I wrote this feature for Street Sounds, a newspaper full of punk, oi, ska and all things boisterous and it was in their November 2014 issue. Also in there were Neville Staple and Cock Sparrer, so that’s good company.
You can buy Street Sounds here.
“Bollocks to that!” is the refrain from Attila the Stockbroker’s poem ‘Away Day’. You can hear it on the ‘Oi Oi That’s Yer Lot’ album. It’s an impassioned tirade against ticket price hikes, and big business greed. Importantly more and more voices join the refrain “Bollocks to that!” throughout the poem. Ranting poetry was all about expressing the anger a whole generation felt: being a poet on stage and being part of the crowd.
Ranting poetry was a familiar part of the Oi! Albums and in the early 80s poets often sprang up in between bands and toured themselves. Ranting verse was furious, fast, and funny. It wasn’t always the best written but it was immediate and for punks rather than professors. As Attila himself said in 1982: “I consider myself to be a cross between stand-up comedy, poetry and slap-stick; sort of a cross between George Formby and the 4-Skins.”
Poets such as Attila, Seething Wells, Joolz, The Big J, Ginger John, Porky the Poet and myself were on stage at gigs, proper gigs. I still gig as a poet and am often asked if I get nervous before going on stage. Having gigged with sound systems and Oi bands as a lad, in truth I don’t. Here’s what the NME made of one of my 1982 gigs: ‘Skins wander the floor and nod greetings—sussing the sides and prowling the front, Swells takes the mike and then….and then the scrap. Bits of glass and bleeding knuckles— this fight’s been brewing ages. A spilt pint and a four-foot high fascist, crazy eyes and a swastika tattooed on the inside of his palm, and that’s all it takes. Adrenalin, ripped shirts and hard leather— a list of injuries.’
Roger McGough we weren’t.
Ranting verse was in yer face. Sometimes you got punched, sometimes you were doing the punching but the poetry was always getting a bashing. As Seething Wells told one of the national music papers in ’82: “It’s about getting poetry back to basics – simplifying it and making it more direct. Why write about ‘cosmic experiences’ when you can write about your own predicament – being on the dole and having no money spare, ever.
“For me, if something works and gets a reaction I don’t care what line-scheme it’s in: it’s worth doing. Then again, I reckon that one or two of my pieces would stand up to so-called ‘poetry’. And in terms of entertainment they would pan them!”
Stephen Wells became interested in the idea of “ranting” as opposed to “poetry reading” at the fag end of “punk”, when various punk bands that he’d tried to get off the ground had flopped with resounding regularity.
“Nineteen seventy seven was the time when, like a lot of other young people, I felt like reclaiming my culture. The idea of ‘honesty’ – so inherent within punk – appealed to me. Like it was no longer ‘hip’ to push hard drugs and music was the right of anyone – not just an elite group of ‘stars’.”
And it wasn’t just punk. Ranting poetry was as at home in the dancehall as the pub. I was always more into reggae, and ranting sprang from LKJ as much as Johnnie Cooper Clarke. Jamaican poet Michael Smith was hugely popular in the early 80s with his heavy drawled ‘mi cyaant believe it’. He was murdered in Jamaica, 1983 because of what he said. Stoned to death for words. Words.
Poets like Ben Zephaniah are often now seen as dub poets, and so they are, and we were gigging together on some great bills. We shared the experience of being stamped down by the police, the bosses and the government. How things have changed!
So What! ‘zine neatly summed up the ranters in 1984: ‘Ranting verse – a name coined by Seething Wells and Molotov Comics in the early 1980s to describe a new form of poetry which has as its main objective entertainment, information and humour, usually in an oral rather than printed setting. Ranter – a poet who rhymes ‘comet’ with ‘vomit’, who is generally well left of centre and prepared to brave hostile and uninterested audiences to put across his ideas, and wins those audiences over. If you can’t win over a negative audience you’re not going at it the right way. Ranting is about communication, being funny, being political, taking the unaccompanied spoken word to places it has never gone before and showing people who have never trusted words before that they can be a great source of pleasure, enjoyment and information.’
Ranting has fallen into that pre-interweb gap. The older skinheads and punks will remember it; some fondly, some not. But for younger Oi fans and poets it can be hard to find out about. I’ve been blogging old interviews, reviews, recordings and some memoirs about ranting at
Poetry today is in rude health, thanks largely to a vibrant and direct spoken word scene throughout Britain. It’s been bubbling for decades with ‘zines, gigs and good poets with their feet on the ground and their hands on a pint. It’s still feisty and fierce and these days, has even more female voices.
Recently Phill Jupitus and myself represented the 80s at a history of spoken word gig. We revisited our ranting poetry sets, he as Porky the Poet and I as Teething Wells. We also read some our favourite poems from the era, one of which was ‘Away Day’. The audience all joined in in shouting “Bollocks to that!” It’s a poem from the 80s but people are still angry about ticket price hikes and big business greed.
As for ranting poetry today? Well, I’m not a ranter these days, but I am a poet, I’m angry and the best band in the land is Sleaford Mods.