TONY BEESLEY: (AUTHOR/PUBLISHER)
TALKIN’ ‘BOUT OUR GENERATION
INTERVIEW BY DEN BROWNE
About a year ago a large format paperback landed in the Mudkiss review pile. Although my experience of the Punk scene was totally London-centric, I loved the intense mass of detail as author Tony Beesley related how Punk impacted on places like Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and other areas of the North and Midlands. The story unfolded through skilfully edited interviews, all accompanied by a fantastic mix of photos, original flyers, tickets and contemporary reviews, adverts and cuttings. A year later that book's been followed by two others, looking at other aspects of the scene, and the enterprise has moved from Tony's front-room table and word-of-mouth mail order to Amazon, Waterstone's, HMV and Smith's. It's been a true demonstration of the punk DIY ethos in practice. Current technology makes the whole process a load easier, and Tony's story provides a great practical lesson for all the wannabe writers out there.
Anyway, let's hear it from the man himself....
DEN:Hi Tony, tell us a bit about yourself for starters...
TONY: I dunno… Hard to say… I suppose I have never grown up. All around me I have seen so many friends and associates leave their interests behind and look upon their youth and the music and beliefs they had as merely a passing phase… they lose their love of music, clothes and more and often their sense of humour. I have never lost any of these. I am just as passionate about music and the whole connection and buzz of it all as ever and am just as daft as I ever was. Without all of this I certainly could never have captured the story of ‘Our Generation’ in its true spirit… people may laugh but I kind of method acted out the work… I went back to listening to the same music in almost direct chronological order, I read the music weeklies again and again, watched the gigs on tapes and dvd’s, went to see Punk bands I had left behind years ago and most of all tried to grasp again what it was exactly I felt at 14 and beyond, being a young, naïve and uninformed Punk kid. It wasn’t that hard as like I say I never really fully grew up anyway!
DEN:How did "Our Generation" come about? The first book especially is like an amazing time capsule - how did you manage to keep all those flyers, tickets and so on?
TONY: Well, it has always been something I would like to do. I had had a go at fanzines and doing the odd write up for other ones over the years and made a few false starts on book projects that always started well, with full intentions of seeing ‘em through, but eventually they just got ditched. ‘Our Generation could very well have ended up the very same way and almost did. The scribbled intro and first chapter outlines that I excitedly and roughly pieced together a few years ago had been long forgotten and discarded by April 2008 until my eldest son Dean got his hands on them and read through what I had done and was so impressed by it all that he encouraged me to do it properly and see the job through to the end. Along with my fiancée Vanessa, Dean was pivotal in providing me with the kick-start to actually taking it serious and getting it done. Each time something went wrong, and believe me so much did go wrong, they were there to keep me going.As for the tickets and flyers etc, not all were mine, though a good few are. Unfortunately hard times in years gone by saw me get rid of almost all of my Punk era memorabilia, except the music mags and records… t-shirts, posters, fanzines, some tickets, books and some records all went, even Joe Strummer’s ‘White Riot tour’ original shirt went. I remember selling a signed Jam ticket for three quid one day in the early 80’s just to go to the pub with my mate. Luckily lots of other people kept their stuff and, along with amazing photos, have been kind enough to let me use. I still wish I had kept that lovely Gaye Advert poster though.
DEN:That book's a bit like a group's first album - "Get everything in!", in case it's their last. Were you expecting to go on and do another two books?
TONY: Well described that, yeah, I can agree with that. To be honest, I really couldn’t see the end result of getting one book actually published even while writing it, never mind it ending up a trilogy. As I was writing it and doing all the interviews and research I really couldn’t imagine that it would get published and people buying it as they have. You have to remember that I honestly had absolutely no idea at all of how to create a book, the formatting, choosing the right font, book size, margins, front cover, where to begin and where to end. I could use Word and compile lists of my records but that was about it. It was learning from scratch and adapting along the way: it truly was an absolute perfect example of Punk’s Do it Yourself ethos. I hope that doesn’t sound cliched, but that’s exactly how it was. I picked people’s brains about stuff, asked questions, took on board other books' influences and ex perimented with ideas and presentation. Two particular books I was influenced by were John Robb’s "Punk Rock ", which I really enjoyed reading and was impressed by its speaking from the participants kind of story telling. The other one was a local Sheffield one called ‘Beats working for a living’ by Martin Lilleker. I liked the xerox, almost fanzine looking style of that and the direct approach of covering bands histories.
So yes, it certainly was a case of ‘Let’s get it all in, this may be my only chance. I honestly did not expect it to spawn the other two books, but am glad it did.
DEN:It’s a great reminder of the diversity of the punk and post-punk scenes: people like the Boys, for example, not just the Big Names of Punk. Who were your favourites?
TONY: I would have hated to have done yet another book that merely concentrated on the more orthodox and easily identified Punk scene. That would have been so boring. My main drive to get the job done was mostly to get another angle of the Punk and Post-Punk era chronicled: one that had never been done before and that is to tell the story of how it was up in and around Sheffield etc right from the voices of the people who were there. As anyone will know, the Steel City took on Punk with a great enthusiasm but instead of the guitar and the main punk leading bands as inspiration it was the synthesiser, and again the D.I.Y ethic that was mostly embraced. That is the commonly identified selling point of our contribution to those years… the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire etc, but there was also much more to the story as well. Sheffield and thereabouts had its Punk Rock bands… The Prams from Rotherham were a fantastic example of forward thinking Punk and also the Stunt Kites and Artery had their own individual take on Punk and moving ahead with it. Many more followed. It was a very eclectic climate. I want people to know that the period was not all London orientated as much as that has to be applauded and respected. True the first stirrings and the elite were spawned from the capital, but its poor relations up north were very quick to tune in as well and I would hate this to be unrecognised.
My particular faves of the original Punk explosion? The Clash and The Jam were my twin loves. In my mind there has never been a Rock n’ Roll LP to beat The Clash first album. The Jam to me were far more true idealistically to Punk than most of the trendy three chord merchants. They may not have presented a typical idea of what Punk should and did sound like and were painted as the black sheep of the scene very quickly… being berated for their suits and sixties influences but their energy, to me, was amazing and Weller always remained loyal to his fans and the vision of what the new wave should be. ‘In the City’ stands very high up in the classic Punk singles list. I could go on and on about my love for The Jam and The Clash!I also loved Wire, The Boys, Buzzcocks and later on the Undertones and the Skids. There really aren’t that many Punk bands from the first few years that I don’t have a single or two from or like some of their work, even the bandwagon jumpers, as it was an amazing time full of electric energy and a lot of it has stood the test of time, but not all! When the later bands came through, though, (Exploited, Discharge etc) I was not a fan of that lot at all. I appreciated a couple of the bands for their back to the roots Punk style, but by that time, even though I was only about 17 I had had enough of straight forward ramalama punk. The Post-Punk stuff coming out was far more interesting and more about change and pushing the boundaries.
DEN:Especially memorable gigs?
TONY: It’s weird cos I really can only recall in good and fairly accurate memory the big ones. All the many small gigs and unknown bands all blend into one. I have no memory at all of seeing some bands. I suppose at 14-15 you take more note of the event and when you are amongst a mass of pogoing kids in a larger venue watching a band you have been into for what at the time seemed ages, you would kind of capture the moment more. I enjoyed most gigs, but sadly missed some classic ones, especially the early tours. It’s been a pleasure to kind of relive them through the memories of those that did get to them while working on my books. My particular faves were the obvious ones such as the Clash on the ‘London Calling’ tour where me and my mates saw the famous Strummer belting Jonesey incident unravel, The Jam, the chaos of the Damned etc… but also The Undertones were amazing, such a buzz and dare I say it… a friendly atmosphere at their gigs as that’s how they made you feel… unified in music. Little of that sense of menace you felt at a lot of the other gigs. I also loved The Photos, Rudi and the Moondogs and some great support slots. The Banshees were charismatic but understandably not happy to get covered in spit at their Sheffield Top Rank gig.”
DEN:Sounds like the Mod revival was bigger in the North than here? (I remember the original 60s Mods) and tbh always thought the 70's revival was a bit of a pale copy - or am I being unfair? ... but maybe it evolved into the 2-Tone ska/scene?
TONY: I always related to the Mod element to Punk… obviously The Jam and other lesser knowns such as The Jolt and New Hearts… but even though it was ridiculed by the music press and classed as water-downed Punk… I liked a lot of the Power Pop bands too. I reckon the early Clash had the Mod style… it was all about shaking off the Prog-loving Hippy Rock scene and getting back to basics… three minute Pop songs played fast, short hair, slim fitting clothes, skinny ties etc. In my mind Punk and Mod are very closely linked… even though they have some very polar opposite ideals. It was also about youth and the danger of being young and creating something and both of these movements had tons of that as well as attitude.But, strangely enough I was not impressed by the actual Mod Revival when it came along. I liked some of the bands and felt it was an healthy antidote to standard Punk in some ways, but quickly became a grubby fad and the tribe-like mentality was really not my cup of tea. I wasn’t gonna be dictated to by my peers to how I should follow Punk so was not gonna swap a pair of zip trousers for a parka overnight. I was influenced by certain elements of it, but it was doomed from the start. I think the real Mods came quite some time after that. A younger generation of kids who may have started with the revival, but as the 80’s progressed became well clued in and the genuine article.
Personally I was far more interested in the Black music side of Mod… the Rhythm and Blues and Soul that the originals were so keen on, than the Mod Revival bands. In time, the love of this music became as much a part of me as Punk itself.”The 2-Tone scene, I always saw as a separate scene to the Mod revival anyway and was very true to Punk’s spirit. I would say that your opinion is a fair and not inaccurate one, but, to dig a little deeper, you may still be surprised at some aspects of the Mod scene’s merits… mainly its ability to evolve and progress with each generation.”
DEN:What's the punk and live music scenes like now in Our Generation territory?
TONY: Punk Rock is alive and well up North and has a fairly close-knit punk community in and around Rotherham. It brings along new blood all of the time which is how it should evolve. Young kids are digging punk more and more, forming bands, writing their own stuff and playing live with the real passion of being in a band. Some of the bands may not be up my street and may veer a little far too much towards Heavy Metal for my liking, but the enthusiasm is there and it’s a healthy scene. Twisted Wheel from Oldham are amazing and have managed to soak up the influences of first generation Punk with music of more recent years perfectly, without coming across as revivalist or typical Punk some cracking tunes and an amazing three piece band: The Violet May have the attitude and intensity of Punk and are a superb live experience, Spiders from Rotherham have the pop sensibility of Punk and Sheffield’s Monicans have the edgy Post-Punk style. It’s great that there are kids out there who are shunning the media induced crap and going for music that’s real and can be heard in small venues. The downside is that the venues and pub trade are dying so anyone striking out are finding it difficult to break out and make a living out of it. But yeah the baton has been passed on and the revolution is not dead.
DEN:What do you listen to now?
TONY: Allsorts: it can range from anything from the Punk years, selections of my Mod stuff (I love lots of late 50’s to early 60’s R&B produced on unknown USA Indie labels)…the Sixties greats - Byrds, Neil Young, Dylan etc, obscure Sixties US garage to new bands such as those I have named above, electro… Suicide, bits of Primal Scream… early Ultravox to film soundtracks, it all depends on the mood and i'ts all down to taste really.
DEN:Any more books on the way?
TONY: Yes, I have three on the go. One not surprisingly called ‘Mods at the Coast’ which will be very visual and photo based along with Mods experiences, another that is also a more visual gig document styled book showcasing the superb photos of a good friend of mine… Kevin Wells who attends an amazing amount of gigs, takes photos of most of them and all for the love of it. How can that not be worth getting in print? The last one is a humourous part auto-biographical approach to growing up in 1970’s Britain and could be almost classed as a prequel, of sorts, to the ‘Our Generation’ trilogy, though not overtly music culture based. All are works in progress, so time will tell the outcome. I do have lots of other ideas… one is a biography of the Rich Kids but I have yet to get into my stride on that one.
DEN:You've gone from self-publishing at home to being in places like HMV, Smiths, Waterstone's - that's really inspiring! Can you tell us a bit about that process?
TONY: It’s been an often infuriating journey, and still can be. No matter what my idealism and Punk spirit is, you are still dealing with the tried and tested bland machinations of the corporate companies and the industry. Doors can be shut in your face at a whim just as fast as you can come across a rare individual who has managed to sneak through and will give you good support and encouragement. The only way I have found to cut through the crap and get your book out there is pure persistence and adapting to each challenge faced in your own way. The harsh fact is that celebrity books that will be on next years car boots and be barely remembered by the reader in future are the massive sellers. That’s what you have to compete with. People will buy what their friends buy and the secret is to capture that snowball effect… the greatest promotional tool has to be word of mouth.To be honest, though, I never stop and think about it all that much. I shun a lot of the publicity angles like signings and the like as I find them, in my opinion, to be against the principles of what I am about and actually quite crass. I mean my signature is nothing, though I don’t object to providing it if required as I appreciate it may be add a personal touch to people’s books. Why, though, should I assume someone may desire and want it and sit at a table like some insurance salesman and make an embarrassing sales pitch at potential customers… “Hello, are you having a nice day, have you heard of my latest book etc etc” Can’t do it and that's often to my detriment. People tell me to forget about it and go ahead and do it; it will get me sales, but its not just sales that I am about. I make no bones about it, I want to make money. I won’t apologise for that, but I have my ways of doing it.
To get a book into a major store, you ideally would need an agent, though I don’t have one, maybe I should have, I dunno? A reputable publisher is ideal in theory, but as hard as it is to convince any of them that your work is worthy and seal a deal, it will be even harder to see much dividends from any profits. Short of producing a million selling book you are going to make very little from getting on board with a publisher. Self publish is the only way for me. Sink or swim, win or lose… it’s always worth a shot at doing it yourself.Briefly, self publishing is on the increase in line with modern technology and the easier ways of getting it all done… but self publishing is also frowned upon by parts of the literally world and the major book sellers. Recent times and successes have shown it can be done so the more adventurous stores are giving it a chance, though. It’s the first publication that’s the hardest.
Once you have shown your work can sell, you have your foot a little in the door. A typical new book is lucky to sell a 1000 nationwide and businesses know that. Show them a good shot at positive sales and they will be interested… and that’s where the internet comes in as well. Set up a website, broadcast your work, get it on Amazon etc via the national book data system, get local press interested, national book mags and reviewers… tag a storyline in connection to your work. Also sending freebies is all part of the game… it’s a worthwhile loss of revenue in the end though. I dunno if I am totally right in all of these points. I am still learning and making mistakes… but I was told I would never see a book of mine on a shop book shelf and that was inspiration enough to see it right through. Just don’t sell your soul to get it there along the way!”
DEN:That's great Tony, thanks! I think I know a few people who'd be up for a Rich Kids book...
Check out the books by Tony Beesley:
"Our Generation: the Punk and Mod Children of Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster 1976-1985"
"Out of Control: Punk Rock at the Doncaster Outlook and Rotherham Windmill 1976-1978"
"This is Our Generation Calling!: Punk and Mod in and around Sheffield - the conclusion"All available from Amazonwww.ourgenerationpunkandmod.co.ukInterview by Den 18/12/10
Photo of Tony - copyright Steve Parkin www.steveparkinphotography.com