The Bard of Salford

Originally published January 2007

All revolutionary moments in history inspire great poetry, the French Revolution had Wordsworth, the Easter Rising had Yeats, and punk had a snotty rake from Manchester called John Cooper Clarke.

Looking like Bob Dylan if he’d grown up on a diet of fish fingers and cold baked beans, his spittle-flecked, 100mph delivery had the amphetamine rush of punk with the salty language of a northern working man’s club comedian. Thankfully he wasn’t the sort of poet who wrote tortured odes to the painful beauty of council blocks, instead his muse led him up lurid and surreal paths to psycle sluts, homemade porn, monsters from outer space and teenage werewolves.

I wasn’t a huge fan of his studio albums where he read his poems over a rather avant garde musical backdrop provided by post-punk supergroup The Invisible Girls – maybe if he’d been backed by a funk band or drum machine he’d be seen today as a pioneer of white hip hop 20 years before Eminem and The Streets – but it was live that he really dazzled. His act was a cross between Pam Ayres, Bernard Manning, and Johnny Rotten, confrontational and full of piss and vinegar but funny as hell. Which is why it’s surprising that he only ever put out the one live album, Walking Back Happiness from where these four tracks come. This came out in 1979 on 10″ clear vinyl but has sadly has long been out of print and never reissued.

I’m not going to go into detail about all these but “Twat” deserves special mention, this is a masterpiece of invective (aimed at Michael Heseltine appparently) which should be taught in a class on how to verbally tear someone a new arsehole:

People mention murder,
the moment you arrive.
I’d consider killing you
if I thought you were alive.
You’ve got this slippery quality,
it makes me think of phlegm.
And a dual personality,
I hate both of them.

Sheer bloody poetry, as they say.

Download: Twat – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: The Bronze Adonis – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: Gaberdine Angus – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)
Download: Majorca – John Cooper Clarke (mp3)


The Filth and The Funny

Originally published September 2009

When Sex Pistol Steve Jones called Bill Grundy a “dirty fucker” on live television (amongst other four-letter pleasantries) in 1976 it caused a national outcry of screaming tabloid headlines and livid viewers claiming to have kicked in their television sets in disgust. Even though it only happened on a local television show in London (I saw it) it was on at 6 o’clock in the evening just when families were sitting down for their tea. Back then swearing was a very rare occurrence on British telly, even in the evenings after the so-called 9pm “watershed” when you’d hardly hear even a “shit” or “bollocks” (unlike today when there’s plenty of effing and blinding), so someone using the F-word* — at teatime! think of the children! — was like a bomb exploding in your living room.

Being only 14 at the time I thought it was all very funny, swear words were thrilling things because they upset grown ups and we weren’t supposed to say them (though my mum only ever seriously frowned on the C-word) and punk didn’t just bring rude words to our television sets, but it produced a whole stream of expletive-laden records that pissed all over the concept of good taste and gave it a good kicking: The Pistols’ “Bodies”, The Stranglers’ “Bring On The Nubiles” and the brilliantly pithy “Fuck Off” by Wayne County & The Electric Chairs which achieved legendary, whispered-about status at my school even though most of us had never actually heard it. These records were talked about like illicit contraband amongst us kids, hearing them — or just hearing about them — gave you the same dangerous thrill you got from reading the dog-eared copy of James Herbert’s gory novel The Rats that got passed around school with all the nasty bits bookmarked.

Another record that was talked about like some dark dirty secret we all shared was the comedy album Derek and Clive (Live) by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore which came out the same year the Pistols dropped their bombs on Bill Grundy. Derek and Clive were the drunken, foul-mouthed twins of their cuddly Pete ‘n’ Dud characters and the album was so full of profanity and bad-taste that even Lenny Bruce would have been moved to write an outraged letter to Mary Whitehouse about it. In many ways the album was like the comedy version of Never Mind The Bollocks — it was banned by the BBC, WH Smith wouldn’t stock it, and it almost got them prosecuted for obscenity. I had it on tape and my mates and I would sit in the stairwell of my council estate at night listening to it in awe at the level of vulgarity on it, and of course we thought it was hysterically funny — as a song on the album said, I hadn’t laughed so much “since Grandma died or Auntie Mabel caught her left tit in the mangle”.

The most notorious sketch was “This Bloke Came Up To Me” in which Dudley Moore spews a tidal wave of filthy language that used to make me wet my pants but now seems to be less funny than just plain surreal. “The Worst Job He Ever Had” really is surreal as they drunkenly explore the subject of Winston Churchill’s bogies — of course, it’s also full of very rude words. Needless to say, these are highly NSFW as well as NSFSC (Not Safe For Small Children).

Download: This Bloke Came Up To Me – Derek and Clive (mp3)
Download: The Worst Job He Ever Had – Derek and Clive (mp3)

*The first person to say “fuck” on British television was Kenneth Tynan in 1965, an event so singularly notorious — it was discussed in Parliament — I first knew Tynan’s name because of that incident years before I found out he was also a brilliant critic and essayist.

I Got A Ding-A-Ling

I think I’ve said before that the 70s were the golden age of the novelty hit. Most were dreadful of course but I did and still do enjoy some of them, like this one. A big hit in 1977, “Telephone Man” has more saucy double entendres than an entire Carry On film script, and a goofy charm which I find hard to resist.

Meri Wilson tried to repeat this success with a follow-up single called “Peter the Meter Reader” but this was her only hit. You can only capture this kind of silly magic once.

Download: Telephone Man – Meri Wilson (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

The 1970s were a golden age for records made by actors who played policemen on television. Not only did David Soul from Starsky & Hutch have several hits, but Telly Savalas of (the great) Kojak got to number one in 1975 with a cover of Bread’s “If”. This was despite the fact (or because of) that he couldn’t sing and basically spoke his way through it. The lollipop-sucking Telly/Kojak was such a huge star back then that his hit record even spawned this parody version the same year which itself got to #25.

My Mum was going out with a man called Barry at the time which may be one reason she bought it (listen to it to know what I’m talking about) but as these things go it was actually quite funny. At least we thought so back then. Some of the lines became family jokes for years so maybe it’s the nostalgia taking over but it still makes me chuckle, as does the b-side “Butch Soap”.

Yin & Yan were two voiceover artists called Chris Sanford and Bill Mitchell. They also released an album which I’ve never  heard but can’t imagine is that good. There’s only so much comedy mileage you can get out of gags based around a guy with a deep voice who can’t sing.

Download: If – Yin & Yan (mp3)
Download: Butch Soap – Yin & Yan (mp3)

Funny Girl

This year is really taking the piss. I swear the death of Victoria Wood has upset me almost as much as Bowie did. She was one of the greatest comedy talents Britain has ever produced, but on a personal level she means a lot to me because my mother loved her and I have many happy memories of watching her TV shows with her. My mother could quote Victoria Wood lines the way I could with Monty Python in my teens, so I’m sad for more than just the loss of a great comedy writer and performer.

Though Wood made her name in the 1980s she existed outside of the London-centric, politically-edgy “Alternative” comedy crowd and created her own brilliant comedy universe. She was never as fashionable as them and, even though her humour could be cruelly accurate and cutting, she had a Northern working class warmth that made her less hip, but she was funnier and for longer.

She was also an influence on Morrissey, especially this song she wrote in 1978 which inspired parts of Rusholme Ruffians, and her “they didn’t know what drugs were” line in the intro may also sound familiar.

Download: Fourteen Again – Victoria Wood (mp3)