John Cooper Clarke (born 25 January 1949) is an English performance poet who first became famous during the punk rock era of the late 1970s when he became known as a "punk poet". He released several albums in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and continues to perform regularly.
His recorded output has mainly centred around musical backing from the Invisible Girls, which featured Martin Hannett, Steve Hopkins, Pete Shelley, Bill Nelson, and Paul Burgess.
Clarke was born in Salford, Lancashire in 1949. He lived in the Higher Broughton area of the city and became interested in poetry after being inspired by a teacher whom he described as "a real outdoor guy, an Ernest Hemingway type, red blooded, literary bloke". His first job was a laboratory technician at Salford Tech. He began his performance career in Manchester folk clubs, where he began working with Rick Goldstraw and his band The Ferrets. His first releases were on the independent label Rabid, starting with the EP Innocents in October 1977. He toured with Bill Nelson's band Be-Bop Deluxe in 1978 and was signed by Epic Records, who issued the Nelson-produced debut album Disguise In Love in 1978.
In 1979 he had his only UK top 40 hit with "Gimmix! (Play Loud)". Clarke toured with Linton Kwesi Johnson, and has performed on the same bill as bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Fall, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello, Rockpile and New Order (including at their May 1984 Music for Miners benefit concert at London's Royal Festival Hall). His set is characterised by lively, rapid-fire renditions of his poems, usually performed a cappella. Often referred to as "the bard of Salford", he usually refers to himself on stage as "Johnny Clarke, the name behind the hairstyle".
In 1979 he applied to join actors' union Equity, but as there was already a member named John Cooper Clarke, he joined under the name Lenny Siberia. His 1980 album Snap, Crackle & Bop gave him his highest album chart placing, reaching number 26.
Clarke appeared in a 1982 music documentary compilation Urgh! A Music War, in which he performed his poem "Health Fanatic". The film featured live performances of mainstream artists (Pere Ubu, the Police, the Go-Go's, XTC, Devo) as well as more obscure bands (Invisible Sex, the Alley Cats, Athletico Spizz '80, Chelsea) using concert footage from around the world. For many people, this was their first introduction to the works of John Cooper Clarke. He also starred in another 1982 film titled John Cooper Clarke - Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt directed by Nick May and produced for the Arts Council of Great Britain and Channel 4. Somewhere between a narrative film, a series of music videos and a documentary, the film features interviews and performances by Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson among others.
Clarke released a further album in 1982, Zip Style Method, which was less successful, and Clarke performed his live act less frequently, spending much of the 1980s addicted to heroin, living in a "domestic partnership" with singer and fellow addict Nico. He described this period of his life: "It was a feral existence. I was on drugs. It was hand to mouth." He made an appearance in two UK adverts for Sugar Puffs in 1988, taking second billing to the Honey Monster. He returned to live performance in the 1990s. More recently, Clarke has turned some of his stage act away from an emphasis on performance poetry and towards more of a stand-up-oriented affair, but poetry is still very much a key part of his performance. On 7 November 2001 he supported Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros at the Manchester Academy.
He has toured several times supporting the Fall. He also duetted with a poem entitled "Last Resort" with Reverend Jon McClure at a Reverend and the Makers concert at London's Spread Eagle, which later was released as the b-side for the band's single "Heavyweight Champion of the World". Clarke also recorded a song with the band entitled "Dead Man's Shoes". Clarke's recording of "Evidently Chickentown" from his album Snap, Crackle & Bop was also featured prominently in the closing scene of The Sopranos episode Stage 5. A live performance of the same poem appears in the film Control with Clarke portraying himself in a re-creation of a 1977 concert in which he supported Joy Division, despite having aged 30 years since the events depicted in the film. "Evidently Chickentown" (recited by Christopher Eccleston) is featured in the made-for-television film Strumpet.
Clarke's poem "Out of Control Fairground" was printed inside the Arctic Monkeys' single "Fluorescent Adolescent" CD, which was released on 9 July 2007. The poem is also the inspiration behind the single's video in which clowns brawl. Another poem was printed inside the 10" release of the same single. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys has said he is very fond of Clarke's work and takes inspiration for lyrics from his poems.
Clarke was the subject of a BBC Four documentary, Evidently... John Cooper Clarke, in May 2012, screened as part of the BBC's Punk Britannia season.
Filmed in 2010 live from London's South Bank at the Queen Elizabeth II Hall, Clarke's South of the Border DVD is a complete contemporary performance recording. The DVD extras contains a performance of 36 Hours with Frank Sidebottom on guitar. The DVD was released by Click Films in April 2013.
Clarke appeared as himself in the 2012 film Ill Manors, directed by Ben Drew (better known as Plan B). He is shown performing a poem entitled Pity the Plight of Young Fellows, which he has described as "the view of young people from a jaundiced old twat's point of view". He was also featured in a song entitled Pity the Plight on the film's musical album, also called Ill Manors, where he recited parts of the poem to a piano accompaniment.
In July 2013 Clarke was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts in "acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians" by the University of Salford. Upon receipt, Clarke commented "Now I'm a doctor, finally my dream of opening a cosmetic surgery business can become a reality."
Clarke's poem "I Wanna Be Yours" was adapted by Arctic Monkeys and frontman Alex Turner for the band's fifth album AM, released on 9 September 2013. Speaking about the poem to the NME's Matt Wilkinson, Clarke said:
"I wrote it along with a load of others at the time, I tend to write like that. I remember when it was – about '83 or '84 or something like that. It's come to my attention that it's the wedding favourite. The number of people that have said, 'I had that read at my wedding', or 'My husband proposed to me using that number'... It's been very useful in the world of modern romance! It is to modern wedding ceremonies what "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" by Eric Idle is to humanist funerals. I probably go to a great many more funerals than you do, so take it from me."
In 2013 Clarke voiced a poem about how eating chips makes people happy for a television commercial advertising McCain oven chips. It included the tag line 'happy days'.
In May 2013 and May 2014 Clarke appeared as a guest on BBC One's Have I Got News for You.
In 2014 Clarke recorded a duet with the Manchester band, Inspiral Carpets, on their song Let Me Down.
Clarke has lived, for nearly 20 years, in Colchester, Essex, with his second wife, Evie, who is French. They have a teenage daughter, Stella.