As he releases an album with ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell, the original punk poet John Cooper Clarke reveals how he became a lead singer
Not many people launch their singing career at the age of 67 but John Cooper Clarke is not like most people.
The stick-thin Mancunian with the shock of black hair and drainpipe trousers found fame in the punk era but although he shared a stage with the likes of The Clash, Siouxie And The Banshees and The Fall, it was always performing his witty, incisive poems rather than singing. He was the punk poet, his beautifully observed comments on life in Britain every bit as cutting and insightful as the likes of Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer. He wasn’t the singer. Until now.
It took an old pal from the punk era to unleash JCC’s inner crooner. Hugh Cornwell, the Stranglers frontman, spoke to John about collaborating at a festive gathering round a mutual friend’s house in Essex about three years ago (John lives near Colchester). Cornwell wanted to do an album of cover versions of the rock ‘n’ roll songs he loved growing up and had John in mind to perform MacArthur Park, an unlikely hit for actor Richard Harris in 1968.
“It’s an old acid rock, psychedelic pop song by Jimmy Webb,” John explains. “Hugh said ‘would you come in and put your inimitable stamp on it.’ It’s got arcane lyrics and is rather poetical so I think he thought it would suit me.
“I just turned up and gave it my best shot. Hugh said he didn’t know I was going to sing it, he thought I was going to do what I normally do. Then he asked me if I’d have a go at the other songs he was covering. I knew all the other ones by osmosis, I’m a big fan of American popular music.”
Both John and Hugh grew up loving US pop and rock of the 1950s and 1960s and their album, This Time It’s Personal, covers tunes by Lieber and Stoller, Ricky Nelson, Richie Valens and Conway Twitty.
The latter’s song, It’s Only Make Believe, opens the album and for JCC it was a pivotal track.
“I said to Hugh, ‘don’t make me do It’s Only Make Believe. That Conway Twitty, he’s got a real range, but I managed to go through it without a problem.”
It seems then that John was a natural when it came to singing.
“In the case of every track, it took me no more than three takes to record them. It was usually just one take. I must be a good singer,” he says sounding surprised.
So why did it take John so long to come out as a lead singer?
“I love singing but I’ve never been encouraged in any of my artistic endeavours. I love all the songs on the album but I wasn’t sure about MacArthur Park. I got to like it, I talked myself into it, sang myself into it,” John says.
“No one knew he could sing!” Cornwell jokes about those recording sessions that took place at his studio in Bath. “When you tell people they go ‘you’re kidding me’.”
But John brings his own distinctive style to those classic songs on which Hugh plays guitars but doesn’t sing himself. It’s a trip down memory lane perhaps but it also feels like an education in the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.
The two head out on the road with a band next month to perform the songs from This Time It’s Personal and although they appeared at a few festivals together in the past, it’ll be the first time they’ve played together. John is looking forward to it.
“I first saw Hugh with The Stranglers supporting The Ramones and Patti Smith, and I thought they were a US rock band. I was a fan, I thought they were like The Doors, a keyboard band.”
John starts rehearsing for the tour, which includes dates in London, Cambridge and Norwich, this week and despite years of gigging admits this feels different.
“I’m extremely nervous, I’m right out of my comfort zone,” he chuckles. “Doing poetry the way I do is what I invented but the world of singing is such a different place. But I’m going to make it work.”
John says the set will also include some of his poems put to music as well as some Stranglers songs. After the tour, he’ll be heading back to his home just outside Colchester, where he’ll be returning to more familiar territory with the annual Christmas Poetry Bash at the Colchester Arts Centre on December 17 alongside his pals Martin Newell, Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland.
More live shows will follow next year and hopefully John will also do some more DJing for BBC 6Music where he’s sat in for Jarvis Cocker on his Sunday show on a regular basis playing the sorts of 50s and 60s songs that appear on the album.
“It’s a two-hour show and I do it all in one take. It’s from my heart to the listeners. It’s good fun and always a pleasure to step in.”
As always with Dr John Cooper Clarke, the pleasure is all ours.
This Time It’s Personal by John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell is out now. They play The London O2 Forum Kentish Town on November 29. More details at http://www.johncooperclarke.com, book tickets at http://www.gigsandtours.com The Christmas Poetry Bash at Colchester Arts Centre is on December 17. Tickets on 10206 500900 or at http://www.colchesterartscentre.com