John Cooper Clarke: Suspended Sentence (Rabid Records)

Why John Cooper Clarke didn’t pen an autobiography before, I have no idea as it has struck me for a decade or more that that the life of Britain’s premier punk poet was ripe for the memoir treatment. But good things come to those who wait, as the old cliche goes, and I Wanna Be Yours was finally published last month.

I’m now on the home straight, after reading a big chunk of it almost addictively in one go yesterday – although, as is my usual non-linear autobiography reading habit, I jumped in at what promised to be the most fascinating segment of the story for me – which was when Clarke was making the move from playing cabaret clubs in the north of England to embracing what might loosely be called the punk scene. I will get back to the start at some point, though.

Cooper signed to Rabid Records, a local label that had already put out singles from Slaughter And The Dogs and The Nosebleeds, and would go on to become best known for Jilted John’s Going Steady, a #4 hit in Britain in the summer of 1978.

Founded by Tosh Ryan, Lawrence Beadle and Martin Hannett, the label grew out of Music Force, a socialist musicians’ collective that set up live shows and arranged PA hire for bands – an offshoot of this being a profitable fly-posting business that apparently helped pay for the launch of the record label.

Initially, Clarke wasn’t keen on committing any of his work onto vinyl, especially with contributions from musicians, but did see the opportunities of helping promote himself with a single. A one-off band called The Curious Yellows was assembled and Martin Hannett oversaw production duties for what became the Innocents EP. ‘I didn’t really enjoy the recording process, and the results were mixed,’ Clarke admits. ‘Occasionally, it somehow hung together by accident, and I was pleasantly surprised, but generally I could only hear the mistakes.’

Released in November 1977, I first heard Suspended Sentence on the John Peel show and failed to notice any mistakes. Late at night, likely with the lights switched on low, Clarke’s surreal vision of a dystopian Britain made for a simultaneously comic and chilling listen. Peel adored it too. On his end of the year Festive Fifty list, he placed it at #5.

After signing to CBS, Clarke grew increasingly pissed off with Rabid. In the book, he complains (or maybe kvetches might be a more Cooper-esque way of putting it) about them punting out an album with the frankly shite title Où est la maison de fromage? ‘A shamelessly cheap, probably illegal move by a bunch of no-mark chisellers, secretly recorded and marketed without any input or consent from me. Naturally, I only want to present the polished end-product of my labours, therefore its very existence is a continuing thorn in my side. It never stops hurting. If you love me, throw it away.’

Sorry, John but the chances of that happening are the same as me being able to fit into a pair of your kecks.

I Wanna Be Yours also details two appearances at the Glasgow Apollo. The first came via a support slot early in 1978 on Be-Bop Deluxe’s Drastic Plastic tour.

My home town of Glasgow, it would have to be admitted, isn’t a city where acts can be automatically guaranteed a warm welcome. If they like you, you are treated like an absolute hero. If they don’t take to you, then there may be trouble ahead. I’ve mentioned before that I witnessed Suicide receive an Apollo reception so vituperative that Alan Vega still sounded a little shell-shocked when talking about it almost forty years later.

Sheena Easton’s Glasgow Green show in 1990 was to end badly too. Recording a Bond theme, winning Grammies and hooking up with Prince count for very little when your audience consists of boozed up Glaswegians if you commit the cardinal sin of speaking with a Mid-Atlantic accent when you’re fae Bellshill. Let’s just say that adulation was in short supply throughout her set.

According to John Cooper Clarke, his first taste of the Apollo stage was not to last long. Four minutes to be precise. ‘I just stood there,’ he writes, ‘ with no indication that the hostility would ever abate. You can’t fight that level of animosity, so as soon as the volume dropped a fraction, I just said, ‘Let’s call it a draw.’ ‘

Within a year he was back for a re-match, on the same bill as Richard Hell and The Voidoids and Elvis Costello and I was there to see the great man for the first of many times. His onstage banter and breakneck renditions of poems like Kung Fu International and (I Married a) Monster from Outer Space were all met with raucous laughter and appreciative applause. You shoulda seen him go-go-go.

‘The redemption of that night was priceless,’ he explains. ‘Ever since then, my Glasgow audiences have been some of the wildest in the world. It’s a wonderful city full of beautiful people.’

He’s way too kind.

For more on I Wanna Be Yours click here.