-foot-‘igh stage so you got more in common with the people in the balcony than the wuns in the stalls. I just sttod there for about four minutes and looked at them. Imagine that: 4000 people all loathing me at once. It was one of the most muving experiences of my life. I was muved very efficiently. I just said, ‘Let’s call it a draw’. I come in by the frunt daw an’ went straight out by the back.
“I’d give anything to be able to relive that.”
John Cooper Clarke is asking a question.
“This is a thing I always ask people: if you ‘ad to make luve to an animal, what would it be? Something out of the human realm of existence. Not larger than an elephant and not smaller than a guinea-pig. As sensuous or as ridiculous as you like, though I reckon that people who would do it with a guinea-pig are basically sadistic people.
“Pandas eat a lot of fruit, and they’d be extremely comfortable . . . if you ‘ad to, but in my more dynamic mudes, I would like to fook a giyant sea bird that upon climax would drop me into a placid ocean where I would immediately be digested by a huge translucent fish and then deposited upon a desert island paradise . . . unscathed.
“A surprising number of people get flustered and refuse to answer at all.”
What method of psychological analysis does Clarke use to codify and interpret the answers he does get?
“Well, it’s really pretty basic. Anyone who’d fook a guinea-pig is definitely not to be trusted.”
John Cooper Clarke is asleep now, head thrown back to the ceiling. Random images are floating up from his brain, a brain crammed with Pinter and Lou Reed and Dylan and Magritte and Coronation Street and Burroughs and Warhol and Runyon and Italian futurist poets and Man Ray and Spillane and uncounted made-for-TV horror films and Chandler and Len Deighton and Brion Gysin: all the stuff that boils up like bubbles of marsh gas from the plastic carrier bag full of diamonds and trash that does duty as his cerebral cortex, the source point for the automatic writing with which he’s currently experimenting.
Head thrown back like the corpse he’d like to play in movies, a series of cameo roles in which he floats face down in rivers, falls off balconies and tumbles out of closets at detectives’ feet, always billed “and featuring John Cooper Clarke as himself” . . . he’s sprawledoutflatonnisbackJACK!
But the motormouth keeps on going, far below the discernibility threshold. He regains consciousness long enough to retail an anecdote about someone who always speaks French in his sleep before he’s away again, curled up by the gas fire.
Hush, hush, whisper who dares. John Cooper Clarke is saying his prayers.