John Cooper Clarke

This is a music review website, but there is no singing or instruments in this act! (Well, actually he did sing an impersonation of 1960s beat group Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders). However, John Cooper Clarke, ‘punk poet’ and ‘Bard of Salford’ is really as much a part of the music scene as he is part of the world of literature. One of his poems (‘I Wanna Be Yours’) is apparently in the school English syllabus and is often read out at weddings, but he came to fame during the punk days of the 1970s when he opened for many bands of the time, including the Sex Pistols, The Fall and Joy Division (he even appears as a cameo of his younger self in the film about Joy Division, ‘Control’). A lot of his records (that is CDs and downloads to you younger folk) had a backing band, but tonight he is alone on stage with only his own voice, a scruffy bag containing books of handwritten poems and what appears to be mineral water.

I’ve never seen him live before, but I’m familiar with his records, which are very much in-your-face punk poetry, but full of wit and observation, as well as the odd rude word. Towards the end of his set he performs (I wouldn’t describe it as reading) the classic ‘Evidently Chickentown’, where just about every line contains the F-word. He jokes that playing it on the radio had the ‘bleep-out’ engineers suing him for repetitive strain injury! But JCC doesn’t need rude words to make an impact, he has immense wit and presence that carries the show for 90 plus minutes with no break – and he grips your attention for the whole time. I don’t know what he is on, but we could all do with some of it.

John Cooper Clarke

JCC is probably the missing-link between the beat poets of the 1960s (like Roger McGough) and today’s stream of consciousness stand-ups, like Bill Bailey and Eddie Izzard, and the new ‘performance poets’ (sorry to categorise them!) like Simon Armitage and Ian McMillan. It is largely down to him that poetry is now ‘rock and roll’. He seems to be enjoying a renaissance at the moment – for example, being the stand-in ‘holiday-cover’ DJ for Jarvis Cocker on his Radio 6 programme, as well as being interviewed and featured on a lot of recent TV. He has reached the point, like many of his famous contemporaries of a similar age, of being recognised as a ‘national treasure’ (a cliché I know, but I can’t think of another term).

His appearance is immediately striking and familiar. The birds-nest hair style, often compared to Bob Dylan ‘Blonde on Blond’ era…. but Bob with access to hair gel. His tall, fragile and skinny frame ambles on stage, swaying about, dressed in a very tight suit and drainpipe trousers. He could really have been a successful stand-up comic if he wished, he had me in stitches at times and I don’t usually laugh out-loud at stand-ups. Basically his act is a few poems, linked by jokes and banter (like Paul Merton he is very observational, seems to see strange connections everywhere and is constantly going off on tangents).

John Cooper Clarke

There are some great jokes and one-liners. If you shot a peasant, he asks, would you get off the charge on the grounds of dyslexia? One of the benefits of Alzheimer’s disease, he tells us, is that you can hide your own Easter eggs. The humour can be pretty black, as well as satirical. He has a dig at Prince Charles’s and other rich folk’s concern for the environment – ‘I’d worry about the environment if I owned most of it’, he informs us. He has nostalgia for five minutes ago – things were great then. He also discusses his love life and the failure of his past marriages: a wedding is like a funeral where you smell your own flowers.

A theme that runs for a while tonight is limericks. He talks of bringing out a book of limericks for the under-11s and then proceeds to tell us the ones that won’t be going in there! One of his first is ‘Lydia, Girl With An Itch’, which goes something like ‘Lydia, Lydia, Get rid of your Chlamydia, Only an idiot would consider yuh’. However, it is difficult to write a limerick about ‘Limerick’, the town, as nothing rhymes with it, trust me I am a professional and have looked into it, he assures us.

John Cooper Clarke

The poems, mostly delivered at great speed, take a while to come through all the jokes and banter, but they eventually arrive. From 1950s Sci-fi we have ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ (‘don’t go peeping up her skirt!’). We have the approach of old age (‘Things are going to get worse (nurse)’), ‘Egghead’ (‘Alan Ford PhD, Took my Baby, Away from me’), and then one of the best, ‘Bongo’s Trousers’. ‘Bongo’s Trousers’ is about dear old Bono of U2, who has his Stetson hat, designer sunglasses and leather trousers stolen and has to dress instead in a lounge suit, but the problem is that then no one (including guitarist ‘The Hedge’) recognises him. ‘Who stole Bongo’s trousers and his Stetson hat, He can’t save the planet dressed like that’.

At the end, we are treated to ‘Beasley Street’, one of his real classics about a real no-hoper street, probably located in a run-down area of Salford or equivalent. He performs the original at breakneck speed and without the aid of notes. You get the impression he really wants you to hear the new stuff, not the old, because he can’t wait to get through it. However, then comes the knockout. He follows it up with the revamped 2011 version, ‘Beasley Boulevard’. In the new version, Beasley Street has been transformed into Beasley Boulevard, gentrified and regenerated with some money from the government ‘Urban Splash’ programme!

John Cooper Clarke

He briefly comes back on for an encore and does a new poem, ‘I’ve Fallen in Love with My Wife’, more quirky and observational than funny, and then he is gone. A truly memorable and fabulous evening! However, I do wonder what he looks like when he is not on stage and he walks down the street?

If you haven’t heard him before, check out his stuff, or better still see him live. A good intro is the CD ‘John Cooper Clarke, ‘The Very Best Of’. There are also quite a few live clips on You-Tube which are worth seeking-out.

John Cooper Clarke Photos and Review by John Bentley

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