Spindly denim clad legs, sharp boots, a suit jacket, and an iconic hair style that looks like he took a radio into the bath: John Cooper Clarke is one of the most recognised figures in British pop culture (at least when he's not being mistaken for Ronnie Wood). Cutting his teeth as a punk poet in the working mens clubs of Northern England and subsequent punk scene – before the term "punk poet" meant white man in dreads with guitar singing "Get Up, Stand Up" on a street in Camden – he rose to cult prominence against the backdrop of Thatcherite Britain, an ever-changing British subculture, and a shower of glass bottles usually heading in his direction.
He resonated because his poems were about real life – real shitty island life – capturing the humdrum horror of urban Britain in poems like "Evidently Chickentown", the consequences of Tory rule in "Beasley Street", time spent locked up in "36 Hours", the grim beauty of an 18-30 holiday in "Majorca", and that guy you've always hated in "TWAT". Throughout his career, the Salford enigma has opened for some of the greatest bands in the world, released numerous albums and remained a unique proposition. He combines prose and stand up in a bold and inventive way, and, at 67 years old, is still packing out as many venues and festival stages in 2016 as he was in 1976.
This month, JCC was commissioned by Fred Perry to write a poem about their legacy and did so in sparkling fashion with a flow of prose that explores the significance of threads by writing an ode to a brand who have been styling subcultural Britain since the days of the mods.
But what of those coming new to Cooper Clarke's enormous repertoire. Where do you start, and where do you finish? And how does one get a feel for the brutal yet beautiful universe he's so carefully constructed? Well, we've taken a closer look at five of his greatest poems, so prepare yourself for a romantic and gritty tour.
I Married a Monster From Outer Space
If you were going to ease yourself into the ouevre of John Cooper Clarke, you'd probably want to start somewhere imaginative and humorous, before you delve into the darker recesses of his social commentary. Which makes this poem rare but perfect. Inspired by a 1958 film of the same name, this intuitive tale glides through a marital relationship with an alien – subtly touching on society's attitude to inter-racial relationships in lines like "When we walked out – tentacle in hand/ You could sense that the earthlings would not understand / They'd go, nudge nudge, when we got off the bus / Saying 'It's extra-terrestrial – not like us/ And it's bad enough with another race/ But fuck me a monster from outer space" – before culminating in the narrator being dumped for a blob of slime.
Think of all the most harrowing scenes from Ken Loach's filmography, rolled into one whistle stop tour of the darkest street in Cooper Clarke's imagination. "Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies," he writes, name-dropping a Tory politician of the time, "in a box on Beasley Street". The poem is an ugly and relentless fantasy, so to call it social realism would be a misstep, but it still captures an atmosphere of squalor and despair in 70s Northern England in a way that few could ever get down on paper.
For anyone who grew up outside of a major city, or at least in its grotty outlying areas, the themes of "Chickentown" are painfully familiar. It's about that place you just can't escape, that satellite town in Nowhereshire where you spent your inescapable and tormented teens – where everyone is miserable, the pubs are rotten, the clubs are full, and it's hard to even go out on a Friday without getting your head kicked in. The poem (realised by Cooper Clarke as a punk song on his 1980 album Snap, Crackle & Bop) reached god levels when it transcended cult status and found itself as the soundtrack to a pivotal scene in The Sopranos as mob guy Phil Leotardo begins a vengeful rant.
Prison might not be the most joyful place to draw poetry from, but on "36 Hours" Cooper Clarke brings something of the slapstick to what is essentially a tale about hopelessness, death, and the gruesome passage of time when you're locked in a cell. "The man through the mesh says it's time to crash / The creeping flesh of a nervous rash / The last man to make a dash / Is on the menu" is funny enough, but then you reach lines like, "Time flies… Slides down the wall / Part of me dies under my overalls" and realise all is not as lulz as it seems.
I Wanna Be Yours
Despite becoming the kooky alternative thing to read out at a wedding, because if you ever hear that passage from The Notebook again you're gonna yank your tie until your eyes fire into the fascinator of the old lady in front, "I Wanna Be Yours" is still a timeless poem. Don't let the soppy twats take it. The piece is John Cooper Clarke at his most romantic and simplistic; bothered more about honesty than flair. It was turned into a song by Alex Turner for the Arctic Monkeys, back when Turner was still an innovative songwriter and not just an Americana wannabe.
Check out the bespoke John Cooper Clarke playlist commissioned by Fred Perry here.