Punk-influenced performance poetry now thrives on both sides of the Atlantic, as open mics and poetry slams draw new generations of writers with combative tones, satirical perspectives, and rock-inspired rhythms in their lines.
"What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow. "
John Cooper Clarke / Punk Poetry
“I’ve got the largest collection of broken glasses in Britain,” John Cooper Clarke once noted in reference to his role as Daniel in the lion’s dens of the early punk movement. The role of the poet is rarely perceived as a dangerous one, but these hostile environments were—in some respects—as responsible as personal artistic choices for Clarke crafting his work in the way that he did and then ultimately delivering it in the style that he did. For him, quick wit in performance and quick delivery of content were as much survival strategies as aesthetic devices.
The “bard of Salford” is indeed a prime Mancunian candidate. On hearing Clarke’s voice intonate, memory reflexes immediately transport you through a history of Manchester humor that connects The Royle Family to Coronation Street to Herman’s Hermits and back to the Music Hall comedians of the industrial 19th century. Verging on caricature, Clarke’s voice, vernacular, and down-to-earth imagery combine to form his expressive humor of social observation.
Reading the words to “Beasley Street” (1980) we recognize a painterly portrait of urban squalor; hearing Clarke speak these words connects us and them directly to the industrial North of England and to the sardonic heart of Manchester humor. “The rats have all got rickets / They spit through broken teeth / The name of the game is not cricket / Caught out on Beasley Street,” deadpans Clarke in weary monotone. Here, personification, obtuse metaphor, and social class commentary are integrated to succinctly “catch” the fated decay of his city.
Yet there is gallows humor, too: we envision the rats as the dominant residents, and the word “cricket” here operates with a double meaning, suggesting that the game of hope and opportunity is over but that such reality is just “not cricket”, a common catchphrase in upper class parlance to pronounce that something is unwarranted. Set against an evocative Eno-esque musical mélange of keyboard-driven atmospheric sounds and shuffling rhythms (provided by The Invisible Girls, featuring such Manchester punk dignitaries as Pete Shelley and Martin Hannett), “Beasley Street” is transformed into a contemporary version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, a panorama of imagistic words and music that surveys with desperate humor the modern urban condition.
The Faber Book of Political Verse recognized Clarke’s contributions to the art of poetry by including “Evidently Chicken Town” (complete with its keyword “fucking” used 82 times over its 50 lines length) alongside Dante and Milton, while his hometown University of Salford commissioned him to write a tribute poem to the 19th century Manchester artist L.S. Lowry. (Source: The Independent 7 January 1989, posted on John Cooper Clarke.com) Despite such occasional institutional accommodations, though, Clarke remains the same marginal and modestly down-to-earth figure he was when he used to dodge the flying glasses and abuse emanating from punk stages in 1977. Yet for all his relative obscurity and lack of broad recognition today, his legacy lingers and it is a far-reaching one.
Clarke may not have invented the marriage between poetry and music, but his punk style within that combination sparked a post-punk poetry scene that included Attila the Stockbroker and Seething Wells, as well as more minor players like Swift Nick, Kool Knotes, Phil Jupitus, and Craig Charles. Thanks to Clarke and his peers, punk-influenced performance poetry now thrives on both sides of the Atlantic, as open mics and poetry slams draw new generations of writers with combative tones, satirical perspectives, and rock-inspired rhythms in their lines.
Within music culture Clarke’s influence also continues to inspire, his regional and regionalist consciousness apparent in northern humorist rock bands ranging from Manchester’s The Fall to Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys. Like Clarke, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith surrealistically captures the grotesque architecture of Lancashire’s working class wastelands, while the Monkeys’ Alex Turner has inherited the wide-eyed observational wit of his mentor, incorporating it into his own detailed portraits of urban Yorkshire life, similarly reveling in what Paul Morley once called Clarke’s “exquisite sense of the trivial.”
Joy Division / Post-Punk
Joy Division never wrote any songs explicitly about Manchester, yet their music captures what critic Simon Reynolds calls the city’s “traumatized urban landscape” as vividly as any other band has. Moreover, as much as they reflected the harsh industrial hangover of the city at the close of the ‘70s, the band’s appeal to listeners then and now speaks to their ability to make the local universal and the timely timeless. One of the more innovative and evocative bands to come out of post-punk Britain, Joy Division’s spatial sound-scapes and foreboding atmospherics still linger today in the darker recesses of modern independent rock music.
Like John Cooper Clarke, Joy Division emerged from rough, working class Salford during the height of the nation’s punk explosion. Two members of the band, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, had been among the handful of attendees at the Sex Pistols’ legendary show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in June, 1976. As with many of the other 40 people present, this performance inspired them to go home and start up their own band.
The initial manifestations of Joy Division—briefly as Stiff Kittens and then as Warsaw—were impressive but indistinct, the style and sound largely following the punk template that had been codified by locals like The Buzzcocks and Slaughter and the Dogs and nationals like the Pistols. However, even early on there were signs that Warsaw were more than just another run-of-the-mill punk band. Their guitar sound harbored a stark metallic sheen, while Ian Curtis’ vocals, even then, had a marked desperation, that harrowing quality that separated the singer’s voice from the angry sneering of his snide peers.
The lyrics, too, were beyond punk’s usual socio-political remonstrations and protestations; they spoke of personal pressure, crisis, failure, futility; they were abstract yet clear, specific yet universal. Just as their name ,Warsaw, evoked in one’s mind images of post-war devastation, concrete desolation, and urban austerity, so Curtis’ lyrics offered signifiers of existential angst set against a backdrop of gray skies and bleak landscapes; in other words, an imaginary Manchester of the consciousness.
The transition from Warsaw to Joy Division was more than one of name only. In the hands of local producer Martin Hannett, the band’s new batch of slower, less frenetic songs took on a new tone, too, one which would define the band thereafter. Whereas Warsaw had embraced the wall-of-sound production qualities of classic punk, Hannett dissected the instruments from one another, stripping the sound down to its primary features then puncturing spaces in the wall.
The guitar, now an angular shading device rather than a rhythmic backbone, left room for the bass to step up as the central melodic pulse, while the drums provided mechanistic rhythms and points of punctuation rather than a conventional steady backbeat. Reassembled to accentuate emptiness and isolated moods, the instrumental jigsaw was completed with the overlay of Curtis’ sad-to-urgent croon. Hannett’s final treatment of across-the-board reverb gave the songs a common cavernous aura. Visions of post-industrial Manchester appeared to be sewn into the tapestry of this sound-scape: monotone machines, Victorian decrepitude, high-rise squalor, rain-pounded streets, dead souls.
Such sonic portraits of place and time were further underscored by the accompanying videos for the 1980 singles “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which drew from such desolate and urban imagery. In addition, their label, Factory Records, as their name suggests, played to the distinctions of the city’s industrial heritage. And as much as the label contributed to the band’s Manchester character, so the band did likewise for the label.
Subsequent Factory acts—A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, Section 25—were also notable for their solemn, doom-laden sounds, and for their parallel purposes of documenting private pain and public malaise. Like Devo and Pere Ubu had done for Ohio’s industrial cities of Cleveland and Akron, and Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA had done for industrial Sheffield, the post-punk bands of Factory Records offered sonic and lyrical testaments to Manchester’s post-industrial plight at the close of the ‘70s.