John Cooper Clarke, Eventim Apollo, review: punk poetry that veered from the impeccable to the awful

John Cooper Clarke at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith - Wireimage
John Cooper Clarke at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith - Wireimage

As two and a half thousand people made their way through the glass doors of the Hammersmith Apollo, a bare-faced lie awaited them in the foyer. A t-shirt at the merchandise stall bore the words “Poetry has never been regarded as a reliable engine of wealth”. Perhaps not, but for John Cooper Clarke – the “bard of Salford” and, increasingly, an approximate national treasure – the crown of the People’s Poet Laureate is an immovable adornment. For him, the rules are different. Certainly, the clamour from the stalls at the introduction of the electrifyingly grim Beasley Street – “where the perishing stink of squalor impregnates the walls” – rivalled that of a band striking up a smash hit single.

As befits a man who made his bones appearing on bills with the Sex Pistols, Clarke carried himself with an air of restless unpredictability. Black hair sprouting wild from beneath a newsboy cap, commanding centre stage like Nick Cave’s dad, the 73-year old’s poems were delivered with tommy-gun tempos and a visceral edge. With English punk these days a nostalgic concern, his capacity to recall the movement’s original sense of danger, of hitting the sky without a safety net, is a quality both commendable and rare. The 79 f-bombs in Evidently Chickentown made Johnny Rotten sound like John Denver.

But the problem with working without a net is that occasionally you fall hard to the floor. In a show that was as much stand-up comedy as slam poetry, material that was both funny and clever – “what is occasional furniture the rest of time?” Clarke wondered. The answer? “A periodic table” – competed for space with segments that sounded like they were written by a man born in the 19th century. A section on marriage was particularly sour. Lines such as “would you take this woman to be your wife? Well why the fuck are you asking me to?” were only partially mitigated by the arrival of the quite lovely I’ve Fallen In Love With My Wife.

In fact, I honestly can’t recall a live show that veered from the impeccable to the awful quite as violently as this. Commenting on his recent weight gain – admittedly, from linguine to panatela thin – Clarke described his wife confusing the sound of him falling down the stairs with the beginning of the theme music from EastEnders. Beat that. But the disconcerting sight of him stumbling over the delivery of his own poems – “I’ll start that one again,” he said at one point – suggested that the days of wearing sunglasses in darkened theatres are nearing their end.

With statesmanlike grace, at the end of the night Clarke brought out the three performers who appeared on the undercard of the bill. Almost two hours earlier, audience members saw Luke Wright deliver Ron’s Knockoff Shop, about two hip Londoners visiting Bolton. Despite using just one vowel – the letter “O” – the lengthy poem laid bare the divisions belittling Britain with an astuteness and technique that, for me, made it the highlight of the night. The headliner would benefit from taking pains to examine the present with much the same care.

“People love poetry now, thanks to us,” Clarke said of himself and the other members on the bill. This may not be true, but for an evening at least, or certainly for parts of it, it seemed as if it was.

John Cooper Clarke is on tour until April 22nd. Tickets: