A newcomer wanting the lowdown on John Cooper Clarke’s five decades under the spotlight might usefully begin by calling up the YouTube clip of our man’s appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. Here, accompanied by a hotshot backing band, an elongated figure with a teased-out birds’-nest hairdo can be found hunched over a mic declaiming the lyrics of ‘Beasley Street’ (‘The dirt blows out/The dust blows in/You can’t keep it neat/It’s a fully furnished dustbin,/Sixteen Beasley Street’). Stick-thin, sun-glassed, gum-chewing and positively Dylan-esque, Clarke is, as he might put it, quite the spectacle, even if the BBC censors made him omit the words ‘Keith Joseph’ from the famous lines ‘Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies/In a box on Beasley Street’.
In fact, as I Wanna Be Yours shows in punctilious detail, the reference to Thatcher’s grave-faced policy guru is rather a red herring. Clarke acknowledges that he was always keener on Baudelaire than tub-thumping, a style-monger rather than a socialist, a wordsmith rather than a musician, who, looking back on