John Cooper Clarke on Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel

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John Cooper ClarkeCourtesy of Fred Perry

"Why would you want variety? If it ain't broke, don't fix it." On the eve of his new album release, the punk poet sits down with Fred Perry to talk festive fun and his latent love of Elvis

John Cooper Clarke is a performer like no other. Taking the punk rock era of the late 1970s and early 80s fully in his stride (and arguably continuing to do so today, with his wild shock of black hair much the same as it was then) he became a punk poet – a title which seems oxymoronic at first, but which makes total sense once you listen to his poems. Cooper Clarke’s charm lies in the witty irreverence of his words, which are at once devilishly sharp and joyously shocking, so it's to the delight of many that the wordsmith returned to the studio this autumn to create an album of covers in collaboration with The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell. The resulting record, entitled This Time, It’s Personal, is a brilliantly adept reimagining of some of the greatest tracks ever made. In celebration of this musical feat, Cooper Clarke sat down with Fred Perry to talk end-of-year traditions, and the first song he ever played on repeat. 

On the importance of lyrics…
“I don't think any song was ever a hit because of the lyrics, but they do come back to haunt you; however they’re not the first thing to make an impression. I think the tune comes first, and then by osmosis, over the years, the lyrics become extremely important. The songs that immediately alerted me to the power of lyrics, y’know the poetic end of songwriting, would have been the great American songbook. People like Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn and the people who wrote for those pre-rock n roll artists – Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald… People like that.”

On the concept behind his new album…
“I’ve got an album out. It was released in collaboration with Hugh Cornwell, late of the Stranglers, and it’s an album of covers. There are ten tracks… Hugh chose all of them. He originally invited me in just to do MacArthur Park, because of the arcane and poetic nature of the lyrics and I reckon he figured I would speak the lyrics in my normal, poetical style. But, that never occurred to me actually. I saw it as my big opportunity to make it as a singer. When I turned up and sang he was pleasantly surprised. I already knew the lyrics to all of the other ones. They were much easier.”

On the first song he ever played on repeat…
“That would have to be the first Elvis record, Heartbreak Hotel. Unbelievable. Me and 70 million people would give you the same answer, I imagine… Phenomenal.”

On his family’s festive traditions…
“It’s the same every year, that’s the beauty of it. Why would you want variety? It only comes round once a year – it’s not like you’re gonna get fed up of anything, is it? We spend it at home. We eat some poor unfortunate bird [laughs], watch telly, pull crackers, you know, the usual turn of events. If it ain’t broke, don't fix it.”

With thanks to Fred Perry