- 25 Jan 21
Happy 72nd Birthday, John Cooper Clarke! To celebrate, we're revisiting Róisín Dwyer's classic interview with The Bard of Salford – originally published in Hot Press in 2008.
Phil: “That cocksuckin’ piece of shit Tony Soprano’s cousin – I can’t even say his name. Murdered Billie. And what did I do about it? My weakness. Sometimes I think it’s in my DNA. My family took shit from the Madigan’s the minute we got off the boat.”
Butchie: “C’mon – what the fuck you talking about?”
Phil: “Leotardo! That’s my fuckin legacy. No more Butchie. No more a dis…”
Cue John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Evidently Chickentown’, playing over the closing sequence of Episode 79 of the The Sopranos, his musings on a vapid inconsequential existence in a crime-ridden working-class northern town providing a perfect parallel for the moral emptiness, claustrophobia and corruption of mob life.
Legend has it Sopranos creator David Chase only heard the song once before, while cleaning his garage in 1983, but made a mental note to use it in a show in the future.
The Bard Of Salford is currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Thirty years after he established himself as the bona fide punk poet, supporting The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Fall, there has been a resurgence of interest in his work. He featured in Anton Corbijn’s Control and Julien Temple’s The Future Is Unwritten, has worked with Arctic Monkey Alex Turner and the Reverend Jon McClure, and is regularly name-checked by Lily Allen, Kate Nash and a host of other young artists.
“I know! What’s it all about? Why me?” he laughs over dinner before one of his recent Dublin shows.
All the Cooper Clarke elements are evident – anecdotes aplenty, razor-sharp wit, a rib tickling yarn for every occasion, self-deprecating manner and the dulcet laconic Mancunian drawl.
In addition to his work with current chart-toppers, he always makes time for old punk pals, guesting recently with Mick Jones’ Carbon/Silicon on some London dates.
“Jonesy was running some gigs at The Screen On The Green in Notting Hill,” he explains. “The last one was a Sopranos-themed evening. The Alabama 3 were doing a gig that night at The Academy and Zoe and Larry Love came and did the finale. It was the week after ‘Chickentown’ had been on The Sopranos. We were all up there for ‘Woke Up This Morning’: Pete Wylie, James Dean Bradfield, that guy out of Hard-Fi, Richard Archer, lots of star celebos, you know what I mean.”
Carbon/Silicon have recently played Dublin, and it was evident that Mick Jones still has the best smile in rock ‘n’ roll.
“He does yeah,” laughs JCC. “He’s like a grand piano, a very handsome guy, although now he’s starting to look like Jerry Seinfeld.”
In the punk heyday, Clarke supported The Clash on many occasions. There must be a slew of hair-raising yarns, I prompt him.
“I don’t remember, there was probably a lot of weed involved,” he says savouring his duck confit. “Except you couldn’t admit to it in the punk days, it was the most uncool thing you could possibly be caught doing. It was a hippy pacifying drug. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t smoke weed, though.”
Another punk myth he explodes is that the Manchester Free Trade Hall was crammed to capacity that fateful evening in June 1976 when the Sex Pistols played their first Manchester show. Not so.
“I was there, yeah, with all those three million people who claim to have been in that 250-capacity hall. There was bags of room when I was there though. Every aspect of punk was represented that night. The Buzzcocks were mod-ish and Slaughter And The Dogs were sort of glam, they had a David Bowie-thing going on. Nobody had really worked out what punk was. It was only The Pistols that had the whole package going on, they had the image and the haberdashery with the help of Vivienne and Malcolm. They had an established look and the graphics. It all looked very considered and very London.”
John’s interest in the genre had already been sparked by the music emanating from the east coast of the US years earlier.
“I was more into what was termed punk rock in 1974,” he explains. “The sound of New York and Detroit and The Velvet Underground. Even though it was arty and New York boho. The first British punk group I saw was The Stranglers. They were supporting Patti Smith on her tour in 1974. That was terrific. I thought they were an American band. I thought it was an east coast art rock show. I didn’t know they were from London.”
Of all the New York bands, John has a particular fondness for The Ramones.
“I was crazy about them, as I still am, a remaining passion. Shit like that doesn’t date because it wasn’t new in the first place, it’s very much a tradition. Like I’ve said before, it doesn’t make sense to like The Beach Boys and not The Ramones, it’s the same music.”
The Bard visited the city twice to play the legendary CBGBs.
“It was terrific, even though it was a real khazi,” he laughs. “I did one of the shows with David Johannson. This was after The New York Dolls – the band where he still had Billy Murcier and Sylvain Sylvain. David is a fantastically extrovert and erudite person, I love that guy, he’s the funniest bloke I’ve ever met. He said (adopts gruff NY accent); ‘John, you are great but they don’t know who you are here, I gotta be your MC.’ He really took me under his wing. Everywhere I played on the east coast he used to tell people ‘You gotta listen to this guy!’”
Just as The Dolls’ later career benefitted from the attentions of staunch fans such as Morrissey, John’s current popularity has been boosted by supporters such as Alex Turner and the Reverend Jon McClure.
“Alex is a great lad, I’m a big fan of his and I love the stuff he’s doing with Miles Kane,” he enthuses.
John’s poem ‘Out Of Control Fairground’ was printed inside the Arctic Monkey’s single ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and was the inspiration behind the single’s video in which clowns brawl. However, he is less ebullient about the Reverend.
“Mmmm, yeah well we’ve got a bit of an argument going on at the moment, draw a discreet veil over it. It’s not that I don’t like him but we’ve got to have a talk.”
The pair duetted on the poem ‘Last Resort’ at a Reverend and the Makers concert and this was later released as a B-side for the band’s single ‘Heavyweight Champion Of The World’. So what else is he listening to these days?
“I love The White Stripes and The Kings Of Leon,” he gushes. “The Fall go from strength to strength. They have always been the coolest band on the planet.”
Is Mark E Smith as cantankerous as legend would lead us to believe?
“Not with me, he’s always been a complete gentleman. But I know a lot of people he’s given a thick ear. He’s always artistic but it never gets in the way of him rockin’ like a motherfucker.”
Lily Allen is another fan of his too, I point out.
“It’s because I know her dad,” he says dismissively, “She’s got to say that. Kate Nash likes me too. Where does it get me though? I’m broke!”
In addition to glowing testimonials, John’s appearances in Corbijn and Temple’s films have also added to his resurgence in popularity.
The following exchange occurs when we discuss the former:
Me: “You were in Control?”
John: “That’s the first time I’ve ever had anybody accuse me of that! I was playing myself, which took every ounce of my acting ability.”
It is, I venture, a reflection on his youthful good looks that he can play himself 30 years on.
“Well, that’s the beauty of never looking any good in the first place… one’s physical decline is not so evident! I haven’t seen it and I haven’t seen the Joe Strummer documentary. I can’t stand to look at myself. Jonesy is going to hate me for this because I love Jonesy’s work, but I really loved Joe’s voice. I didn’t know he could sing until I saw the Mescaleros. Singing wasn’t the point in The Clash. Jonesy had the more melodic voice in The Clash but in the Mescaleros Joe had such light and shade, such range in his voice, a beautiful voice, very effective.”
Another recently departed friend is Factory Records boss Tony Wilson.
“That guy was Mr Music,” Clarke says emphatically. “As a businessman he was a non-starter, he gave money away. Who else would give Shaun Ryder a million pounds and send him off to crack central?”
Does he have any fond memories of early Irish shows?
“I broke my arm when I toured here with Dr. Feelgood,” he states matter-of-factly. “I had to go to a convent in every town I went to. The sisters looked after me, they plastered me up. I can’t remember the convent but they were really sweet. Thanks very much to those sisters. When they were plastering me up I was thinking; 45 minutes ago I was using the most profane language for the edification of the masses and here I am with these sisters who are completely non-judgemental doing the work of God.”