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John Cooper Clarke

Teenage poet John Cooper Clarke began performing his work in Manchester folk clubs. There he met local musician Rick Goldstraw and began to gig with him and his band, the Ferrets. In 1977, having considered and dismissed a career as a club comedian, he was put in touch with new label Rabid, home to the likes of Ed Banger and Jilted John.

Clarke's high-speed, Salford-twanged delivery, based on the rhythms of rock and amphetamine sulphate rather than any conventional poetic metre, was the verbal equivalent of the headlong musical thrill of punk. Likewise, his subject matter was often lurid enough for punk, combining the bohemian sensibility of Kerouac or Ginsberg with the more whimsical wordplay associated with, say, Adrian Henri. His performances, though relentless and confrontational, were always good-humoured.

After radio and TV exposure for "Suspended Sentence", a bleakly comic contribution to the capital punishment debate, taken from Clarke's debut EP, Innocents (1977), Clarke found himself dubbed the 'Punk Poet' by writers in search of a bard for the times. His look was appropriately startling -stick-thin, drainpipe trousers and jacket, winkle-picker shoes, backcombed black hair, and permanent shades. Offered a support slot on the final Be Bop Deluxe tour in 1978, Clarke soon signed to CBS and released a summer single, "Post War Glamour Girl", a characteristic combination of the playful and the brutal. Despite the wincing pun of its title, his debut LP, Disguise In Love (1978), showed Clarke at his most sophisticated and caustic, ranging from the strutting punk staccato of "I Don't Want To Be Nice" and the bloody live version of "Psycle Sluts" to the mellow tenderness of "The Valley Of The Lost Women". Over the next year Clarke became ubiquitous on the punk and new wave circuit. After supporting Elvis Costello on his breakthrough 'Armed Forces' tour, he released the single "Gimmix!" which scraped the UK Top 40. The shortfall between his popularity as a live act and his disappointing record sales led Epic to release a live album, Walking Back To Happiness (1979), but this too sold underwhelmingly, even though it captured abrasive stalwarts of his live set, like the radio-unfriendly "Twat", dedicated to cabinet minister Michael Heseltine. Snap, Crackle And Bop (1980) was a superior production, marrying dead-end realism with haunting, edgy arrangements on tracks such as "Evidently Chickentown" and the moving "Beasley Street". (A limited edition book, Poems, was given away with initial copies.) Then followed his one and only tour with a backing band, as part of a formidable package featuring The Durutti Column and Pauline Murray, with whom he shared the backing group, the Invisible Girls.

The inspiration now seemed to wane. A 'best of' album entitled Me And My Big Mouth (1981) was released to little fanfare, as was his swansong for Epic, 1982's Zip Style Method, with only "Night People" arousing any real interest among the new material. Although Clarke appeared with Allen Ginsberg for the 'Poetry Olympics' at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1985, his subsequent work has been restricted to low-key performances, in between bouts of protracted drug abuse and trips to rehab clinics. For much of the 80s, Clarke had an on-off domestic arrangement with Nico, based largely on their mutual narcotic dependence. His talent was stalled by his lifestyle, but the late 70s scene had been all the funnier, and more literate, for his presence.