NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
BOZ SCAGGS Middle Man (CBS)
FOR the last two and a half years Box Scaggs has only been
kept alive by rock crossword compilers desperate for two other
letters on which to hang the obligatory floating Z. For a
period at the beginning of 1977 he rode the charts with a
string of hits from his swish "Silk Degrees" album,
a triumph only fair seeing as how his fine 'Slow Dancer' set
had previously gone ignored.
WeIl, back he bubbles with "Middle Man" and already
you can hear the Billboard presses rolling with glossy four
page "BOZ IS PLATINUM" ads. However, despite his
image of a cultured man with knowledge of fine wines, Boz
Scaggs has matured like a brown ale with the stopper left
off. The music is air-brushed so smooth that you'll need a
pile of old pennies to hold the needle in the grooves. It's
all pure Martini ad stuff, custom made for the record collections
of tousle-haired Californian TV actresses, for British record
company execs to play while okaying the plans to the latest
artist reception party.
There are nine tracks that despite regular and logical chord
changes can't quite hold down a tune, with instruments arranged
sensibly and in single file so that in the end you can't pick
anyone out. Back-up players Toto are partly to blame there,
but Scagg's' voice is so creamy sickly these days, especially
wafting lyrics like: "What would you think of gentleman
wearing mink / Gentle and soft?"
The absolute low points comes in the title track - a mixture
of the previous allments and a garish crash of heavy metal
chords so predictable that dry- ice began to billow from the
speakers and the cover of the album, which forges ahead in
st (e) akes. Get this: there's no face or even tits this time,
just a fierce close-up of a leotard crotch in fishnet tights
(It's a women by the way). In a few years Boz will simply
be remembered as the man who made a great single called "Low
Down". For now he's living that title. Very low down.
John Cooper Clarke
Britain's alternative poet laureate visits dockland for a
laugh and a joke
DANNY BAKER gets in the wets and between the lines
Snap, Crackle & Paradox: Pennie Smith
white cigarette smoke hangs festooned against the green flock
wallpaper of the pub, before rising to join the Los Angeles-like
carpet that's gathering below the off-cream ceiling. The succession
of 40-watt bulbs create an illusion of actually making the
place darker and the air is dank and heavy with that musty
pub smell that used to reek from your parents' clothes when
they came in after a Saturday night out. On a small raised
'stage' three middle-aged men are playing to about twelve
regular patrons with voice, drums and Hammond organ. It's
for their benefit as much as the gathering's-typical pub performers,
they truly believe that had they devoted more time to it they'd
have made the grade, and even sadder, they still believe there
is time. They belt away through speakers that at other times
crucify the juke box selections, act as PA at raffles or,
if conditions allow, will receive the radio signals from the
cab office down the street, just as the guest singer is climaxing
"I Ain't Half Proud Of My Old Mum'.
The only other sounds to cut the general air of depression
are the sensuround rumble as a train goes overhead or the
short blasts from the fruit machine as it signals 'Nudge Now'.
Everyone is silent and miserable. From the Public Bar comes
the sound of conversation and laughter. It's brighter round
there and they don't switch the jukebox off for every piss
artist who wants to jerk your tears with Ken and Harry-South
London's answer to Sounds Incorporated' accompanying. But
going to the Public is not a proper night out, is it? People
like to be entertained.
As the unbearable swelling of "Fool's Rush In"
finally collapses end the song ends, the singer tells the
uninterested ensemble that "We're gonna take a short
break right now but
.." and, snapping
out of it, we feel obliged to talk. Immediately deciding to
move on, my company and I don coats and hastily make for the
door ashamed at the decision to enter in the first place.
(It was the Sounds incorporated sign that swayed us). Just
before leaving somebody asks me what I did yesterday.
"Oh. I met that John Cooper Clarke bloke. He's all right."
"Y'should've hired him f'this place." Taking a last
look over into the dismal tavern I shake my head. "Well
wouldn't believe it
..but he's already done it: The chap's
THE Chap's moved on. The best album released so far this
year is John Cooper Clarke's "Snap Crackle and Bop".
This being so it's a fine time to underline his position,
sorting out the man, myth and magic. The myth: The myth runs
that JCC is some quirky, fun offshoot from rock'n'roll, an
acceptable casualty, the underdog tagging along back there,
a sign of rock's all-embracing conscience for the misfit artist,
but essentially some idiot scratch'n'sniff hoolahoop gadget,
a family pet. Less damning he's the loveable nut at the broad
front of rock's search for something new, something diversive,
somebody whose career can be dropped in and out of when the
serious contenders get too weighty. A wild and crazy guy.
The Magic: The magic came the day Clarke met and teamed up
with Martin Hannett. Instant success was achieved with "Suspended
Sentence", overlooked in the shadow of "Psycle Sluts",
the featured track on that first EP for Rabid. Suspended Sentence
came brooding over the airwaves one night at a time when brooding
was strictly for the birds. I remember getting bowled back
by his restrained brilliance. Here was someone who knew what
humour was and even knew what to do with it! With "Suspended
Sentence" Hannett-tagged Zero on the day-crafted the
same distant thunder production he was later to shape an unruly
Joy Division with, while Clarke took the Daily Express code
for Better Britain to it's lunatic conclusion.
"Bring Back Hanging Far Everyone. ./They took my advice,
they brought it back/National costume was all over black/There
were corpses in the avenues and cul-de-sacs /Piled up neatly
in six men stacks/Hanging from the traffic lights and specially
made racks/They'd hang you for incontinence and fiddling ya
tax /Failure t'hang y'salf justified the axe/A deedlee dee
a deedlee dum/Looks like they brought back hanging for everyone!
The only off-putting thing was that, by appearance this bloke
seemed to be bringing back Dylan for everyone. The Man: Yesterday,
at London Bridge and three years since Rabid's baby, I met
John Cooper Clark
"Sorreh I'm late everybodeh ..." and he lopes into
the room a full two hours late. (A blow much softened by the
location, I'd been showing Pennie Smith the hidden face of
forgotten London). Clarke's a little shorter than you'd imagine
and though wiry, still wears his jackets at button-bursting
point like a streamlined Tweedle Dum. I spend most of our
initial introduction figuring out whether the suit he's wearing
actually fits. He must take a keen awareness in his physique
I decide, because the very first thing he does is ask one
of his press officers whether she has any slimming pills to
spare. "Be with yer in a minute, Danneh. Shall we go
fer a drink, know any pubs around here?" One or two.
"Snap Crackle (&) Pop", even with my faith in
him, comes at the most perilous time for Clarke's association
with rock, fame and wealth. Since the patchy first album was
released only the live LP which saw his unbacked delivery
strained to the full. He was milking it, in short. Pressure
"Oh aye... I was feeling it all right. Every time I
asked someone for money . . . It never came through y'know,
my name's shit/" John Cooper Shit, hmmnm. "I was
the great lost cause and you can always find someone t'listen
to yer if vou shifted a few units, in those places."
He talks slowly constantly nodding the high piled hair, which
is becoming uncomfortably close to 'an anarchist powder wig.
I'd always thought he'd talk faster then a Virginia auctioneer,
but there you are.
"Especially after the clear one, the live album that
is... I don't think that one did too well. Everybody kept
saying, you should release a live album that's where your
appeal lies. Then no bugger bought it" In the book that
comes FREE with "SC (&) B" there's a short scribbled
autobiographical story, "Ten Years In An Open Neck Shirt".
It's no more than a loose teaser, but I wondered if this saw
the beginning of-or rather return to JCC storyteller. "Oh
no . . that was just a press hand-out I did for CBS. They
were gonna write it themselves which would have been doubly
embarrassing so I said give me an hour and I'll knock one
out rneself. I already had the "TYIAONS" idea worked
out so I just truncated it down into one page. One page, aye.
But I've got the proper one coming out in me next book, character
studies and things, y'know. Like Charles Dickens"
you feel comfortable writing about yourself? "Oh yeah.
Writing a story around meself I can always write meself in
as the 'ero" It doesn't take long to notice that John
Clarke is at his happiest when cracking a gag or reliving
a story. His speech picks up speed and he laughs a lot. As
for the mundanities of straight q & a interview, he answers
dutifully, but the accent on certain particularly dull words
or passages tips the wink that he sees the job of satisfying
his press office as an especially ludicrous one. Not that
he's patronising to me, the choice extracts you've read above
were wheedled from, our first hour's talk -the rest of the
time was spent solidly going over Great Gags Of Our Time.
Like me, Clarke never forgets a punch line or a routine and
we laughed like idiots
..Oh yeah. the interview.
'Well I did the northern clubs y'know. Not the full circuit,
but I did some really rotten dives. In between jazz bands
and strippers and that, I used to get up and read about ten
minutes of this Mickey Spillane type story I was writing.
But it began to catch up with me and I couldn't ever end it.
It just used to go on".
You must've taken a lot of heckling? "No not really.
Each episode had equal proportions of sex and violence every
week and they just used to sit there. It used to go down quite
well actually" How very different from your public in
"New York was bloody great,"
he giggles rubbing his hair, looking out over the Thames and
its ghost town of rotting wharves. 'A great place. Walking
out y'door at two in the mornin' and have to dodge past the
crowds on the pavement. . . the nutters skateboardin' down
rniddle of the road
.." But they weren't quite ready
f'you though eh? "Well the Mudd Club, 'Ooorahs and Cee-beh-Gee-behs
were sound. I got on really well there. That Mudd Club is
the ultra poseurs place though.. .the proprietor stands at
the doorway lettin 'em in by what they're wearing, y'know.
Y'see 'em hangin around there all night, beggin to be let
in, but it's "Not in that jacket!" Like 'rip the
lapels off and y'might be in business."
What happened at the Palladium? "Oh aye. The Palladium."
he pushes the glasses backup his nose and just lets the sentence
rest there awhile. "lt were 'orrible really. That was
the one I 'ad t'do t'pay far the trip. Supporting Rockpile
and David Johanson. There's about eighty balconies. I'er,
I didn't do too good, no...." I chuckle away but JCC
is reliving the catcalls. His career these past few years
has had more than a generous share of raspberries, roughs
and rejections, The most vivid one I remember was the boneheaded
bunch of guillotine hags who pelted him during his initial
London appearances at The Vortex club. No good hearted ragging
of rubbish was that display but a sickening pointer to the
terrace mob jackass vandals that were to strangle the revolt
of rock for the price of acceptance in the eyes of their barrel
chested mates. Today the field is all theirs. Others like
JCC and the few keep themselves to themselves and etch the
living with distance and caution. The others, still crooning
for peace and understanding, go like lamb(retta)s to the slaughter.
"I were only in New York about eight days though. There's
always gonna be one guy who's local to yer. There were this
guy, this Manchester geyser workin' fer 'is paper out there
who came round t'see us, y'knaw, he did an article on us."
Do they treat you as though you've got this speech defect?
"I spose they do, yeah. David Johanson Thought I were
a cockney," When I was in Carolina everyone kept asking
me to "talk like a Londoner" as though this delicate
phrasing I possess was some kind of Scottish drawl. "Still,
I wanna get back there. I never slept at all first time out,
went into a few comas though" AGAINST all the odds in
a pub around Rotherhithe, at ten past three we were asked
to drink up and go. We walked down river and around the bombsite
that was once Surrey Docks. Up until about fifteen years ago
here was one of Europe's busiest timber ports. Now all that
remains are a couple of huge tyres and, here and there, a
few links from the monster chains that held Russian ships
to quay. As soon as dockers began getting paid a living wage
the docks began to close. TV comics began to make dockworkers
the standing joke for the striking, never satisfied working
class animal. It was their own fault that the ships moved
to Europe you'll hear, centuries of poverty and exploitation
forgotten because of fifteen of fair wages. History will make
the dockers out as the oafs who killed the goose that laid
the golden egg and it won't be only them. Already the British
public have learned to despise and laugh at those greedy miners
and car workers.
Walk around London's idle 'docks and bust a gut. Or walk
up to any messenger running letters through the City or office
cleaner or casual labourer and ask them how much easy money
they made from the great dock bonanza. Because those are the
jobs into which dockland dissolved, the only doors left open
when you're forty and finished. They were bought off with
a lump sum, the alternative being work available at ever-increasing
distances-the London Dock's now at Tilbury which, of course
isn't in London at all. And so the lure of a new start with
that 'security' in the bank - initially the dockers were creamed
off for - is accepted and that's when the businessmen have
the last laugh. The indoctrination during the "boom"
years becomes revenge. Employ a stevedore and he'll be nothing
but trouble-the lesson has been learned. Today, you can stand
in the middle of Surrey Docks and scream 'Never Let The Bastards
Grind You Down' until you're blue in the face The only people
who'll hear will be the developers drawing up plans for offices,
luxury flats and Olympic Villages.
can't get down... I can't bloody get down. Help." Clarke's
stranded atop a ten foot high rubbish mound left by a skip
lorry and, looks genuinely concerned. It's possible that had
Pennie Smith not acted as Sherper Tensing he'd be up there
even as you read this. "I broke me bloody ankle a couple
of months ago and it feels proper dodgy" he begins to
brush imaginary dust from his coat sleeves," I thought
I were gonna die up there for a moment.. .D'ja get yer picture
alright though, Pennie?" The derelict bombsite of the
Surrey obliques with a backdrop that could steal the shot
from any subject. John Cooper Clarke, Salvador Dali, Ronald
Reagan having a to-the-death list light with Leonid Brezhnev
you name it, it's the wastes with their odd clumps of abandoned
offices, huge vacant sheds off towards Deptford and the snakey
forgotten roads going no place that snap down an my attention.
Every new year's eve at midnight. the whole port would be
full of Scandinavian and Russian timber ships and
the first stroke. they'd all sound off their foghorns and
whistles and hooters so even young kids with no concept of
"out with the old, in with the new" would be sharply
dragged from steep and then made to tremble as the docks bowled.
The din would shriek for about two minutes and then stop,
leaving only the sound of your tense swallowing as a six-year-old
brain tried to reason why the sky was singing.
Seventeen years on, here's the whirr of a camera's motor
drive echoing. Ambling down the 'road', John mentions that
if ever a promo film were needed for 'Evidently Chickentown'
- the stunning opener from 'Snap. Crackle & Bop - here's
the location, exaggerated true, but every bit as stark and
twisted as the speed babbling, slicing, belting assault that
introduces his LP, 'Chickentown', with Hannett's crazed and
relentless drum machine gunning, was a quickly scribbled goodbye
to Manchester. 'The bloody cops are bloody keen/Bloody keep
it bloody clean/The bloody chief's a bloody swine/Bloody draws
the bloody line/The bloody fun and bloody games/The bloody
kids he bloody blames/The bloody weed is bloody turf/The bloody
speed is bloody surf/The bloody train is bloody late/Yer bloody
wait and bloody wait/A bloody bloke got bloody stabbed/Waiting
for a bloody cab/The bloody pubs are bloody dull/The bloody
clubs are bloody full/With bloody girls and bloody guys/With
bloody murder 'n their eyes/It bloody hurts t'look around/Evidently
Chickentown'. A bloody Good riddance it seems.
"Well I figured if I'm gonna live near a citeh, y'know,
I may as well live near the big one, and so a year ego I moved
down t'Stevenage. It's a bit like Australia was in the last
century - a new town, like - I've got the pioneer spirit."
By now his speech and thought are getting very spacey and
slow. It's that dread time when the alcohol had drained through
you and worn a hole in that part of your head that usually
stops daylight from hurting you, obviously his slimming aids
had burnt out without much fuss, and the pair of us are secretly
dying to get our heads down for a half hour. (Though this
usually results in waking at eleven thirty when everything
is closed and dark and you feel wide-awake and useless). "I
attract stares still. I suppose and I've had a fair deal of
violent reactions. 'Kung Fu International' was done after
I got jumped by six, uh six kids - somebody did a drop kick
on me, BAM! I was the wrong guy apparently" Looking at
him -the hair, the glasses, the gangle-it's little wonder
he gets singled out. Even my dad, on seeing him on TV, noted
that he 'looks like a leg of mutton handcuffed' whatever that
means. (Unlike David Bowie, of whom the same source commented
'looked like six pound of shit in a five pound bag'). I remembered
JCC's last NME interview where he stated that him relationship
with rock is the same as Lenny Bruce's was to Jazz in that
he liked the clothes and the attitude. I reminded him of this,
wondering whether the position had changed, His answers are,
anti-climatic to say the least. "Oh aye, I read that.
Tell ya the truth... I don't remember saying that. I couldn't
believe I'd said it," Why? "Well" he's laughing
slowly - one of the few people who can laugh slowly - "It's
not the type of thing I go round saying - not the sort of
thing you can slip in a conversation," and by now he's
laughing fast. And so am I.
He enjoys the absurdity further. "Yes I was only saying
to Alfie Higgins the other day, I said, 'Y'know now Alfie
my relationship with rock is very much the same
but he can't get the rest of the line out. I don't think he
doubts that he does say these things. it's just.. well so
what? There we are both are keeping straight faces trying
to pay each other respect and the pair of us scratching around
looking for something that will cause people to say 'Hey,
did you see how that Cooper Clark fellow summed up his life
and the world in general?' And of course, when we found this
one tiny piece of quotable meat, it sounded as silly as arseholes:
But do you still listen, still buy records? "Oh yeah,
I bought... 'ang on I can't remember what the last record
I bought was. But, y'know, it's The same old story - you play
it five times and 'then start working yer way backwards again.
I can have anything I like from CBS for free but I
.. don't like anything on CBS, right? "Seems
"Seems so." Was there ever a golden era for you?
I see his face pondering on whether to point out the egg on
my chin. He decides to. 'Yeah, the seventeenth century."
Walked right into that. No I mean in your career". "Well
the Vortex has got t'be among the top ten nighlspots".
OK. let's talk about dying the horrible death. Those nights
when, if laugher is infectious, you seem to have found the
cure- What do you remember about that Vortex appearance? 'Well
on nights like that you get anaesthetised very quickly The
main thing is you can't be precious about it, specially not
in those working clubs. Often I used to cop right out and
just tell jokes. You can buy this book, Call and Response
it's for handling hecklers. Like 'They wasted a good arse
when they put teeth in your mouth mate - proper gentle stuff'
like that. But you're usually given about five minutes to
grab their collective imagination. At the Glasgow Apollo they
don't even give you that.
Ah, Glasgow, where under a hail of cans John pronounced the
bout a draw and strode off. Good line that about 'a draw.
"Well you've got to say something,' Ha." As he says
that it hits me that though I can relish a death at a distance,
his tone hints that the degrading, lonely memories are still
just a bit too painful to chuckle about. That night hurts
and still stings. Are you a success now then? "Er. .
yeah, yeah. I suppose so. yeah. But I've always wanted t'be
on tele. I've done all the music things, y'know, but I'd love
a talk show, really. Actually talking to others. I mean I'm
sure I'm better questioning than I am at being questioned."
Are you having any bother writing stuff these days? "Well
since we done the album I've been having a rest," Again,
the tone drops to a hollow raw-nerve level. 'Which
is a nice way of saying I've got a block, a writer's block,
at the moment" There's no nasal laugh for once. "It's
quite frightening actually
How long ago was the new record finished then? "Well
we'd been doing it for a year. One side of it is actually
a year older than the other. But we actually finished up not
that long before release. Not that we take so long recording
it right only we couldn't always get studio time" Are
you always gonna work with Martin Hannett? "Well yeah,
but er, always is a bloody long time? The cliché being
too apt to resist, Lets leave the interview there. The days
of the interview are over. Not just the couple of days I knocked
about with Clarke - yeah, we met up later on to laugh with
out the tape recorder, that fridgidaire in that strangles
bath parties' ability to relax.- but also the days of expecting
the 'goods' from these woodworkers we shape as rock' n' roll
stars. Most of them are idiots and the few others are just
going about their business, like Paul Weller and JCC, while
a thirsty, public and drunken press squeeze their heads for
a few thousand droplets of assurance that the rest of use
are either too lazy to figure out or else too scared to assume.
John Cooper Clarke, well John Cooper Clarke smokes too much
dope and, in the thumbnail sketch I cart patch out, has too
few genuine friends. He'll never be assertive enough, that's
just the way he is, but his sense of humour- and more importantly
his sense of history in humour, his gag file - is unmatched
in his field. I suppose the way he lives can be described
as pottering. He potters about and in the course of it manages
to knock together an album, great album, but one that he wouldn't
really have minded had it not came out at all. Not that much.
The attitude, the clothes be damned, rock'n'roll.is Clarkey's
hammock and he'll swing with it so long as no-one shines a
torch in his face for too long. The glare and the pressure
he really doesn't need, whereas most rockers need a good amount
of 'anguish' so as not to feel total sponging shits, 'On man.
You think it's easy, but the pressure man." There's a
touch of the Ian Dury school too, the understanding whereby
the public and the press have got you totally sussed out,
all your angles, all your thoughts whereas only you know that
they don't know or understand a thing about you. But what
has been arranged is that people can feel absolutely safe
in the knowledge that they share you - you're a mute - while
you know that you need never open up the real secrets whilst
. well not exactly suckers, but similar,
are content to think they've bothered you enough, they know
all there is to politely know. Journalists are never bought
with trips, drink end free gifts but by 'the goods', an artist
letting them think they've caught him with his pants down,
the 'private' tears, shared laughter. (No writer ever gets
very close to Ian Dury but ask anyone and they'll swear to
die for him. Trying to get his 'goods' is like being at a
Dutch auction. Oh yeah, sure he is a lovely bloke, but for
canniness and cunningness he leaves Lydon end McLaren at the
post - . And so with Johnnie Clarke, I'm feeling safer, mainly
because he has no team around him. He forgets too many appointments,
gives too many half-arsed answers to be consciously playing
Mr Nice Guy. The difference is, JCC would really have to sit
down for about two weeks before hand if he wanted to get together
some kind of strategy for selling himself. He's not together
enough, he's not bothered. So many will claim to be uninterested
in selling themselves but paradoxically that is their angle.
Clarke really does try, but as an interviewee he's lousy,
Thank God for that. I can play 'Snap Crackle & Bop' without
weighing it against a personality and an approach. Yes I like
John Cooper Clarke, I think you should too. Because the man
is clean. Really clean.
Danny Baker in New Musical Express 1980
Thanks to Nick Ratcliffe