John Cooper Clarke on Granada TV’s Celebration which was shown on 22 May, 1980.
John Cooper Clarke on Granada TV’s Celebration which was shown on 22 May, 1980.
Flyer for the New Poets and Songwriters Festival in 1987. This was after ranting had wilted but a few ranters on the bill, Clarkey a precursor, and also an early turn from Lemn Sissay who was part of the next wave of writers after us.
Clarkey and LKJ in Sounds, 20 March, 1982.
From bard to verse
John Cooper Clarke/Linton Kwesi Johnson
John Cooper Clarke doesn’t so much read poetry as batter your ears senseless with it. Looking like an anorexic refugee from Belsen, he teeters around the stage of The Old Vic with just a microphone (bearing striking resemblance to himself) for company and delights his audience with the now familiar 100 mph torrent of words in action that fall from his razor sharp tongue.
Seldom, I suspect, has the Old Vic born witness to so many four-letter words and scathing irreverence in poems like ‘At Majorca’, (“Where the Double Diamond flows like sick”) and ‘The Day The World Stood Still’, “A sympathetic look at a nerve gas attack.”
Cooper Clarke is sharp, aggressive and above all, very funny. Tonight’s performance was without music. Both he and Linton Kwesi Johnson performed solo, apparently in an effort to become accepted as poets and not musicians, although personally I would never have thought such a confusion likely.
As soon as Linton Kwesi Johnson launched into ‘Five Nights Of Bleeding’ it was obvious that he had never needed the musical accompaniment he has on his records. The ingenuity of cadence, tone and verse construction makes the music superfluous, coupled with a delivery so rhythmic that he managed to create what I would have thought was impossible, a foot tapping poetry recital.
Cooper Clarke’s acerbic wit is contrasted with the overt romanticism of his reggae stablemate. But what is most disturbing about the evening is their joint failure to reach the audience about whom their poetry is centred. Kwesi Johnson’s poems about the riots and his numerous references to his friends in Brixton fell not on the ears of working class blacks, but on an almost exclusively white middle class audience.
Neither did they look like they’d ever strolled down Cooper Clarke’s ‘Beazley Street’ (“where anyone with two ears is a nancy boy”) and one is left with an uneasy feeling that these two heroes of modern poetry have succeeded only in popularising their art for the middle classes. The subject of their poetry, urban working class youth, don’t seem to have got a look in.
Sounds reviews the Poetry Olympics album, 20 March, 1982. There’s a zine review of the same album here.
‘The Poetry Olympics’
(All Round Records) ***1/2
This is the album of the live event. No, not ‘The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball’ but ‘The Poetry Olympics’, an even trendier soiree which was held last year at The Young Vic.
This is the vinyl version of the massive poetry read-in which was supposed to take poetry out of the hands of the arty farties and give it to the likes of you and I, despite the fact that it provided said AF’s with enough material to fill several Sunday supplements with interminable diatribes at to how divine the whole thing was.
The reality of course, was that some of the show worked very well indeed while some fell arseways but happily only the former has made it onto record.
Cooper Clarke was the big crowd puller of the event, closely followed by Roger McGough whose Liverpudlian humour was evident, with poems reflecting on the joys of making love on the bus in the knowledge that the world is going to end at lunch time.
The two big names though, were happily upstaged by the punk faction in shapes of Seething Wells and Attila The Stockbroker whose ‘Russians In The DHSS’ muses hilariously on the two greatest threats to mankind – commie reds and Social Security scroungers, and the album is worth buying for the sake of these alone.
The use of acoustic guitar on Fran Landesman’s ‘White Nightmare’ sounded worryingly folksy and conjured up uncomfortable notions of maxi cheesecloth skirts and the Guardian Women’s Page but largely the album refutes such ethereal notions and is as unpretentious as a record of a poetry reading can be. It concerns itself with both the most frivolous and most serious aspects of modern poetry and is a brave attempt to take itself out of the realms of high art and into popular culture.
John Cooper Clarke in Smash Hits, 5-18 April, 1979. As a Brucie Bonus there’s a classic from the Leyton Buzzards too.
Linton and Clarkey compete for gold in the Poetry Olympics, from the NME, 27 September, 1980.
JCC to take on LKJ in Olympics
John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s participation in the first Poetry Olympics is now set for tomorrow night (Friday) at 7pm.
It takes place at Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey (admission £2) – and it’s the first time a live reading of this nature has ever been staged there. JCC represents Britain in the event, which also features poets from seven other countries, including LKJ on behalf of Jamaica. The aim of organiser Michael Horovitz is to create a cycle of international poetry reading every four years.
This will be JCC’s last appearance before he sets out with Pauline Murray and The Invisible Girls on the ten-venue ‘Girls Night Out’ tour, which opens on October 2 and includes a major London show at the Lyceum (9). This will be the first time Clarke has performed live with a band, as The Invisible Girls will be backing him as well Pauline – and their line-up is now confirmed as Steve Hopkins (keyboards), ex-Penetration bassist Robert Blamire, Durutti Columnist Vini Reilly (guitar), Paul Burgess from 10cc (drums) and producer Martin Hannett (bass and keyboards).
* JCC was fined £50 at Stevenage Magistrates Court on September 11, after pleading guilty to possessing 1.23 grammes of cannabis on June 26. The court was told that a detective constable “had reason to call” at Clarke’s flat that morning, whereupon it became obvious that “drug misuse had taken place”.
There was a window of a few years where music festivals had a lot of poetry. Poetry thought it a space at the table but music festivals soon put them right.
This feature by Aoife Mannix is from The London Magazine, August/September 2008.
I read at the Hyde Park gig mentioned, and was delighted to see Eddy Grant’s set, and also at Latitude before being banned.
Mud, music and words
Poetry, it seems, is the new rock’n’roll. Or at least the latest trendy thing to have at your festival. From the O2 Wireless to Latitude, Glastonbury to the Big Chill and the Summer Sundae Weekender, they’ve all taken to pitching a poetry tent where revellers in wellies can soak up the spoken word. While some mainstream programme choices, like Jay-Z headlining at Glastonbury, have had a lukewarm reception this year, poets have been warmly embraced by the weird and wonderful world of sunshine and mud that is the traditional music festival.
It might be the element of surprise. As a ten year old boy in a primary school once said to me, ‘I thought all poets were dead.’ The education system has a lot to answer for in promoting us poets as men in wigs, waving quills around and writing verse as incomprehensible as it is irrelevant. Often I’ve dragged friends of mine along to their first poetry event, only to have them tell me, ‘You know I really enjoyed that and I didn’t think I was going to.’
Festivals may be about drink, drugs and getting sunburnt, but people are also genuinely hungry for a bit of spiritual nourishment. At the O2 Wireless festival, forty nine poets who had featured in The London Magazine and its sister publication Trespass, delivered their words of wisdom to an enormous beer garden. Generally considered to be one of the UK’s more commercial festivals, this was the first time poetry was let loose on the crowds in Hyde Park. There was a lovely moment when a group of young revellers surrounded the stage during 73 year old Scottish poet Eddie Linden’s slot. As he stood proclaiming his verse to the sky, they were snapping away at him with their mobile phones. Sascha Akhtar performed on the same day with her unique blend of electronic music and richly worded verse and said of the performance:
Eddie’s voice rose like fire, and the winds started up, trees rustling with recognition and Eddie’s red cap blazed like his words. I felt at that moment that this was what it was all about, why we were all there, to slice through the madness with nothing but the word.
During my own reading I had a rather over-enthusiastic heckler, who shouted ‘will you marry me?’ from the crowd. Afterwards he very politely bought a copy of my book.
Of course there are plenty of festival goers who are already fans of the spoken word and who would actively seek out the poetry arena. Latitude, in Suffolk, is living proof of this, as a music and cultural festival that is also one of the largest poetry events in Europe. The poetry arena was packed out this year, with sixty poets providing over fifty hours of performances. Even here, however, there are still new converts to be made. I remember the young man listening to Salena Godden at one in the morning, who said to his mate, ‘Is she a poet? She’s really good. And she’s well fit. I could get into this poetry stuff.’ The big plus for poets performing at festivals is the chance to reach new audiences that might otherwise never dream of listening to poetry. Perhaps wandering drunkenly past a poetry tent and being strangely moved by the wry observations of Roddy Lumsden or the political integrity of Adrian Mitchell could be the first step to buying that poet’s collection and carefully poring over every word.
There are definitely challenges to performing to a festival audience. Folk primarily go to festivals to have a good time so it’s not really the moment to premiere your twenty minute ode to suicide. Some might agree that this implies a general dumbing down of the arts, and that it encourages poets to pander to the masses, but in my experience festival goers are remarkably open minded and up for anything. There is something about being in a large field surrounded by people sporting everything from angel wings to cat suits, top hats to flamenco dresses that encourages a willingness to step out of your comfort zone. There’s a communal feeling of excitement, imaginative possibility and sheer joy in living. This is, after all, what poetry is about: providing a meaningful alternative to the crushing boredom of media clichés, brushing aside the superficial ad-speak, and reclaiming the freedom to form our own identities.
Phrased & Confused have taken the potential for fusion of the arts one step further at Leicester’s Summer Sundae Weekender by commissioning artists to experiment with combining music and spoken word. Of course, the line between poetry and lyrics has always been blurred. A good poem is as much about the sound and the rhythm as it is about meaning, and the same can be said of a good song. A long tradition of artists like Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke have prepared the way for the likes of Sascha Akhtar and Scroobius Pip, who continue to draw poetry and music fans alike. It’s also a two way street; as music festivals open themselves to poetry, poetry festivals are embracing all kinds of poets and musicians. This year’s Ledbury festival, the largest poetry festival in the UK, featured Mark Gwynne Jones and Psychicbread – a collective describing themselves as ‘a conspiracy to fuse poetry, film and music’. The festival also played host to Luke Wright, Edinburgh Festival star and Latitude Programmer. The likes of Wright and his Aisle 16 cohorts exemplify a new breed of poets who are drawing a young, savvy audience to their poetry/comedy hybrid. In the capital, the South Bank’s Literature Festival closed with Polarbear’s If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me. An exhilarating show, blending poetry, hip hop and story-telling, If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me was produced by Sarah Ellis for Apples & Snakes and directed by Yael Shavit. The show also included live visuals by graffiti artist Goonism, as well as music from DJ Afrosaxon and singer-songwriter Jamie Woon.
Festivals can also be a source of inspiration for the writers themselves. For those poets who find the whole thing a little intimidating, here are some words of encouragement from this year’s Glastonbury poet in residence, A. F. Harold.
It was a lot more fun than I’d expected. I’d never doubted I’d be able to write something, after all that’s what I do, but I was quietly impressed with some of the things that I found to write about, and having the job coloured everything I saw. As a rule I can’t think of anything worse than spending a weekend with 150,000 people in a field with tents and chemical toilets and all the rest – with all those bands playing I’ve never heard of and late nights and expensive food. All of that is anathema to me (give me an early night and a long bath and a good book and a Buffy DVD and I’m a happy man) – but being there with a purpose… oh, that made it all alright…
As I see it, the purpose of poetry is to enrich, enlighten and entertain. Festivals offer a great opportunity to make connections with people, and attract a larger audience to the spoken word in a context far removed from the dusty poetry section in the library. The cross pollination of music, poetry, stand-up and visual art is becoming ever more common, events that embrace other art forms can only benefit from their increasing popularity. Some of these poets, like Eddie Linden, make unusual ‘groupie’ magnets, and can help inspire the next generation of poetry lovers with their passionate performances. Long may festival programmers have the imagination to embrace poets, and long may poets respond with verve, enthusiasm and pride in our aural tradition.
Melody Maker, 28 November, 1981. There’s a review from the NME here.
Clarkey and punks in Sounds, 18 June, 1977. This was Joy Division’s first gig, then called Warsaw, having dropped their original moniker Stiff Kittens.
Is there understanding south of Potters Bar?
Buzzocks/Penetration/John Cooper Clark/Stiff Kittens
SCENE. Middle-class, middle-ages (well, over 20), has-been rocker sent off to review punk gig. Can he stand it? Ummm … But can he understand it? Doubtful, doubtful. But for what it’s worth, the first act Stiff Kittens a.k.a Warsaw a.k.a whatever-they’re-called-next-week rate zero on my Mary Whitehouse odorometer. The guitarist must be some refugee from a public school, the neatest thing about the bassist is his headgear and the singer has no impact whatsoever. By the fifth number or so they can just about put together a coherent riff, but I don’t think even the most demented headbanger could get off to this. Someone tells me it’s their first gig. So let’s pass over the rest. Next, please.
And next happens to be the poet, John Cooper Clark. This isn’t a poetry column, but whoever programmed this gig deserves a medal, for Clark is a local genius, normally found at Stuffy arts gathering. Yet his lines have the same attack of Rotten or Strummer, with the advantage of a sense of metre and a polysyllabic vocabulary. Plus the fact that knows what he’s talking about. He could be a revelation for the blank generation. ‘You Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express’ is an acid and deadly put down of all that the establishment stands for: ignorance, double-standards and hypocrisy. For ‘Salome At The Ritz’ we have a floor show. ‘Salome’, dark mac and and white shades, strips off as the story progresses, revealing herself … to be a boy. The kids at the front don’t believe it. ‘Salome’ toys with a can of Heinz Spagetti. Some throws beer at his/her genitals and she wraps spaghetti around their lapels.
Then we have penetration. No, Penetration, from Durham. Lift-off. This band are killers. There’s a she-vixen of a singer with a great voice, a guitarist with a superb feel for dynamics and some totally original licks unlike anyone else you care to name. The bassist, who’s about 6’6″ and the drummer play hard, fast and never miss a lick. With comparison with say the Pistols, on their first visit to this town 9 months ago, Penetration are way, way ahead. They could knock a ferret dead at six paces. A & R men, please note.
Finally we read the Buzzcocks. They lack the technical sturm und drang of Penetration, but then this isn’t what the Buzzcocks are about. They don’t so much parodise the hoopla and hype that surrounds the New Wave, merely ignore it. Pete Shelley writes teen-anthems. With his mock-leopardskin top and sawn-off Woolies guitar, you can tell the guy has a sense of humour. Especially when halfway through the set he has to borrow some string for his guitar. ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘Fast Cars’, ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Oh! Shit’ are simple (but not dumb) vignettes drawn from life today but about the other side of life for kids everywhere. And then there’s the classic ‘Boredom’, with that classic two note solo. It’s a pity though that the limitations of their equipment don’t seem, on this evening at least, to let the subtleties shine through, for the other ‘Cocks aren’t merely a vehicle for Shelley. Collectively, Buzzcocks (the others are Garth on bass, Steve Diggle on rhythm and John Maher on drums) have real Northern Soul, y’know. and they’re streets ahead of any of the other Manchester New Wave ‘Devolution’ (sic) you may have read about elsewhere.
But is there understanding south of Potters Bar? Parlez-vous Salford?
Clarkey on the Old Grey Whistle Test, 1978.