Boy About Town author speaks to Louder Than War to coincide with release in paperback.
Tony Fletcher is one of the world’s leading music writers with acclaimed biographies on The Smiths, REM, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Clash. His seminal account of Who drummer Keith Moon is often cited as the best rock biography of all. He has also written an absorbing history of the music of New York City, All Hopped Up And Ready To Go.
Last year, Tony spoke to Louder Than War about the release of his latest book, Boy About Town which chronicled his childhood and adolescence and the genesis of his legendary fanzine, Jamming! (read the interview here )The book is a personal memoir but is also becoming recognised as one of the most essential accounts of the punk and post-punk periods in Britain.
Growing up in London, from where he ran Jamming! Tony was right at the heart of the music scene and superbly placed to witness the highs and lows of the period and the many legendary characters associated with the scene at the time. Tony now lives in the Catskills, New York but is over in the UK for a short time to coincide with the paperback release of Boy About Town and was kind enough to chat again to us about the book and associated issues.
Louder Than War: What sort of reaction has there been since the publication of Boy About Town?
Tony: There’s been a really positive reaction from readers and reviewers, apart from one negative one in Q. A lot of people really seem to have identified with the book and what I’d hoped to do, which was to do an everyman type story that people could relate to alongside my own story. The reaction from readers tends to suggest that it was a job well done, though I would have loved it if the book had earned a slightly different profile. I had hoped it would be viewed as a book about that period, one that captures the essence of the time and less as a personal memoir. It was also well received by my friends, and that’s important to me as I was writing about them too. Musicians are used to being written about but it’s not the same for the people I grew up with. It’s also obviously written from a male perspective but it has been well received by female reviewers which is very pleasing. The other thing I’d like to say is I’m really happy with how the book looks, with an eye catching design, a great looking yellow cover, and the fact that it fits into your pocket which is quite unusual for one of my books!.
Can you tell us a little more about the website and forum that’s been set up for Boy About Town?
Usually publishers are against setting up a web page for a music book, often because the bands in question have websites and forums of their own so there’s no real need. However, in this case, due to the positive reaction of people, I thought it would be nice if we could set something up. We’ve struggled a little in the interactive aspect of it, maybe the appearance isn’t that easy to use, and it probably reinforces why Facebook has been so successful. But I didn’t want it to be just a part of Facebook, I was keen to set up a separate community where people could maybe just share a souvenir from that time, or even comment on an aspect of the book.
I’m also doing a weekly countdown, as the chapters in the book countdown from 50, with a Youtube clip to go with each chapter. I should also say at this stage that, even though the chapters are all named after songs that may be appropriate for the content of that chapter, they’re not all personally important to me. For example If The Kids Are United wouldn’t be on a play list of mine.
The book is actually more like a series of short stories that also fit comfortably together as a longer narrative. Was this planned or did it evolve like that?
It definitely evolved from short stories and wasn’t really planned to turn out the way it did when I started writing them. Around twenty years ago I started writing some brief, every person type stories, for example the one about getting beaten up in the park, and the ones about girls and growing up. I showed them to some friends and their reaction was really positive, and the initial intent was to use them for a novel, even though they are true to my story. It didn’t really work out and I put it all to one side for a few years. Many years later I became quite keen to write a memoir that also told the story of those times. I think it was a matter of gaining the confidence of writing about myself, knowing that doing so – rather than fictionalising the story – would ultimately make for a better book, which is all I’m interested in at the end of the day. And once I started back on it, in 2010 or 2011, it was like I’d finally found my voice, and the other chapters about Jamming and the punk and post-punk scene came together quite quickly, almost embarrassingly so.
You mentioned last year that you would be keen to write a sequel, is there any news on that front?
A lot of people have asked about this and there does seem to be the demand to see what happens next so I’ve started working on it. It’s not so much in the style of Boy About Town, more like a sort of ‘Adventures in a Post-Punk Wonderland’. There are a lot of stories to tell about that period connected to interviews and gigs and politics etc, so, although it’s very early days, it might be less about football and girls and more a collection of short stories that make up a first-hand musical memoir of the era.
Your years of research in musical history make you well placed to judge how influential politically the music of late ‘70s and early ‘80s was compared to other eras?
I would say it was the most influential political period in music history, very much so. And to the extent that acts in the mid-80s were possibly even more political than the earlier acts during the height of punk, that was probably because of the strength of influences. A good example would be Billy Bragg who many people think of as being very active during the Miners’ Strike, which he was of course, he was actually politicised by the Rock Against Racism gig that was headlined by The Clash in 1978. That’s also the case for me and countless others and I can’t think of any other period in musical history that even comes close to the levels of political influence. You could also talk about the political relevance on a smaller scale, for example seizing the means of production. By this I mean the rejecting of big record labels (although many acts did succumb in the end), putting on gigs, fanzines even. In that sense, it was the most political period ever and anyone who lived through that would probably say it was the most important period of their life. If you think of how fifty somethings used to dress then, they were really old in style, but our generation never dress like that. They don’t look like they are fifty, they look like they had an attitude adjustment in their teens.
One of the most striking moments in Boy About Town is you literally bumping into Keith Moon and you went on to write his life story which is viewed by many as the best rock biography ever written. Can you give us an idea of the importance of that moment in your life and what it led to?
I write in the book the moment I met Keith exactly as I remember it. I’d met Pete Townshend earlier in the day who was very pleasant but had the rock star thing going on, surrounded by fans and media, but Keith was totally different and gave me the time of day. Obviously Keith died soon after but, as I say in the book, I decided around then I’d do anything to set the record straight about him. It got to the stage where I’d written a couple of books and I felt I could take on a more difficult subject. Also my editor at the time loved The Who and he jumped at the idea and was a massive help. There’s a little part me of me, and I certainly don’t mean religious here, that sometimes feels that things are meant to happen. Was it meant that I should bump into him and he handed me his address and was really nice to me? I don’t know, but it did mean that he was making a big impression on this teenager he didn’t know, who one day would grow up to write his life story. I was actually engrossed in writing the book as I moved house to Brooklyn after having our first child. My wife was looking after our baby and I didn’t even properly introduce myself to my new neighbours I was so immersed. Hopefully I managed to do Keith justice, I certainly went for it full tilt following every lead I could, and it turned out that he was actually less pleasant than I’d hoped but, despite that, I am proud of the book.
With The Who celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year, do you feel they have received the credit due to them?
I think so. All bands go through periods when they seem to be less credible, even The Beatles. R.E.M. seemed to sense the way things were going and broke up just in time probably. Obviously The Who have faced some challenges; they did a couple of albums after Keith died with Kenny Jones on drums and I really don’t like them at all. Then they broke up, reformed and John Entwistle died but now we’re at a stage where Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are best friends and that’s nice after all they’ve been through. For me though, they are the greatest and will always be so.
Another theme that runs through Boy About Town is your love of Crystal Palace FC. Does that remain strong and how do you view football today?
Well firstly we managed to lose Tony Pulis, our manager, two days before the season started which is about par for the course for Palace! He never really seemed comfortable in the job and maybe would have been better going in May when he kept us up rather than leaving it to two days before the season started. It’s possible that the new man may take us the next step but realistically how much higher can we go? I’m not sure if it’s very wise to be gambling on trying to improve on last season’s eleventh place. You have to accept that football nowadays is different. If you can’t live with the changes you’re probably better just walking away as they’re here to stay. During the period covered in Boy About Town, the 1970s, players weren’t generally earning that much more than a lot of the fans and now they are paid obscene amounts. You used to see them on the train home from matches and chat to them but now they do seem to be isolated from their fans to a degree. You can wring your hands about it but it’s best to accept that there’s no such thing as loyalty in football apart from fans towards their club. Everyone else just passes through and even the greatest heroes at clubs, players and managers will go eventually. It’s very different today and we just have to adjust our attitude to the game.
While we’re on the subject of football, what sort of impact did the World Cup this year have in the USA?
It was massive but it’s something that has been building up over a long period of time. It’s always been a popular participation sport in the USA and of course the World Cup was held there in 1994. So when you think about it, the kids who were playing it then are parents now. All the pitches in the area in which I live, and there’s quite a few of them, are over subscribed. I think all the stars aligned this year to help the World Cup make such an impact. Major League Soccer is such a success, there’s plenty of kids playing and the game is popular with parents, particularly with worries regarding concussion that are associated with American football. There was huge interest when the USA beat Ghana and the game against Portugal was on at prime time which helped. Every bar in my local village was showing all the games even after the USA were knocked out. I went into New York to watch the Brazil v Chile and Uruguay v Columbia games and all the bars were packed and it was the same all over the country. Also NBC Sports show every Premiership game live which gets a lot of interest and you have to remember the USA is becoming increasingly multi-cultural. There really is no going back from here.
The final question is in many ways the most difficult. In your experience of researching musical periods through history, how well do you feel the actual music from the period that Boy About Time actually stands the test of time?
I would probably argue that it doesn’t actually stand up that well musically and that’s despite how important the sounds are to myself and many of my generation. I think you may well have had to be there to fully appreciate it, and the example I would use is the first Clash album, which was purposefully thin-sounding and was revolutionary at the time, though if you listened to it now without the context you might wonder why they didn’t spend more money on it. I also remember seeing someone listen to New Rose by The Damned for the first time in the mid ‘80s and they were completely underwhelmed by it by. I suppose by then they’d heard plenty of really heavy records so that may lessen the impact. Stuff like The Lurkers and The Vibrators sound really dated, and even some of The Jam stuff, despite the fact that I love them, shows its age. But you could argue it was all about reclaiming the right to play music, or in the case of Scritti Politti for example, the right to make a noise.
As Tony mentioned he is doing a weekly countdown with a Youtube clip linked to Boy About Town. I asked him for one that wasn’t on his list that may help to illustrate the themes of the book and he suggested It’s The New Thing by The Fall, one of the most important bands of the era and a track that seems to sum up the period of the book.