Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. Briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. To kick it off in 2023, our topic is They’re a Poet Don’t You Know It... we look at a song that made a great impact on our contributors for its lyrics.
Today we have Colin from Once Upon a Time In the 70s . He’s one of the co-operators of the British site that as its name suggests, looks primarily at ’70s music! Will that influence his pick…
Thanks, Dave, for again asking Once Upon a Time in The ‘70s to join the Turntable Talk discussion.
Dave asked us ‘to pick one song that you think has fantastic lyrics, or one you like because of the lyrics, and say a bit about why you love it.’
As I’ve said before on this and other blogs, I’m not so much a ‘lyrics man.’ I’m a bit of a philistine in that regard, I guess. What hooks me into a song is the music; the beat and harmonies; the pace.
When I read the remit, though, one artist immediately sprung to mind. Then two. Three.
All three are poets. Simple. That’s it – poets in their own right. Not musicians with a clever turn of phrase; not an artist that had some weird LSD trip resulting in a profound, life affirming psychedelic vision that inspired them to write in romantic, flowery terms.
Nope. Just poets.
So, ever the rebel, I’m going ignore Dave’s instruction.
OK what I’ll do then, in an effort to keep this concise as possible (that’s a laugh!) is concentrate on the two artists who were around in The ‘70s. That makes sense, right?
I’m going to pass on the wonderful Kae Tempest, simply because I live in the past and Kae is very much ‘present.’ I don’t actually know any songs particularly well, but every one I’ve heard just drips lyrical genius. Not so much in the words that are used, but more the manner in which they are delivered.
Right, here we go, proper: Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Jamaica but came to UK (Brixton, London) in 1963 at the age of eleven. The late Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties saw considerable racial tension in England, and Linton grew up facing prejudice and persecution from all angles – especially so, the police.
I grew up in Scotland. We didn’t witness anything like the discrimination that was so prevalent down south. So when Linton’s work began to gain airplay on the John Peel radio show, I was engrossed- shocked at the content and that such injustices could be happening only a couple hundred miles away, but also entranced by the delivery of such powerful patois poetry.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s recitals had me listening hard. They made me focus; concentrate on what he was saying in this ‘foreign tongue’ and so his message became even more stronger.
An added attraction for me is Linton’s use of Dub / reggae music for backing. On many recordings, he would hire Denis Bovell for the mixing desk, percussion, keys. (Dennis is one of my favourite Dub artists , with several of his albums in my collection.)
This particular track, ‘Sonny’s Lettah,’ released in 1978 encapsulates pathos, indignation, retribution, regret and pride in under four minutes. Musically, it combines traditional blues with reggae / dub.
(The song relates a letter being sent to a mother back home in Jamaica, explaining why her son – the writer- and his brother are locked up in jail, having been arrested under the ‘Sus Law.’ This was a ‘stop & search’ law that allowed police to stop, search and potentially arrest people on suspicion of them being in breach of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. The police, it was established, unfairly targeted Black and ethnic minority groups and led in part to the riots in Bristol, London, Liverpool and Birmingham in 1980 & 1981. The law was eventually repealed in August ’81)
Altogether, it’s pretty damned powerful, I’d say – as indeed are all the works of LKJ. I could have picked any number of tracks, but this one conveniently displays the lyrics.
John Cooper Clarke is a spoken word performer from Salford, by Manchester. He’s often referred to as “The People’s Poet”, and more simply as a Punk Poet. As does Linton Kwesi Johnson, John deals with social issues but though he can be downbeat and hard-hitting, like with ‘Beasley Street’ below he more often resorts to humour to make his point – as in the second example, ‘Kung Fu International.’ (I know the latter is not technically a ‘song’ in that it has no accompanying music, but I think Cooper Clarke’s voice ‘sings,’ in a deadpan, Mancunian way.)
Though he now performs solo, and purely in spoken word format, his initial work in the ‘70s was put to music by producer Martin Hannett and a band of Manchester ‘all stars’ including Pete Shelly from The Buzzcocks and Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column, playing under the name The Invisible Girls.
And in keeping with his ‘punk poet’ tag, John Cooper Clarke has been special guest of such luminaries as Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Buzzcocks, while up and coming young whippersnappers like Joy Division, Duran Duran and New Order snapped up the chance to open for him.
People would say in 1981 that The Specials portrayed an image of desolate, urban decay here in UK. From the year previous, try this for size … my favourite verse comes in @ 2’ 40”:
Hot beneath the collar
An inspector calls
Where the perishing stink of squalor
Impregnates the walls
The rats have all got rickets
They spit through broken teeth
The name of the game is not cricket
Caught out on Beasley Street
And finally, if there’s anyone can make being beaten up and having their head kicked in sound funny, Johnny’s yer man!
Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke. Two socially conscious men with more than just triple-barrel names in common and a fascination for unprovoked beatings!