Interview: John Cooper Clarke
Legendary punk-poet Dr John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers released their covers album, This Time It’s Personal, back in October of this year. The duo are now about to embark on a UK tour, hitting Sheffield’s Leadmill on December 8th. We caught up with John during his busy rehearsal schedule to talk crooning, poetry and the digital age…
Hey John! Do you have any past experiences at The Leadmill?
Yeah I played there many, many, many, many years ago with Nico, from the Velvet Underground.
We can’t wait to hear the singing voice you’ve been hiding away all these years. What made you take up crooning?
[Laughs] I hope you’re not disappointed! It’s a good thing to do late in life, pick up crooning. Everybody in the world thinks they can sing. Let’s leave it up to the public to decide. I’ve already read one bad review, my first one ever actually, in Mojo. It wasn’t that bad; they just said that I’m no Pavarotti! I’ll take that, to be honest. I’m punching above of my weight with Pavarotti, both metaphorically and literally…
How different does it feel performing in song, and is it the melodic aspect that makes it, to quote the album title, “personal” this time?
Oh no, it’s more of a punchline, you know, “This time… it’s PERSONAL!” I came up with that title because it shows in equal parts affection and animosity. It’s inspired by movie trailers, that whole Jack Regan “The Sweeney” feel. It’s chummy and aggressive, the kinds of thing people say all the time. It’s good to have a title that’s an everyday phrase, it’s free advertising! It strikes a chord with people.
On the record there is a real emphasis on 50/60s singers and that post-war freedom of expression.
Yes, late 50s/solo performers, mostly pre-Beatles. You won’t remember this, being a young man in this world, but back then it was all about teen heartthrobs: American pop singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and everyone after that. In 1956, when Elvis left for the army, a plethora of singers came about: Elvis Costello, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson, Dion& the Belmonts. They were all trying to fill into that unfillable gap left by Elvis. It was pre-rock ‘n’ roll, such as the song ‘Jezebel’, which is on the record.
What is it about that period that you felt warranted revisiting?
This is the music Hugh and I listened to at a similar age, the music we heard on radio growing up. Not everyone had a record player, so radio was much more important then and we wanted to capture that.
In the 70s and 80s you were often the poet amongst musicians, warming up for bands like the Buzzcocks and the Fall…
Well, that’s not quite right; it wasn’t that I was a warm-up act as such. With the punk thing, it was all in the news, and my kind of poetry wasn’t doing well on the publishing side of things, so I developed a stage act. I figured if they can’t take it in the libraries, I’ll take it to the people of the cabarets, music halls and theatres! I became a nightclub performer when punk was first getting going. Being a punk in Manchester, it was Howard Devoto (of the Buzzcocks) who encouraged me to do so. He saw that I looked the part; I had the short spiky hair, mohair suits, that whole moddy look. It was unusual at that time to not have long hair, so I attracted the attention of the punks, which there weren’t many of back then. We shared the same production values, I suppose.
Was sticking to spoken word something you did out of choice? Or was it just easier to avoid the difficulties of being in a punk band?
I’m a total control freak, not a team player. When it’s only me in control, it’s either my credit or blame to take! I don’t mean to put down the guys in the band [with Hugh], the swell guys they are, but I’m used to doing it my way, to quote Dorothy Squires/Sinatra/Elvis.
How has it been, working with a band? Is there something comforting about not walking out on stage alone?
Oh, there’s nothing comfortable about this! I’ll be very upset if it turns out that I’m no good. I can sing in the studio, but I’ve not done it on stage – I’m shitting myself! But, you know, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. People always ask me after my shows, ‘did you enjoy yourself? ‘I say to them ‘No! Show business is never enjoyable, and if I wanted to enjoy it I’d be the one buying a ticket!’ Saying that, singing is one of the great pleasures in my life. I’ve never been into instrumental music but I’ve always been into singers, in all kinds of music.
Who other than Hugh is in the band?
There’s Windsor McGilvray on drums, Patrick Hughes on bass, Phil Andrews’s monkeys, and of course Hugh’s on guitar. Hugh and Phil found the rest of the band; I don’t know that many musicians.
Your solo shows often cross the boundary between performance poetry and stand-up comedy…
Yeah, I find jokes, being about delivery and timing, very much occupy the same spaces poetry.
Is this something that will continue now that you’re doing shows with a band?
These shows with H and the guys, they’ve got nothing to do with my normal act, I see it as something totally different. I mean, jokes don’t impinge in any way, and I’m a friendly guy so I’ll still be saying good evening and good night but I won’t be telling jokes in the same way, no. If you’re there for laughs and poems, wait a few months and I’ll be doing that stuff again. There’s no meeting between the two, but hopefully it’ll be entertaining in its own way. I want to give the singing my full attention, all of my devotion. A song is a thing in its entirety; it won’t be anything like my normal show, nothing like it.
Bob Dylan has recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Some people have said that it’s wrong to reduce Dylan’s songs to poetry and that it negates them in some way. Do you think it’s possible to appreciate song lyrics just as poetry?
Yes, occasionally a song can achieve poetic status. Ernest Hemingway once said that “all sport aspires to boxing” – it’s one man against another, equally matched. I would say that all arts aspire to poetry, be it a play; a movie; a record or a painting. Art has to have that lasting value, that haunting quality, or to use the usual adjective, that poetic quality. I mean a song is a musical thing but it has to have lyrics. The aim is to achieve poetic status, across the genres. Dylan once said the greatest living poet is Smokey Robinson, a comment that was often received as a joke by the po-faced hippy crowd but one I took very seriously. I’m not surprised Dylan’s got the prize; he got so many people into poetry! Unlike Andrew Motion, for example. It’s inspiration from unexpected places, and I’m right behind that.
Dylan often speaks rather than sings anyway!
Exactly. He’s the king of the protest world, the talking blues. Like ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, it’s part of his canon.
It’s like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’; he’s said to have written over 80 verses for that song.
Leonard Cohen, he understood that a poem is never finished; merely abandoned. You can always find a better way of saying it down the line. Anytime I read my stuff, I realise I could do it again and improve on it. But you’ve got to move on sometimes, otherwise your repertoire would be one continuous poem – and who’d buy a ticket to see that! But yes, very sad about Leonard Cohen.
You’re often called the “punk poet laureate”. If you were offered the job by her Majesty, would you accept?
The job of the Laureate is to commemorate Royal events. I’ve got nothing against the Queen, but I’ve always been a Republican. In the interest of chivalry, why give it to someone who couldn’t do the job right. How about Pam Ayres instead? She’d do great job!
I first came across you aged 15, when I saw your performance of ‘Evidently Chickentown’ in the Ian Curtis biopic Control. You played the part yourself, despite the scene being set nearly 30years prior. It really gave the poem a new poignancy.
It took all my acting ability that one. [Laughs] I couldn’t have done that if I’d gone bald! I look a lot younger now than I did then!
Do you think ‘Chickentown’ is as relevant today as it was then?
There’s always gonna be bad neighbourhoods. Areas get done up, others fall into disrepair; the slums of yesteryear become the May fairs of tomorrow. That poem’s done well for me; they actually used it at the end of the TV show The Sopranos. It was TV’s finest hour, after the Simpsons. I’m a mega Simpsons fan; I could watch that show for the rest of my life.
What have you got planned for 2017?
Oh plenty, I’ve got a lot of work on.
I hope so… I ain’t gonna retire from poetry though, that’s my main squeeze. These days you don’t have to go to a publishing company to do a book. The best way to hear poetry is live – it doesn’t belong in a book to be ruminated over.
I suppose the same goes for punk bands; you don’t need to be signed these days to have your message heard.
Exactly, it’s far more punk now than it was then! Back then you had to pay for studio time and selling records was the only way of making any money. These days it’s the other way round: nobody buys the records anymore!
Maybe you should do an audiobook?
Well that’s what records are for! There’s so many ways to show your work to the public, but I’m not that au-fait with the digital age. I’m an old fashioned print media and records kind of guy. It’s like with the internet, everyone seems to be saying that the internet is a substitute for newspapers, ‘cos you get all shades of opinion. But that’s always been available; just go in a bookie or a coffee bar and you get opinions from everyone! Opinions are like arseholes – everybody’s got one. Newspapers fulfil criteria, and if they get it wrong, you can sue ‘em! It’s like that Leveson enquiry. Why try to censor the newspapers when they’re liable, why not shut down the internet! It’s the first time in 300 years someone’s tried to curb the free press. Last time it happened the MPs were manhandled out of their vehicles outside parliament. It’s like Thomas Jefferson said: “It’s better to have a free press and no government than a government and no free press.”
Some wise words to end on there, John. Thanks for your time!
It’s been a pleasure, mate. Make sure you say something nice about the record!
It’s an interview not a review, don’t worry!
I pity the fool who hasn’t got a copy! You can quote me on that.
- 5 of JCC’s best lines:You never see a nipple in the Daily Express: “This paper’s boring, mindless and mean. Full of pornography, the kind that’s clean. Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine again and again and again and again.”TWAT: “You’re like a dose of scabies; I’ve got you under my skin. You make life a fairy tale … Grimm!”
I Wanna Be Yours: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust. I wanna be your Ford Cortina, I will never rust.”
I Don’t Wanna Be Nice: “No we never met before, I’m very happy to say. Far from perfect strangers, I’d like to keep it that way.”
I Mustn’t Go Down to the Sea Again: “A string of pearls from the bingo bar, for a girl who looks like Ringo Starr. She’s mad about married men; I mustn’t go down to the sea again.