A Conversation With Tony Fletcher

RL: The book is also a good fifty-year cultural history of New York. Were you astounded by the way the connection between NYC music and popular culture kept repeating in similar ways?

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TF: There’s a kind of triumvirate that seems to work from chapter to chapter. There’s usually an independent club that would latch on to new music and promote it. It might establish itself for a particular style. It may even already exist. There’s usually an independent record label as well that usually does the same thing. The third aspect is something starts from the street. It was very interesting to notice that that pattern existed from the 1920s and 1930s with independent clubs and record labels like Commodore Records or Café Society putting out Billie Holliday records. It’s not that different from jumping fast forward into The Bronx and having a club like Disco Fever or having a record label. The fascinating thing there is that the first people to put out hip hop records were literally the same people who put out records by the first vocal groups. A guy called Bobby Robinson who is still alive in his 90s had a record store on 125th Street. He put out very influential records in the 40s and 50s and he was back on in the early hip-hop scene of the late 1970s putting out records by Grandmaster Flash and other people. Paul Winley ran Winley Records in the 1950s and put out a lot of vocal groups from Harlem and then put out Afrika Bambaataa in the early 80s.

Part of the story of the book is these underground figures don’t really have their act together enough to become millionaires.

The book is full of these patterns of immigration, race and social economics that are also repeated in these different scenes and genres.

[ad#rightpost]RL: Give an example of a few things that really surprised you when you were working on the book.

TF: I really enjoyed learning about the mambo groups also how unbelievably popular how The Palladium was as a nightclub. It was an integrated club that not only welcomed blacks and white but Latinos, Jews and all kinds of people who met there. All kinds of celebrities went there as well. I got a sense about that scene that I saw comparisons with modern nightclubs. I saw that their orchestras were like club DJs. They were all about dancing. The Music was the focal point. There was a very clear connection between that scene and what followed twenty-five years later with dance music. That both surprised me and pleased me more than anything.

RL: Do you think that folk music would not have become as popular if it had not germinated in New York?

TF: The folk scene is one of those that are different from some of the others. Folk music is considered American music. It’s the music of the Appalachians, the music of the immigrants. It’s also the music of Native Americans. So it is not tied exclusively to New York City. What do you get is that people moved to New York City and it went from there. At Woody Guthrie’s first concert in New York City, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Josh White first meet. I based a whole chapter around that because what you get out of that is growth of political folk music. That aspect of it could not have happened anywhere else but New York City. So then you find that these artists are becoming politicized and they meet in New York, which is a hotbed of left-wing politics. The folk music that they come out with, I don’t think that could have happened anywhere but in New York. Then these guys become incredibly influential to another generation of kids playing in Washington Square Park. The likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. You can see that once these people meet in New York City it takes on an entirely new thread and the music changes as a result.

Tony Fletcher: iJamming

RL: You are adding a lot to the experience of your book by tying it into your website and blog (www.ijamming.net). Has that been challenging?

TF: Right now it is really time consuming. The potential is there for us writers to maximize use of the Internet and not just use Facebook or Twitter about it. I could put together a CD for the book but then it is not that hard to put together an MP3 playlist for each chapter of the book online. It gives you a really good feeling of specifically how one song is very different from another and you can feel the changes taking place. I also am putting up maps from each chapter.

RL: In the book you mention that you have bits and pieces of your next project lying about. Can you divulge what that may be?

TF: I’ve been spending a lot of time working on what I guess you could call my memoirs. Growing up in South London in the 1970s and early 80s and being in the heart of what happened with punk rock and especially after punk rock. Running a fanzine, being in the midst of the music scene. Now I realize know how fortunate I was to be fourteen years old and interviewing Paul Weller and Pete Townsend, going to debut gigs by lots of people and not spending enough time in school and way too much time in recording studios and record stores. There are a lot of great stories to tell and I’m trying to tell them in a way that can be both a musical history and a personal history. I’m pretty far along with it and I’m going to try and get it finished before starting on the next project.

RL: You’ve taken the book out on the road for some readings. What is it like reading a book you wrote in public?

TF: Personally, I love it. I know some writers are uncomfortable in public, but I’m not one of them. Maybe it’s because I used to be in a band, or have an outgoing personality, but I find that conducting readings in public to be one of the very best methods I have to sell my books.

RL: What are your top 5 favorite records?

TF: That’s not fair! I’ve said many a time that Ocean Rain by Echo & The Bunnymen is my favorite album of all time, but on a given day, I can go for just about anything from my absolutely vast range of music.

RL: An upcoming project of yours is a biography of The Smiths. How is it coming along?

TF: Very well, though it’s early days. In fact I haven’t made a big announcement about it yet. But while in the UK in March and April, I started on what will no doubt prove a long period of conducting interviews, and I’m enjoying it. The research stage is meant to be the “fun” part, and conducting interviews carries less pressure than writing the final chapters. But it’s a very steady and slow process of tracking everyone down. So I’ll be on this part of it for quite a while yet.

All Hopped Up & Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77 is published by W.W. Norton (www.wwnorton.com). You can snag a copy for yourself here.

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Rob Levy

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