The Hang of Music: Invisible Girls not included

Hey guys, just me gearing up for NaNoWriMo here, so gonna be brief here, so I can get back to planning the next review so I can get it in on time.

So yeah, something different this week – John Cooper Clarke, with his debut “Disguise in Love”. So, unlike usual, I get to start with a pun, even if it’s only the orginal album title.

So, what do any of you know about John Cooper Clarke? You may know of his beat poem, “Beasley Street”, which is the first thing I knew of his. But really, you likely won’t know much. Well, long story short – in the few seconds after the bright flash of the Big Bang, after the initial explosion, most of the actually interesting stuff was created and began to coalesce.

Flash forward 14 billion years, and then the other most significant moment in the history of the world happened: punk. And like the Big Bang, all of the really interesting stuff just turned up just after that, and a bunch of new stuff formed. One of those things was John Cooper Clarke, and the interest in poetry as a musical form.

Actually, we’ve covered something similar before on this site: Gil Scott Heron. Except Gil Scott Heron is designed to be sung (?) with music. However, for this review I’ve listened to a couple of his albums, and most of them are completely accapella. This first album is the odd one out, in that for most of it, he has accompanying music, provided by “The Invisible Girls” – of whom none are girls. Fitting, I guess.

Not literally…

So I want to deal with the music early on: the music is… OK. It really isn’t that interesting, but it is far from bad. It’s just a distraction from the main event, the words. So, although I’m going to treat the album from here on in as if it were instrumental, the music is there, and is not bad. But I don’t go to the theatre and review the seats.

The real meat of it lies in Clarke’s fantastic delivery. He is very very good at what he does. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard any live poetry – and if not you should – but he is really good at presenting his stuff. He’s fast, he’s funny, he’s got all the right stuff in all the right places.

Oh, and he’s also foul. You have to know this to understand what he does: he’s offensive and cruel and probably offensively northern even if you’re northern yourself.* But he is such fun to listen to when he rants, which most of his poems are. No-one is safe: girls on motorcycles, perverts, body-builders, housewives…

Actually, if anything, I think his invective is too personally targetted. It’s all aimed at groups of people that you may know, rather than being aimed at the society that has created those groups. And considering this is the late 70s, I would have thought that an angry, 1970s era, punk inspired poet with the depths of bile that JCC has would be aiming it all at the cultural cancers of the day – the racists, the fascist police, the wars we’re (still) always involved in…

Except, he does actually deal with the first of those – “I Married A Monster From Outer Space” can be interpreted a lot of ways, all of them really boiling down to ‘people should keep their stupid noses out of who I choose to marry’. Be they black, white, a man, a woman, whatever.** But it’s very hard to tell, as he delivers it in a very downbeat way, more like he’s depressed than enraged.

And some of his poems are even, dare I mention it, a little bit feminist. Well, that or misogynist. In “Reader’s Wives”, is he criticising them for being stupid, or criticising society for inventing the standards of beauty which encourage them to be so empty? In “Valley of the Lost Women”, he refers to them as victims, dreaming of a better life that’s been taken from them by marriage, but whether these are the same groups he’s talking about is unclear.

And then there’s “Psycle Sluts 1&2”, two consecutive poems which, taken as a whole, can’t seem to make up their minds about the eponymous – sometimes chastising their choices, sometimes encouraging their energy and devil may care attitude. In ways I am reminded of Pulp’s “Glory Days”, which says basically the same of students: you’re wasting your life, well done you!

… Narrowly avoiding using any more time and words on this, I feel it’s now worth moving on to talking about the structure of his poems here. Some of them are structured, yes, like songs, with repeating choruses and lines. But most of them are both more and less odd than that. More in that they aren’t structured like songs, and less in that they are structured like stream-of-consciousness poems. Often, he’ll just meander from one point to the next with no obvioud rhyme or reason until you’ve got to the end and saw how it all took shape.

And in some ways, he uses that shape well. One of his key style traits, I’d say, is that he’s a real fan of blunt endings, and uses them on (at least) “Psycle Sluts 1&2” and in the last line of the chorus on “Teenage Werewolf”. And in his hands, and for his personal style, they work really well. Partly because they emphasise his highly plosive and aggressive delivery, but also because he knows how to subvert the rhythm, so they come completely out of nowhere. To resolve itself, Teenage Werewolf needs at least two more beats; without them, it sounds funny. As in “Ha Ha Funny”. Hilarious.

That is quite a laugh!

I know, I know: I’m being hugely glowing of Clarke’s actual poetic style. Part of that is because he is genuinely great. He’s funny and clever, and his rages come off as cathartic purges of your excess hate. It didn’t take me long to start seeing some really good things in this album, even if I can’t always see what he’s getting at.

But another reason is that, really, performed poetry is a rare thing. It’s a huge novelty, and one that the world is richer for more of, not less. And not many of you will ever have listened to any of this sort of stuff, and that’s sad. Sadder than when people haven’t listened to american indie folk, or japanese nu metal, or ancient jazz. They are all music – this is something else.

I try not to end my reviews on recommendations – if you’ve been reading properly, you should know what I think, and if I’ve been writing properly, you should already know what you think.*** But I am going to make a recommendation here. If punk poetry sounds anything like the sort of thing that you might be interested in, go find some John Cooper Clarke. There should be some online, for the next few months we should still have libraries (Anti-Tory satire! Yay!) with CDs in. Even resort to torrents, maybe, if you’re the kind of person who kicks puppies. But try him – he’s good.

… God, reading that back, it sounds like I’ve ended this review all wimpy.

* Not that being northern is offensive at all. From a wannabe northerner, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that being southern is the insult. But ye gods, there is such a thing as enough. You can like a glass of water, and still drown.

** OK, he makes no reference to homosexuality. He may be a massive homophobe; who knows? He wouldn’t be the first otherwise clever person to still be completely wrong about that.

*** Not always the same thing.

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Posted on October 28, 2012, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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