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Baker's Dozen

Evidently Chicken Supreme: John Cooper Clarke's Favourite Songs
Alex Burrows , November 18th, 2020 11:32

Performance poet, style icon and broadcaster John Cooper Clarke tells Alex Burrows about his most-loved songs of all time and growing up during the birth of rock & roll. Portrait by Paul Wolfgang Webster.

Rapidly approaching the status of national treasure, John Cooper Clarke turned 70 last year and in I Wanna Be Yours, he’s written one of the most entertaining autobiographies of the year. Hilarious and inspirational in equal measure, it’s the perfect panacea to the misery of 2020.

An unlikely member of the baby boomer generation, John was born in Greater Manchester’s Salford, and grew up in the suburb of Higher Broughton. John’s formative introduction to music was via Radio 2’s Two-Way Family Favourites during Sunday lunchtimes when he listened to the wireless with his mum. His interest in music developed via the family’s wind-up gramophone, tastefully housed in a Queen Anne cabinet, it was accompanied by a trove of shellac 78s.

“We had all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise known,” says Clarke. “Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’ being one of them. Glenn Miller, Slim Whitman, The Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Hutch, Mario Lanza. Quite a diverse set of records.” His access to music was further expanded when his uncle – freshly demobbed from national service with the RAF – moved in with a Dansette record player and clutch of the latest vinyl long-players by the likes of Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, and Jo Stafford.

Like the other UK ports of Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow directly in receipt of post-war music imports from the USA, Manchester was ideally placed to soak up the latest hugely popular Americana. Tellingly, John’s list of favourite songs is all Americans, bar none. But as a highly literate youth with a budding interest in wordsmithery, the tune wasn’t his sole consideration. “The attraction of the American songbook for me at a very early age must have been the fact that I didn’t really understand the lyrics,” he recalls. “Certainly, the American songbook is the first time I became aware of lyrics, without a doubt. The reason for that is because beforehand, I didn’t understand them. They weren’t written by or for young people. They were written by and for people who were coming back from the war.”

Along with many of his proto-mod beatnik peers, John was an early adopter of live music, and heard the latest tunes and encountered future legends at his regular haunt, the Twisted Wheel as well as venues like the Oasis, Heaven and Hell, the Jungfrau, Plaza, and Ritz. Manchester formed an appreciation of black music before London and Clarke was infatuated with soul - Wilson Pickett, Ben E. King, and of course, James Brown. Later he fully immersed himself in reggae, absorbing the greats of the last half of the 20th Century like a sponge, all feeding and inspiring the furious metre of his poetry.

The following list of songs is the very personification of JCC: the running themes throughout are attitude and style – without ever compromising on quality and integrity. Style and substance sum up the elegance of JCC - he takes the importance of sartorial excellence as seriously as his music tastes, and both as equally seriously as his writing. Details are of course crucial for all three. Clarke’s performances mirror his appearance: looking like an explosion in an inkwell, flowing inexorably across a desk like a fleeing convict, all the while emphasising the urgent serrated delivery of quintessentially urbane urban Britain poetry. Articulated in that enduring Salford accented diction: the nearest thing the UK has to a wild west drawl – intimidating and cool in equal measure.

John Cooper Clarke’s memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, is out now, published by Picador. JCC plays a one-off, streamed performance alongside special guests this December, to find out more go here. To begin reading his selections, please click the pic below.