Q&A: John Cooper Clarke
The revered punk poet (65) has toured with seminal bands such as The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks, and will be bringing his wit and wisdom to Belfast's MAC this month
How do you feel about being referred to as 'the punk poet', 35 years after punk?
I don't mind too much – it's understandable. That's when I first came to the attention of the British public, on the back of the punk rock revolution. Before that, I was working on the cabaret circuit in Manchester, and there was nothing rock and roll about it – we used to have people like Matt Munro on.
When punk rock happened, I was seen as part of that scene, simply for the fact that I didn't wear flared trousers and I had short hair. I went to see the Sex Pistols and The Clash and I liked it, and it was great to find this big audience waiting for me. People think it was brave to read poetry at punk gigs, but it wasn't as brave as doing the cabaret clubs.
You toured with the Sex Pistols and recorded albums with Joy Division's producer, Martin Hannett. Did you ever consider committing fully to music?
I'm a great singer, but there are too many at it! I've been in bands since I was a teenager, but it was always a hobby. I think my attempts at marrying music and poetry had, at best, mixed results. Poetry has its own music built into it – it's music that's made out of language. If you add music to it, it means you haven't done enough on the lyrical front. It should stand up on its own – as those poems did before I added music to them. But more fool me for not realising this at the time!
Your work is often bleak and depressing, but funny with it. Why do you think that is?
I think it's an English thing, really. That sort of 'everything's crap and that's what's funny about it' thing. It's a tough one to pull off – it requires judgment to make it funny and depressing at the same time, like Beasley Street, and it's great when it happens. I like melancholic humour. I'm a big fan of Les Dawson and you would say he got that balance right. He was lugubriously funny.
Is Beasley Street a real place?
There's no specific geographical location for it, but it's inspired by a place called Camp Street in Salford, which was a low-rent ghetto of Victorian houses that had been split up into cheap flats. I renamed it Beasley Street and I wrote it back to front, with the last line first. There's a musical from the 1930s called 42nd Street and the big production number ends with the line 'Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty, 42nd street'. So I thought, what rhymes with cheesy, greasy, queasy, sleazy? The nearest I could get was 'Beasley Street'.
Your poem I Wanna Be Yours was adapted by the Arctic Monkeys on their latest album. What do you make of it?
It's great, Alex Turner succeeded where I had failed – he took that poem and converted it into a tender love ballad by not doing very much. That's an artist. Thanks Alex, have it all! Me and the Arctics are on a pretty chummy basis and have been since Year Zero. I love that band.
Your voice is currently to be heard on adverts for oven chips. Did you have any qualms about artistic credibility and 'selling out'?
No, the way I see it, I'm good at what I do and I can apply that to the marketplace. When it comes to chips, I think Manchester accents are more credible than others. Whereas if it was Stephen Fry, irrespective of his surname, they might have said, 'He doesn't eat chips!'
John Cooper Clarke will be at the MAC, Belfast, on Thursday, May 15. For details, visit www.themaclive.com