All Hopped Up on Music: An Interview With Tony Fletcher

Since he was a teenager, Tony Fletcher has had the music bug. He was fortunate enough to create and run a fanzine in London, then the epicenter of punk and post punk, before moving to New York where he established himself as a music journalist, DJ and band manager.

In addition to writing for several publications, Fletcher has penned biographies on the Clash, Keith Moon, REM and Echo & the Bunnymen. His latest book All Hopped Up & Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77 is by far his most ambitious writing project to date.

Written with perfect pitch and pacing, the book begins with the Depression-era rise of Afro Cuban jazz and Cubop and ends with the beginnings of hip-hop and the apex of the punk rock movement. The book takes the reader on a musical journey through the boroughs, bars, backstreets, nightclubs that have made New York arguably the most vibrant and significant musical city in the world.

Tony Fletcher spoke with me via phone about tackling such a monumental slice of musical history.

RL: In your book you have covered the music scene in New York from 1927-1977, a broad swath of time. Which of those five decades that you covered do you think you have gone away the most interested in?

TF: I would say probably the earlier decades. Writing about the early days I was genuinely nervous about taking on material that I didn’t know enough about but I really wanted to tell the story. I got really fascinated particularly by the story of the Cuban crossover and just how integral New York City was. Afro Cuban jazz really had its birth in New York city and Cubop had its birth in New York city and for that matter Bebop had its birth in new York city. I was very nervous even mentioning the “jazz” word because there’s already so much about it. I think I found an angle to write about, and I came away feeling like I learned something and hopefully I’ve shared some of what I’ve learned.

RL: When you read the book you don’t get so burdened down with the back-story of jazz that you can move on.

TF: That was deliberate. It goes back to what I just said. I thought that if I explained anything about the history of jazz lots of people would jump all over me. It’s just not worth going there. By starting in 1927 we’re in the midst of this really cool jazz age. Jazz is America’s most popular music. Let’s take that as a given and see what happens next. You know one thing actually that I thought hadn’t been covered enough was the Cuban movement in jazz, people like Mario Bauza who is the first character I introduce. I’d open up books on Latin music and they really wouldn’t touch upon American jazz. I scratched my head because it is self-evident that between Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Buaza, and Charlie Parker these guys were interacting all the time. There weren’t books that covered this crossover. I’d like to believe I go at a little bit of different angle on that and that I’ve been able to tell a story that hasn’t been widely told in that regard.

RL: On your Web site you mentioned that the book took five years to write.

TF: It was a five-year project. I wouldn’t have been able to live off the advance over those five years. This has taken me longer than anything I’ve worked on.

RL: When you do a five-year project like this, do you come away at the end of the project that it has changed you as a music journalist?

TF: I don’t know to what extent it has changed my writing style. I went into it willing to put in the extra mile to try and write something more than a biography of one artist; by taking on the biography I realized I was probably taking on a mountain that I may not possibly be able to climb. So the subject matter was that much deeper then anything I’d done before. I think I came away with a greater understanding of how these musical forms interplay. All the books I have written have tended to be about scenes. The Keith Moon book came out of a scene, REM and Echo & the Bunnymen really came out of regional scenes. I find all of that stuff extremely exciting. I find the nature of music scenes to be a very exciting thing. None of them ever happen in a vacuum. There’s a reason hip-hop was a born in the South Bronx. It couldn’t be born anywhere else. It was very similar to the early days of disco. Equally similar about the vocal groups that were coming out of Harlem and the Bronx even though that was happening in other cities as well. You kind of keep tracing the story back and back. So I’d like to think I came away with a greater appreciation for the overall arc of the musical history and a little less focused on one specific group or one specific scene.

RL: How did you go about doing research on the early part of the book? It seems like that would be the most difficult part of writing the book.

TF: You obviously go out and interview people where you can find them. During the very early chapters the chances of having somebody alive who was doing anything of note in 1927 are slim to none. So unfortunately that takes care of live interviews. So you spend an awful lot of time in the library, and New York City fortunately has a fantastic library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street with microfilm and old newspapers. Similarly the Lincoln Center Library has newspapers going all the way back. The Internet is a mixed blessing. This is the first real in depth book I’ve written since the Internet took off. When I did the Keith Moon book I probably found a handful of people by E-mail. But most people were not using E-mail.

During this book it was a Pandora’s box. You would try to get the answer to a question and by searching for it online you would find ten more questions and ten more answers. The next thing you know you would literally have sixty web pages open and they’ve got four different answers to your original question. None of which seem definitive. You sit there ready to scream because now you are more confused then ever. That’s kind of why some parts of musical history get repeated incorrectly. Because it is easiest to go with the conventional wisdom and repeat the legend even if the legend is not the truth.

You do a lot of legwork. You try to talk to other historians. You read their books. You try to check in with them if you can and ask if it is okay to check a fact with them and you do the very best so that when you publish the book you can stand by your research.

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?

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 Holiday 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.

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 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 you do 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 ethnic 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.

RL: You are adding a lot to the experience of your book by tying it into your Web site and blog. 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 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 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.

All Hopped Up & Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-77 is published by W.W. Norton.