Louder Than War Interviews Renowned Biographer Tony Fletcher
Smiths, REM and Keith Moon biographer Tony Fletcher speaks to Louder Than War as he launches his brilliant new memoir ‘Boy About Town’ which we ran a review of on Monday.
Born and raised in South London and now living in upstate New York, Tony Fletcher is established as one of the finest writers on music. His new book, ‘Boy About Town’ is released on July 4th and chronicles his extraordinary development during the punk and post-punk period when ‘Jamming’, the fanzine he started with school friends, saw him get close to many of the key players on the scene in the late 1970s. As well as offering a rare level of insight into these characters, Tony writes with first-hand knowledge of some of the landmark gigs at the time and the malevolent right-wing influence that infiltrated much of youth culture for a period.
Before flying into Britain to undertake a promotional tour, Tony took some time to talk to Louder Than War about ‘Boy About Town’ and the period in which it is set.
You’ve written some of the definitive rock biographies on the likes of Keith Moon, The Smiths and REM. Have you always had a sense that you would one day write this ‘autobiographical’ sort of book?
I have, yes. Not out of ego – though I can understand why it might look that way – but because I thought there was a story, or series of stories, that would resonate with others.
How different is it to approach this sort of book compared to your other work?
Vastly different. For a start, that’s me in the spotlight, although oddly enough, I feel more comfortable in that scenario. There are things I gave permission to say about myself that I would hesitate to even ask of anyone else. I started out on the process of what has become Boy About Town many years back, penning some of my experiences as short stories. Those were mostly the ‘everyman’ anecdotes, such as the story about getting beaten up in a park, or my first fondling fumbles (or is that ‘fumbling fondles?’) with girls. When I showed these stories to friends, I got an extremely positive reaction, and so set about trying to tie the bigger story together as fiction… and failed miserably. I put the book aside, knowing I would eventually come back to it. While my Smiths proposal was out with publishers, I went back to the project, and after all these years, instantly found my voice. The fiction went out the window, the story came together remarkably quickly as Boy About Town, and I had a feeling when it was done that, this time, it was properly done. I showed it to my new editor at William Heinemann, he loved it and said that if it could wait until after the Smiths book, he’d like to publish it.
We’re round the same age, apart from music and football memories, I can’t stand reflecting on the period of life that ‘Boy About Town’ chronicles. Was it difficult / painful for you to delve back into adolescence?
Difficult, yes. Awkward, too. But painful, no. I found it quite cathartic. My feeling was, and you seem to be verifying this, that many of us went through similar experiences, and that at least one of us should try and get them down on paper.
You were clearly a very talented child with a strong background as a trained musician, how important was this in your developing love of rock music?
Although my father, sadly, could never understand as much, I was thrilled to have been brought up reading music as a second language: I just wanted to apply my knowledge of theory to the pop and rock music of the day, rather than the classical music that my parents had been raised on. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure how much my musical training fed or inspired my fanaticism. When I spent time with Johnny Marr for the Smiths book, it was amazing how much we had in common in terms of our childhood immersion in pop music, our obsession with labels, producers, B-sides, chord patterns, guitars etc. And yet Johnny’s family was not especially musical. Similarly, and I address this in Boy About Town, when my band got going, our bassist Jeff proved to have inherent musical talent even though he was completely unschooled. I envied him for that because it allowed him to approach music in a non-traditional way, whereas I couldn’t help formulating my every song with conventional chord patterns.
There’s an aside here that would make for an interesting anthropological study. I’m the youngest of two boys, and I proved much more obsessed with music than my older brother. My brother himself has two sons; the oldest is only casually interested in music, the younger is a professional musician already. And I also have two sons, of which my oldest is barely even casually interested in music and yet the youngest is obsessed and a talented guitarist already. I’d love to know: is this something genetic, or more a matter of circumstance and coincidence?
Something that emerges from the book is some brilliant character sketches of school friends / acquaintances. Are you still in touch with any of them?
Yes, I am thrilled to say. And I made an effort to reconnect with the few exceptions as we got closer to book publication. I can’t explain why it should be the case with my own social group but, despite leaving school at different times and going separate ways, and despite the (welcome) lack of “high school reunions” and the absence of Friends Reunited and Facebook, many of us made a point of staying in touch and maintaining our friendships over the years. A group of us even saw in the Millennium together – in Sydney, where a couple of friends were living at the time.
Additionally, I fell out of touch with my two original band-mates after Apocalypse broke up, but a decade or two later that seemed utterly ridiculous and we all reached out to each other, finally put an album together and had a private reunion gig. And though I went through several periods during my adulthood where I lost track with the character Jeffries, who plays the role of a surrogate big brother, we always found our way back to each other and have, in recent years, stayed with each other in the USA and South America.
To your positive reaction to my portraits of these characters, it was important to me that this story was about more than just the narrator, and I worked hard to ensure that my friends (and foes) were properly fleshed out, and that we had some sense of where their lives were heading as we reached the end of the book. I didn’t want them to be mere walk-on characters. In the process, I reached out to most of them both for permission to write about them in depth, and to fact-check – or at least get a sense of their own memory of – certain events. These friends showed remarkable faith in me with regard to painting a portrait of our teenage lives, one that was neither rose-tainted, nor sordid. I will find out as they read it whether I got the balance right!
The book examines one of the most productive periods in British music history from a unique perspective but contains some pretty blunt analysis of some characters on the scene at the time. Are these your views looking back or was it how you felt then?
Earlier drafts of the book were written very much from the perspective of the character telling the story. So the initial chapter read as if it was written by an eight-year old, and so on. But as I went through further drafts, it was impossible not to let a certain amount of current perspective sneak into the text, if only for the sake of a more expressive language. Reading the finished typesetting, I noticed that my 40-something self occasionally stepped in to offer his opinion. And that’s okay. Still, most of my views are those that I held at the time – for example, my conflicting opinions on the mod revival and my less-than-glowing reviews of a couple of bands from that era were stated in Jamming! at the time and haven’t changed much.
The description of skinheads ‘seig heiling’ to ska music would probably strike a chord with many of our age who lived in cities or small towns. How big an issue was right wing influence on the music scene at the time?
It was fucking enormous, and writing this book made that so much more apparent. ‘That’ being a period – most of the post-punk period in the book, to be frank – where you couldn’t go out at night without worrying whether skinheads would show up and what kind of damage they would cause if they did. You always worried about how the clothes you were wearing might be perceived and you always checked to make sure you had trainers on in case you had to run fast. For those who didn’t live through it: serious right-wing fascists were playing on working class insecurities and directing the (sadly prevalent) adolescent British male violent tendency against the new wave of immigrants and, to a large extent, anything that didn’t represent a supposedly sacred ‘British way of life.’ It sickened me at the time and it continues to do so. They certainly did not go unchallenged; I write in Boy About Town about attending the first Carnival Against The Nazis, where the Clash performed alongside TRB, Steel Pulse and X-Ray Spex, and how that was an important process of politicisation for many of us. (Billy Bragg has often referred to this as a pivotal event in his own life.) But Rock Against Racism etc. didn’t have an immediately positive effect – as proven only eighteen months later by those skinheads seig-heiling to the Selecter, a band that had just one white member. Towards the end of the book, I talk about the emergence of Oi! music, which would become a further breeding ground for fascist leaders and their ill-educated followers; this particular story does not end in 1980. Which leads into your next question…
Is that sort of thing gone or is it something we need to remain vigilant about?
Well, It’s been said before but I’ll say it anyway: The right-wing policies of the Thatcher government co-opted much of this racism and, if we can take that statement as having any positive attributes, reduced the mainstream political influence of the National Front. Not surprisingly, the real nasty fascists went further to the right – to the British Movement and other loosely co-ordinated ‘parties’ – and continued to reign terror at concerts, and on the streets. As late as the Jobs for a Change festival at London’s County Hall in 1984, by which time the Smiths were Britain’s big band, I recall right-wing skins coming down to cause chaos during the Redskins’ set and many people going off to hospital as a result.
For a whole bunch of reasons, I got out of Britain and moved to New York City, the famed ‘melting pot.’ Upon returning in 89, I noted a drastic change in British popular culture attitudes with the acid house/rave movement. Although 2Tone tried so very hard to unite black and white, it would ultimately a scene based around DJs – and, no doubt, influenced by the widespread intake of ecstasy – that saw those efforts come to fruition. Racism and the casual violence it serves to enable are unfortunately endemic, and you can see that in the States with so much barely-coded opposition to a black President. (The NRA is essentially a white power movement.) But my 17-yr old son is part of a large culture of friends who go around hugging each other, who cuddle purely platonically with friends of the opposite sex, and who wouldn’t be able to get their heads around the concept of racism, let alone forming a gang and going out to beat up people of a different colour. So times must have changed. (Or maybe it’s just that I now live in Woodstock!)
Your love for and access to The Jam and Paul Weller is a theme of the book. It is pretty remarkable but you don’t seem star-struck at all. Did it affect you at all or go to your head?
Tough question to answer. There’s a part of me would love to say it didn’t affect me, and I do think, even now, that part of the reason I was welcomed into their inner circle – although I’m wary of over-analysing something like this – was because I took it in my stride, did not act especially star-struck, and could hopefully be relied upon to behave appropriately. (Although reading back over my first meeting with Paul Weller I was, clearly, quite daunted to be in the recording studio with him.) Later on, i.e., after this book ends, when Paul financed the Jamming! record label and I moved into the Jam’s offices, the relationship changed, as it was bound to.
The Stranglers’ may not be the most credible people to quote, but ‘no more heroes’ was an important creed back in the day. The punk, new wave and post-punk bands positioned themselves in reaction to the aloof, elite rock stars that had preceded them. I took them at their word and, to a degree, figured that they owed it to the likes of us fanzine writers to give us their time. But I never confused their approachability with my respect for them as musicians and lyricists.
How would you evaluate The Jam in the context of that period looking back?
I bought into The Jam shortly after my 13th birthday; they broke up when I was 18. They were the soundtrack to my teens. They put that teenage existence into words and music. Their shows were some of the greatest experiences of my life – although I can understand why, if you never saw them in their element, and were reduced to watching concert footage, they might not appear so. I really think you had to be there – in the crowd, to deliberately use another of their song titles. Over the greater course of history, there were groups whose music may have had wider appeal, or more obvious artistic merit, or perhaps better stood the test of time. I know it frustrated Paul Weller that the group’s albums never quite realised his vision for them, and as such, I think The Jam are understandably viewed more as a great singles band. But all of that is irrelevant if you were part of their audience. They were everything to us. Everything. I thank them for that. From the bottom of my heart.
Would you say that artists were more accessible then than now (was there more of a connection with and an interest in their audience)?
No, I wouldn’t. One of the lasting effects of punk rock was the expectation that musicians, however popular and iconic, should make themselves somewhat accessible. I saw this on the massively successful Warped tours of the 1990s, where Green Day, at a point that they had sold umpteen million albums, were still expected to show up at the ‘artist tent’ at a given time of each day to meet their audience and sign records. After that, the Internet, certainly, allowed a number of musicians whose audience had become ‘more selective’ to maintain careers that would have otherwise have floundered, by interacting directly with that audience. And the likes of Facebook and Twitter enable even our biggest ‘stars’ to communicate instantly with their ‘fans.’ There are some icons who are better served by not having that direct communication – and oddly enough, Weller is one of them at this point in his life – but it’s worth noting that even Pete Townshend put a considerable amount of time, energy and money into communicating directly with his audience upon the emergence of the net.
The development of ‘Jamming’ runs through the book and is a pretty amazing story. Is there a sense when you look back that you find it hard to believe how it all turned out?
At the time, it seemed natural to me at the time. I worked so incredibly hard on it, and I took so many knocks – financially and physically – when I stepped it up in 1978 and 79, that I believed its success was genuinely deserved. And I was just like anyone else who’s been through something similar: I was on this train, and it was moving pretty fast, and I was enjoying the ride, and there was certainly no time to slow it down and reflect. Looking back on it now, of course, the story seems utterly remarkable – but as soon as I say that, I feel my ego getting in the way. My friends (and enemies) would tell me I had no shortage of ego back then either, but it was the kind that didn’t take no for an answer rather than that which thought that Jamming! was the best thing since sliced bread. Which again, leads onto your next question…
Reading the book, I don’t feel that knock backs from bands would have dented your self-belief but were there any and was it disheartening?
To turn this question around, when Keith Moon and Paul Weller reached out to me within weeks of each other, I think my path in life was set. If those two icons could give me the proper time of day, I figured there was no reason for anyone else not to do so. The knock backs came more from kids at school – and I can understand their reaction in hindsight – and from the problems with printers, right up until I came across Joly at Better Badges. For the most part, I was enormously encouraged and indulged by the musicians I approached, probably because of my age. However, there’s a crucial moment in the book for me, and it’s when I get set up, and then blown off, from interviewing Bill Nelson, and it was especially upsetting because it’s the first time I’d gone about things the ‘official’ way (i.e. approached the record company, then the publicist). And when I got blown off, I just thought, well, I’ll handle it the un-official way – and showed up at the pre-ordained location and time anyway. Bill Nelson claimed to know nothing about the interview being set up or cancelled and invited me in to his new band’s dress rehearsal for the day. Of course, you can get away with that behaviour when you’re 14. Try it when you’re 40 and you’ll never work in that town again!
I know society changes, media output constantly shifts, and each generation probably thinks the same about ‘ their period’, but I do feel the period 1977-1982ish was remarkable in the originality, variety and enduring nature of the music produced in Britain at the time. Would you agree or is it just rose-tinted glasses?
I love this question. Quite obviously, you and I were fortunate to come of age during the greatest period of British music, ever. For us. And that’s exactly the way it should be. When I wrote a lengthy history of the New York City music scene, it was fascinating how every single generation, bar none, would claim theirs as the greatest music scene ever. How can I tell Ben E. King, who used to walk 20 blocks or more to challenge other vocal groups on the street corners of Harlem in the 1950s, that his culture wasn’t the greatest in the world? How can you argue against someone who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, when the likes of Dylan and Ochs and Van Ronk and Farina would all hang out together drinking cheap wine long into the night at the Gaslight? How can I dispute Alan Vega when he talks about Suicide at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs and says that he was part of the most fertile music scene ever? We were absolutely, 100% blessed to have been part of the punk and, especially, the post-punk scene, and we’re right to assume its importance. But not at the expense of other generations.
I think the Damned interview passage is brilliant, it just seems to sum up what they were like (or I thought they were) at the time. Have you got a favourite memory in the book (or like the AC/DC school uniform story, left out)?
So glad that came across in print. When I published the interview, verbatim, in the issue of Jamming! that came out just after the book ends, it was received with great hilarity by all concerned – including Captain Sensible, the protagonist. That is one of my favourite light-hearted memories of all… although the interview with all three of The Jam at the Town House, where they start out barely communicating and end up cracking pornographic jokes and threatening GBH on their fellow pop stars, was equally entertaining – and much less expected. When you’re 14-15, and interviewing these people, I think to some extent their guard goes down: although I had a healthy punk BS detector on me and called these musicians to task in a way I would never do now, I wasn’t cynical, and they recognised as much.
Music (and football) obsessed me then (and now). My eldest is 13 now and into music etc, and I also teach secondary age kids. I just don’t ever get the vibe it matters to them like it did to us in the way that comes over in ‘Boy About Town’. Are we moving away from music-led youth culture?
I think we are. I don’t want to base that so much on my own kids – allowing that my 8-yr old’s love of The Who rivals that of his dad’s – but when I look at my 17-yr old and his friends, even those who are in bands and are musically talented, it’s different. They don’t follow acts the way we did. They don’t live and breathe it. Maybe that’s a good thing. And there isn’t the same sense of tribal youth culture there once was. (And, allowing how that fed the violence I reference so frequently in Boy About Town, perhaps that too is a good thing.) When I’m back in the UK, I look at young adults and they all seem so very similar; homogenous, even. However, there’s a big part of me that refuses to pass judgement. Younger teens are, depending on background, enormously dedicated to real working class movements like grime in the UK and whatever the latest strand of hip-hop might be in the States. There may be stuff going on that we don’t know about because we’re not meant to know about it. But based on the small sample of you and me as parents of teenagers, your question demands a firm ‘yes.’
What are you working on at the moment? Is there a band, artist or period you have always had an ambition to write about and why?
I have a proposal out on a book about Wilson Pickett and American soul. Pickett was arguably the greatest, and the most consistently successful of all soul music stars of his generation, and a wild man whose personal story makes most ‘Behind The Music’ specials look like Jackanory. As much as anything though, and this hopefully answers the second part of your question, Wilson Pickett’s story is that of American soul music: from being raised in Jim Crow Alabama, to his role in the Detroit vocal groups of the 1950s that paved the way for Motown, to the Brill Building era of New York in the early 1960s and on to the studios of Stax and American in Memphis, Fame in Muscle Shoals, Criteria in Miami and Gamble and Huff’s Sigma in Philadelphia, and from there on to headlining the first festival of black American music in Africa, where he was received as a Deity – all followed by the inevitable slow decline and happily, a resurrection before his death – I feel like I have a larger-than-life character through which to tell a grand story of a most vital American musical (and social) generation. It’s my hope to retrace Pickett’s own steps, chronologically. I believe it can be an epic and entertaining book on the scale of the Moon biography, and allowing for the continued popularity of southern soul, particularly the music of Wilson Pickett, that it would have a wide and varied audience. Let’s see if the publishers agree!
Are there any plans for a follow-up to ‘Boy About Town’?
Well, I believe there’s a sequel begging to be written. The story definitely moves into another phase after I leave school and start a record label. But I’m not foolish or naïve enough to believe that Boy About Town doesn’t have to be a success before I get that commission. (I should be wiser about double negatives, however.)
Can you tell us a bit about your personal appearances to promote ‘Boy About Town’?
I’m thrilled to be doing events in London with both Pretty Green AND Rough Trade. The former represents the pervasive mod influence on my story, and the latter is itself, in its earlier West London location, a key character in the book. One thing that I do believe separates my story from others of my generation is that I had a foot firmly in each of these camps: the fashion-obsessed, conventionally structured music of the mod/new wave/power pop scenes, and the dishevelled, chaotic, DIY approach of the post-punk world. To me, they weren’t musically exclusive. I lined up a couple of other events to tie in with my usual travels for family friends in the UK, including a signing at Pretty Green in Manchester, a reading in Hull, and another in Bexhill-on-Sea. The Hull people – Head in a Book – seem to be extremely well-organised and pro-active. People will tell you ‘No one’s buying books any more,’ ‘No-one attends readings.’ My answer tends to be: are you trying hard enough?
‘Boy About Town’ can be bought either by using the widget on the right (preferable option) or use this link.
Tony will be doing readings from, and signing copies of, ‘Boy About Town’ over the next few weeks starting at ‘Pretty Green’ on Carnaby Street on Thursday July 4th and then at various venues around the country. For further details follow this link.
All words by Dave Jennings. More of Dave’s writing on Louder Than War can be found in his author archive. He is also on Twitter @blackfoxwrexham