John Cooper Clarke back with new material for Festival
Deadpan northerner sharper than ever for Edinburgh Fringe run
This article is from 2010.
Just a few years shy of pensionable age, deadpan northerner John Cooper Clarke shows very little sign of slowing up. Neil Cooper talks to the Salford legend about keeping poetry alive
On paper, John Cooper Clarke shouldn’t work. The nasal twang and dulcet tones of the Salford stick insect, who more or less invented the spoken-word scene during punk’s first flush, will forever be associated with his own heroic recitations of his finest works. On the page alone, the machine-gun rhyming couplets and social-realist surrealism of ‘Beasley Street’ and ‘Evidently Chickentown’ simply shouldn’t cut it. Yet Cooper Clarke made the grade onto the GCSE curriculum years ago.
One of those to graduate from the school of Cooper Clarke lyricism was Arctic Monkeys vocalist Alex Turner, whose own meat-and-two-veg vignettes were laced with similar northern English observations. Turner has even acknowledged that debt by printing his mentor’s words on the band’s record sleeves. Those wishing a lesson first-hand, however, should attend the week-long late-night residency that sees Cooper Clarke play mein host for his first Edinburgh Festival Fringe dates since the mid-1990s.
Now, as then, Cooper Clarke’s act falls somewhere between a chicken-in-a-basket club turn and discursive Dadaist cabaret. Which, for someone who has supported Joy Division, The Fall and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, soundtracked both a Sugar Puffs ad and an episode of The Sopranos, and whose lost years left him acquiring a heroin habit alongside ex-Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, is probably how it should be. He may be billed as comedy, but Cooper Clarke is a serious proposition.
‘I suppose I do straddle a few planks,’ drawls the 61-year-old, his voice never more than a few seconds away from a guffaw. ‘I fall into several different camps, just to mix my metaphors. But I can live with the comedy tag. There’s a low attention span for serious poetry, especially in rock’n’ roll joints. Which is only fair. So when selecting stuff for a live situation, I mainly go for humorous stuff.’
Such was the case during Cooper Clarke’s fertile early years across six albums produced by the late Martin Hannett and a band of Mancunian luminaries, including 1980’s classic ‘Snap, Crackle and Bop’, and a sole paperback collection, Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt. Even here, however, beneath the one-liners was an astute observer of Thatcher’s Britain. ‘Beasley Street’, Cooper Clarke’s withering portrait of inner-city slums, was compared to TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. As if to puncture any establishment acceptance, he insists, ‘I think what they actually said was that compared to TS Eliot, it’s shit.’
Modesty aside, Cooper Clarke has done as much to take poetry outside straight-up literary circles as the pop poets of the 1960s. ‘People try and make a division between spoken poetry and the written word. But if poetry doesn’t sound any good, it’s shit.’ Cooper Clarke’s own exposure to the form came through what he calls, ‘the usual stuff. “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack-Room Ballads”. We had a teacher who was like Ernest Hemingway. He was this rugged outdoor type with a glass eye who every summer holiday would acquire these life-threatening injuries after falling down Snowdonia or something. But he had this sentimental, romantic attachment to Victorian poetry, which he used to read out loud. So it was all down to Mr Malone, really. It was like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but Salford style. They rammed it down our throats. People keep saying you should make poetry accessible, but I say ram it down their throats. Look at Shakespeare: you grow into it.’
Now clean and living in Colchester with his wife and teenage daughter, Cooper Clarke is sharper than ever. He’s updated ‘Beasley Street’ for the urban regeneration age with ‘Beasley Boulevard’, and has ‘loads’ of new material. ‘There’s been a bit of a spurt of late,’ he chuckles. ‘I’m checking my biological clock before it’s too late.’
With this in mind, another book or album is well overdue. Cooper Clarke blames himself. ‘When I look back at my book, compared to everyone else’s it’s like a fuckin’ encyclopaedia. If you look at all those Faber books, they’re so slim you could slip ‘em under the door. And there’s me,’ he snickers, ever the showbiz pro, ‘always thinking of the customer.’
John Cooper Clarke, Udderbelly’s Pasture, Bristo Square, 08445 482 252, 13–19 Aug, 11.30pm, £12.50–£15 (£11.50–£13.50).