If you look up Richard Boon on the internet, you will find a great deal of descriptions relating to a great deal of important cultural things. The former manager of Buzzcocks, boss of the New Hormones record label and most recently one of the minds behind the brilliant Stoke Newington Literary Festival. My favourite though, is the often-used ‘coolest librarian in the world’ – for he is indeed a librarian at Stoke Newington Library. I asked him a few questions about his time with Buzzcocks, punk rock, and a life spent at the sharp end of our culture.

by Will Burns

 

‘Richard, perhaps we could start at the beginning and say a bit about how you got involved with music in general, and punk specifically?’

‘How far back do you want to go Will? To my childhood, falling asleep to Radio Luxembourg fading in and out of the old family wireless? I could blame my late, older brother, Frank. We’d pool our pocket money to buy Beatles’ EPs, because four tracks on a 7” seemed better value than two. Maybe that influenced ‘Spiral Scratch’ being an EP? He started buying Melody Maker and NME and a whole world opened. In print.  It’s hard not to overstate the importance of the weekly music press. You’d read about interesting-sounding stuff that was actually hard to find or hear. Fascinating. And, I guess that began a journey, as people are too fond of saying, these days. As a teenager, with a bunch of friends from Grammar School, including Richard Swales and Howard Trafford, we’d source, play and discuss at length what we’d bought. But after years of dull rock, I guess we were looking for something else. The New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges and the Velvets caught our imaginations, post-Bowie, who probably led us there. As to punk specifically, I’d suggest Neil Spencer’s NME review of the Pistols at The Marquee, which sent Howard and Peter McNeish and I off on a mythical lost weekend in February 1976, first to ‘Sex’ to find McLaren, who told us the Pistols were playing that weekend at High Wycombe and Welwyn Garden City. With the Pistols, if you got it, you had to do something, it was that urgent. A call to arms, if you will. Howard and Peter went back to Manchester determined to start a group, I went back to Reading University where I was an art student, determined to get them a gig in a painting studio. Both of which happened. And in the course of this, Trafford became Devoto, McNeish became Shelley. Later, in a different context, Swales became Famous, playing guitar in the often overlooked Poison Girls. They and Crass are largely missed from the plethora of punk historic analysis and retrospection that’s going on right now’

‘I wondered how it felt in Manchester, in relation to London and the very well-documented stuff happening there. Did it feel separate? Or did it somehow all feel connected?’

‘Ah, that London! And that Manchester! After graduation, a lot of my art school cohort went to London, but I went to Manchester to help with Howard and Peter’s project. There was nothing going on there and we were driven to make something happen. London felt like this place full of connected muso people, who probably knew how to get gigs and media and shit. We kind of started from Ground Zero, having to find spaces to play, learn to promote, and try to reach the community of people we knew must be out there and equally pissed-off with the state of music at the time. The Pistols gigs we put on at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June and July brought all these disaffected people out of the woodwork and galvanised a whole scene, though fewer were there than claim to have been. Those that were began to network, start bands, put out fanzines. But it felt separate from London. As Pete Shelley once remarked, ‘We were in Manchester and like marsupials we evolved differently.’ When Buzzcocks started getting London gigs, we always made a point of having nascent Manchester acts as support, such as The Fall, John Cooper Clarke and The Worst, just to demonstrate that something else was happening and try to shift that media London-centric focus.’

‘How important did you feel politics was at the time of managing Buzzcocks or putting out records on New Hormones? Or was a musical radicalness at the forefront of your thinking?’

‘Politics? Ah, well, the personal is political, as we all need to be reminded. Increasingly.  Dissatisfaction and disappointment and disaffection were as current then, as now, Will. And those feelings were always there, then, and, I suspect, always will be. Personally, I revert on occasion to a fondness for Anarcho-Syndicalism, but sometimes waver. Of course politics was, as it always is, important. Did it inform my practice with Buzzcocks and the label? Hard to say, in truth.  My impulse was to make things happen and hope things did and that people might cohere around them and form a community in common cause. Maybe, a general sense that whatever was going on needed to be challenged .  It’s not political or musical radicalness, necessarily, just getting stuff out there that’s questioning and exploring. Does music that sounds different make people hearing it think differently? I’d kind of like to think so.’

‘Something I always notice when I’ve talked about that period with people like Nigel and Pete at Rough Trade, or musicians like Viv Albertine was how collaborative it seems. It was about bands, or gangs that became bands, groups of friends , consolidating shared identities. Nowadays, we hear so much about bedroom producers or solo artists – you can make a record that sounds like ‘Pet Sounds’ in a front room now, on your own, and I wonder if that was an important aspect of the punk period? Or if it felt like at the time?’

‘Well, I think you’re talking about the early folk who saw the Pistols for the first time and got it – whatever it was – as I said earlier. There was a fleeting moment when people came together around that and were suggesting things to one another, whether it was ‘we got a space for a gig, want to come out and play?’ or ‘I can steal time on the office Xerox, come and print your ‘zine’ or whatever.’  I’d like to think those incursions are ongoing. But, I guess, that whole DIY thing was central, though I’d defy anyone to do ‘Pet Sounds’ on their laptop, despite however many apps they have. Is there a Brian Wilson app? Doubt it. But, at times it did feel like a community across territories, so to speak. Collaborators, of course, may have different agendas. Ask the Free French or the Vichy Government. ‘ (laughs)

‘Do you listen to any of the records you put out on the label much anymore? How about Buzzcocks records?’

‘Will, that’s like asking if I ever listen to music anymore! Some of the time. I love BBC Radio 3’s random shit, like ‘Late Junction,’ and anything on Resonance FM and Bob Dylan and Northern Soul and weird garage. I like being exposed to new music, which, after all, is music you haven’t heard before. As to stuff I’ve been involved with, sometimes I’ll listen to Ludus and God’s Gift. When it comes to Buzzcocks, I do keep returning to their last singles, just before they were consigned to an entry in a dusty filing cabinet somewhere in EMI, in a back room where no-one could find the key. Particularly, ‘What Do You Know?’ Which is a tune I recommend, by the way.  Suitable for children of all ages.’

‘And do you think there’s anything contemporary that has a similar “tang” to those bands at that time? I’ve read about you talking about Grime, for example.’

‘Really, Will? Wonder where you read that? Of course, as I think I’ve suggested, I’m often drawn to what some people might think of as outsider challenging music. Grime is kinda that, I guess, but over time and with enough exposure, the outside becomes inside, so to speak. Like all that really historic radical jazz, from bebop to improv, gradually gets hailed as “classic”, doesn’t  it? Some Grime became mainstream, by going pop – as punk did, where I share some of the blame, perhaps  – but there’s always  great stuff happening off the radar. Not just in Grime.  At the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, June 2016, there was an event with Ruff Sqwad’s  MC Roachee and Prince Owusu talking about their work, but while saying they did private pressings of some tunes and dropped them off at record stores for later payment if any sold, they didn’t really make the connection that was exactly what punk bands had done, before. They drop some killer beats, though.

‘I’m interested in your obvious life-long interest in literature as well. Did an interest in books lead naturally to your musical adventures do you think?’

‘Tough call. I’m not sure I’d say so, really, though a love of both books and music has, obviously, informed my life. I bless my late mother enabling me to start primary school already able to read. But I appreciate the crossover, when, as I’ve said, in the old school music press, musicians would talk about books they were reading and not just that ‘best album I’ve ever made since the last one ’ and so on, and, if one was interested in that musician, you might check-out their references. Preferably from a library. Of course, I would say that, now, but I’ve always used libraries and bookstores and record stores. Remember when we had more of all of them, Will, and how important they seemed?’

‘I do. And it’s sad that they seem such mystical places now. The fact that you now being a librarian seems as radical as owning a DIY record label, or putting out records seems like strange. One aspect of punk as a moment is how open it appeared to a kind of artistic cross-pollination. Again, was that felt at the time? That everyone read, and was into fashion, politics, art? Or is that just how it’s framed in retrospect?’

‘To quote Pete Shelley again, from the British Library Buzzcocks’ evening event, during this punk at 40 conceit, ‘We were punks with library cards,’ which was a cute quip and not entirely the case. But you’re right, there was an openness to ideas, wherever they came from, I guess.  Again, fashion and how it was disseminated then was largely London-centric and them mediated through  mainstream media. As it is, largely today.  As was art, I suppose. And politics is everywhere, then as now, as I implied earlier. I’d like to think that this is still happening and hope it is. But, Will, I agree there’s some rose-tinted glasses reframing going on, as ever and even at the time. Recuperation and appropriation are always very quick and nowadays even faster. Yet, I’ll stress again, it is exactly that cross-pollination you refer to that eventually builds communities of like-minded people who might find one another through that and make things happen, wherever they may be. Is it time for a drink yet?’