Evidently.. John Cooper Clarke Review
BBC Four kick off their Punk Britannia season with a look at Britain’s original punk poet, John Cooper Clarke. A lot of sensationalist nonsense has been said about punk in the previous BBC Four documentaries, but this one immediately grounds itself as something a little more insightful, with interviews from admires such as Stewart Lee, Steve Coogan, Billy Bragg and Bill Bailey. In fact, John himself says that he’s not even a punk poet. He just happened to fit in well with that scene. Before punk exploded, he was the opening act for strippers, fire-eaters and Bernard Manning.
He’s not wrong either. John Cooper Clarke’s poetry shares little with other notable punk poets like Richard Hell and Patti Smith, although he does admit to taking influence from punk music, particularly the Ramones. The New York punk pioneers, he explains, prided themselves not on their musical ability, but on their ever increasing desire to play songs at laughably high tempos, once boasting to have shortened their set list from 40 minutes down to a mere 25.
Taking note, John began firing off his poems in front of audiences at breakneck speeds, stopping only when he’d finished them. His words and delivery are similar in many ways to the often humorous post-punk musings of Mark E. Smith, but John’s an original, that’s for sure, from his distinctively Northern delivery to his eccentric dress sense. He looks like Bob Dylan after a nasty bout of food poisoning — incredibly thin and pale with wild, uncombed hair and sunglasses — which is why some have been quick to very wrongly label him as a British Dylan in the past.
As well as the good times, the documentary also focuses on his decline into heroin addiction. For years, he explains, people have been asking him if he’s ever met Tom Waits. “No,” he has always replied, until very recently that is, when he discovered a photograph of them both together, dating back to the poet’s “lost years”. We see the photograph, and sure enough, there’s John with the gravel-voiced singer songwriter. Billy Connolly, bizarrely, is lingering in the background.
John’s memory of this period is pretty vague, but there’s a bright side: he recovered and today he’s clean and still performing. His work has become a strong influence on many contemporary songwriters, including Kate Nash. We’re even treated to a short performance.
“You said I must eat so many lemons,” she sings, “because I’m so bitter.”
It’s a metaphorically challenged composition, admittedly. Lemons aren’t bitter, are they? They’re sour. But at a stretch, you can see the John Cooper Clarke influence. The Bulmer’s Cider advertiser Plan B also considers John an inspiration, although he can’t seem to explain why. As such he’s a waste of screen time in programme filled with interesting interviewees.
Nevertheless, the documentary as a whole does a commendable job of introducing newcomers to John’s work as well as offering enough new insight to entertain avid fans. And if you’re not a fan, Evidentially… will likely convert you.