John Cooper Clarke – the rats have all got rickets

The performance poet John Cooper Clarke spent much of the mid 1980s shacked-up with Nico in a house in Brixton. At the time they were thought to be a couple. Clarke later said that there was no love interest between them. His domestic arrangement with Nico was based on a shared appetite for “the Chinaman’s nightcap”: heroin. Here’s Clarke’s I Married A Monster From Outer Space from his debut album, Disguise in Love, released in 1978. The inspiration for this poem comes from a 1950s sci-fi movie of the same name…

John Cooper Clarke was born in 1949 in Salford, Manchester. His father was an engineer, his mother an unpublished poet. Clarke didn’t do very well at school, and later he didn’t do very well in the job market either. In the early 1970s Clarke started performing his poetry in Manchester clubs. His heavy Mancunian accent, with it’s nasal twang, was in perfect marriage with his poetry. Rob Fitzpatrick, writing in The Guardian, described it as “a furious Eccles cake”. This next piece is called Twat, from Clarke’s second album, Walking Back to Happiness, released in 1979…

In 1977 Clarke started fronting for bands and got caught-up in the punk rock phenomenon. He later said: “I fell into it. I think because I already looked like a punk”. During this period he appeared on stage with, amongst others, the Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and Allen Ginsberg. Elvis Costello remembers one particular gig where Clarke performed: “he went on between Richard Hell and the Voidoids and ourselves. The fury of the crowds was quite alarming at that time. They spat and yelled at John because he was only speaking. What he did was extremely brave, especially for a self-confessed coward. His saving grace was that he was really fucking funny”. This next piece is called I Don’t Wanna be Nice, and it’s from Clarke’s debut album…

Clarke’s descent into heroin addiction is not the only reason why he never achieved more recognition. The poet Adrian Henri once said: “The reason John is so underrated has to do with his association with music. Apart from one collection (Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt, 1983) he’s never been published. People don’t expect to sit down and read him”. Another poet, Adrian Mitchell, said: “Following John Cooper Clarke on to a stage, looking back, I don’t know how I dared do it. He was just magnificent”. This is The Ghost Of Al Capone from Clarke’s fourth and final album, Zip Style Method, released in 1982…

Throughout the rest of the 1980s the only thing of note that Clarke did was to make an appearance in two UK adverts for Sugar Puffs, taking second billing to the Honey Monster. In the early 90s he managed to kick heroin and since then he has been making a slow comeback. He performed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the following is a promotional piece by the Festival. It’s quite tame, with Clarke talking about himself to camera. I’ve included it because all I’ve shown so far in this post is John Cooper Clarke as he was 30 years ago. Both then and now, he’s always been a humble man…

The rats have all got rickets
They spit through broken teeth
The name of the game’s not cricket
Caught out on Beasley Street.

The above is from Beasley Street, which is widely acknowledged to be Clarke’s finest work (in the above lines see how cleverly Clarke juxtaposes clean, white cricket with a slum in Manchester). In another post the poem is reproduced in full and includes a legendary Old Grey Whistle Test performance. See Poets and Songwriters – John Cooper Clarke and Bob Dylan

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