FEATURE: The best of John Cooper Clarke

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Salford punk poet John Cooper Clarke has today (October 16) released a new book of work, spanning over three decades. To coincide with the launch, Jordan Eyre counts down his top 10 pieces of work…

Life is rarely dull for Cooper Clarke these days. When not appearing on a popular TV panel and gameshows or standing in as a DJ on BBC Radio 6, the poet is gallivanting across the world to recite his work, a vast collection of poetry that has captivated audiences for over three decades.

Compiling a list of his finest work is an unenviable task, particularly when his arsenal of poetry continues to expand. With a poem to suit more or less every conceivable mood or emotion, Clarke has gleaned a new legion of fans, providing spectators with a combination of old classics and new material, the best of which are itemised here:

10. Health Fanatic

Health and well-being have scarcely been as valued as much as in this day and age, which makes Health Fanatic, an early classic of Clarke’s, a prescient number for current times. A poem which illustrates the endeavours of a man living the lifestyle of an athlete, the descriptions of sound and imagery bring it to life, and, in that typical quick delivery which becomes a hallmark of several others on this list, carries a sense of irony.

Best line: “Beans, greens, tangerines and low cholesterol margarines / His limbs are loose, his teeth are clean…”

9. Pies 

One thing that has become apparent throughout the years is Clarke’s ability to revel in niche topics, taking something distinctly remote and weaving words intricately around the subject with ease. Pies is a biographical piece about a homely girl named Ann (‘who couldn’t get a man’), and this poem reveals the advice her mother bestowed in order to attract a partner. Clarke does this through his linguistic prowess – ‘You’ll knock ‘em down like skittles with some farinaceous vittles’ and the catchy refrain that ‘You’ll always get a guy with a pie’.

Best line: ‘Even when they’re stale, they taste okay with ale / At the point where hunger pangs intensify…’

8. Hire Car

Further to the idea of Clarke’s prowess with niche subjects, Hire Car falls into the same category. This number encourages the reckless use of a hire car, a notion enforced by lines such as ‘Bump it, dump it, say ‘ta-ta’’. Hire Car has become one of Clarke’s most popular numbers, owing much to the predominantly monosyllabic prose which helps its high octane flow. As with Pies, the self-proclaimed ‘Name Behind the Hairstyle’ wrings out every possible rhyming couplet in this infectious poem.

Best line: ‘Rent it, dent it, bang it, prang it, bump it, dump it, scorch it, torch it…’

7. The Pest 

An ageless classic that, although deviates away from Clarke’s typical rhyming form, adheres to the art of alliteration in sublime fashion. Another number written from a third person perspective, the poet essentially describes a scene in which a local pest is arrested by police and thrown in jail. The Pest flows like no other, as slower phases are bookended by those familiar quick deliveries, punctuated of course by words beginning with the letter ‘P’. Leaving audiences covered in a thin layer of spittle, this number is perhaps the one with the more tangible punk influence.

Best line: ‘They punched him, poked him, pummelled his pelvis, punctured his pipes, played ping pong with his pubic parts…’

6. Bedblocker Blues

Written when Clarke hit the big 5-0, Bedblocker Blues is an ode to aging and getting older. There is a distinct hyperbolic feel to the whole number – after all, 50 is not that old – but, perhaps at a time where people are continuing to fret over aging, there is a hint of irony in the poem. Again, it is the simplicity of this piece which gives it its appeal. The catchy refrain of ‘Things are gonna get worse, nurse’ is woven seamlessly into the number, giving Clarke lines to work from throughout. As ever, there are many lines to elect as the best but naturally, it is saved until last.

Best line: ‘Euthanasia, that sounds good // A neutral alpine neighbourhood // Then back to Britain all dressed in wood…’

5. Kung-Fu International

Clarke uses an anecdote to form the base of this number, offering the audience a vicarious insight into the scenario he depicts. Kung-Fu International is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set in Salford, essentially, and is brought to life with his treacle-thick Mancunian accent bounding over each syllable. The imagery is vivid, making the audience feel like a witness throughout the encounter. It is one of those pieces that highlights Clarke’s imagination, a work of complete fantasy that is made somewhat believable by this poetic raconteur.

Best line: ‘Couldn’t get an ambulance, the phone was screwed // The receiver fell in half, it’d been kung-fu’d…’

4. I Wanna Be Yours

It would be remiss of me not to include the number that catapulted Clarke into the conscious minds of a younger generation, mainly due to Alex Turner’s adaptation for Arctic Monkeys’ song of the same name. Clarke described this poem the best, claiming “It’s a number in which I attempt to reduce myself to the level of a mere commodity, for the greater good of the object of my desire.” I Wanna Be Yours is popular for this exact reason, that items within popular culture and everyday life are incorporated into a poem, making a declaration of love less awkward.

Best line:Let me be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust // Let me be your Morris Mariner, I will never rust…’

3. T**t

Another timeless number, this time relying on Clarke’s keen eye for ingenious cynicism and scything one-liners. A constant stream of insults and a barrage of indecent remarks for which we are encouraged to make our own dedications, T**t is one of Clarke’s most popular numbers, perhaps because it resonates with so many of us. It is also one of his longer poems, but it never becomes tedious; each line represents an opportunity to pave way for the next one, and the interactive finale – in which the audience often shouts the title – makes it a fan favourite.

Best line: ‘I say you have acute halitosis, you say ‘thank you very much.’

2. Beasley Street/Boulevard

After the success of Beasley Street, Clarke penned a contemporary follow-up that is performed straight after its predecessor in a live situation. In the former, Clarke describes a bleak suburbia which wreaks of dysfunction, while Beasley Boulevard has since been visited by, in his own words, ‘Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, a couple of lifestyle gurus and some money from urban splash.’ Such is Clarke’s language and aptitude, both numbers evoke vivid imagery, lurching from antiquated and outdated to clean and modern. Beasley Street, however, is the one fans clamour for more than most.

Best line: ‘The dirt blows out, the dust blows in, you can’t keep it neat // It’s a fully furnished dustbin, 16 Beasley Street.’ 

1. Evidently Chickentown 

The undisputed choice for Clarke’s magnum opus. It is the one which he claims is the one he’s most proud of, having seen the number appear on the end credits of the penultimate episode of TV series The Sopranos. Once again, the genius is in the simplicity – each line is almost identical yet so different, a whistle-stop tour through a fictional town courtesy of expletive laden prose. The number is pure punk, a subculture on which Clarke has long exerted a seminal influence, and the speedy delivery coupled with excessive swearing makes it the one which best defines the inimitable Godfather of poetry.

Best line: The f*****g fish are f*****g old, the f*****g chips are f*****g cold, the f*****g beer is f*****g flat, the f*****g flats have f*****g rats…’

Do you agree with Jordan? What’s your favourite John Cooper Clarke song? Tell us by commenting below

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