Review Summary: Drive she said, I'll tell you when to stop..'80-'85 Part X
A scrawny Lancashire kid with a rasp and the look of a glam mortician, street poet John Cooper Clarke had become all but a keystone presence on the London punk scene in the late 70’s, cruising in on rapid-fire, rant-prone poetry readings and a UK Top 40 hit with “Gimmix” of the seminal live set titled Walking Back to Happiness
, referencing old flame Nico’s The Marble Index
. His reputation cemented and on an up-kick, he took to the road, rounding off opening slots for the Sex Pistols, The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Buzzcocks. Though mostly performing a cappella, his continued popularity on the punk club circuit and rising cult status obliged him to deck out his words with backing music, and in 1980, he released Snap, Crackle & Bop
, a full-fledged LP that further established him as a reverential presence within the niche, and a sort of moribund beatnik revivalist, a relay point between blue collar palettes and swank poeticisms.
Clarke’s backing band, The Invisible Girls, was a casual show of his high standing within London’s punk scene. The band included Martin Hannett, co-owner of Factory Records, and producer to such lynchpin acts as Joy Division, Magazine and the Durutti Column. In addition, The Invisible Girls sported talent that included former members of the Buzzcocks, Morrissey’s backing band and Jethro Tull. For all the given flair and knack of such a stacked deck, the arrangements on Snap, Crackle & Bop
are modestly unostentatious, skeletal post-punk that leans on the dreamier side of things, letting Clarke’s couplets, half-declarative, half-plaintive, take center stage.
His gutter romanticism is on fine display here, snaring just enough giddy vulgarity to lend the words a working class beauty, small hymnals for stiff tiredness and the perennial dread and unrest that were strengthening their hold over the English youth:
Freezing in these paper jeans
Standing stiff in a dead man's dream
Tobacco barons and the closet queen
Walk on the walls... wank in the beans
Shave... ***... a shower and a shoe shine
That's it... sack time
Everybody looks like Ernest Borgnine.
-from “36 Hours”
Far from crazy pavements -
The taste of silver spoons
A clinical arrangement
On a dirty afternoon
Where the fecal germs of Mr. Freud
Are rendered obsolete
The legal term is null and void
In the case of Beasley Street.
-from “Beasley Street”
The bloody view is bloody vile
For bloody miles and bloody miles
The bloody babies bloody cry
The bloody flowers bloody die
The bloody food is bloody muck
The bloody drains are bloody ***ed
The colour scheme is bloody brown
Evidently Chicken Town.
-from “Evidently Chicken Town”
A problem of leisure, measured in turns
Of pain plus pleasure, plus poisoned sperm
Take this diagram, keep it in your pocket
Conditional discharge, a sticky deposit.
-from “Conditional Discharge”
These vexed, despondent diatribes are given life by The Invisible Girls’ woozy instrumentation, cracked synths and shuddery guitars, all kept minimalist enough so as to not wrest meaning from the words or Clarke’s erratic delivery. Though his style and precincts aligned him with the post-glam punkers that were all but tapering off as the 70’s came to a close, the themes and structure of his combinations quickly struck a chord with the f#cked-off scene that followed – gloomy post-punkers and chronically enraged Oi! punks, the divergent castes briefly fusing in sheer frustration. The sluggish torpor in core sociopolitical bents in England (you can never get any change done in aristocratic cultures), proved to be an enduring succour to Clarke, as his words never lost underlying meaning. Nowadays, he’s known as Dr. Clarke, and his books are on the syllabi of public schools, being ‘rammed down the reluctant throats of children.’ But the hair remains, as do the shades, as does the snotty dissatisfaction.
It seems only apt enough to end this on Clarke’s own words, from his immortal poem “Twat:”
What kind of creature bore you
Was is some kind of bat
They can't find a good word for you
But I can...