Boy About Town Review: Gigs, Girls and Parties

Boy About Town is Tony Fletcher’s compelling and evocative memoir of growing up in south London in the 1970s and early 80s. It counts down a Top 50 in which every chart place is a tightly-written life and times vignette, from David Cassidy’s Could It Be Forever at fifty to Start! by The Jam at number one.
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Finding a place in the world, initially as a fan of The Who and Crystal Palace FC, Fletcher writes vividly about a period all too often written-off with library clips of NF marches, winters of discontent and images of lads in laced-up boots and corduroys. His is an insider’s perspective of how for kids of a certain age, the summers of ’77 and ‘78 changed everything.

Fletcher’s story tells how the new wave music scene took the independent spirit of punk—music made with energy, rawness and purpose that related to fans’ experiences—and discarded, or circumvented, the worst of Kings Road elitism and blank generation nihilism. What Fletcher, and others like him, learned from the Pistols, Clash and Damned was the idea that there was no point waiting for permission; you could, and probably should, do it yourself. This was the implicit invitation in Jon Savage’s Sounds article about the new fanzine culture that inspired a 13 year-old Tony Fletcher to start Jamming fanzine in 1977.

Last year, I interviewed Fletcher at an event to launch Boy About Town in Hull’s central library. He spoke about how the book, which came togther after years of writing about musicians, dealt with the tensions of his own early years: ‘Much of the early part 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.’
Jamming gave Fletcher a way to write about his musical heroes. Early editions were basic, typed on his mum’s Smith Corona typewriter, cut out, glued with Cow Gum and photocopied. As the first wave of new wave ran its course, the more grown up Jamming emerged to occupy a space somewhere between a fanzine and a magazine. The traditional music papers didn’t cover new groups and movements the way Fletcher did.

At the Hull event, he remembered how accessible bands and venues were for young people. ‘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. That really just set us all on our way.’

I started reading Jamming a couple of years after its inception back in 1980, drawn in by the need to possess all things even remotely related to The Jam—by then Weller had, in effect, taken Fletcher under his wing, agreeing to an interview, inviting him into recording sessions and making sure he was a regular on Jam guest lists.

Reading Boy About Town and stirring up the ghosts of bands and musicians Fletcher featured in those early editions, you get a sense of the eclecticism and on-the-spot enthusiasm that Jamming brought to the party. As well as the Jam, he wrote about or blagged interviews with John Peel, Pete Townshend, Tom Robinson, Rezillos, Alternative TV, Scritti Politti, Public Image Limited, The Undertones, The Clash, Wire, Adam Ant, Au Pairs, Crass, Delta 5, The Damned, Selecter, The Fall, Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Fire Engines.

Boy About Town plots a route through numerous scenes, sub-scenes and no-scene bands. Fletcher is good on detail—the benefit of having kept notebooks, letters, lists and all those back issues of Jamming to jog the memory. But what shines through is his all-consuming love of music. It took him to the ICA and a chance meeting with his hero, Keith Moon; it fuelled the chutzpah that had him invited into The Jam’s inner circle, and subsequently enabled him to turn Jamming into the legendary mass-market fanzine it became.

Brilliantly evoking sweaty gig nights at the Marquee, last buses home, and the bond between bands and fans—Weller and mod revival sections are especially insightful—it’s not all rose-tinted. Fletcher writes memorably about the violence and tribalism that marked gigs of the period, something he witnessed first-hand when Sham 69 played the Reading Festival in 1978. ‘… as a skinhead revival took root, Pursey readily set himself up as their leader. He said as much, that he saw himself as a spokesman. He thought that if the skinheads listened to his band, they would listen to what he had to say.’

For the most part, Boy About Town speeds through with the narrative enthusiasm of that 13 or 14 year-old kid making things happen with wide-eyed naivety and total commitment. At heart, Boy About Town is a book about growing up with music, hanging out with your heroes and finding a place in the world when you know you’ll never be captain of the team. It’s full of great memories of bands, gigs, clothes, girls and parties. It celebrates the vitality of youth and the spirt of the times. If you were there, you’ll know and maybe see a version of yourself; if you weren’t, Boy About Town makes you wish you had been.