Interview: John Cooper Clarke on how poetry and music work

Interview: John Cooper Clarke

The punk poet on Arctic Monkeys, the return of spoken word and when not to combine poetry and music

My introduction to John Cooper Clarke came via Neil Innes, who performed his haiku: 'Expressing yourself / in seventeen syllables / is very diffic-' at a show back in 2004. Parallels can be drawn between the two men. Physically, sure, Innes is the antidote to Clarke's tall streak of punkish skinny, but they both treat language similarly, ripping it apart and reassembling it in jarring and more lovely way.

They are also two artists who, it seems, haven't quite reached the level of stereotypical recognition they deserve. Broaching this with Clarke brings to mind, in typical JCC style, a hazy memory:

He had me on his show years ago. Did I do the haiku on his show? His show went out from BBC Bristol, a sort of weekly sketch show, I guess, in his inimitable style. He would have guests on here and there. Yeah, he got me on doing 'Chickentown' in a shaving mirror.

I feel like you should both be better known than you actually are.

Well thanks a lot, I take your point. Me too. I wish. But, you know, maybe it's a good thing. I'd like to be rich, but without all the downside of fame. I suppose it's pretty good to lead a fairly normal life if you're a writer or something. Must have its plusses, eh?

But Neil is really good, I think. He's great at writing Beatles songs. Whenever he writes a Beatles-style song, it sounds exactly like the Beatles. I'm sure he's got a great many skills. I've met him a few times. We've got a mutual friend in Ronnie Golden and John Dowie. They see a lot of each other those people - they get out more than I do.

Do you think, actually, that you've moved on from having this cult reputation now that you've been working with Plan B and Arctic Monkeys?

Yeah, it's pretty mainstream actually, my influence at the minute. It's quite wide and varied, innit? For instance, you don't need me to point out that I've sort of been slightly involved in two number one albums.

Well, there you go. Do you think you have more of a recognisable name these days?

I think Alex and Ben and the Arctic Monkeys - that generation of people - did my stuff at school at GCSE level, so I think that did me a lot of good. Now my fanbase is 16-60 - that is literally my catchment area. It's the dream audience. But I think it's just because I'm writing more, and if you go to one of my shows it's not an exercise in nostalgia - all my stuff's new. I'll be getting a book out of completely new stuff - there's gonna be a DVD of one of my gigs in the shops before Christmas, by November hopefully, so there's a lot of product to push out. You know, I just work all the time, all over the world, and my profile's really shot up, even since the last time I was talking to you.

Of course, because the Arctic Monkeys album came out.

He's done a fabulous job on that. 'I Wanna be Yours' was a great one for him to have covered. I'm so glad he covered that one because it is the wedding favourite. The number of people who've said to me that that was recited at their wedding is unbelievable. And the great thing is it's a really difficult thing to turn a poem into a song. They're very different things, a poem and a song, you wouldn't think they would be, but they are. With a poem, all the music is in the poetry. It has been done a couple of times - the Frank Sinatra version of Rudyard Kipling's 'On the Road to Mandalay', so it can be done - but very rarely does it work. However, that's the skill of Alex Turner there, he's turned it into a song and he sings it real nice.

It feels like a lot more of an emotional interpretation

Well it's a tender poem, a tender love poem and he treats it accordingly. But the whole album is fantastic, I've gotta tell you. It's a fabulous album, innit? Every one a winner baby, that's for sure.

How did it come about, this work with Arctic Monkeys?

I knew them when they had nothing. I met them a week before they went mega in their home town of Sheffield. They were at one of my shows at the Boardwalk. So we sort of hit it off. He knew about my stuff, so I made a point of finding out what they were like after meeting them socially and they're sensational. I'm not surprised they went mega. They tick all the boxes and then some. They're well turned out. Every album different from the last. They're not formulaic. They're a proper group, you know, like the Beatles were - a bunch of pals who write their own stuff, make it up on the hoof. And they're very sophisticated songs.

Are they the kind of band you listen to these days?

Me, I listen to all kinds of music, really. On a daily basis I would say I listen to Elvis, Frank, the big hitters. Phil Spector's greatest hits. The Beach Boys. You know, Van Morrison, the usual suspects. Chet Baker. Ella Fitzgerald. These are people who are continually on my turntable, Kirstyn. The big hitters. Time-honoured. Nat King Cole. Peggy Lee. Elvis. The Stones. The Alabama Three, they're good, I like them. Who else? Chas & Dave. Fantastic men. I think they've got a skiffle album out.

I think they're on tour at the moment.

Are they on tour now? They're back together, you know? They keep retiring and coming back. Dave Peacock. He's a great artist, Dave Peacock. He paints up them gypsy caravans. I think he's got a bit of the pikey in him. He's sort of the main guy for that. He does barges. You know the artwork you get on barges and gypsy caravans. He's a specialist. When he's not playing with Chas Hodges that's what he's doing. Dynamite. A fabulous painter. So they're terrific, them. Did you see them on Jools Holland the other night? They're fantastic. I wouldn't like to go on after them.

Going back to Alex Turner's version of 'I Wanna Be Yours'. You've had musical backing to your work before, from the Invisible Girls. Would you do that again?

Nah. I think seven times out of ten it was a mistake. By the law of averages a couple of them'll be alright, but I think most of the time the poetry was better off on its own. It comes round every so often, I'll see myself on The Old Grey Whistle Test. That bit when I'm on it with that fucking lumbering bunch of fucking musos behind me and I look like I'm performing with one foot glued to the floor. I can see myself holding back all the dynamics of the poem, just to accommodate their fucking skills on their fretboard. Do you know what I mean? They were top dollar musicians, but my poetry has fucking wings, man. It has fucking wings. But as soon as I've got to fit in with some drummer's idea of the way it ought to go, it just completely rips the guts out of it for me. It doesn't have any dynamic. It's just me fitting in with a bunch of musicians.

Like I say, occasionally it worked out, but there's no reason why poetry and music should go together and I'll tell you what: when poetry and music go together it's called a song. If it's a poem, leave it alone. It's got its own music. I believe that if a poem doesn't sound any good, it's cos it isn't any good. The main thing a poem ought to be is musical. It should be rhythmic. You should hear it as a musical piece in your head as you're writing it. You should always read it aloud. Always, always, always read poetry aloud. Otherwise how do you know if it's any good? Shakespeare, he was no mug. He wrote for actors to put voice to. I feel really strongly about this, because it's always a false distinction made by poets who aren't very good at reciting their own stuff. Now, I understand the injustice of this. Just because you can write poetry that sounds fabulous, you might not be very good at reciting it. A case in point: there is recorded evidence on a wax cylinder of Oscar Wilde reciting 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', and you know what? Terrible. If you'd have heard it before you read it you'd've thought 'What the hell is this?' Now that's intrinsically unjust because it's possible, of course, to write the most beautiful poetry, as that proves, but be the last person in the world who should deliver it. In which case - all is not lost! - employ one of our many idling actors. Do you know what I'm saying? Make it a bit of a team effort. But whatever. Poetry - and I'm not often hard and fast about anything - but poetry definitely is an audio thing. Aural - a-u-r-a-l. I think so. It's music. So adding music to it is over-egging the pudding in most cases, isn't it? But that's not to say that poetry can't exist in a perfectly everyday pop song. You might say that it's gotta have that. And what that is, in terms of a pop song, is a different dynamic altogether. But one line will do, won't it? One line per pop song will turn it into a smash hit. Having said that, no record was ever a hit because of the lyrics alone. In fact, we're willing to overlook quite banal lyrics in favour of the overall musical assault.

But there's funny and then there's rock'n'roll funny. And rock'n'roll funny is a certain type of funny, isn't it? Like Chuck Berry funny. His lyrics are funny. Leiber and Stoller. All these other kinds of slightly off-beat focus on something that is current. It's kind of effortless. And you wouldn't describe them as comedy records, you would describe them as rock'n'roll. These are the people who shoe-horn political ideas into popular music. The best example I can think of really is American Tin Pan Alley. Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Ellie Greenwich. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. People like that. Leiber and Stoller. Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. They're all classically trained musicians, but applying their rarified talents to everyday life. Elevating teenage anxiety to an epic, operatic level. Amazing to be able to do that. Bacharach and David. You can't imagine the words without the music and vice versa. It's like one hand washes the other. Bottom line is: there's no reason at all. I was surprised I was ever talked into it.

Why do you think you were?

I think it was presented to me as: if you want to make more money you'll have to put them to music. It was probably some sort of hair-brained business idea that got out of hand [laughs a lot].

Your tour support is Mike Garry and Luke Wright.

Yeah, great. Something for everyone, this.

What attracted you to them?

I'd seen them perform and I'd known them socially. Especially Luke. Luke's from Essex where I live now. So I'd known him since he was at sixth form college and just getting started. I probably said 'well, good luck to you son.' Which he took to be encouragement. [laughs a lot]. But then about five years ago he had a poetry boy band called Aisle 16. They were all these babe magnets, there was about half a dozen of them, all doing topic-led poetry. They were great. So he comes from a very competitive world, almost like the world of rap where there's a lot of competition there. I was fortunate enough never to have any. It's a lot tougher for poets now because there are so many more of them about. Loads of fabulous ones.

It's been noticeable during the Fringe in recent years - there never used to be a spoken word section in the programme and now there is.

I invented that. It's not up for question. I've got to take the blame for that.

Who else do you recommend?

Tim Wells. I'm going to forget somebody. Francesca Beard. Kate Tempest. Phill Jupitus, Paul Birtil, Chas Smash, Craig Charles - still writing even though he's busy on the Street. Still knocking them out. Martin Newell. If I've missed anybody out, I'm sorry.

You seem to be performing a lot these days.

Oh yeah, all the time. In fact, I've got to go to the Q Awards on Sunday [where he was named their first Poet Laureate]. They've invented an award for me. I'm Doctor John Cooper Clarke now, by the way. Perhaps my cosmetic surgery business can become a reality. Be afraid, be very afraid.

And that was this year?

Umm [shouts to wife] When did it happen, dear? That doctor shit? July.

How do you feel about it all?

Great. I've got my diploma up in the front room.

What do you do when you're not touring?

Nothing. [laughs] Actually, what I'm doing - I'm boning up on my specialist subject. I don't know if I'm allowed to say it. I'm going on Celebrity Mastermind.

What's your specialist subject?

Well now, I don't know if I can tell you. [shouts to wife] Can I tell 'em, or...? Yeah, sod it. The films of Elvis.

How do you think you'll get on?

Alright. I've seen them all. But I've got to bone up on them now. Some of them I haven't seen for a long time. But it's no effort watching an Elvis movie. Always a pleasure. It's all the little things, isn't it, like what was his name in that one. But they'll only mention his name once in the whole film. I know most of them, but not all. And it's not like it appears in the credits at the end.

Will there be a lot of new work in your new show?

Yeah, loads of new shit. If you've got any special favourites, call out for them and I'll see what I can do.

Are there any you're looking forward to getting out there?

I'll give you some titles: 'Pleb Squad'. 'Gimmick World: It's a World of Gimmicks'. 'Deco Beach'. 'Happiness Index Update'. 'Luckiest Guy Alive'. 'Radiant City'. 'Living the Dream'. 'Pity the Plight of Young Fellows' - which is featured in the film 'Ill Manors'. 'Solid Gold Geezer'. 'Nautically-Themed Drinks Evening Blues'. 'Convenience Store of the Year'. 'Avocado Vignette'. 'One Man Gang'. 'Get Back on Drugs, You Fat Fuck'. 'Mr Hyde and Mr Hyde'. 'Smooth Operetta'. 'The Man Who Didn't Love Elvis'. 'Idiots Journal'. 'Death of a Gentleman Farmer'. 'Crossing the Floor'. Shall I stop now? There's millions of them. All new ones. 'I Never Heard a Liberal Admit to Being Wrong'. And more besides that. That's just one bookful.

Do you have a favourite?

My favourites at the moment are 'Gimmick World: It's a World of Gimmicks' and 'Pity the Plight of Young Fellows'.

Why is that?

I like the epic sweep. They're both quite long. So they change speed quite a bit here and there. So I like to do them ones. 'Deco Beach', also, I'm proud of that.

Is there anything else you want to say?

Just book early.

Dr John Cooper Clarke

The legendary Mancunian punk poet, who is a spiritual godfather to the likes of Mike Skinner and Plan B hauls his insatiable laconic wit on tour.

Alexandra Palace, London N22

Sun 24 Nov

£39.75–£50.75 (£21.87) / 020 8365 2121

Alexandra Palace Theatre, London N22

Sun 24 Nov

£35–£45 / 0208 365 2121

Assembly Hall, Worthing

Sat 28 Sep

£26.95 / 01903 206206

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