The first acknowledged new wave poet, Manchester’s John Cooper Clarke created a genre all on his own, reciting trenchant, often hilarious poetry in a thickly accented, adenoidal voice; a deviant British precursor of rap. Looking like Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan (but skinnier) and suggesting a mindset lifted from Jack Kerouac or Lenny Bruce, Clarke exists with one foot in literature and the other in rock music, using both but succumbing wholly to neither. On most of his recordings, musical backing is provided by a nebulous organization known as the Invisible Girls, which — besides a nucleus of keyboardist Steve Hopkins and producer Martin Hannett — has included such name-brand players as Pete Shelley and Bill Nelson. When combined on vinyl, the two forces — Clarke as satiric commentator and the Invisible Girls as musical adventurers — make for a unique listening experience.
Ou Est la Maison de Fromage?, originally released by an early Manchester independent, is a sloppy, ragged, (almost) unaccompanied, poorly recorded but enthralling hodgepodge — demos, rehearsals and recitations — of pieces that wound up on later albums. Clarke’s major-league debut, Disguise in Love, contains such classic inventions as “(I Married a) Monster from Outer Space,” “Psycle Sluts 1 & 2” and “I Don’t Want to Be Nice.” The collaboration between words and music works splendidly, although it should be noted that Clarke’s approach doesn’t vary on two tracks performed a cappella. The music leans heavily to electronics, but varies the sound with guitar and weird noises.
Walking Back to Happiness is a live recording released as a 10-inch EP on clear vinyl. For over 20 minutes, Clarke goes one-on-all against a generally appreciative but partially hostile audience, reciting, jousting, cracking deadly one-liners, dealing with hecklers and being captivating with scathing, funny numbers like “Majorca” (an attack on tourists) and “Twat.” As a bonus, the EP closes with a studio track called “Gimmix.”
Snap, Crackle [&] Bop. matches impressive packaging (the front cover of the original edition is a photo of a sports coat with working pocket containing a lyric book) with awesomely powerful songs like “Beasley Street,” recalling nothing so much as Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” And while “Conditional Discharge” is a cheap pun about venereal disease, the notable “Thirty Six Hours” is Clarke’s most songlike effort. On it, the Invisible Girls’ backing matches the bard’s intensity dram for dram, creating dense waves of electronics and electrics that fit the words perfectly.
Me and My Big Mouth collects Clarke’s greatest non-hits, drawing equally from the three previous records, and suffices as an ideal introduction and overview.
Zip Style Method finds him in a more upbeat humor, and includes a pair of love songs amidst the remorseless satire. The Invisible Girls are at their best, working in a number of idioms. More than any of the other albums, this seems to be a cooperative venture — more organically entwined than autonomous — between poet and players. That’s a major development, because it makes Clarke’s words stand out less, but convey more. There aren’t any bad tracks; although the intensity level isn’t up there with “Beasley Street,” songs like “Midnight Shift,” “The Day the World Stood Still” and “Night People” present different, entertaining sides to Clarke’s musical persona. Clarke has continued to perform as a poet, but regrettably has not released anything of late.