John Cooper Clarke On Alex Turner’s Lyrics And Writing ‘I Wanna Be Yours’

John Cooper Clark

John Cooper Clark

Punk poet John Cooper Clarke goes way back with Arctic Monkeys, and their mutual love comes full circle on the new album ‘AM’.

On closing track ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, the band put John’s poem of the same name to music. You might recognise it, as it’s been a staple in GCSE English for years (and rightly so). As Alex Turner has previously explained, it was a huge inspiration for him as a lyricist:

“I was your typical teenager, trying to be cool and not interested and the teacher proceeded to read ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, doing an impression of Johnny. It made my ears prick up in the classroom because it was nothing like anything I’d heard, especially on this syllabus. Had I not seen him do his thing, I wouldn’t have started writing like that.”

Both men seem to share that surrealist, kitchen sink-drama sense of Britishness when it comes to their writing, so of course I had to speak to John as part of this week’s Arctic Monkeys cover feature. Below, I’ve posted the full transcript of our chat – asking him about the original poem, what he thinks of Alex as a lyricist and his recent honorary degree from Salford University (“Finally, my eye surgery business can become a reality,” he told me, tongue firmly in cheek!”).

But first, here are Alex’s lyrics to the track:

Arctic Monkeys – ‘I Wanna Be Yours’

I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
let me be your coffee pot
You call the shots babe
I just wanna be yours

Secrets I have held in my heart
are harder to hide than I thought
Maybe I just wanna be yours
I wanna be yours
I wanna be yours

Let me be your leccy meter
And I’ll never run out
Let me be the portable heater
That you’ll get cold without
I wanna be your setting lotion
hold your hair in deep devotion
At least as deep as the Pacific ocean
I wanna be yours

Secrets I have held in my heart
are harder to hide than I thought
Maybe I just wanna be yours
I wanna be yours
I wanna be yours

They’re ever so slightly different to John’s, which you can read here, or listen to him perform here:

Can you remember when you wrote ‘I Wanna Be Yours’?

John Cooper Clarke: 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 favorite. 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.

People propose to it then – so how does that compare to Arctic Monkeys closing their album with it?

I think it’s great the band have used it, because I think it was always kind of a song. It’s a poem that owes a great deal to popular music. I haven’t heard their version yet, but I know it’s gonna be great.

It’s a ballad, it doesn’t sound like The Fall or something people might expect to be associated with you.

Well that’s the kind of number it is, really. What it is, it’s the classic thing of the desire to make yourself useful to the object of your desire, taken to a pathological degree to the point where you’re actually reducing yourself to a commodity.

How did you find out the band would be using it?

I only heard the day before yesterday! To be honest, I got an erroneous email a while back that said they were gonna do a version of another of my numbers, ‘Evidently Chickentown’, So I was kind of expecting that they were gonna do a cover of one of mine, but the day before yesterday I heard it was gonna be ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ – great!

Alex sings it in a very emotive way. If you weren’t clued up you might not realize they’re not his words.

I’m sure he’s done a great job. He’s a great lyricist and, well, he’s a proper singer. He is emotive. He’s got a great deal of feeling in his voice, and he makes that northern accent sound very sexy.

Which is difficult, right?!

I think it is! It’s got a lot of George Formby baggage, not that there’s anything wrong with George. But it’s only in recent years that a northern accent has been seen to be the language of lurve.

Alex changes the odd bit in the track, adding one of his own lines – “Secrets I have held in my heart / are harder to hide than I thought”. Are you cool with that?

Yeah, I would have expected that. I think that’s great, that’s what people do with songs. There’s a tradition with this. Especially a number like that, because it cries out for updating because it uses brand names. One would expect it to be kind of updated, in much the same way that Sinatra might use different comparisons for a song like ‘You’re The Top’ by Cole Porter.

Do you rate him as a lyricist?

I think he’s a fantastic lyricist. He’s always changing, and as a band they won’t be pinned down. I like that album they made when they’d been to the States for the first time, they were so obviously Americanized. I think things like that are a strength, where you can make every new experience uniquely you. That’s part of the secret of longevity.

This new album is even more American, in some ways.

Popular music itself is an American invention as we know it, so there ain’t no shame in that I don’t think.

You go back a long way with the band, you met them pretty early on didn’t you?

I did, I met them about a fortnight before they went mega. I was doing a show at the boardwalk in Sheffield with The Fall. I was about to leave, go home, and Chris, the guy who used to own the late lamented Boardwalk club in Sheffield said there’s some lads here who’d like to say hello, they’re called the Arctic Monkeys. And I thought, that’s a name I can imagine in the hit parade! And then a fortnight later they went viral. That was their ‘in’ wasn’t it? They came fully formed really, with a fan base and everything. But I knew they were good.

And here we are, eight years later and they’re covering one of yours.

It’s great, I like that! I think Alex is fabulous, and I think they’re a great band. They can really play, and they get better and better and better and better. Alex’s many changing moods are always an object of fascination in the playground of my imagination!

Would you do something live with them if they asked?

Yeah, if they asked me I’d get involved – of course I would! I love what they do. For sure! I don’t work with anybody I don’t like, just for the attention. I suppose it’s not very surprising but all the people that have sort of latched onto us lately are all people that I really like. I include Plan B and the Alabama 3, people like that. It’s a pleasure to be involved with acts like that, and Arctic Monkeys, because these people are in for the long haul.

To bring it back to you, the doctorate you recently got from Salford uni – were you proud?

Well, I’ve obviously been a great source of inspiration to the academic population of Salford! They’re citing me as a major contribution to their upward trajectory!

And would they be right?

I think so.

What else is going on with you at the moment?

I’m doing loads of gigs until the end of July and then I’m taking August out and I’m going on a family holiday to France. After that, the tour goes on. But hopefully I’m gonna get a book of new poetry out very, very shortly. I’ve got millions of new numbers so I’m gonna launch that within a year I hope.

At this point, I asked John what his favorite work in progress was and he proceeded to reel off ‘The Endorser’. Hero.

Literature in Songs: Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits LIVE (On the Night, 1993) HD

Literature in Songs: Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits

Much have been said about the Beauty and the Beast references in Meatloaf’s “I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)” and shared The Greens Keepers’ “Lotion”, which draws in the book/film The Silence of the Lambs.

Today I was humming “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, a rather sad song from 1981 about lost love.

A love-struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made.
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, “You and me babe, how about it?”

Juliet says, “Hey, it’s Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack!”
He’s underneath the window, she’s singing, “Hey la, my boyfriend’s back.
You shouldn’t come around here singing up to people like that…
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?”

Rather than a literal interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, the lyrics indicate that a man is pining for a woman who once loved him–presumably the love of his life–though it didn’t work out. The Romeo and Juliet in the song didn’t die; rather they broke up and lived on. The first two verses (above) are the man remembering how things used to be. The line, “He’s underneath the window, she’s singing, ‘Hey la, my boyfriend’s back’ ” is a reference not only to the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” but also a 1963 pop-song by The Angels, “My Boyfriend’s Back”. If the song is at all autobiographical (and I haven’t found any indication either way) the Angels song might indicate when the original romance took place, ie. in the sixties. Now it’s 2013, and poor Romeo hasn’t gotten over Juliet yet.

Romeo and Juliet's Blues

Romeo and Juliet’s Blues

I’ve often thought the relationship described in “Romeo and Juliet”, if it had been allowed to run it’s course rather than been cut short by the characters’ untimely death, would have burned out. A different interpretation of this song is that it’s a sort of sequel, Mark Knopfler’s (singer/songwriter of Dire Straits) extrapolation of events if things had turned out differently for Romeo and Juliet, ie. they had lived.

Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry.
You said, “I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you ’til I die”.
There’s a place for us, you know the movie song.
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

However, I think of all they would have gone through to be together and maybe true love would have prevailed.  Grab a tissue and have a listen. The song itself is a gem.

Have a great weekend!