Our roving reporter Tom Grater spoke exclusively to director John Ross at Sheffield Doc Fest about the documentary Evidently, and his relationship with John Cooper Clarke.
As I begin my interview with John Ross there’s a palpable level of excitement in the air. Evidently… John Cooper Clarke , which premiered on BBC4 after this interview took place and is also set to headline the Sunday at Sheffield DocFest, is a big deal for Ross. This is his first broadcast credit as a director and he’s a huge fan of punk poet John Cooper Clarke, so this has very much been a personal project. A labour of love, if you like.
Bill Bailey sums it up best in the film, “You’ve either never heard of him [John Cooper Clarke] or you love him.” That’s the prevalent mood that surrounds the mysterious, strange, eccentric John Cooper Clarke (who I will abbreviate to ‘JCC’ for simplicity’s sake). In fact, you could probably divide almost any bar you enter by making fans of JCC stand on one side and the oblivious on the other. Unless it’s a punk bar, in which case the mere mention of JCC is likely to bring about rapturous admiration.
I ask Ross if he himself was a punk, back in the day. “Not really. I had the black clothes, I was a bit of a Goth in a way, but I never stuck to any look for very long. I love soul music and rock and blues, I’m sort of all over the place in terms of where my musical tastes lie, I’ll listen to classical music. As John says, ‘my net is wide.’” The injection of JCC quotes becomes a regular feature in our discussion. The man is of course a wordsmith of the highest order, a poet whose lyrical capabilities are only matched by his capacity for profanity.
Ross tells me that he first discovered JCC’s records in 1980, “It was sort of contraband in our school, or any school. It was all part of that punk ethos, something that scared your parents.” JCC hit a crest of popularity in the late 70s and early 80s, with his record Snap, Crackle & Bop reaching number twenty-six in the album charts. However, after several moderate successes he disappeared for much of the 80s, lost in the throes of a heroin addiction.
Many, Ross included, forgot about JCC, consigning him to the annals of performing talent who had succumbed to drug dependency. It was to the great surprise of those who let JCC slip from memory that he re-emerged in the 90s, returning to live performances. Ross comments, “I never heard anything more of him until about the end of the 90s when he was on a TV show, I was at uni and he was on the telly.”
In the noughties JCC found himself occasionally back in the public eye: his poem Evidently Chickentown played over the closing scene of an episode of The Sopranos , the lyrics of Out of Control Fairground appeared inside the CD single of The Arctic Monkey’s Fluorescent Adolescent , and most recently he appears himself in Ben Drew’s (better known as Plan B) directorial debut Ill Manors, in which he performs a poem entitled Pity the Plight of Young Fellows .
I asked Ross where in all of this the film first came into existence. “I met Scotty Clarke who is the producer of the film purely by chance. We just clicked, I know it’s a bit corny but that’s where ‘Click films’ [the name of the production company] comes from. Over a curry Scotty mentioned that he knew JCC; in the 80s he used to be a booking agent in and around Derby and Nottingham. I think when JCC was at quite a low ebb – he had a reputation for not turning up to gigs – Scotty was the one who gave him a gig. John’s remembered that, and that’s key to us making this film. A lot of people had wanted to make this film but JCC has always shied away from anyone doing it who he didn’t know.”
I comment that the way Ross approached the project may be the way that many of the audience approach viewing it; having not been aware of JCC for many years, it’s almost like revisiting an old friend. “Absolutely, yeah. Even some of the people we’ve interviewed said they hadn’t thought about Johnny Clarke for the last twenty years. It sparked a great deal of admiration, there’s some genuine affection for John out there. That was one of the things we had going for us with John as a subject of the film, he’s such a warm and decent human being, he really is.”
The likeability of JCC comes across prominently in the film, and having such a charismatic lead is its strongest aspect. “It was vital to the film’s production, it’s impossible to dislike JCC. We’ve been lucky as filmmakers in that respect, because John is who he is, whoever we ran up said yes. What’s even better is that they didn’t ask for any money!”
The willingness of those interviewees to work pro-bono has allowed Ross to assemble a stellar panel of talking heads. In fact, very few documentaries can boast such a line-up: the aforementioned Bill Bailey is joined by the likes of Stewart Lee, Steve Coogan, Jarvis Cocker, Alex Turner, Plan B, Kate Nash, Billy Bragg, Craig Charles, Pete Shelley, and numerous others. They all wax lyrical about JCC, some knew him better than others, but the admiration is consistently notable.
I asked Ross how he managed to get Alex Turner on board, who, along with the likes of Plan B and Kate Nash, is so popular at the moment that every magazine and its dog must be crowing for an interview. “We knew that Alex was a big fan, I think John himself told us that one of his poems was on one of the Arctic Monkey’s album covers. There was this rumour that he had a tattoo of Johnny on his arm.”
Did that turn out to be true? “Apparently not, he said not, maybe he just didn’t want to show us.”
It was while interviewing Alex Turner and Kate Nash that Ross first became aware that there was a new generation of people discovering JCC in schools, but no longer in the bootleg, contraband fashion that he himself had done in the 80s. “I discovered John at school, and so did Turner but through the curriculum, the same as Kate Nash and Plan B, because he was on the English curriculum. It opened up another angle to the film, it was a great way to open up the film to a new generation of fans.”
The idea of JCC being taught in schools must have seemed rather unlikely back in the day. “It’s testament to how things have changed isn’t it? Anything like John or punk was frowned upon in my generation… but then again, that’s what made punk, the fact that it was dangerous and that it scared your parents and you weren’t supposed to be listening to it. Also, what you’ve got to remember is that the people who are running the show now, who are high up in the educational system, are themselves ex-punks, so it’s only natural that they will be introducing people who they found interesting when they were younger to a new generation. It’s a natural progression a natural evolution of popular culture.”
I ponder asking whether teaching JCC in schools may nullify his punk image, but the reality is that JCC is an entity entirely of his own making. He’s a punk because he rode the crest of that particular wave, and his poetry displayed a certain punk ethos, a willingness to stick two fingers up to the establishment and to swear a lot, but he fills his own niche of the genre. As Ross puts it, “He’s a complete one off, totally unique.”
The key to the reception of the documentary will be whether it balances the need to introduce potential new fans and to satisfy the diehards out there. Ross reckons he’s achieved that, well, he hopes so anyway, and I agree with him, though the proof may have been in the reaction to the BBC4 showing, which was overwhelmingly positive. I ask Ross which of the two audiences concerns him most, “I had to satisfy the older generation. Those are the ones I’m most afraid of; John has this ready-made audience who are very loyal and passionate. It’s those people who I’m most afraid of upsetting.” I note that he would probably want to avoid getting on the bad side of ex-punks. “Exactly! (Laughs) You see ‘em at the gigs, they turn up with the old studded denim jackets on, and they bring their kids along. It’s great to see that JCC is one of those rare birds that spans the generations and it’s something that the dads and the mums can bring their kids to and they all enjoy it all together.”
It occurs to me that JCC’s work may be a bit swearing-heavy for some younger audiences, but perhaps we’ve come to accept that as a by-product of some forms of art. Still, Chickentown is probably one of the sweariest records I’ve ever listened to, best avoided if you have a delicate ear.
Before the interview reaches its twilight, I want to pick up on one point raised in the film that some fans may consider a touch controversial. One of the more personal parts of JCC’s life that has caught the public eye was his relationship with Nico from the Velvet Underground. As Stewart Lee notes in the doc, JCC has never talked about it in public, despite many fans being keen to know the details. Lee, and many others, believe that it’s merely a case of JCC being a gentleman who doesn’t want to discuss personal affairs in public. However, one of the talking heads, Alan Wise, a former band manager, claims in Evidently… John Cooper Clarke that he fabricated the whole thing for publicity, that it never existed.
Ross knows JCC personally, he stays at Ross’ house every time he does gigs in the Nottingham area, so I press him a little to see if he knows the reality. He’s not forthcoming, though he does note that JCC refers to his relationship with Nico in the film as ‘cohabitation’. The truth may never come to light – Nico died in 1988 – but I’m sure fans will continue to believe that JCC remains laconic out of respect. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know whether the man even remembers that period of his life. His memory is lacking to say the least, due to the excessive drug use: this is evidenced in the doc when JCC tells us he thought he’d never met Tom Waits, and then there’s a picture of the two of them standing together. It’s humorous, but also a touch sad. There are so many lost years, and JCC does seem to regret them, primarily because it meant he wasn’t making any new work.
Thankfully, as if to make up for lost time, JCC is working again now, performing gigs and even writing new material. He’ll be at the Sheffield DocFest screening of Evidently… John Cooper Clarke , and will be doing a Q&A after the film. That takes place on the final day of the festival, Sunday the 17 th of June, at 18.15 in the Showroom 4, and if you’re anywhere near Sheffield at that time, it’s an unmissable event. For now, if you want to read more about the film or watch some clips, head over to the Facebook page which is linked below.
You can follow my twitter account – @tomsmovies – for live updates from the festival.