The genius that is John Cooper Clarke recently played one of his idiosyncratic & frankly brilliant sets down in Birmingham’s Town Hall. Macthehack was there for Louder Than War & here’s his report of how the evening unfolded.
Hair. Shades. Legs. Boots.
The sheer physical impact of John Cooper Clarkeâs entrance to a bare stage cannot be overstated. Like a Gerald Scarfe caricature of a young Bob Dylan, Johnny Clarke arrives in a flurry of A4 notepads.
He may be touring in support of National Poetry Month and his work is studied at universities these days, but the latter day John Cooper Clarke is as much a raconteur as a performance poet, as much a stand-up comedian as a punk rocker and yet, MC Johnny Green still introduces him as the ârock ânâ roll poet…â
The Bard of Salford is of course bordering on being a national institution (is that one up or one down from national treasure? Like Dukeâs and Viscountsâ Iâm a bit shaky on the whole business, sorry).
In that immortal phrase, John Cooper Clarke is unwell. Not in the Jeffery Barnard, too pissed to type a newspaper column sense. Itâs just he has a cold. And when youâre a one man act and your voice is all you have, thatâs going to cramp your style. Unfortunately it does. Although a comfortably numb audience which was about four[fifths college lecturers to one-fifth Arctic Monkeys fans, hardly gave John anything to feed off â in fact it felt like sitting in a Volvo drivers convention at times.
The set-ups, surrealist shaggy dog stories and existential jokes â
âWhy is there only one monopolies commission?â
âWhat does cheese say when itâs having a photo taken?â
âWhat does occasional furniture do the rest of the time?â
â pepper the set, spacing out the long motormouth poems that made Clarkeâs name. Which is fair enough, even at full match fitness, nobody can expect the quick fire almost Ramones-esque delivery of poem after poem in a race to the end of the set â in some cases, back in the day, it was as much a practical consideration; to see if he could get there before being bottled off, as much as a conscious stylistic decision.
Things are a bit more civilised now and Clarke takes his time to build up a head of steam. âHire Carâ and âHome Honey, Iâm Highâ are early set highlights before a diversion that takes us from Cyril Lord furniture, to Jon Lord, to Deep Purple to Ian Gillan sings Toyah. All by way of the fact that one of Johnâs âget rich quickâ schemes was to become the voice of Dominoâs pizzas at some time early in the 2000s.
Look, it worked the way he told it â youâll just have to take my word for it, OK?
After the marvellous âWhen Animals Attack Magiciansâ (which I expect to see on Channel 5 in the very near future), we get the first set piece of the night, one of the poems that Clarke knows by heart and doesnât need a notebook for âBeasley Streetâ. Disappointingly though itâs impossible to discern an updating of the âKeith Joseph smiles, and a baby diesâ line, perhaps Jeremy Hunt just doesnât scan, or maybe it got lost in the beyond words blur of the JJC delivery at full tilt – like Peter OâSullivan if heâd been a Ramones fan.
But the linking of a self-satisfied Health Minister and the death of an abandoned baby still has a powerful resonance today. How ironic then that just days before Cameronâs NewCons were gigging just along the road…
Of course Beasley Street is not what it was and Clarke skilfully brings us up to date on the Urban Splash led regeneration with âBeasley Boulevardâ. Not quite as biting as its predecessor, or is it just something thatâs harder to criticise, for all the clichÃ©s of the Ikea generation.
At times the line between Clarkeâs actual poems and his one liners is a thin one. Micro-poems like âNecrophilliaâ are a case in point. You can see where itâs going from the opening line âFed up with foreplay…?â
âEggheadâ â about JCCâs supposed alter ego, (he reckons itâs him if he gets up before 2pm), the almost nice Alan Ford PhD â re-establishes the strong musical link in some of Clarkeâs best work. The chorus refrain of âAlan Ford PhD, took my baby away from meâ is pure Ramones â you can almost see Clarke singing it in his head.
Continuing the Ramones theme Clarke even manages an entertaining plug for his merchandise, which includes a design based on the famous Ramones seal of office; âand you look at it and you see Ramones, Clarke, Ramones, Clarke, Ramones, Clarke…â
This call and response goes one for probably no more than 30 â 45 seconds. Stretch it much further and he could have a minimalist two word routine, not dissimilar to Eddie Izzardâs Prince Philipâs dead â no heâs alive â dead â alive routine.
âLiving A Dreamâ is prefaced by a long introduction that includes the claim that Clarkeâs own dreams are haunted by Ted Nugent. Hopefully, that and the bedwetting sequence were both done for comedic effect. Equally unpleasant to think about though!
And so we get to the one Clarke acknowledges he âhas to doâ gleefully telling us that its inclusion in the penultimate episode of The Sopranos is his career high, before launching into a bad impersonation of Tony Soprano and telling us all âIâm a made guyâ.
He also does the one about BBC censors suing for RSI after itâs only airing on broadcast television, which must have been in the set almost since the poem was written. But itâs âEvidently Chickentownâ, the man can do no wrong.
The delivery of âEvidently Chickentownâ is classic Clarke, ramming his monosyllabic delivery together to create almost a constant drone, a sound beyond words. No gaps, no light, no shade. Just a lot of âfuckingâ really and it remains a work of true genius.
All words by macthehack. You can read more from him on LTW here.