Interview and transcription by Bob Moore, special correspondent for DC ROCK LIVE
conducted by phone, April 14, 2015
Editor's note: I was thrilled to get the chance to interview one of the oddest and most fascinating giants of the early punk rock scene. In fact, I was so thrilled, that I just had to turn it over to a ringer, my long-time friend from that era, who knows poetry as much as he does music and has been a huge fan of John Cooper Clarke. Bob Moore was the founder of the Noise fanzine and the Version Sound record label and pretty much jump started the cassette compilation craze in the USA. In fact, his first, Charred Remains, has been recently reissued on vinyl much to old and new punk rockers and hardcore addicts’ delight. Although Bob is in Massachusetts these days, he has great ties to DC (first person ever to release Void and Double O music) and was a perfect choice for this interview. Enjoy.
And by all means, carve the date Tuesday, May 12th into your calendar, so you can join me at the Hamilton to see this legendary poet/comic/rantacantour (yeah, I just invented the last word) perform as only he can. This is a rare US appearance, so don’t miss!
John Cooper Clarke: OK, how are you, kid?
B: Not too bad. This is pretty wild getting a call from one of my long-term heroes, so...
J: Oh wow, Bob, thanks for saying that.
B: Yeah, in 1988 I hitchhiked around Europe with a copy of “10 years in an open-necked shirt” in my backpack attempting to memorize all the poems.
J: Really? Amazing man, wow, thank you (laughs) so great...
B: So you’re coming back to the united states after some 35 years...unbelievable.
J: Yeah, well to be honest, I was just in Los Angeles right before Christmas for the first time in 35 years, since 1981.
B: You were on tour w/ Allen Ginsberg at that time the last time ?
J: In the States? Nah, i did shows w/ David Johansen, Rockpile, mainly rock-n-roll shows, places like CBGBs, obviously. During that whole interim period, the days of punk rock til now, I’ve not worked in the States. I’ve been trying to get back there for the last 30 years.
B: It’s changed a lot...
J: Really? I don’t think so. I don’t think it really changes, not visually, anyway.
B: Well, like Beasley Street has changed alot.
J: Well, I’ve done the update of that one. (laughs)
B: Yeah, I heard it it, it’s great. Hysterical.
j: Well, Los Angeles has always been the same, the prevalent architecture is Mediterranean, isn’t it. you know, flat roofs, lavish, it’s been that way since the Spanish arrived a couple a hundred years ago.
B: Yeah, it’s a very scary place
B: Well, maybe not as scary as Manchester...
J: No, now that’s scary. Los Angeles is like holiday resort everywhere you go, unlike Manchester. Everything seems remarkably ordered compared to England. I live in Essex in the southeast.
B: Yeah, that’s north of the Isle of Wight?
J: Yeah, well, considering the Isle of Wight is off the south coast of England, everywhere in England is north of the Isle of Wight. (laughs) In the same way that everywhere in the United States is north of Mexico.
J: Yeah, I was, but everything was headed in that direction anyway. It caught on very quickly, the whole punk rock thing there, yeah.
B: Did you get hassled by the teddy boys?
J: No, no. Back then it was very difficult to tell punks and teddy boys apart, because Malcolm McClaren’s shop sold loads of rockabilly hep cat cloths including teddy boys suits, so a lot of the punks wore that stuff as well. Teds vs. punks, I think it was really a King’s Row phenomenon, kind of a London thing, and even then a specific part of London.
B: You started doing poetry readings, not at punk shows, but at working class pubs?
J: Yeah, cabaret joints in the center of Manchester, working class places, what they used to call working man’s clubs, blue collar drinking establishments, where they would have entertainment, torch singers, comedians, a sort of vaguely jazz-tinged rhythm combo supplying back-up to any guest vocalists.
B: That gave you the preparation for tackling the punks.
J: Yeah, after that punk rock was an easy ride (laughs).
B: How did you land that early television show?
J: You mean Tony Wilson’s “So It Goes” thing? Tony was right behind that, he was the first guy to put the Sex Pistols on television after the whole Bill Grundy thing, as people wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole. Luckily we had Tony Wilson. He was a news anchorman on local television, who was young enough to really get it about punk rock. He had his own early evening show after the news, featuring punk rock acts from England and abroad. Lots of bands from the CBGB’s scene made their first appearance on that show. Blondie, I reckon it was the first time she was [they were] on British television. The Ramones, Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders. I think Sky Arts have recently done a reissue series of DVDs of the show, including me doing the voiceovers, which is now available commercially.
J: Yeah, well we talk about success. I had limited success as I never got higher than #26 in the charts (laughs). But to think about it you had to sell a lot more records than you do now for that to happen, as everything is proportional. Let’s face it, not many people still buy records anymore.
B: Well, vinyl’s having a comeback in the states, mostly among record collectors.
J: That’s great. [something about “Phil Spector on this one”]
B: On my first trip to England in 1988, I was collecting two things: John Cooper Clarke records and Adrian Henri books.
J: Oh, you like that whole Liverpool Scene?
B: Yeah, I got to meet Adrian Henri at his apartment in Liverpool at that time. But I know there’s a rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester...
J: Yeah, well it’s football really. Football really breeds hatred. (laughs) There’s not a lot you can do about it.
B: Do you know those poets, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten?
J: I run into them from time to time at various literary events, sure. In fact, Roger’s got a regular radio show on BBC Radio4 on Sunday afternoons that’s been running for years called, “Poetry Please.” Yeah, Roger’s doing O.K.
B: Yeah, sometimes I look at the United States and England as two countries separated by a common language.
J: I like the American way with it. I gotta say I like the American version of England.
B: Well, it seems like the British poets are not as well known in the U.S. and vice-versa.
J: Well, would you be talking about Robert Creeley? Robert Lowell? people of that nature... Delmore Schwartz? Gary Snyder? Yeah, I like Gary. In fact, I started writing haikus because of him (laughs). Moreso than because of Michael Stipe, who are both big into the haiku industry.
[Bob talks about his history with hardcore and post punk]
B: I still have a copy of the “Innocents” single on Rabid Records. It’s so great.
J: Yeah, well thanks.
B: But you disappeared for a while...
J: Yeah, well, you know... In the 80s anything that was perceived as having anything to do with “punk” was not required. Slick production values, labeled clothing, conspicuous consumption, made punk look kind of too sick for people’s taste. It was really only Adam Ant that survived the 80s, out of all the original punk rockers.
B: It’s interesting, as the 80’s were the really decadent years in the States.
J: In England, it was dance music. I love dancing to soul music. What they call dance is music, I think, is music for people who can’t dance...Guys. (laughs).
B: Are you a fan of Northern Soul?
J: Absolutely, right from Year Zero, since I was sixteen years old. That’s been the soundtrack of my life. (laughs)
B: Yeah, it’s interesting because most Americans are unaware of Northern Soul as dance music, but more from the standpoint of collectible records, selling rare singles to British DJs.
J: Well, the quality control on those records was out of this world. You can’t believe they weren’t all smash hits worldwide. There aren’t any bad records in that genre (laughs). You know like in movies, I say there’s no such thing as a bad Western. They’re all great.
B: I know in the U.K. Northern Soul has always been huge, but in the U.S. it’s only now catching on as dance music in select clubs in New York, for instance. It’s underground.
J: Really? Well, that’s interesting. I can’t understand why, because the music itself, anyone would love it.
B: Well, I remember when I first discovered Garnet Mimms, it just about blew my mind. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
J: Well, now you’re talkin. I mean, what a singer, he’s right up there with Sam Cooke, for me. Do you know that song, “A Quiet Place?”
B: Hmm.. I don’t know that one.
J: It’s great. It tells a whole story. It’s a real story record, fantastic, a little slice-of-life, a true story, some bachelor guy’s life. Terrific. It’s about a real troublemaker living in the apartment above his head. Check it out on your computer after we hang up. One of his best songs. (sings) “I can’t get no sleep in this noisy street. I gotta move. I gotta find me a quiet place.” It’s wicked. One of my favorite singers. You named it there, my boy (laughs).
B: Well, Led Zeppelin covered “As Long as I Have You” in their early live sets.
J: I didn’t know they covered any of his stuff, but I don’t know much about Led Zeppelin, to be honest. But Janis Joplin covered his “Cry Baby” didn’t she? That’s one of his. And Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, a Manchester beat group at the time of the Beatles, they did a version of “It Was Easier to Hurt Her.” Do you know that one?
B: No, now I’ve got to do my homework.
J: Sorry, kid, you got me started on Garnet Mimms, there ain’t no end to it (laughs).
B: So are you looking forward to coming over to the U.S. and causing some trouble. We need shaking up.
J: Where are we talking about?
B: Well, Dave Hintz of “DC Rock Live” will be seeing you in Washington and I’ll be seeing you up in Boston at the Berklee College of Music.
J: Well, don’t be a stranger. We’ll have to have a drink.
B: I’ve been waiting 35 years for this. I used to riff off your poems with friends [recites a riff from “Health Fanatic”]. I was a punk rocker and a vegetarian, so the poem fit me nicely.
J: (laughs) I love to hear it in an American accent. That’s great. It’s always been one of my own personal favorites, that particular poem, I like that one (laughs).
B: We’re all looking forward to your tour. It’s going to be a good time.
J: It will, I promise. You know, I don’t get nerves over here anymore, you know, my name’s on the marquee above the door. Anybody buying a ticket, they ain’t cheap, they know what they’re going to get, so I look at it rationally, in the U.K. But I tell you I’m shitting my pants over the States and I’ll tell you why. If it didn’t come across, it’ll destroy my world because I love the States.
B: Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it because anyone who shows up is going to be a fan already.
J: Well, there is that about it.
B: The Berklee College of Music seems like a bit of a posh gig for you, not a drinking bar? It might be a little stiff.
J: Oh, it’s a sit down place is it? Well, that’s a lot of what I’m doing these days.
B: I saw a video of your recent set in Glasgow. You had the audience wrapped around your little finger, that crowd.
J: Yeah, that’s a wild sound. Yeah, well, they love me up there. I’m the only English guy they like! (laughs)
B: I remember you said that back in the 70s, when you played Glasgow you only lasted 4 minutes on stage because of the razor gangs.
J: Yeah, it was four minutes literally. But then I returned within a year with a more suitable line-up, opening for Elvis Costello and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. It was an entirely punk crowd, so they dug it. I had to get right back in the saddle, or I may never have returned to this day.
B: Well, it takes a lot of nerve to throw poetry at punk crowds and win them over. That’s so amazing.
J: Well, like I said before, it wasn’t as difficult as the cabaret scene. The thing about punks was a lot of them were just artistic kids, they weren’t brutal. But those cabaret joints could get brutal. So I wasn’t joking when I said the punk crowd was a smooth ride (laughs).
B: Yeah, a friend of mine from Stockton-on-Tees had a mother who was a torch singer and she would sing in the pubs in Northern England that were all filled with gangsters, like “Get Carter.”
J: Yeah, that’s that world I’m talking about in the North, especially because they had steel workers, iron foundries, coal. It was real hard-ass fucking blue collar, you know, exactly like “Get Carter.” You got it.
[Bob talks about hitchhiking through southern England and Cornwall]
J: Yeah, it’s real insular down that way. Some of them people down in Cornwall, for instance, don’t even think they’re English. You know, they got some cockamamie local argot, you know, like the Bretons in France or the Catalans in Spain and the Welsh here. They’re all encouraged to have their own piss-ant little history, but it’s just some committee simply making it up. Do you know what I mean?
B: Yeah, well, my ancestors are Welsh, Irish and North English, so I went around in 1988 and met some of the last surviving relatives.
J: Sounds like you got got a glimpse of a dying world. Things were different then, you’re quite right.
B: I’m glad I went over before the advent of the internet. I hate the new technologies.
J: Yeah, I hate it as well. I don’t have a phone, a mobile, or a computer. TV, I ain’t gotten over TV. To me, it’s a daily miracle (laughs).
B: Well, you have the BBC, so there you go.
J: No, no, I like American television. The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad. That’s my kind of TV (laughs).
B: Oh, you’re corrupted.
J: No, I could watch nothing but the Simpsons, I wouldn’t complain (laughs).
B: Well, I’ve got an appointment with my tax preparer, taxes are due tomorrow, so I gotta run.
J: Tell me about it. I just kissed a load of dough goodbye in that direction. I sympathize, mon bras.