John Cooper Clarke is, arguably, the most famous living British poet, an icon of the punk era, an inspiration to Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, and a man with a hairstyle worth building a cult around.
Although Clarke is, especially, famous for the solo performances of his clever, confrontational poetry, the Mancunian, also enjoyed a high reputable musical career. It has left almost as big of a dent as his spoken-word material. Here’s how the punk-poet became an unlikely new-wave star.
Early life and life as a poet
John Cooper Clarke has always been a man capable of making a strong first impression. His wit, charisma, and a look that can best be described as “limey Dylan”, made him an instant, if unlikely star, in Great Britain.
But, how does one pick a career as a poet during the 1970s? Clarke had his mindset on the profession from an early age. His father, an electrical engineer, sensed that such desires would not be without hurdles and suggested that his son rethink his aspirations.
By the mid 1970s, Clarke had set out to prove his family wrong and moonlighted as a performer. He had begun performing poetry, sometimes accompanied by a folk group called the Ferrets.
By the time that punk-rock had swept over the U.K., the public had turned more accepting of performers different from average rock n’ roll musicians. Clarke started performing his poems without accompaniment, spitting out the words as if in a benzedrine fever dream and interjecting them with plenty of humor.
Becoming the bard of the punk-rock world
It may have seemed like a far shot, but by 1977 Clarke was one of the faces of the punk-rock movement. Several well-known groups like the Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols asked him to open for them. The rock community and journalists like Nick Kent loved him. They viewed him as, genuinely, one of the more exciting acts that British stages had to offer.
Martin Hannett, who along with Tony Wilson had founded Factory Records, decided to sign Clarke to his indie label, Rabid. The label then released the Innocents EP. The sharped-witted Bob Dylan-lookalike later produced his debut album Où est la Maison de Fromage? It was a strange and exciting mixture of poetry, comedy routines, and words recited over minimalist music backing. John Cooper Clarke’s biography seem destined to also include the role of rockstar.
Against most odds, like Dylan had managed in the U.S. a decade earlier, Clarke made modern poetry a mainstream concern for the British public. The debut LP included such standout pieces as Majorca, Ten years in an open neck shirt, and (I Married A) Monster from Outer Space.
Diguise in love
The interest in Cooper Clarke’s brand of comedic, British beatnik poetry could have been a passing fad. Instead, the artist’s charisma, the social commentary included in his work, as well as a favorable period that encouraged unconventional performers, made Clarke into a bonafide rock phenomenon whose fame would not dissipate quickly.
By 1978, he had been signed to a major record label deal with Epic Records, a division of Sony. The album made for them was, once again, produced by Martin Hannett. The resulting Disguise in love, a record that found Clarke critiquing British society as fiercely, and memorably, but, perhaps, even more amusingly than Ray Davies, John Lennon, or John Lydon had done.
This time, Clarke was more comfortable with his verbal affectation, serving clever, humorous accounts of life in Britain. He was also a frontman now of The Invisible Girls, a group featuring guitarist Bill Nelson. They would handle the backing on almost all of Clarke’s records. I Don’t Want to Be Nice, (I’ve Got a Brand New) Tracksuit and Psycle Sluts earned Clarke plenty of fans and served as a catalyst for other modern, performing poets and comedians to build au audience.
Snap, crackle & bop
Punk-rock would create unlikely stars of a number of talented, wide-eyed kids from Britain. Just as the scene had appeared though, it was gone. Many of those that had found fortune and fame, also found an endless amount of trouble attached to these.
Peril would come calling for JCC too, but his musical career managed to outlive punk-rock. In 1980, he released Snap, crackle & bop. The method of performing was similar. The musical backing though owed more to new-wave than punk. This helped Clarke gain further acceptance, transitioning seamlessly and continuing to gain mainstream recognition.
The album is, perhaps, the pinnacle of Clarke’s musical achievement. Here, he sounds even more relaxed, even taking a step closer to actual singing. The album is also noteworthy for including the poet’s most famous works Evidently, Chickentown (which would later, memorably, be included on an episode of the Sopranos) and Beasley Street.
In 1982, Clarke released Zip Style Method. It was a familiar sound, with the poet, once again backed by The Invisible Girls. The record included I wanna be yours, later covered and adapted by the Arctic Monkeys on their album AM.
And, while the Mancunian-bard continued to perform live, personal matters had begun to take hold. According to sources, and Clarke’s own admission in interviews, he had succumbed to heroin addiction. It was a drug that many in the punk-rock community had grown to know well and which claimed the lives of many of them.
Clarke’s performances became rarer, then stopped altogether. Myths began to build around the man. Some claimed he was working on new music. Others told of Clarke living with former Velvet Underground collaborator, Nico. Worse still some debated if the great modern poet was still breathing.
John Cooper Clarke’s musical legacy and beyond
Leaving sensationalist stories aside, by the early 1990s, Clarke was well enough to begin performing again. He was soon looking healthy, albeit still razor-thin, and sporting his famous hairdo and dark, beatnik glasses. Tour dates and television appearances followed.
The 2000s and beyond have been kind to Dr. John Cooper Clarke (he received an honorary Doctorate degree). The poet became a family man. Parallel to his life of quiet domesticity, Clarke earned new fans and began being welcomed as something of a British national treasure.
Alex Turner copied and praised Clarke, while books and movies documenting the punk-rock scene offered ample room to the poet. Nowadays, as back in the 1970s, Clarke is in a highly enviable position. He is, perhaps, the most famous poet in England, especially to people that do not know any other living poets. His musical work is also celebrated by many and stands up remarkably well.