I’ll be honest. Dr John Cooper Clarke is the real reason that I’m now seated in the Royal Albert Hall.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Wilko Johnson is an iconic guitar player. His sporadic style of playing really made him the star of the ’70s Essex band Dr Feelgood. But, I am a big fan of words and Dr John Cooper Clarke has a talent for stringing a few of them together.
The 68-year-old punk poet crafts clever prose that he delivers in a comedic fashion. Like Johnson, he was a face in the ’70s and had brought out a few vinyl releases of his work. Although some can be heard backdropped with music, he usually performs acapella. He has a look so iconic that it could be replicated at any fancy dress party; shades, skinny legs and tumbling dark bed hair. Like a cross between Russel Brand and a blind man.
Cooper Clarke runs on, a little behind schedule and brings with him a large notebook. He begins reading out a guestlist, naturally containing all rhyming names, before launching into a few one-liners. A few men shout ‘TWAT’ from all corners of the theatre. One hairless individual can’t contain himself any longer and wades up to the front of the stage, interrupting Cooper Clarke’s set and carefully formed sentence. The boob-headed man squeaks a poem request like he’s at a DJ Booth in Butlins. John Cooper Clarke, of course, is unalarmed by this. Having contended with bottles and splashes of phlegm flying in his direction during the punk eras (he used to opening up for the likes of the Sex Pistols and The Clash) he shrugs off the heckler with a polite “thanks for your interest”.
Cooper Clarke introduces his next poem with high praise for Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys. The frontman had recently turned the poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ into a song on the hit album AM, bringing new attention to the poet’s work. Cooper Clarke continues with his original version which receives a thunderous applause from the galleries.
He whittles through a lot of the favourites like ‘Beasley Street’ and the ironic ‘Get Back On Drugs You Fat Fuck’ inspired by Manchester where “drugs are compulsory”. As he flicks through his notebook, I get the notion that this is all improvised but no less packed with humour and entertainment value. He then dutifully finishes with a rendition of ‘Twat’ as requested. The boob-headed man wriggles in his seat with delight.
This concert marks the end of Wilko Johnson’s UK tour and his 70th Birthday. He has enjoyed a return to the musical spotlight in recent years. Many will now recognise him for playing a psychotic executioner on the Game Of Thrones and, more unfortunately, he had a tumour scare. Doctors diagnosed the guitar player with terminal cancer. But, rather than receiving any treatment, Johnson embarked on a farewell tour. When he still felt no closer to death, he went in search for a second opinion on his illness. He then discovered that it was operable and he wasn’t terminal after all.
Quite rightly, Johnson proudly walks onto the stage accompanied by Norman Watt Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums to screams and cheers from the audience. Wilko charges at the mic and begins with a number of his own classics. He paces the stage while the guitar mimics a gun and he aims fire at the audience. Wilko aims to please tonight with many Dr Feelgood classics in his set like ‘Roxette’, ‘Going Back Home’ and ‘Paradise’.
As they play another Feelgood track, a few people in the front row resemble a group of teachers who’ve been spiked with acid. One woman looks as though someone has superglued her bottom to the chair, flailing her arms around in an attempt to be freed. I want whatever they’ve taken. But their Avante-Garde sit-down-dancing exposes the fact that seating really isn’t convenient for Wilko’s music.
They aren’t the only ones who are lost in the moment. Bassist Norman, who’s known for his ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ bassline, has his eyes shut and is twisting around the stage like no one is watching. It’s adorable to watch until you notice that his entire shirt is not shiny but soaked and a small pond is beginning to form at his feet. No one can say this man isn’t putting in any effort. The pair have more energy than most people half their age, the number of high-energy guitar intervals proves it all- especially during ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’.
Dr John Cooper Clarke makes another appearance and joins the trio for an encore, with a guitar in hand. This has all been too much for the audience to handle and they all begin to stand up triumphantly from the confines of their seats and surge forward to the front of the stage. Pandemonium. Despite the stewards calmly suggesting for everyone to get back to their seats, they have lost control of the room. The newly formed quartet continue to perform Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ to a wild and chaotic reception.
The band leave one more time, while the audience slaps the stage floor. Supposedly this means they want more Wilko. He answers their caveman-style callings and promptly returns for one more song but unfortunately, it’s not ‘Milk And Alcohol’ but ‘Route 66’. But nevertheless, I’m not disappointed. Wilko Johnson is worth the watch, even if it’s just to soak up the energy of his eclectic group of fans.