With John Cooper Clark playing at the Wardrobe on 20 February, it occurred that there might be some people who don’t know who he is and what his brand of poetry is all about. In this article Nick Toczek creates some context by taking us through the last thirty years of performance poetry in this country, from where it all started to where it went. He also reflects on how vibrant the scene was around these parts. Nick Toczek is a writer and performer. He lives in Bradford.
I did my first poetry reading in Birmingham in October 1968. In those days, performance poetry was self-conscious, self-regarding and subversive. It was intimately tied into drugs-n-mysticism, sexual freedom, pop culture and the whole hippie trip. But beneath its veneer of cool revolutionary suss, it managed to remain an essentially middle-class phenomenon which pandered to and platformed the white male ego.
For those involved, however, these were heady and exciting times. Influenced both by fifties American Beat Poetry and sixties pop, the Liverpool poets - Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri - along with a host of like-minded performer-poets including Jeff Nuttall, Adrian Mitchell and Mike Horovitz, had re-invented performance poetry. It was a vast and seductively accessible phenomenon, in which newcomers were actively encouraged to share platforms with their idols. So, for example, my fourth or fifth reading was a paid one at the Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry on a bill which included Patten, McGough, Henri, Mitchell, Nuttall, Christopher Logue and Viv Stanshall (frontman with the wacky Bonzo Dog Doodah Band). The whole event lasted three-and-a-half hours without a break to a rapt audience of over 1,500 poetry fans.
The latter half of the sixties hatched a plethora of such events on university campuses, on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in the numerous Arts Labs and Arts Centres springing up across the country, in concert halls, at ‘happenings’ and famously at The Albert Hall.
A lively small press scene made it easy to get published. Smaller gigs sprang up in pub rooms and poetry venues such as Morden Tower in Newcastle (founded in 1964 by two teenage poets, Tom and Connie Pickard, and still running today).
In a short-lived coup, Nuttall and some of his fellow subversives even hi-jacked the bastion of the British poetry establishment, The Poetry Society, subverting its notoriously staid journal, The Poetry Review.
In 1967, Corgi published Pete Roche’s seminal Love, Love Love anthology (@ 25p) and Penguin published The Mersey Sound (Henri, McGough and Patten) as no.10 of their Modern Poets series (@ 17.5p). Michael Horovitz’s definitive anthology, Children of Albion, followed from Penguin in 1969 (384pp @ 50p). Everyone with or wanting long hair bought at least one of these. However, by the early seventies, the fire was well-and-truly extinguished and - despite occasional exceptions - British poetry reverted to its marginal status, with a vastly reduced readership and poorly attended readings. I was, at this time, touring with a poetry and music show called Stereo Graffiti. We chose the name because it suggested words and music but didn’t actually say ‘poetry’. Suddenly, using that once-fashionable word could halve our audiences.
By 1976, for anyone under twenty-five, performance poetry was the territory of boring and aging “me, me, me” hippies. And the old Oxbridge-educated London-based poetry mainstream had reclaimed the top-table, once more decreeing that ‘proper’ poetry didn’t cheapen itself with crowd-pleasing word-play, lowest-common-demoninator humour and unashamed populist showmanship. Good poets didn’t ‘perform’, they occasionally read. On-page popularity went to Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and co., while young fogies like Andrew Motion and Craig Raine became the-next-big-thing. Token tamed rebels like Tony Harrison and Heathcote Williams were afforded stage-space and forays into the broadcast media. However, for the most part, British poetry had once more become a club in which the members addressed one another and a select and often selected coterie of admirers. Douglas Dunn, a protege of Philip Larkin, said that he wrote for a small number of people, most of whom he knew.
One of Britain’s most prestigious new literature festivals was Ilkley Literature Festival. This was founded and run by Michael Dawson who, as the literature officer for Yorkshire Arts Association, awarded his venture the lion’s share of the region’s literature budget. When challenged over this, he simply referred the issue to YAA’s director who endorsed it - which was hardly surprising as Michael Dawson also held this post! Many of the writers who appeared at the festival were acquaintances of the director. When asked why the festival was held in the tiny out-of-the-way town of Ilkey, Dawson’s answer was simple: “Because I live there”. Such was the intimate climate of the times.
In 1977, I co-edited and published Melanthika, the first major anthology of black writing to appear in Britain. Having been refused an Arts Council grant by return of post, I went down to see their literature director, Charles Osbourne, whose first question to me was: “Why do you want to publish this sort of thing?”
One of the newer poets included in that anthology was Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), a twenty-four-year-old Jamaican-born poet who’d emigrated to London in 1963. From Comprehensive school, he took a BA in Sociology which led him straight into unemployment, followed by work on an assembly line. He joined the Black Panther Movement. His politicisation drew him into poetry and music. In 1974, the black British journal, Race Today (which LKJ and Darcus Howe helped to found), published his first collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead. In these poems, as in his subsequent work, he used patois and natural speech rhythms to voice his intense mix of uncompromising black politics and righteous anger. And he addressed a wide public, via a mesmerising performance style that used restraint (he spoke quietly and wore a suit and glasses) coupled with musical timing to convey the integrity and intelligence of his words. It was natural that his second book, Dread Beat and Blood (Bogle-L’Ouverture ’75) also became a reggae album (Frontline ’77). I first encountered him through his involvement in the campaign to free the jailed black Bradfordian, George Lindo. LKJ’s powerful poem about this case, It dread inna Inglan, appears in his third collection, Inglan is a Bitch (Race Today ’80). Here are the first four lines, simple but effective: “dem frame-up George Lindo / up in Bradford toun / but di Bradford blacks / dem a rally roun”. This blend of direct diction, overt political suss and deceptively simple rhythm that have made LKJ the undisputed crown-prince of black British poetry.
In 1982, LKJ toured with Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke (JCC). Their Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt tour, highlights of which later featured in an eponymous Channel 4 film, re-awakened the Kraken of UK performance poetry. One of the dates on this tour was at Leeds University. The social secretary who organised the event was Andy Kershaw (later to manage Billy Bragg before becoming a Radio One DJ and TV personality). He booked five Bradford-based poets as support acts on that night - me, Swells, Little Brother, Wild Willi Beckett and Joolz. Joolz ran Aries Enterprises, a promotional company which handled bookings for her, Swells, Little Brother and Willi Beckett, as well as representing two Bradford bands - New Model Army and Southern Death Cult (later to become The Cult). Swells and the Harlow-based folk-punk poet, Attila the Stockbroker, did other dates on the LKJ-JCC tour and so appeared in the film. It helped to secure them their one-off joint publishing deal with Unwin Books for the 1985 paperback, The Rising Sons of Ranting Verse, which features sixty of their poems with cartoons by John Langford and Porky the Poet (Langford was guitarist with two seminal indie bands, The Mekons and The Three Johns; Porky moved into comedy and has become a TV personality as Phil Jupitus).
While LKJ paved the way for a whole raft of black British poets, JCC set the stage for a new wave of white political performer-poets, initially linked with the punk and skinhead scene and collectively known as rant-poets or ranters.
JCC was born in Manchester in 1949 and first began performing his poems backed by a local folk group, The Ferrets. In 1977 his 4-track debut EP (on which he was backed by The Curious Yellows) was released on Martin Hannet’s Rabid Records label, followed by an LP, Ou Est La Maison De Fromage? in 1978. Other discs followed on CBS and then Epic as the hyper-thin motor-mouthing son of Salford drawled his way from the punk rock circuit (touring with fellow Mancunians, The Buzzcocks, and supporting virtually every key punk outfit, including The Sex Pistols) to a starring TV role alongside The Honey Monster in Sugar Puffs adverts. Heroin addiction (which involved a relationship with Nico, the terminally-addicted former singer with the Andy Warhol/Lou Reed combo The Velvet Underground) left JCC too unreliable for more than the odd spells of gigging during most of the eighties. Needless to say, he wrote little throughout this period. Survival, age and parenthood in the nineties have seen him restored to sparkling form and back on the gigging circuit, albeit heavily dependent on old material.
JCC’s hyperfast delivery and disinterested Mancunian drawl seemed to fit perfectly, as did his shades, chewing-gum, tight-suited anorexic chic and (Bob) Dylanesque back-combed mane. In performance, he was (and still is) not only cooler than his audience, but linguistically and intellectually sharper than most of them, despite the pop simplicity of some of his lines. And, despite the drugs, he retains an encyclopaedic and near-eidetic memory. Unlike LKJ, though, JCC is only marginally political. He’s a storyteller and craftsman who plays with language to tease out relentless chains of finely-honed and neatly-observed phrases.
And so to the ranters. I’ve already mentioned the four Bradford poets who began gigging together in the early eighties. They were Steven Wells (aka Swells) - a fast-talking, aggressive and provocative, left-wing (SWP) skinhead who spat his jagged diatribes at the audience as if daring them to stop him; Julie Denbeigh (aka Joolz) - a multi-tattooed, stridently uncompromising, ex-biker whose often intensely personal poetry swung abruptly from bitter prose-like cautionary tales through to biting political rants, or from near-mawkish sentimentality to mainstream descriptive poetry; Dave Stockell (aka Little Brother) - a dapper former bus conductor, dark-suited with mod-cut blond hair and a marked Bradford accent who wrote poems of proletarian anger at injustice and inequality, interspersed with some of the funniest poetry on the scene at the time; and, completing this foursome, was (Wild) Willi Beckett - a complete eccentric (whom I first encountered coming on stage to perform his poems wearing a white-face mask, roller-skates and a nun’s outfit, wielding a blood-stained axe) writing poetry which managed to merge linguistic polish, political naivety and social concern. These four took their poetry to rock audiences, playing far more gigs and festivals than ordinary poetry readings. I was doing the same - and, like Willi Beckett, was also fronting a band.
For a while, the Aries Entrerprises acts lived communally in Bradford. Later I shared a house with Swells and another Bradford-based poet, John Lunn, a Mancunian who performed under the name Ginger John, The Doomsday Commando. Lunn was large in every sense - a swaggering overweight and often uncouth character with a very dodgy past who’d come to poetry without the education and simply out of a love for the power and potential of the spoken word. If anyone was the antithesis of the British literary establishment, it was him. He’d switch from caring to crude, from compassionate to terrifyingly aggressive. He could out-drink, out-eat, out-party and outrage everyone. The three of us, along with Kevin Seisay, a black Mancunian singer-songwriter, gigged together in the mid-eighties as the aptly-named Intolerance Tour.
It seemed that virtually every rock gig in Britain featured at least one poet. Poetry events were springing up in almost every venue. The enthusiasm, energy and competition between poets was intense. So, though there were some very bad poets among the ranters, the overall standard of performance shot up. Thus, when Swells, Little Brother, Attila and I were invited to represent Britain at the annual Poetry International in Amsterdam, the four of us effortlessly eclipsed the dozens of other participating poets, gleaning eulogies in a host of reviews and press features.
Throughout the eighties, then, Little Brother, Swells, Attila, Joolz, Willi Beckett, Ginger John, myself and as many as two hundred other political performer-poets found ourselves described as ranters. Many of us were widely published in zines and anthologies, recorded tracks for countless sampler albums, released our own records and cassettes, and gigged obsessively. The key London organisation, founded as a non-sexist collective in 1982, was Apples and Snakes which ran (and continues to run) regular ‘poetry cabaret’ events in central London, showcasing performance poets. Paul Beasley, who was a pivotal figure in the collective and who now runs his own poetry agency/CD label, 57 Productions, edited the three anthologies that document this movement - Apples and Snakes (Pluto Press ’84), The Popular Front of Contemporary Poetry (Apples & Snakes ’92) and Hearsay (The Bodley Head ’94).
But suddenly, it was over. By the end of the eighties, alternative comedy had replaced poetry as “the new rock’n’roll”. Attila became a globe-trotting punk-folk troubadour who, armed with his mandolin (called Nelson Mandola) and guitar, began performing many of his poems as songs, a career which he subsidised via journalism. Swells moved to London to join the staff of the New Musical Express. He’d run his own poetry fanzine, Molotov Cocktails, in the early eighies, show-casing ranting poetry. For the last couple of issues, this zine was merged with another West Yorkshire fanzine, Attack on Bzag, edited by an arrogant and ambitious young anarchist called James Brown, who went on to drop his politics in favour of fame and money as the founder and editor of the laddish Loaded magazine. As for Swells, he’s still with NME, has produced videos for indie bands as diverse as St.Etienne and Skunk Anansi, and has just published his first novel, offensively and typically entitled Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty. Little Brother and Willi Beckett have both wrestled with the bastard booze. The former has recently resumed writing, recording and performing. The latter, now in retirement, fronted The Psycho Surgeons until they disbanded two years ago and was Shadow Minister of Mental Health in the late Lord Sutch’s Monster Raving Loony Party. Ginger John has a flat in Manchester and is planning to return to gigging. Joolz has just been given a five-figure advance as a novelist. LKJ has virtually given up performing but is still politically active. And I’m now a successful as a children’s poet. My two collections of dragon poems (for Macmillan Children’s Books) have sold almost 50,000 copies and my third book, of animal poems, has sold 5,000 copies since it was published two weeks ago - and I’ve a further seven titles at least due out in the next three years. I still gig obsessively, but mostly during the day, in schools, libraries and festivals, and I’m a magician, storyteller, puppeteer, stand-up comic and journalist to boot... all of which are, I suppose, compromises for an avowed anarchist. But mine is now a middle-class married life with two kids, a cat, two gerbils and a Volvo. I’ve a fiftieth birthday to celebrate this year, though I still make myself write every day and continue to publish political books for adults, but I’m lucky if they sell more than a few hundred copies each. So that’s life, mine. And I wouldn’t swap or change one second of it. It’s been a buzz!
The only downer is that there’s never enough time or space. I should’ve written about so many others who’ve done amazing gigs... Benjamin Zepheniah, Henry Normal, Valerie Bloom, John Row, John Hegley, Lemn Sissay, SuAndi... etc.
P.S. Go and see John Cooper Clarke. If you’ve never seen him before, he’ll blow you away. If you remember him from his punk days, you’ll find him just as sharp as ever