In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs we’ve discovered via TV shows.
Back before the term “punk poet” became a two-word warning that it was time to leave the coffeehouse, John Cooper Clarke wore it proudly as the wild-haired “Bard Of Salford,” the tall, barmy guy who would rattle off vituperative free verse before bands like Joy Division, The Fall, and Sex Pistols. And while I generally loved all those groups and anyone even tangentially associated them, I primarily thought of Clarke as a novelty act.
I first heard Clarke’s rendition of “(You Never See A Nipple In The) Daily Express” on the classic post-punk live compilation Short Circuit: Live At The Electric Circus, and “Health Fanatic” in the new-wave concert film Urgh! A Music War. And while I appreciated him in a sort of sardonic, “star of the slam poetry night” kind of way, I never saw him as anything more than a local curio who maybe was just in the right place at the right time. Back in Austin, there was this quasi-homeless guy who used to shuffle on before bands and read his own stream-of-consciousness poetry to polite indulgence. And other than his ability to get a rousing, “Yeah!” from punks who also vaguely hated rich folk and politicians, I didn’t see Clarke as much different, really.
But then The Sopranos—my favorite TV show, and one that had an uncanny ability to always find the perfect end-credits song—used Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown” in the sixth-season episode, “Stage 5.” In the closing scene, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) fumes over the many indignities he’s suffered in his life, and the many more that seem to have been handed down in his blood, ever since the moment his family had its proud Italian name of “Leonardo” mangled. Phil is fed up, and as he swears to his right-hand man that he won’t take it anymore, his frustrations boil over to the hissing tune of “Chickentown,” Clarke’s exasperated rant about being trapped in a place where everything is completely fucked.
“Evidently Chickentown” is the first song off Clarke’s fourth album Snap, Crackle & Bop, and The Sopranos was the first time I’d ever heard him backed with actual music—specifically The Invisible Girls, a band that revolved around Factory Records producer Martin Hannett. Hannett’s stamp is all over “Evidently Chickentown,” backing Clarke’s whinging monotone with a percolating, persistent drum machine beat that recalls Suicide, plus the tiniest hint of synth drone. Even just that slightest bit of accompaniment makes all the difference.
The result is hypnotic, and every bit as full of tightly controlled punk fury as the bands Clarke used to fill time in between. It gave me reason to reassess Clarke, and find a new appreciation for his way with the wry turn of phrase and satirical sketch (even if I’ve never enjoyed another of his tracks as much as this one). And its use on The Sopranos ranks as one of the show’s sharpest and most effective musical moments, somehow capturing the vexation of a New York mafia guy with the words of a British punk who’s complaining about flat beer and cold chips.