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Music

Dr John Cooper Clarke’s favourite album

@TomTaylorFO

“Sometimes there are things in life that are a disappointment but living with a monkey isn’t one of them.” – Dr John Cooper Clarke

Dr John Cooper Clarke has just about seen it all and what he hasn’t wasn’t worth seeing in the first place. The gnarly human drainpipe has forever straddled the world of music and poetry – if there is even a divide – and earned himself the title of the eponymous ‘Punk Poet’ in the languid process. This wasn’t necessarily a moniker earned from afar or owing to any particularly snarling verse from the wiry wordsmith, it had more to do with the fact that he was right in amongst the spikey explosion of the music scene, transcending culture as a whole like some spiritual numen of the age, as his memoir I Wanna Be Yours can attest. 

However, his worldview is far wider than that, hence the eternal sunglasses to soften the earthly glare of everything that he seeps into his wonderfully warped mind. Thus, his music preference proves equally eclectic. Proof of that comes from his favourite album choice in a recent Guardian interview when he opted from Bob Dylan’s take on the Great American Songbook.

The punk poet once penned a piece in the Ramones fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, about the emerging pioneers in which he opined: “I love Bob Dylan but I hold him responsible for two bad ideas: a) the extended running time of the popular song and b) the lyric sheet. Both fine for Bob who usually occupied the extra time in agreeably entertaining ways. The rot, however, set in between 1968 and 1975 when the airwaves were clogged with over-manned combos of cheesecloth-shirted with names like Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum… the end is listless.” In short, such is the way with most great boundary-pushing art, it usually results in sorry imitators clinging to the lowest common denominator of the feat—Dylan’s progress became dreary prog. 

However, Dylan – or the unwashed phenomenon as Joan Baez once called him – always had one foot in the past as he illuminated the future. Johnny Clarke did exactly the same, dipping Charles Baudelaire’s soot-covered sonnets in the urban mire of Manchester and the half-modern would beyond. The album he holds dearest epitomises this timeless nature that both Dylan (arguably the original punk poet) and his Salford-spawned fan share. 

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“I’m a sucker for the Great American Songbook. There is a jazz dimension to it, but it’s as much to do with musical theatre. It features Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Jule Styne. I never get sick of hearing those songs. In Bob’s version of the songs, his voice is slightly weathered, but all the better for it,” John Cooper Clarke declared. As Dylan said of the record himself: “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough.”

The trio of records, Shadow in the Night, Fallen Angels and Triplicate see Dylan on purring form celebrating classics that continue to inspire him to this day. As he said regarding the triple album compilation: “I am finding these great songs to be a tremendous source of inspiration that has led me to one of my most satisfying periods in the studio. I’ve hit upon new ways to uncover and interpret these songs that are right in line with the best recordings of my own songs, and my band and I really seemed to hit our stride on every level with Triplicate.”

Clarke clearly agrees with the sand and glue voiced troubadour, adding: “To hear Bob apply himself to songs that someone else has written is a great experience. His phrasing is different. The first version might be the one that defines that song for you, but there is no right or wrong way of singing it.”