BBC Four kick off their Punk Britannia season with a look at Britainâs 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.
Heâs not wrong either. John Cooper Clarkeâs 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 heâd finished them. His words and delivery are similar in many ways to the often humorous post-punk musings of Mark E. Smith, but Johnâs an original, thatâs for sure, from his distinctively Northern delivery to his eccentric dress sense. He looks like Bob Dylan after a nasty bout of food poisoning â incredibly thin and pale with wild, uncombed hair and sunglasses â 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 heâs ever met Tom Waits. âNo,â? he has always replied, until very recently that is, when he discovered a photograph of them both together, dating back to the poetâs âlost yearsâ?. We see the photograph, and sure enough, thereâs John with the gravel-voiced singer songwriter. Billy Connolly, bizarrely, is lingering in the background.
Johnâs memory of this period is pretty vague, but thereâs a bright side: he recovered and today heâs clean and still performing. His work has become a strong influence on many contemporary songwriters, including Kate Nash. Weâre even treated to a short performance.
âYou said I must eat so many lemons,â? she sings, âbecause Iâm so bitter.â?
Itâs a metaphorically challenged composition, admittedly. Lemons arenât bitter, are they? Theyâre sour. But at a stretch, you can see the John Cooper Clarke influence. The Bulmerâs Cider advertiser Plan B also considers John an inspiration, although he canât seem to explain why. As such heâs 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 Johnâs work as well as offering enough new insight to entertain avid fans. And if youâre not a fan, Evidentiallyâ¦ will likely convert you.