His recorded output has mainly centred on musical backing from the Invisible Girls, which featured Martin Hannett, Steve Hopkins, Pete Shelley, Bill Nelson, and Paul Burgess.
Clarke was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1949. He lived in the Higher Broughton area of the city and became interested in poetry after being inspired by his English teacher, John Malone, whom he described as "a real outdoor guy, an Ernest Hemingway type, red blooded, literary bloke". Recollecting his childhood, Clarke said:
I used to think trees were dirty, because when I was a kid in Salford you'd climb them and come off filthy, it was like you'd been up a chimney... and even if you got a stretch of park you just had to scrape the grass and there were, like, cinders underneath... it was horrible...
His first job was a laboratory technician at Salford Tech. He began his performance career in Manchester folk clubs, where he began working with Rick Goldstraw and his band the Ferrets. His first releases were on Tosh Ryan and Martin Hannett's independent label Rabid, starting with the EP Innocents in October 1977. Rabid also released his debut LP Où est la maison de fromage'? (catalogue number NOZE 1), which was a collection of live recordings, demos and rehearsals. This was reissued by Revolver Records in 1989 (RRLP 10) also making it his last album to date. He toured with Bill Nelson's band Be-Bop Deluxe in 1978 and was signed by Epic Records, who issued the Martin Hannett produced studio album Disguise In Love in 1978.
Clarke has attributed his early success in part to the influence of the English poet Pam Ayres. Her run of success on the British TV show Opportunity Knocks led both Clarke and his mother to believe that he could make a living at poetry.
In 1979 he had his only UK top 40 hit with "Gimmix! (Play Loud)". Clarke toured with Linton Kwesi Johnson, and has performed on the same bill as bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Fall, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello, Rockpile and New Order (including at their May 1984 Music for Miners benefit concert at London's Royal Festival Hall). His set is characterised by lively, rapid-fire renditions of his poems, usually performed a cappella. Often referred to as "the bard of Salford", he usually refers to himself on stage as "Johnny Clarke, the name behind the hairstyle".
In 1979 he applied to join actors' union Equity, but as there was already a member named John Cooper Clarke, he joined under the name Lenny Siberia. His 1980 album Snap, Crackle & Bop gave him his highest album chart placing, reaching number 26.
Clarke appeared in a 1982 music documentary compilation Urgh! A Music War, in which he performed his poem "Health Fanatic". The film featured live performances of mainstream artists (the Police, the Go-Go's, XTC, Devo) as well as more obscure bands (Pere Ubu, Invisible Girls, the Alley Cats, Athletico Spizz '80, Chelsea) using concert footage from around the world. He also starred in another 1982 film titled John Cooper Clarke - Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt directed by Nick May and produced for the Arts Council of Great Britain and Channel 4. Somewhere between a narrative film, a series of music videos and a documentary, the film features interviews and performances by Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson among others.
Clarke released a further album in 1982, Zip Style Method, and Clarke performed his live act less frequently, spending much of the 1980s addicted to heroin, living in a "domestic partnership" with singer and fellow addict Nico. He described this period of his life: "It was a feral existence. I was on drugs. It was hand to mouth." In 1987 he performed live (on crutches owing to a broken ankle) at the Albany Empire in London with Suns of Arqa, recorded two tracks ("Libera Me" and "The Truth Lies Therein") for their album Seven, and featured in the music video for the latter. In 1988 he made an appearance in two UK adverts for Sugar Puffs, taking second billing to the Honey Monster. He returned to live performance in the 1990s, appearing again with Suns of Arqa in 1992 at The Witchwood in Ashton-under-Lyne. His vocals from both of his Suns of Arqa tracks have been used on numerous remixes by the band ever since.
After 20 years of performing the same material, Clarke re-established contact with guitarist Ricky Goldshaw, who had founded Blue Orchids and played with the Fall and Nico. Goldshaw began handling Clarke's affairs and the two toured with the Mescaleros and several times supporting the Fall. He also duetted with Reverend Jon McClure at a Reverend and the Makers concert at London's Spread Eagle, performing the poem "Last Resort", which would later be released as the b-side for the band's single "Heavyweight Champion of the World". Clarke also recorded a song with the band entitled "Dead Man's Shoes". Clarke's recording of "Evidently Chickentown" from his album Snap, Crackle & Bop was also featured prominently in the closing scene of The Sopranos episode Stage 5. A live performance of the same poem appears in the film Control with Clarke portraying himself in a re-creation of a 1977 concert in which he supported Joy Division, despite having aged 30 years since the events depicted in the film. "Evidently Chickentown" (recited by Christopher Eccleston) is featured in the made-for-television film Strumpet.
A biographical play emerged but was blocked. Goldshaw said: "It was going to tour around the country but it was rubbish .. We tried to talk to them but then we lost our rag and said 'take it off, you're not having the material'..." Clarke said "My mum was called Brenda in it…her name was Hilda. And there was all this explanatory dialogue 'Oh he's been smashing since he's had TB'. It was an excuse for him to put on a nylon wig and do my stuff…No, I didn't go and see it... "
Clarke's poem "Out of Control Fairground" was printed inside the Arctic Monkeys' single "Fluorescent Adolescent" CD, which was released on 9 July 2007. The poem is also the inspiration behind the single's video in which clowns brawl. Another poem was printed inside the 10" release of the same single. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys has said he is very fond of Clarke's work and takes inspiration for lyrics from his poems.
Clarke was the subject of a BBC Four documentary, Evidently... John Cooper Clarke, in May 2012, screened as part of the BBC's Punk Britannia season.
Filmed in 2010 live from London's South Bank at the Queen Elizabeth II Hall, Clarke's South of the Border DVD is a complete contemporary performance recording. The DVD extras contains a performance of 36 Hours with Frank Sidebottom on guitar. The DVD was released by Click Films in April 2013.
Clarke appeared as himself in the 2012 film Ill Manors, directed by Ben Drew (better known as Plan B). He is shown performing a poem entitled Pity the Plight of Young Fellows, which he has described as "the view of young people from a jaundiced old twat's point of view". He was also featured in a song entitled Pity the Plight on the film's musical album, also called Ill Manors, where he recited parts of the poem to a piano accompaniment.
In July 2013, Clarke was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts in "acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians" by the University of Salford. Upon receipt, Clarke commented: "Now I'm a doctor, finally my dream of opening a cosmetic surgery business can become a reality."
Clarke's poem "I Wanna Be Yours" was adapted by Arctic Monkeys and frontman Alex Turner for the band's fifth album, AM, released on 9 September 2013. Speaking about the poem to the NME's Matt Wilkinson, Clarke said:
I wrote it along with a load of others at the time, I tend to write like that. I remember when it was – about '83 or '84 or something like that. It's come to my attention that it's the wedding favourite. The number of people that have said, "I had that read at my wedding", or "My husband proposed to me using that number"… It's been very useful in the world of modern romance! It is to modern wedding ceremonies what "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" by Eric Idle is to humanist funerals. I probably go to a great many more funerals than you do, so take it from me.
In 2013, Clarke voiced a poem about how eating chips makes people happy for a television commercial advertising McCain oven chips. It included the tag line "happy days".
In May 2013, May 2014, and October 2014, Clarke appeared as a guest on BBC One's Have I Got News for You.
In 2014, Clarke recorded guest vocals on Oldham-formed band Inspiral Carpets's song "Let You Down", which featured on the band's eponymous album.
In November 2014, he appeared as a competitor on BBC One's Pointless Celebrities, where he was paired with journalist Rod Liddle. The pair won the contest, answering questions on David Bowie album tracks; Clarke donated his prize winnings to local back-to-work charity Signpost.
In February 2015, he took over the Sunday afternoon slot, for three shows, on BBC Radio 6 Music. In August he was a guest on Craig Charles's Saturday morning radio show on BBC Radio 2 and gave the world premiere of a new poem "Trouble at Mall", and in the same month he was a panellist on BBC One's Would I Lie to You? On 2 November 2015 Clarke presented an episode of the BBC Scotland TV series The Secret Life of Books on Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey. In discussing the 19th-century landmark book, he drew on his own experience of being a drug addict in his youth.
In summer 2015, the National Trust commissioned Clarke to write Nation’s Ode to the Coast about the British coastline.
In July 2016, it was announced that Clarke would release a cover album with Hugh Cornwell entitled This Time It's Personal. A version of "MacArthur Park" was the first single. The album was released on 14 October 2016. On 1 January 2017 he performed "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans", with Cornwell, on the Jools' Annual Hootenanny.
Clarke has lived, for nearly 20 years, in Colchester, Essex, with his second wife, Evie, who is French. They have one daughter, Stella.Où est la maison de fromage? (1978), Rabid
Disguise in Love (1978), Epic
Walking Back to Happiness (1979), Epic (Live album)
Snap, Crackle & Bop (1980), Epic - UK No. 26
Zip Style Method (1982), Epic - UK No. 97
This Time It's Personal with Hugh Cornwell (2016), Sony - UK No. 34
Me and My Big Mouth (1981), Epic
Word of Mouth: The Very Best of John Cooper Clarke (2002), Sony
Anthologia (2015), Sony
Innocents EP (1977), Rabid
"Post-War Glamour Girl" (1978), CBS
"Gimmix! (Play Loud)" (1978), Epic - UK No. 39
"Splat"/"Twat" (1979), Epic
"The It Man" (1980), Epic
"The Day My Pad Went Mad" (1982), Epic
"Night People" (1982), Epic
"Pity the Plight" (2012 Ill manors album - Plan B)
Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt (1981) Channel 4/British Arts Council (re-released 2015)
Evidently, John Cooper Clarke (2012), Click Films/BBC
South of the Border - Live (2013), Click Films/Safecracker Pictures
Short Circuit - Live At The Electric Circus (1978), Virgin (various artists, features Clarke performing "(You Never See a Nipple In The) Daily Express" and "I Married a Monster From Outer Space"
Urgh! A Music War (1981), Warners - "Health Fanatic"
The Old Grey Whistle Test Volume 3 (2004), 2 Entertain - "I Don't Want to Be Nice"
Poets, Punks, Beatniks and Counter Culture Heroes (2010), Ozit - includes rare JCC film footage from the 1980s
Ten Years In An Open-Necked Video (2016) Ozit