It’s likely that John Cooper Clarke fans will start by jumping in at the half-way mark of this BFI set of thirteen music-related films, all sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain. Here they’ll find the (possibly self-appointed) ‘Bard of Salford’ in quintessential early eighties mode. Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt also functions as a time capsule of a vibrant post-punk poetry scene in which Clarke, his confidence now established after years of supporting bands like The Fall and an embryonic Joy Division, is laying down sparse, dub-tinged albums in the midst of his Invisible Girls period. (The supporting band —to digress for a moment— is a story in itself. A Martin Hannett-produced studio outfit created for the purpose of setting Clarke’s words to music, it later went on to achieve wider indie notability with an album partnering Penetration’s Pauline Murray, and even came to play a part, as did Clarke himself on a personal level, in the exceedingly strange tale of post-Velvets Nico.)
Ten Years will have an undercurrent for those who know Clarke’s life, as we’re witnessing a time, even if only the very subtlest suggestions are evident in this film, when he was increasingly reliant on heroin. This addiction caused a lengthy sojourn in the creative doldrums, punctuated by occasional reappearances as a somewhat folkloric figure until his resurgence in the 2000s, with the advent of the huge US TV hit The Sopranos. Clarke’s breathtakingly insistent ode to uselessness, Evidently Chickentown, was featured on the closing scenes of the episode Stage 5. (Other significant markers then appeared: Arctic Monkeys covered Clarke’s rough-hewn romantic masterpiece I Wanna Be Yours while Plan B featured his superb Pity the Plight on his concept album Ill Manors.) It was a timely reset and a righteous pathway to, if not national treasure status, then reinstatement as a prized and relevant figure in the country’s Arts consciousness. Evidently Chickentown is included here alongside the likes of other ‘greatest hits,’ such as Beasley Street. These two lyrical works are right at home in this 1982 film, in a Manchester where, like a lot of urban England, modernism had merely added to the problem of outdated, failing and depressing environments. (It’s not uncommon to hear or read the area’s music royalty —Bernard Sumner from New Order, for example— recalling how ‘grim up North’ it really was back then.) Gigs were a portal to an alternative world and a hive of potential (the most famous being the Sex Pistols in June 1976 at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, surely the apotheosis of the “I was there” concert, where they were supported by the fleeting Lancashire prog rock band Solstice). It’s poignant seeing this footage of Clarke’s rapid-fire delivery from the end of that protracted era, in which he was the kingpin of a live scene featuring Attila the Stockbroker, Mark Mywords, and many more. Front and centre alongside Clarke, of course, and indeed shown in Ten Years joint-headlining at a large theatre gig, was Linton Kwesi Johnson. Dread Beat and Blood, first in the collection, takes us to the heart of Windrush England, and into rooms where Johnson is doing community talks and performing bristling, charged readings. The energies here, particularly when conversation takes hold, form a direct line to Trinidad-born author Sam Selvon and his London novels of the 1950s. Over superb train-shot imagery of late 1970s South London, we hear first-hand how Brixton has, in many ways, the feel of Kingston, Jamaica. Perhaps without the weather. Its bakery products, for instance, offer comfort for those inexorably connected, either by first or second generation, to a different country. We see a comically aggressive way of playing dominos; we hear the sound systems; we learn that, despite acquiring the Jamaican equivalent of the 11-plus schooling qualification, Johnson was placed by default in the very lowest class at school. His work, he says, “is for Blacks in Britain,” in conversation with a well-meaning but uncomfortable radio interviewer.
For a compilation centred on music, the visual splendour throughout these films is frequently remarkable. Steve Reich: A New Musical Language opens in simply mesmeric fashion. A hazy and very 1980s New York glides and shimmers to an abstract sound. The film settles before long into the business of fairly straight-up documentary —albeit interestingly, since it is largely voiced by Reich himself, and features a great deal of his work, particularly The Desert Music. (Reich is noteworthy on Wagner, of whom he declares “I would have happily blown his brains out.”) The film may well prove a touch dry or indulgent at times for some —in fairness, it is obviously pitched at those with at least a modicum of interest in Reich— but there’ll always be those stunning sequences of New York as a backdrop to his invention.
Rummaging in the grab-bag, you’ll find films on the Irish-English composer Elizabeth Maconchy (which, amusingly, begins by seeking to illustrate that nobody knows who she is); short and rather samey showcases for artists like Asian Dub Foundation and Martin Glynn; and the defiantly modernist and beautifully shot Clocks Of The Midnight Hour. In Cornelius Cardew, the titular maverick has invented a whole new music score, a mammoth 193 pages which must be interpreted —not improvised — by the players. Stockhausen and peers pay tribute to his struggle for a different musical possibility. Great Noises That Fill The Air presents a foraged industrial music facility, utilising abandoned machinery and rubbish. What becomes striking on hearing this endeavour is the unmistakable echo of Steve Reich, a moment when the films in this rather random-looking compendium suddenly become more allied than they appeared at first glance. As the Bow Gamelan Ensemble bash away near the river Thames at Rainham Marshes, the sirens and loudhailers of the approaching police providing an involuntary yet befittingly atonal accompaniment, you can only wonder if Reich has seen the spectacle for himself. --Neil Jackson