The Bro’s Grim, who saw the ranters gigging in the early 80s and is himself gigging today looks back and sees what the ranters brought to spoken word then and now.
As I recall it, 1977 pretty much blew the lid off. Before that everything felt under manners, squared away by our elders and betters. After punk, well, we just scattered and did our own thing. The ranting poets were very much a product of that process, just one of a number of different things that were going down. There was always someone on stage shouting into a microphone, even in the early days: that might be an SWP-type giving it large about RAR; or some old hippy bangin’ on about how we were all the same (we weren’t); or a drunk punk shouting lyrics. We were all writing lyrics at the time and some smart bastards worked out that you didn’t need to learn how to play or lug stacks of equipment around, just stand up and bang it out (being honest, that took me another twenty years, more fool me).
After Johnny Clarke broke, that was it. It was a legit way to get in on the act, blag into gigs, impress the girls. That was the ranters! Some of ‘em were good, stuck at it and got better. Others, not so much. But at least they had a bash at it. Memories are blurred (for a whole variety of reasons!) but I remember Seethin’, Mark Miwurdz, Attila, Big J. Clarkey, of course. Porky the Poet and Teething Wells are the two I remember most fondly, now both good mates. Many of the fanzine writers got in on it, Richard ‘Kool Knotes’ Edwards, for one.
There was other poetry bubbling under too, naturally, both before that and at the same time. The mod faces that I ran with, following the Jam, would be happy to chat on with Weller about ‘The Mersey Sound’ (Penguin Modern Poets 10). Paul checked Adrian Henri on the second album and championed Dave Waller’s work (I think some of his poems were published through the fan club mag which Paul’s sister, Nikki, produced). Waller’s ‘Notes From Hostile Street’ was published by Weller’s ‘Riot Stories’. Pat Fitzgerald supported on one of the early tours too. A few of us had poems published in ‘zines and the mod revival bands (the better ones) would check the poetry influence.
In terms of recordings, ‘Pop Art Poem’ (earlier on in this blog) was a product of that vibe. Meanwhile, Kevin Rowland was putting out some spoken word stuff with Dexy’s. Later, Billy Bragg recorded ‘Walk Away Renee’. That kind of poetry crossed over, whilst the ranters’ hard-gigging gave the old-school poets a much needed kick up the arse. It was a big mix and a good one.
Many of the ranters got into the alternative comedy scene and the variety of performers there, again, proved how blurred the boundaries were. Porky, obviously, Miwurdz too. Mark Lemarr started in through that route, I think. There were others! But I first saw Bob Boyton on that circuit and he’s doing some very good writing now. John Hegley came out of all that and he’s not done too bad with the poetry has he?
I’ve been gigging poems, fairly irregularly, on and off, for about a dozen years now. But it goes back way before that. As a kid I was particularly fascinated by Pete Townsend’s lyrics, and the poetry we did at school seemed to hit a chord. I did my fair share of teenage scribbling. Like I said earlier in this blog, once punk broke it open, then there was a proper way to get it out there. I was determined to be in a band, learned to play the bass, and wrote songs with a number of outfits over the years. None of ‘em got anywhere near ‘making it’ but we gave it a go.
Throughout that time I continued to write poetry, and never really stopped doing so. Some of it made it into ‘zines and I suppose I might have intoned over a mic at some point (I really didn’t have much of a singing voice), at some gig or other. I don’t recall. But I never was part of the ranting scene, though people I knew quite well were. One of the main reasons behind that was that it was pretty fierce. There was a good deal of physical threat in the air at the time and it could be a dangerous business, gigging.
That’s why it makes me laugh when, on the odd occasion, people ask me if I get nervous doing live work. What is there to get nervous about these days? Maybe you forget a line or two. Get embarrassed, stutter for a bit. You’re not going to get glassed are you? I find poetry beefs quite comical. To be honest my shtick is that the audience are more scared of me than I am of them! Wasn’t necessarily like that back in the ‘good old days’ of ranting poetry.
Which brings me to the point of this piece; Tim asked me to think about what I’d brought with me from those days. Well, three things I think. Firstly, content. Every single one of the ranters had something to say, something to get off their chest. It was heartfelt, it was real. So much of the poetry that I hear these days on the circuit is just an exercise in linguistic dexterity, or actors showing off. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it can be a dull, that verbal wanking.
The second is the politics. I remember the ranters as being very political and very direct. There was absolutely no shame there, they went for it. These days, even now (when the political situation at home and abroad is quite dramatic), it is quite unusual to hear (or, even more so, read) an overtly political poem. I like to think I approach political subjects from some interesting angles, ambush the audience from time to time. Even so there aren’t that many that do even that, it’s strange. Of course, sometimes there’s a subject that just needs tackling head-on: I recently wrote a thing about Farage; ‘Shyster’; you can imagine!
Thirdly, and finally, back to where we came in, really: physical presence. The old ranters had to let the punters know they were there. So many poets I see doing live work are really diffident. Even if you’re reading off the page (and there’s nothing wrong with it, done well, though it’s not my thing), then out with it, don’t fuck about; own the stage. To finish on a down note, though, I think some of the best live poets don’t get the credit they deserve for the work itself. Sometimes (and, yes, for good reason, on occasion) those best known for their live work are looked down on by the more literary set. Which is how I remember it was in the old days. Maybe the ranters need to make a come-back!
Wilko Johnson and the Bro’s Grim