Tuesday, 23 July 2013

INTERVIEW: Tony Fletcher in conversation at Hull Central Library for Head in a Book


 
Recently I was invited to host the HEAD IN A BOOK event at Hull Central Library with Tony Fletcher, author of memoir Boy About Town. As a reader and one time contributor to Tony’s fanzine ‘Jamming’ at the dawn of the 1980s, there was a degree of common ground and the following are edited highlights of a conversation about Tony’s life and music that could have continued all evening. Tony began by reading a couple of sections from the book, focusing on the early years of Jamming, meeting Keith Moon and the response to a speculative letter he sent to Paul Weller back in 1978. I asked Tony about the emergence of the 1970s fanzine culture.

What was it that inspired you to start and – based on the premise that, at that age, we all start things that don’t last – what kept you going?

The inspiration was a Jon Savage feature in Sounds about the fanzine culture. I totally remember we’d get the music papers and swap them around and read them in school. I remember thinking: this looks a lot more fun than doing maths right now. So the initial notion was something as pure as that. Going back a bit, I came from a musical family – Mum was an English teacher, Dad was a music professor – and much of the early part of the book is about coming from a middle class background and not knowing if you’re meant to be aspiring upwards to university and what your parents want for you, or down towards rock ‘n’ roll where your heart is. Before punk I think I’d been aspiring upwards. Then when punk came along in that summer of ’77 – I remember we went back to school in the September and the whole music world had changed. Everything had changed. The fanzine seemed like a way to be involved in that.

In those first four issues, Jamming is all over the place. But the thing about keeping it going – it’s funny you mention that because I did have that kind of personality of starting something, being really into it, dropping it and forgetting about it – I think I just realised that I quite enjoyed it. There was good stuff going on in music and it wasn’t enough to do it quite badly at school. I had the chance to do it better. I think once I got that letter from Paul Weller – he just wrote straight back and really kind of befriended me, there was no reason to look back.
 

Boy About Town describes how you had a pretty rough time at school. You were shy and, by your own admission, you didn’t have a lot going for you, yet you were fronting up to these major musicians. Can you remember what it was at 13 or 14 that gave you the balls to do that? Did you always get away with it?

In terms of doing the fanzine and succeeding, I think it was naivety and enthusiasm and a definite amount of dedication. Now that the book is out and a lot of these things are getting asked, I’m actually having to ask myself, what was it? Was I just blissfully ignorant of what I was doing with these musicians? But in terms of this other part of my life, it wasn’t so much shyness as a certain kind of weakness, a physical weakness. I don’t think I was the only one who was unable to get on the school football team, not wanting to be on the school football team, who was all too easily beaten up, not really able to defend himself. Writing to a musician or in fact just writing about music, that was somewhere you didn’t need to be tough. And I think that letter to Paul Weller really sums it up; I’m writing to him because I have a little bit of that kind of confidence, but I’m also saying me and my mates think it’s great that you beat Sid Vicious up, and he writes back and puts me right in my place. I think you can see that kid wrestling with a certain amount of confidence and very quickly overstepping the mark.

There are many writers and I’ve met many, many frontmen who would be incredibly shy – Morrissey, Michael Stipe come straight to mind as people who are not outgoing in their everyday life but found something onstage. I was fortunate, I guess. I was a bit cocky at school, always getting myself into trouble with older kids and I just found that confidence in the written word.

 

When you followed up on the invite and went to the studio to see and interview Weller [during the recording sessions for All Mod Cons] how did that feel?

It felt amazing. And there is a follow-on story, talking about what I didn’t get away with – we’d just moved from the third year – our school had been a grammar school and was now a comprehensive – but there was still a progression from blue blazer to black [between the third and fourth year] and I was so glad to get out of the blue blazer, because that was an invitation to get beaten up by every other school in south London. I wanted to be one of those new wave mods so I wore my tie skinny and my blazer to the interview – I had yet to sew the badge on. And remember we were still out of school, August Bank Holiday week, and the first words Paul Weller said to me were, ‘Alright mate, come straight from school?’ So I got put in my place on that one pretty quickly.

[The wider cultural change, fat ties to skinny ties] really happened over the course of the summer holiday in ‘78. Depends what age you were at the time, but then none of us had gone to any gigs. Our view of punk was The Jam, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Boomtown Rats, Eddie and the Hot Rods, it could have been a lot worse and it could have been a lot sharper; I had older friends on the terraces who got into The Ramones very early. There were some comical points about walking around the neighbourhood wearing bin-liners and cutting holes in hand-me-down shirts, but I think we kind of found ourselves pretty quickly, those of us who were into the music. The thing that we were fortunate with was the Marquee club let us in. Their policy was to let kids in as long as they didn’t drink. So from the age of thirteen we were able to go and see bands, just say to our parents we were off for the evening and get on the bus and go to these wonderful gigs at the Marquee and come home on the late bus. That really just set us all on our way.

I’ve read elsewhere that Paul Weller ‘took you under his wing’. Would you say that’s a fair comment?

I think it is. A large part of the book is about that. It’s about a lot of other things as well. I write about how, when The Jam came along, I got it. I realised that this was a Who – pun intended – for my generation. So I looked up to this guy enormously, and he did take me under his wing, because after I sent him the magazine he wrote back, and then he told me he’d put me on a guest list for a show.

There’s a comical moment at Christmas ’78 – he called me at the house one lunchtime to say he was putting me on the guest list for the Music Machine show and I was in the middle of a full-blown family row. I’d been bunking off school a lot selling the fanzine, also because I was getting a really hard time at school, so I was just going around London selling the fanzines and getting interviews, and my school report came home with all these unexplained absences, and my brother wasn’t being much of a brother, saying ‘See, I told you he was bunking off ’. And the phone rang and I remember my mum picking it up and going, ‘It’s for you.’ Really angrily and giving me the phone, and Weller saying, ‘Alright mate, ‘avin a bit of a domestic are we?’

So he took me under his wing and later on made me really welcome to come into the studio when they were recording Setting Sons. And beyond this book, Sound Affects after that as well.

I’d just like you to describe, if you can, what those early Jam gigs were like, the kind of atmosphere.

Well, if you take the temperature here as a starting point [a hot July night in the James Reckitt room at Hull Central library, the thermometer hit 30 degrees in the car on the way over] and you filled every single corner of a room like the Marquee with people, and to be honest, 90% of the audience was male, and then The Jam came on stage and played really loud, really fast, non-stop for about 50 minutes, played about 17 songs, to the point that at the end of the evening if you touch the walls your hand would just slide down because of the sweat.

For the most part, right up until they became the biggest band in the country, at which point things do change, I remember an enormous amount of good-natured testosterone. I don’t know if that’s an oxymoron or not, but that’s my memory of it; all these lads getting rid of this teenage energy. Right up until towards the end I don’t really remember any trouble at Jam gigs, not violent, just this immense amount of energy, and a very close bond between the band and their fans, which you’ve seen – inviting people into soundchecks and so on. So the edginess, the closeness and the heat.

You know the gig at the Michael Sobell centre, did you go to that? The reason I mention that show was that it was a sports centre, not designed for live shows. To be honest The Jam didn’t always make the best choice of venues and it was far from perfect in that regard. I remember afterwards the doors being opened and it was like someone put on a smoke machine, the fog just rose up and we were three or four feet deep in steam in this sports centre.
 

I want to talk about Keith Moon – you read a passage from Boy About Town about meeting him and you’ve been quoted as saying that you wanted to ‘set the record straight’. Can you elaborate on that?

You almost get the impression [from the reading] that Keith wrote straight back to me after I dropped the fanzines off at his flat, but actually he died two weeks later. And it really hit me personally, because at that time he was the only person I knew who’d died, except my granddad when I was four or five years old. I’d met Keith Moon and it really mattered to me. There was so much antagonism towards Keith in the national press; they were almost rejoicing that this guy had got his comeuppance. And he’d been so nice to me that it really affected me. This carried over into the personal side as well; there was a family thing where they got the Daily Mail perception of Keith and I’d met this other Keith. I don’t want to get remotely spiritual about this; what happened is that he gave me the time of day, I was a massive Who fan and 20-odd years later when I felt I was a good enough writer, I decided to write his biography. But I think there’s an undercurrent of something that was always lurking within me that there was more to his life than ‘Moon the Loon’. I was absolutely sure of it. So I did want to set the record straight and I use that term in Boy About Town to talk about when he died. It’s one of the only times I allow myself to have an adult perspective. One of the things I’ve tried to do with this book is write it from the perspective of the kid who’s living it. I love memoirs, musicians’ biographies, but it’s too easy to say, ‘If I knew then what I know now’. I wanted to be that 13 or 14 year old kid in the book who doesn’t know any better. So I almost play with the truth when I write, ‘I’d do anything to set the record straight’. Even at that point when someone would say, ‘Keith Moon, he had it coming.’ I’d say, ‘No, he didn’t. He was this really nice guy. I met him, I know.’

You went on to write an early biography of R.E.M. There was a period in the early/mid-80s, following on from what was loosely termed the Paisley Underground with The Rain Parade and Green on Red and the Long Ryders, those kinds of bands. When I first heard R.E.M. I associated them with that American indie scene. But you wrote the biography as they were leaving IRS and signing for Warners. At that time, what kind of access did you get to the band?

R.E.M. handled it in a classic R.E.M. way. I’d interviewed them over the years for Jamming and there was something of a relationship there when I approached them about doing a book. I’d just moved to the States and the publishers had put out my Echo and the Bunnymen book and were big R.E.M. fans. That was a good thing about working with Omnibus Press, they were music fans. They said, this is not a big band but we think you could sell a book. I hadn’t thought to mention R.E.M. – I didn’t think they were big enough, but I’d loved them since day one. The band initially said they weren’t far enough into their career to merit a book and thank you for the approach. Then – and this gets back to what you were asking earlier – I persisted. I said, ‘Look, I really think there’s a story to be told about the band, somebody’s gonna write a book about you really soon, because of the nature of what’s going on and I would sooner it was me; I think I’m going to write it anyway.’ Somewhere around that point Peter Buck stepped up and said, ‘Y’know what, I’ll talk on behalf of the group.’ He likes talking about music, so I got the co-operation, but on the condition that if I announced I had their co-operation, they would deny it. So it was a very, very R.E.M. way of handling things. Only down the line, once it had come out and they liked it and it had been updated, they got round to saying, ‘Yeah, it’s okay you can say we gave you our co-operation.’ 

And you’ve updated it since then?

It’s the only time I’ve done that. It’s a bit of a strange thing, because I wrote the book in 1989 and I can totally get R.E.M.’s point now; they went on to make 15 albums and then they’d only made five going on six, so they weren’t even half way through their career. But we published it so early that when they really made the big time with Out of Time and Automatic for the People, other people were doing R.E.M. books and my publishers quite rightly said, ‘Y’know we got in first; you did your homework, you travelled on a Greyhound bus down to Athens, Georgia and North Carolina and Florida to interview the band, we should really make the most of this, can you update it?’ And I did a couple of times and when they broke up, the question came up again – I hadn’t updated it for ten years – and I was reluctant because I don’t like going back, but I also thought, I’ve worked so hard on this book over the years and it ends with Reveal (2001 album) – and that’s like doing the alphabet and giving up on the letter ‘S’ – so I may as well complete it. I didn’t make it a priority in terms of publishing or promotion, but I do think it’s a pretty decent R.E.M. biography and it does come up to date.
 

They were one of the first independent bands to give themselves up to the mainstream – how do you view the mainstreaming of indie music given that you were steeped in it from day one?

I think R.E.M. almost re-wrote the rulebook. For my final update, Jacknife Lee (producer for the last album) said that R.E.M.  ‘Proved that you don’t have to be dicks’. It’s a great quote because basically they became the biggest band in the world for a long time and they were very smart businesswise; all these stories about bands losing money didn’t happen to R.E.M. And they were the nicest people all the way down the line. I think they were one of the only bands to make the transition from indie label to major and still maintain an independent ethos, even improve on their left wing ethos as well.

It’s fair to say there’s a period where R.E.M. lost their way and I think they’d be the first to admit that, but in terms of how they went about their business from the first day to the last, to be that popular and to be that approachable and that decent, seems to me to be unique. I will say I think it’s inevitable that any movement, any group that starts out indie and is a success, it gets big and it will probably lose a lot of what was fun at the beginning, but I don’t think you can blame the people behind it. That happened to Jamming. You want to progress, you want it to do well and there comes a point where you say, well if we want it to go to the next stage, it’s got to become bi-monthly …

That was one of the questions I wanted to ask; with Jamming what was the process of moving from a fanzine on a school photocopier to a regular fanzine and then a magazine, how did that happen?  

I think there was a certain amount of running before I could walk. After a certain point where Jamming had not come out often at all because – I wrote about this in Boy About Town – I’m basically doing my ‘O’ levels at 16 and Paul Weller offers me a chance to run a record label. Well, it’s not giving away any secrets, we did the record label and it was hard to bring out fanzines for two years because all of a sudden I’m running this record label out of The Jam’s office. Then The Jam broke up and Paul Weller kind of dropped a lot of people and moved on without them. I was left basically with the fanzine again and I decided to make up for lost time and take it to the next level. I went to the distributor and they said, corporately, we’re not going to be able to do this. You should look at it being bi-monthly with a view to going monthly. I thought that was a reasonable challenge. I had no idea what I was taking on. But again, you want what you do to keep improving and get bigger and it’s very difficult not to get caught up in the business side of it. But it’s not the reason you started doing something.

It became a quite a bookstore regular, a glossy magazine.

It’s funny, the last few issues when I was trying to move on from the day-to-day editing look the best, but they feel very alien to me and I feel, much like I meet bands who can’t listen to their early music, I have a hard time looking at some of the bi-monthly/monthly issues and I’ll meet people who say they waited religiously for that magazine to come out and it was great. I look at it and see how rushed it was every single month and remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to get this to the printers?’

But in a world pre-Mojo, pre-Select, pre Q Magazine, there weren’t that many – okay so there was the NME and Sounds, but they had gone stale by that point I think, and Jamming was something that bridged the gap. 

We did. We filled the gap that needed to be filled between the fanzine and magazine, and you’re right, there weren’t many magazines: The Face started up in 1980, Zig-Zag was appealing to different people so there was definitely – if you want to use that word – a niche for us.

Just to bring things back a little to Boy About Town, you go into quite a lot of detail and you spoke earlier about the violence and tribalism around the music scene in the late 70s/early 80s, and you encountered that on a fairly regular basis going to gigs … In the book you come down quite heavily on Sham 69 and the whole ‘Oi’ movement. Do you think they were a big part of that violence, that swing to the right?

I come down hard on Jimmy Pursey, who I’m sure meant well, but meaning well is not good enough. He thought he could control his audience and if he was smart, he’d have known that was not possible. There were much smarter people than Jimmy Pursey controlling that audience, and they were the people up in rooms somewhere who knew they had an army out there and this attachment to bands whose lyrics were defiantly working class, but could be easily misconstrued, that this was a perfect way to have an army and Jimmy Pursey didn’t control it. I don’t think his own intentions were bad, but I think he fostered it and encouraged it. When I wrote about going to see The Jam at the Reading Festival, that was my first real encounter with what was happening – Sham 69 were on that bill – and we knew then we were in for a lot of trouble. At the end of the book I talk about how the ‘Oi’ movement was just starting up and how things were going to get even worse. Creatively it was an incredible time for music, for fanzines, for records and all of this stuff, but the tribal culture around at the time meant you would go to gigs and think: I may very well get my head kicked in tonight. I don’t know how I never did, I think I knew enough about how to handle myself around a violent situation not to get involved, but I saw enough of it.
 

As we come toward the end, I want to ask a couple of questions about the writing process for Boy About Town. You talked about keeping old letters and of course it was an analogue era in that you wrote letters, you had phone calls and bits of paper; does that mean you have an archive? Or was there a store of shoeboxes of stuff you were able to pull together?

My memory of this stuff wasn’t bad, but sadly it was shoeboxes, folders. It just occurred to me after what you said, it was an analogue era; these days if you were into going to gigs you would probably type them all out on your computer, put them in a file, and then one day your hard drive would crash and that would probably be the end of it. I kept a school rough book and a list of every gig I went to probably up until 1982/83. And a breakdown of the support band, the cost to get in, and I still have that rough book. There’s no weight to it so when I moved to America, it made sense for it to move with me. That and a couple of other things – I held onto the transcripts of interviews I did and I kept the letters from musicians, they were in one place as well. The other thing that I kept was another rough book where I kept the sales figures for the fanzine. And that wasn’t vanity; it was important when you were giving fanzines on sale or return, it was a place to keep the little receipts they’d write out – ten copies or whatever.

It was fascinating for me to realise that when I did start writing the book, the first proper issue of Jamming – the one with Paul Weller on the cover – the first place I took the printed copies was Rough Trade and it obviously meant something to me that Rough Trade would get them first and I wouldn’t have known that otherwise. I remember a lot of these things like they were yesterday, but I hadn’t remembered that. So it’s really interesting to see  a lot of these things written down and say, yeah, I wanted to go in there and say, look I’ve done this properly will you take a few copies?

The book ends in 1980. It’s got sequel written through it like a stick of Brighton Rock. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

I can tell you that the narrative doesn’t die, but that question’s one you have to throw back to the publishers. There are good reasons it ends in the summer of 1980, but there is another book that would finish off that whole Jamming era. In fairness, we need to sell a decent chunk of this book. Let’s put it this way, I wasn’t signed to a two album deal.

The thing that’s been nice is the number of people who have connected with the book. I was a little worried that this would come across as totally Cameron Crowe, you know Penny Lane in ‘Almost Famous’? That the reaction would all be about this kid who got inside the music business showing off about how close he was, but he was just a fanzine writer. But there’s a whole other thread about meeting girls, or trying to meet girls, this chase that teenage boys have, stuff about the football terraces, stuff about friends, so it’s been reassuring that so many people have said, I read that book and really identified with it.

Boy About Town is published by William Heinemann and is available from all good bookstores and online at the usual outlets.

To read some archive Jamming  interviews (including the 1978 Paul Weller interview) log onto Tony Fletcher’s ijamming website.

 

 

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