Live Zone

John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell + Mike Garry: O2 Academy, Birmingham, 1st December 2016

Manchester poet Mike Garry has been touring with ‘The Bard of Salford,’ John Cooper Clarke for six years. He spent 15 years as a librarian, as he told us; trying to get kids to read books. Dressed in a dapper, tweed, checked jacket with a hoodie underneath, he comes on stage with the hood up and wearing a scarf. Like a character from Withnail and I.

There is a distinct air of mystery about him, and his delivery is quite mesmerising. Equal measures of acerbic wit, charm, very clever word play and tear jerking human observation. His timing is quite something; you could hear a pin drop in that room and we hang on his every word.

Funny thing; he looks a lot like fellow Manc’ Steve Coogan when he smiles. His voice control was a masterclass; drawing you in to his world with the choice of and the delivery of his words

The poem in tribute to the late Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, “St Anthony,” is a work of art. New Order and composer Phillip Glass thought so too, when they asked him to record it to music and appear at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall with them. The track topped the indie charts.

The eulogy he gave at his Mother’s funeral was quite moving and simply magnificent. Opening his book of poetry that was on sale out front with other merch’, putting on his glasses he smiled and said he didn’t need to read it, but it was a great piece of product placement; looking down into my camera lens at the time with a grin.

At the end of this amazing heart-wrenching poem, “What Me Mam Taught Me,” Mike remarks about how funny it was he managed to get use his book for product placement at his own Mum’s funeral! Telling us when she had asked him to write the tribute for her funeral, he had told her he did not know how he could do that and be able to sum up her life in a few words. Patricia Garry replied; Mike repeating her comment in her thick Irish accent: “I thought you were supposed to be a fucking writer!”

Yes indeed; Mike Garry really IS a fucking writer. A great fucking writer. I only wish I could write half as good as that man. The last time I was that knocked out with a poet in the flesh, was back in the late 1970s; circa ‘78 or ‘79 when I was shooting photos of a band called Be Bop Deluxe for a music ‘paper. Bill Nelson, their main man, was my hero back then.

The support act was not another band. It was this skinny as a rake, gangly, punky black haired, ear ringed, all in black, drainpipe jeans-wearing geezer smoking a fag and holding his pile of scruffy pages in his other hand. Literally dodging the bottles, glasses, cans and all sorts being lobbed at him from the crowd. Some of that yellow liquid was not beer, either!

Some were booing and yelling “Fuck off,” as he ignored the barrage of missiles and never missed a single word or reacted in any way to the total morons, who eventually gave up and shut up.

That support act poet was John Cooper Clarke. I have never forgotten two poems he read out: “You never see a nipple in the Daily Express,” and “I Married A Monster From Outer space.” He was magnificent. A total freak as a support act. You got solo artists or bands, never a punk with a razor sharp mind, funny as fuck and the best wordsmith I had ever heard back then. He made a big impression on the 19 or 20-year-old me.

Wind forward some 38 years or so, and I am in the pit between the crowd and the stage in a dimly lit room in Birmingham’s 02 Academy; Room # 2 in fact. The only time I had been to that venue before, was back in the summer in the main room, which holds at least a couple of thousand, to shoot pix of ZZ Top. A big difference to tonight’s fare.

This gig was moved from the smaller sister venue down the road for some reason to here. It was a freezing cold, Thursday night. Around 250 braved the elements to come see John Cooper Clarke, now with Dr in front of his name, after being awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts Degree by Salford University in 2013.

He is not alone tonight and there’s not a poem in sight. It is a black metal music stand by his mike stand, not for his poetry words but for lyrics and a set list. John is joined by Stranglers legend Hugh Cornwell on guitar and vocals. They are plugging their rather eccentric but infectious Sony album, “This Time It’s Personal,” a collection of covers of songs from the 50s, 60s and onwards they both loved as younger men. It’s gonna be a Marmite moment for many with that record.

The big difference for the album and the tour; it is John’s first crack as a singer, at the age of 67. It was Hugh’s idea to record John singing the classic Jimmy Webb epic “Macarthur Park,” which he dreamed up one night when he’d has a drink. He asked John and he said, let’s do it. The idea of a full album sprang from that one track. Then the tour took shape and here they are. Backed by a drummer, a bassist and keyboard player Phil Andrews, who also doubles up on guitar, and adds horns and flute from his keyboards. Hugh on lead guitar.

The album is quirky and fun. There has obviously been a lot of hard work and long hours spent in the studio by producer Hugh to polish the vocals. No disrespect to JCC, but he’s no Pavarotti. But it seems to work on the record. No attempt to smooth away his thick Salford accent, which is a result. So how was his voice live?  More on that later……..

Speaking to Hugh after the gig, he told me that he had seen John for dinner a few weeks before this strange idea had popped into his head when he heard the song Macarthur Park, and for some reason pictured JCC singing it.

So he called him and got a ‘yes.’ So what is it like working with John on the record and the tour: “Anything with John is always going to be wacky, isn’t it?”

So how did Hugh feel tonight’s gig went; gig number four of an eight date tour? His answer was unexpected: “It was a very strange place. Something sucked all of the energy out of the room. We felt it on stage and I am sure the people did too. A very strange atmosphere. Not like any room I have ever played in. Quite eerie.

“Maybe it was built on top of something. I am sure something happened on this site or in this room. Something terrible. I do not know if you believe in that stuff; but I am into all that stuff. I’d like to find out. If you find out, let me know Simon.”

His comments about the room and venue were ringing in my ears on the way home and the next day. So I set about doing some research into the place. I was staggered with what I found out… It used to be The Dome Nightclub for a good few years, from 1981-2003 and before that it was The Night Out Theatre and Restaurant.

In July 1999, a sports car which was allegedly racing with another car, mounted the pavement, demolished a concrete barrier and ploughed into young club goers on their way into the venue. 11 were injured, six seriously including one who was paralysed, and a doorman was killed. One young guy who was on the pavement was trapped in the wreckage and it took fire fighters well over an hour to cut him out. The 41-year-old doorman had just been married and was a father-to-be.

The injured were taken to two hospitals; six people were detained and those injured suffered broken arms and legs, spinal and hip injuries and internal and head injuries. Soon after the incident, one man in his 20s had been into theatre and another was due to be operated on. A woman in her 20s was described as being in a “stable condition” at the time.

The 19-year-old driver of the sports car was sentenced to six years in a young offenders’ institution for causing death by dangerous driving.

So…can a building retain trauma or pain, I ask myself? I have an open mind, but Hugh definitely felt something was untoward in that room that night. Not for me to say he was right or wrong. But it sure makes you think…..

But there was most definitely spirit in the room. Behind the bar and on stage. John Cooper Clarke’s spirit is legendary.  He is not known for his singing voice, nor will he be after this tour, but he shows true spirit on every song. Some which would scare a seasoned vocalist. As he said before he gave us his unique version of the classic Macarthur Park: “I don’t have Richard Harris’ rich baritone, but I do have a certain weird charm. So be nice.” In the main, they were nice.

The odd guy yelled out things like “Go on son, you’re a singer you are.” And; “Them are some pipes.” Most of the room stayed put and responded warmly at the end of each song. But, there were some who left early citing poor sound quality (I disagree with that) and some saying they were not a fan of John’s voice and this was not what they expected.

There were some old punks there for Hugh’s Stranglers’ stuff. There were some who hero-worshipped JCC as a poet and were gutted he didn’t do any tonight. But it was billed as Hugh and John, and JCC as singer. So that should not have been a surprise. Some had heard a track from their album on BBC 6 and come along because they thought it sounded OK. The jury was out for some who still stayed to the end and left undecided. But they stayed.

Me. I enjoyed it, warts and all, because no matter what they did, here were two old troupers, two legends who were well and truly at it. JCC taking a risk and having a good bash at singing. Hugh alongside him, playing guitar, singing backing vocals and taking the lead vocal on some of the timeless Stranglers gems he wrote and sang back in the day.

It had to be better than watching Emmerdale or Question Time. They sold Tuborg beer too. What’s not to like?  Yes, some of the vocals were, how can we say; “avant-garde” at times, but it was an off-the-wall experience and not just another gig.

The band was on it – John calling them The Hugh Cornwell Orchestra – especially the bassist. When JCC went off stage and Hugh came on with just the bassist and drummer to give us several Stranglers songs, it was pure magic. I would love to see him back with his former band mates for a re-union tour and album. He has not sung with The Stranglers since 1991, as far as I am aware. Could it happen?

For years his fans moaned when he refused to sing any Stranglers material at his solo gigs. But maybe there’s a thawing, and tonight it was worth the ticket price to hear those glorious songs sung by the voice that is part of many people’s soundtrack to their lives. Mine included. He is in fine voice with that menacing, growly vibrato too and looking fit.

Dressed all in black, of course, the grimace saved for the fans’ selfies at the bar after the gig. JCC makes him smile and laugh throughout the show. John was on auto pilot with his limited between song banter, some of it unfathomable. He looked a tad nervous to begin with, totally focused on remembering the lyrics but he settled down later in the set, seemingly once he felt the audience were on his side and he wasn’t making a Muppet of himself. He seemed relaxed and to be enjoying it.

No missiles to dodge tonight. I flashed back to his gigs in the late ‘70s when I spotted a sign to the left of the stage tonight that read: “Anyone throwing things or crowd surfing will be ejected.”  I wondered if John had brought it with him?

At their London show they brought on a female singer and trumpet player for the fourth song, but not tonight. Didn’t need it either. This dark and cosy room was the perfect sweaty gig for this kind of thing. It took me back to the late ‘70s and ‘80s before health and safety was ever heard of; no barriers at the front of the stage then. Before you would even dream of wearing ear plugs! The louder the better back then. Pardon?

After the gig, Hugh asked if the mix of the songs was OK, between his own stuff, John’s few pieces and the covers. Yes it was, but nobody would have objected to more Stranglers tracks.

Here’s a quirky fact for you: Hugh told me that the comedian, actor, TV presenter and singe Alexander Armstrong called him up, to ask him to play a guitar solo on his second solo album, “Upon a Different Shore.” That record reached number eight in the UK album charts. But Hugh didn’t fancy it! Not much good for your punk street cred’, methinks. Mind you, it’s better than doing a butter advert…………….

Back to JCC’s voice. Bob Dylan is not a singer (controversial!) Ian Dury was not a singer. I could go on. But they have/had something special and an ability to lift the words off the page. JCC is not a singer. He is a poet, a national treasure and a brilliant guy in my view. But he is not a singer. I am not being rude; he’d tell you that himself – but in a different accent to mine.

Being in the same room as JCC and listening to his witty quips, seeing his wiry physique up there in his shades, dark suit and black tie; like a living, breathing caricature, it just cannot help put a smile on your face.

There were many JCC tee shirts and a fair few Stranglers’ logos knocking about. The audience age ranged from the young to the not so young, and I am in the latter bracket.

They gave us the entire ten tracks off the album; written by such giants as Lieber & Stoller, Jimmy Webb, Ricky Nelson, Richie Valens and Conway Twitty. All songs chosen because of Hugh and John’s mutual admiration of classic American and British pop they came of age to. No real drums on the album; all programmed, tonight a full drum kit.

Some old chestnuts tonight; kicking off with “It’s Only Make Believe,” “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans,” a chilled version of “Spanish Harlem,” and a haunting rendition of “Johnny, Remember Me,” for which they made a delightful promo video.

On the classic “Love Potion Number 9,” the band really locked together and John’s vocal was a fit. Zero groovus interruptus. Great aggressive version of “Jezebel,” too, where the whole thing gelled.

After about 50 minutes, everyone left the stage and a few minutes later, Hugh comes back on without John, and tells us; “The doctor’s got a few patients to see, so we will keep it going for a while. OK?” Yes indeed. He is joined by drummer Windsor McGilray and bassist Patrice Hughes.

Hugh gave us a cracking version of “Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit,” before that infectious hook and killer bass line of the classic “Nice N Sleazy.” His vocals sounding the best of the night. Then a very under-rated example of the craft of song writing, on “Daily Mail Land,” which really was awesome; top lip curled for that trademark delivery.

Then the wonderful “Walk On By.”JCC then back on stage to sing his own words: “I Wanna Be Yours,” before “36 Hours,” and then the two front men swap vocal lines on the golden “No More Heroes.” Well, they were supposed to, but JCC forgot the words and lost his place, so Hugh stepped back to the mike to pick it up. When they did double up, it sounded pretty cool. What a great, great song.

After a brief walk off, walk on, they encored with another Stranglers corker, “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself.)” Then an early 10.15pm finish after a 90 minute set, away they went. Dr Cooper Clarke telling us: “We’ll be back.” To most that was great news; for a few it was a threat!

On the train home, I was dozing off, dreaming of seeing this same show on the strip in Vegas, and filming the look on the faces of the front row! Priceless.

 Words & Photos: Simon Redley

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