Tag Archives: Roger McGough

Poetry International ’84

There’s a lot of talk about how mainstream poetry is nowadays, but back in the 80s we were covered in national music papers, to a predominantly non-poetry audience. It seems to me, that whilst we are in a healthy place with spoken word, we’re still reaching to niche audiences. Who’s to blame? I leave that for you to decide.
The NME, 5 May, 1984 reviews that years Poetry International.


Tom Pickard – Hero Dust

from the NME, 14th June, 1980

Hero Dust
By Tom Pickard (Alison & Busby £2.50)

When the young W H Auden said “Tomorrow for the young, the poets exploding like bombs” he can hardly have had in mind the present officially approved roster of simperers – Larkin et al – whose idea of revolt would be not returning their library book.
Perhsps the likes of Dylan, Strummer and Kwesi-Johnson might have fitted Auden’s bill better.
Rock and poetry don’t flirt like they used to. The fabber daze of the ‘underground’ movement when the muse fornicated freely with jazz, folk, blues and more, apparently came to little. Spike Hawkins got as lost as his fire brigade. Pete Brown turned inscrutable muso, Roger McGough joined the Sunday supplements, Adrian Henri got a name check on a Jam album, Brian Patten stayed stuck on his whimsical treadmill and Betjeman trounced them all on disc.
I suspect their present day equivalents just form bands and bypass the literary stage altogether.
Tom Pickard seems a lonely survivor from those times; maybe that’s why this is called Hero Dust – managing to make a living as a poet is no small feat. Pickard’s battle has always been survival, integrity, honesty. His poems celebrate those qualities in others just as they chart his personal struggle to maintain them in himself.
Pickard is a gritty son of the North East, the literary equivalent of Eric Burdon and Mensi’s respective sensibilities fused together. He writes from deep inside Albion’s suppressed soul, poems about dole offices, police calls, bookies, football terraces, boozers, sex and drugs (but only very rarely rock and roll).
Petty officialdom is a favourite target; the officious civil servant, the corrupt council, the smug mayor:
That gold chain was scraped
from the lungs of pitmen…
Your gown is a union leader
gutted and reversed

Pickard’s approach to ‘the street’ – a rock cliché, but rarely charted in contemporary British poetry – is as unconditionally anti-romantic as Cooper-Clarke’s in ‘Beasley Street’:
Hero guttersnipe
Cream of the scum
With a head like that
You should be hung.

The more personal lyrical pieces spell out Pickard’s ‘order of chance’ in less obvious ways, with ‘Dancing Under Fire’ and the title poem picking their way through the chaos of material fact-Rusted wheels/cast iron cogs.
Hero Dust
is a selection of earlier books together with newer poems though there’s nothing from Pickard’s autobiographical prose gem Guttersnipe!. Contrary to academic opinion, real poets are never wimps.

Neil Spencer


Adrian Henri at the ICA

I visited the ICA’s exhibition of Adrian Henri poems, collages, art and recordings. Glad I went, not least ‘cos it was a delight to see Miss Vera Chok as ever, but also because Henri was part of the Mersey Sound poets. His work with the band the Liverpool Scene is a precursor to a Tiswas style of poetry.
Whilst us ranters did kick against the Mersey Poets to an extent, Henri is important in that he was the writer that brought pop culture and working class life into 60s poetry in a way that worked.
The exhibition is on until March 15th 2015. Details here.


Ranting in Street Sounds

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.”

rough raw ranting

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.

swells attila

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.’

popstars punklives

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.

teething wellsbw

Third Poetry Olympics, 1982

Rant Or Be Damned!
Third Poetry Olympics
Young Vic London

NME, 11th December, 1982


‘Poetry’ as a social force is no nearer the mainstream of rock, TV, football and politics than it ever was before.

The immortal bard C S Murray after the first Poetry Olympics NME Oct 4th, 1980

And so another year, another Poetry Olympics. The Michael Horovitz circus has come to town, or to be precise, the Young Vic – a precious outpost of alien, middlebrow culture landed somewhere behind Waterloo station.
The Horowitz groupies are here once more and so too Horovitz, “a man whose name is often mentioned,” (as CSM noted two years back) “when the question ‘Who is the worst poet in Britain?’ is asked.”
It is schlock-Horovitz – resplendent in cream waistcoat, green shirt and matching voice – who directs the proceedings, interrupting the flow to announce each poet with rambling excess.
Michael Smith lopes on oblivious, tam askew, to recite some cool verse. Skinny in casual trousers, stooped and stepping lightly to gentle rhythms, he has a slight humour and a narrow outlook.
Lacking the anger and snap-rhythm of LKJ, Smith spends too much time muttering about “the oppressed and the dispossessed” (Bah! A muttering black nationalist is a poet without rhyme or reason) But, at his best, he strews pert one-liners and clever declamations and, anyway, ‘Mi Cyaan Believe It’ has a truly great chorus.
Kevin Coyne came on twice, warbling warmly and ending his final reprise with a quote from Frank Randle, that hardest of comics. Others, like Elizabeth Shepherd, whine more miserably and quote the wrong people.
It takes Benjamin Zephaniah to shake up the flaccid banality of it all, the only poet to use words (to brutal effect) – the only poet who wasn’t a poet at all but a ranter.
The Olympics’ first PERFORMER., Zephaniah was magnificent. He flails his hands and heavy locks and shakes in a fit. Crashing thru’ lively monologues and linking sweetly, he talks to his audience, pulls them in and cracks them up.
A rare force, a class-conscious internationalist black writer, Zephaniah combines a taut, percussive vocal rhythm with a wicked political intelligence. If rant always meant rock, TV, football and politics, then now it means dreadlocks as well . . .
Roger McGough, lapsed king of beat alliteration, came back in a grey Mao suit to finish off the event.
He’s some fine moments as a writer, ‘struth, but though he pulled some laughs and laughed himself he sounds too tired, too best-years-gone.
Rant took the day and ‘poetry’ is still deluding itself. When the metre runs out, it’s time to go . . .
X Moore

Second half of the Poetry Olympics saw organiser Michael ‘Thatcher is a fascist dictator’ Horowitz introduce an assorted bunch.
Before the evening started I thought poetry was compositions in verse. Something I found impossible to squeeze from my school pen. Alvaro Pena Rojas (the Chilean with the singing nose) was the first of many to prove me wrong. He frantically chanted mainly incomprehensible lines – with the occasional four-letter word giving the impression of an asthmatic pervert.
Adrian Mitchell, a camp, beat poet was very funny – reliving schoolday bullying in ‘Playground Blues’ and advising us not to bind down our limbs with mortgages – maybe poets can never afford houses.
Heathcote Williams could be the epitomy of modern middle-class poets. A jumble clad pseudo tramp, with carefully placed holes in his jeans, who likes to shock his audience with swearing and references to Jesus’ sex life. The girls at the back tittered and blushed. Give me Benny Hill or Frankie Howard anyday.
The token black for the evening was Michael Archangel. A Lenny Henry dread who was serious and the all-white audience loved him. Preaching to the converted will not help.
Richard Jobson spat out his words with passion and fire. Acting out an account of growing up in Scotland, he convincingly played the various roles of priest, father and son. Like a radio play concerning hard drinking and religion, a Jobson ‘poem’ illustrates his intention of trying to establish himself as a serious actor. Maybe he should leave the 1930’s and join us in the 1980’s. That’s definitely where Attila The Stockbroker is.
Attila is relevant and understandable, not introspective and self-indulgent. Music is introduced, as Red Ruth (flute) and Lynn (squeezebox) helped Attila with his punk/folk/reggae/rap ‘Punky Civil War’. Highlight of the event was the Pythonesque monologue ‘Albanian Football’.
A breath of fresh air to finish off a very ‘alternative’ evening . . .
Alan Marke


Poetry Olympics, 1981

NME, 5th December, 1981

Keeping The Torch Alight

Neil Spencer visits the Poetry Olympics at the Young Vic and finds out that poets need not be a race apart.

Halfway through the Poetry Olympics on a dark and blustery November night to a bored, half empty theatre, a drunken R D Laing, noted psycho-therapist and latterly literatus and Chrysalis recording artist, was relating how he once listened to his heartbeat and heard it stop for several minutes before it resumed. “I suppose I had what is usually ‘a heart attack’,” he concluded.
British poetry had a similar heart attack for the best part of a decade. Everything went quiet, at least for any public outside the dedicated literary tribe. The pulse flickered out somewhere at the start of the ’70s, around the time the ’60s school of music and poetry vanished into the Sunday supplements, the ad agencies, domestic bliss, its own delusions, or wherever the hell it was that that movement and most of its generation went.
The British muse kept alive, of course, feeding off scraps in bedsits and selling the odd slim volume in grass roots bookshops., but she was in as moribund a state as our music, then brooding in its pub-rock beer.
Just as the music needed a sharp blow to its head with a stick called Punk, only virtual open-heart surgery from the likes of John Cooper-Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson seemed to set the muse’s old mama heartbeat pumping the vital juices through the nation’s cultural bloodstream again. Recently, in spite of the ‘recession’, the clampdown, or perhaps even because of them, things have been looking up for the muse. The cross-cultural success of such as JCC and LKJ, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll; the ghost of Jim Morrison; the endurance of writers like Barry McSweeney and Ian Sinclair; the impact of the Women’s Press; the example of the East Europeans; a burst of new poetry ‘zines, many of them music-related or -inspired; fresh focus and renewed commitment from old warhorses as their nostrils whiff the sharp stench of the ’80s . . . yes, things are definitely looking up for the muse, though the pulse is still faint. . .
But soft, something stirs on the margins of old Father Thames; ’tis yon Michael Horowitz, a bard of these shores some twenty years or more, and indefatigable defender of the muse and tireless self-publicist. Also organiser and compere of the Poetry Olympics, which last year was a slightly disastrous day at Westminster Abbey and which this year is spread across a weekend at Waterloo’s Young Vic Theatre. More than 20 poets will appear, an international array in true Olympian spirit.
Horowitz is a veteran of many campaigns, and if he still talks sometimes as though the famed 1966 Albert Hall reading with Ginsberg was an all-time satori, and dresses with the supreme bad taste of an original beatnik raver, he’s astute enough to realise that the involvement of someone like Paul Weller in the poetry scene could open it right up again to ’60s proportions. He also makes sure that after each gig there’s a party where the poets and their various camp followers can get drunk and trade literary banter. So it is that one comes to see, for example, R D Laing and Elizabeth Scott dancing (rather well) to Chic’s ‘Le Freak’.

Night number one was a Saturday afternoon, right past closing time. Most of the children of Albion are disporting themselves at soccer match and department store, but the muse’s good looks are sufficiently restored to fill the Young Vic with some 300 highly assorted citizens. The theatre is presenting Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and the stage set – a magnificent royal court crested with sheaves of hay and similar symbols of harvest fertility – provides an epic backdrop for the proceedings.
The first poet echoes the imagery, for part of the growing reputation of Heathcote Williams, who shambles on in an overcoat straight from the back of Worzel Gummidge and a goofy court jester grin, comes from his masterly rendition of the sorcerer Prospero in Derek Jarman’s movie of Bill Shake’s The Tempest.
Williams writes in a variety of forms (check his brilliant stage monologue Hancock’s Last Half Hour, fans of the lad himself), and today he reads a selection from his punchy metaphysical confrontations – “Death treats world wars like a line of good coke” – and casts a warm spell.
Liz Lockhead is stocky and Scottish (from Dunfermline) and into her thirties; her poems are pithy and often quite bitter comments on the emotional blackmail and bargaining in the familial and romantic ties that bind and grind. She talks straight and makes sense.
So too does Linton ‘Kwesihead’ Johnson, who’s down here with his three kids, looking and dressing the same as he has these past years and reading much the same selection that’s been his repertoire a year or more. Enough has been written that LKJ’s crucial and prophetic works need no great elaboration here. I don’t get to ask how it feels seeing his poems come true in this year’s riots and whether new poems have sprung from recent events, but he tells me he has recently undertaken an extensive continental itinerary – “the only way I can make a living”.
After the break there’s another black British poet, James Berry, a booming forceful reader whose work speaks eloquently about racism, if without the immediacy of Johnson. He gets his best reaction with a funny poem about a young black woman’s discovery of female liberation as a reality.
Fran Landesman, an American exile these twelve years but still able to pass for a part in a Woody Allen movie, such is the strength of her accent and carriage, tries more of a cabaret approach, glass in hand, rattling off bawdy and disrespectful one and twelve liners and getting a lot of laughs and not a few nervous giggles at lines like “maybe every lonely wank goes straight to the heart of God”. At least it’s lively. She’s backed by her son Miles on acoustic guitar, who also plays in Miles Over Matter, a nouveau psychedelique unit which he tells me plays to “hordes of petrified mods with Paisley shirts on”.
Gales of righteous applause greet the arrival of JCC. He slings his poems on the floor and attacks the mike like a bouncer grabbing a drunk’s lapels. He’s two poems down before the audience has recovered it’s breath, machine-gunning the lyrics into the mike while his body skates about in the mohairs like it was hearing an old Motown classic, all on its own.
I decide Clarkie’s got a competition with himself to see just how fast he can read something, breaking lines by the lungful rather than by sense or rhyme. The only times he slows down are for the two new poems – ‘I Travel In Biscuits’ (“white collar whizzkid/button 3 mohair/I travel in biscuits/getting me nowhere”) and a brilliant dream sequence in which the Bard of Salford meets Al Capone on the astral plane – “The guardian angels work for me,” says the gangland wraith.
Clarkie’s language and explicitness means there’s some squirming on the more genteel benches; the literary establishment still haven’t quite adjusted to the idea of a poet who has a fan club though they’ve had little choice but to take notice, since JCC is probably the most popular poet in the country after Pam Ayres . . .

Night number two was a Sunday, and the theatre was half empty. Tonight’s audience is ten years and two social classes up on yesterday’s matinee, a bookish, sombre lot gathered to hear distinguished elder voices, particularly that of acclaimed Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.
Also on the bill is Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, a much-praised account of a nervous breakdown in fluid, lyrical prose. She is a plump woman in her sixties with a face through which a nine year old sometimes peers intensely through the many lines of experience.
She reads an extract from Grand Central, together with some poetry and a couple of songs on piano delivered in a quavering fragile tinkle.
Professor “Ronny” Laing has decided to go after the Charles Bukowski/Tom Waits gold medal for conspicuous consumption and is out there in bow tie and beard gesticulating with a glass and burbling some story about an Ali fight he saw on TV, as interesting as most other Glaswegian drunks. The discomfort of nearly everyone in the room isn’t helped when ol’ R.D. launches into some joke bar-room piano with Horowitz buddying along on one of his appalling kazoo renditions. At the interval two people asked for their money back and there are dark mutterings in the coffee shop.
David Gascoyne was part of the 1930s movement that produced Auden, MacNeice and the rest – his anti-bomb poem from 1947 and a recent despairing work on the age’s amorality add an historical echo to the anti-war, anti-nuclear stance, that is one of the recurrent themes during the Olympics, the other being sex.
Voznesensky looks like an East European ’50s film star, and back home, they tell me, he reads to thousands. It shows. After a translation of a poem has been read, he stands, legs astride, and booms it out in hypnotic Russian cadences.
Most of his work is non-specific, allegorical and symbolic; serious, but he does drop in one line about “We give you our best ballerinas, you give us Pepsi Cola”. He wins the gold for both endurance and book signing.

Night number three was a Monday, stormy Monday, and the Young Vic is full, mostly with Weller fans from the neat suburban end of the Jam following. Imagine what a shock they get when Celtic Bard Ronnie Waphen takes the stage and starts pumping his Gaelic bagpipes into curling grans and hypnotic reels over which he then incants his poems, two protest poems about Northern Ireland, another about brother and sister incest (Gerard Manley meets James Joyce).
There is more culture clash ahead with black American poets. Clarence Major and David Henderson, the first a trifle academic for all his street subjects, the latter real McCoy bebopping poems about street gangs in Harlem and blowing cool blues elegies to the late Lee Konitz and Jimi Hendrix, whose biography Henderson has just written. His stab at a Last Poets style rap over a jazz backing tape didn’t quite happen, but it was close enough to count.
Roger McGough is another veteran. After years of whimsical one-liners, family pop songs and suchlike, I’d rather written him off, so it was good to hear the ex-Scaffolder read so well, mixing in the old frivolity with a new intensity and anger and reaping an audience reaction that took the Silver Clarkie.
So now, ladies and gentlemen, is the star sign right? Paul Weller and friends, right? Wrong. Now it is time for Attila The Stockbroker. Attila, who also plays phased electric mandolin (though not tonight), and is from Stevenage, has gatecrashed the Olympics together with Bradford’s young skinhead poet Swells, and now the two of them, fresh from the Campaign for Jobs march in Woolwich, are planning to trounce the field, Alf Tupper style.
Attila is the first poet of the Olympics to wear highleg Martens and the first to run on stage. He goes into an agitprop squat and smiles out “the Russians are coming” and, a brilliant conceit, “the Russians are running the DHSS.”
“At first it was a rumour dismissed as a lie/But then came the evidence none could deny/A double page spread in the Sunday Express/The Russians are running the DHSS.”
Swells reads a lambast against “Tetley Bittermen” and an anti-John Lennon rant that he later claims is anti only “Corpse worship”.
Both Swells and Attila have read alongside Aiden Kant and Ann Clark, who are part of the December Child/Riot Stories collective that features Paul Weller, poet.
Clark, Kent and Weller sit at a table and take a poem each in turn, all betraying a strong debt to the ’60s poets, including McGough. The emotions are strong even if the words do run away with themselves to no place in particular. As public voices they have some way to go, though their private Muse is not in doubt. Weller seems a trifle self-conscious in his new role but reads forcefully, using a hand-mike.
Whether all this signifies a genuine regeneration of the lamentable state of our poetry is open to question, but at least the effort is being made. It was good sport, though like most sports it had its goodly share of sour and dull moments. The muse, however, will be grateful for the outing.
Further Olympics poetry heats take place the next two Wednesdays at Hampstead’s Three Horseshoes pub.