CATCHING UP WITH TONY HOOPER – The Man, The Music And Much, Much More...
Interview by Lindsay Sorrell, Dec 2007
By way of an extremely enjoyable Christmas treat I met up with Tony Hooper on 28 Dec 2007, at the well-known Cabbage Patch pub in Twickenham. As several members of Tony's family live in the area (where Tony himself lived from the age of eight, having moved from Portsmouth), he kindly arranged a Christmas family visit to coincide with my journey to the area for another Strawb-related happening - that evening's Cry No More concert in nearby St. Margaret's. This was not the first time I had visited The Cabbage Patch, indeed my first visit there was over seven years earlier to witness the inaugural performance of Strawbs' Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughby as an acoustic trio, following Dave Cousins' wrist fracture. Tony, of course, is able to lay claim to membership of a considerably earlier acoustic Strawbs trio, then known as The Strawberry Hill Boys, at their inception over forty years ago. Tony's original membership of the band lasted until his departure in 1972, with him rejoining for much of the 1980s and 1990s. His contributions to several Strawbs albums will always remain dear to the hearts of many, myself included, and I was therefore delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Tony at length in the pub's genial surroundings.
On entering The Cabbage Patch I was immediately welcomed by Tony, who was looking around the bar, his friendly smile as unmistakable as ever. He had been eating a meal with several members of his family in the restaurant area and explained that he would finish his meal with them, soon after which he would return for our chat. No sooner had I sat down with a glass of wine than he was out to join me however, and I subsequently also had the pleasure of meeting his extremely sprightly, smart and friendly mother, together with his daughter and son. Tony was clearly immensely proud of his family and it was lovely to meet them, even if only briefly. Eventually we settled down to the business in hand; I had prepared a rough list of topics for discussion, however, conversation flowed easily and many fascinating subjects readily emerged. I scribbled a few notes to jog my memory for later transcription purposes, and hopefully the resulting account gives greater insight into some aspects Tony and his multiple career paths; he is undoubtedly an iconic Strawb in the eyes of many and one who has evaded interview (apart from Heather Malcolm's triumph for "Jamming" Magazine in the early 1990s) for far too long!
Originally, it transpired, Tony would have liked to have been a drummer, but a school friend sold him a guitar for £3/10 shillings (yes I remember pre-decimal currency!) when he was around the age of seventeen, so a guitarist he became. Tony was attending Thames Valley Grammar School at the time, and as is well-known, his later musical partner, Dave Cousins, numbered amongst his peer group. Having once read that Tony had received substantial praise for his schoolboy acting abilities I asked whether he had ever fostered aspirations in that direction; he declared that his only interest in drama had been fuelled by a crush on his drama teacher! Several interesting anecdotes about his schooldays and teenage years followed, and Tony's mother joined us to add a few observations of her own, such as how she used to insist Dave Cousins "put something down underneath him, to save the chairs" when he frequently visited their house on his "greasy" motorbike!
During their secondary school years Tony, and Dave, who lived in nearby Hounslow, were great friends. They rode their bicycles far and wide together, largely thanks to a mutual fascination for music. A shared love of folk and early American Blues led them frequently to cycle to Cecil Sharp House in Camden to listen to the extensive library of recordings. Another of Tony and Dave's regular bike trips took them to record shops in London's Charing Cross Road, where they would seek out recordings by artists such as Guy Carawan and Jack Elliott. Tony explained that Jack (an American artist, himself greatly influenced by Woody Guthrie), had been a major influence on both his own and Dave's guitar playing styles.
Tony's first public performance (while still at school) was with The Gin Bottle Four at Tough's Boatyard in Teddington, when he and Dave sang and played guitars augmented by Jim Squelch (tea-chest bass) and Alan Dagleish (washboard), for which they collectively received the princely sum of £5. (Having previously read that the tea-chest bass player's name was Jim "Welch" rather than "Squelch" I asked Tony whether he was teasing me….he assured me that Jim, who became a headmaster, changed his name from "Squelch" to "Welch".) Tony also told me an amusing story concerning how Jim used to attach wheels to his bass to pull it behind his bicycle; he was once stopped by police and reprimanded for not having lights attached too! The Gin Bottle Four played various unpaid gigs (e.g. photo on Strawbs' website taken of them playing at a girlfriend's party in a local village hall). Tony recalled the band entering (though not winning) several skiffle competitions. He also recounted how Dave and he had run an evening class in Hounslow for fledgling musicians at some stage during the early 1960's, where they taught guitar, and Dave also taught banjo for a while. Together they frequented various clubs, such as The Ealing Club (aka The Ealing Blues Club) to watch then little-known artists including Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry.
Tony's mother had not wanted her son to become a musician however, considering the resultant lifestyle likely to be somewhat unsavoury. Her own father (the subject of 'Ah Me, Ah My' from the 'Grave New World' album) had been a professional musician, an occupation which had taken him away from Portsmouth, his wife and six daughters, to London, in order to earn a living. The marriage had not survived, and wariness of the potential pitfalls of a musician's lifestyle led Tony's mother to be mightily relieved when Tony and Dave became separated on leaving secondary school, thereby apparently reducing Tony's aspirations for a musical career. While Dave headed off to Leicester University to study statistics, Tony proceeded to study electrical engineering more locally at Brunel University (coincidentally the same establishment at which Elaine Charlson, Tony's current musical partner in two very different bands, 'Misalliance' and 'Pitchfork', also studied). Tony's mother's concerns that her son could become corrupted by his association with Dave never entirely disappeared, however, as the friends stayed in touch,continuing to practice and perform occasional folk club floor spots during holidays. Eventually, with the idea of forming a band, Dave requested that Tony retrieve his guitar from his loft once more and The Strawberry Hill Boys came to be.
Professionally, meanwhile, upon completing his studies, Tony initially worked in the aircraft industry as an electrical systems engineer but was made redundant when the then Labour government cancelled various aircraft projects such as the TSR2. He decided to change careers, something he has done frequently and with apparent ease. Tony's diverse occupational paths included a spell at the previously mentioned Cecil Sharp House, where he and Peter Kennedy together created The Folk Directory, the first publication listing all the UK folk clubs then running. The Directory gave details of times, venues, floor singers etc. and was published by The English Folk Dance and Song Society.
By 1968, Tony and Dave had been playing in folk clubs, semi-professionally, for around seven years, and Tony was employed by a small biomedical firm as advertising manager and technical writer. However, the demands of the music industry had become so great that the pair of them decided to "give it a year" as professional musicians..…which, of course, turned into many years. Tony recounted numerous fascinating memories of those early days as a Strawberry Hill Boy (and later, as simply a Strawb), including the times with Sandy Denny on board. Although she didn't perform live with the band on many occasions, Tony recalled their time spent recording together in Denmark, and considers Sandy to have been ambitious and well aware of her immense vocal talent. (Incidentally, the rather garish cover of the Sandy Denny and The Strawbs album entitled 'All Our Own Work' did not materialise as the band had originally intended. In keeping with the title, the initial idea had been for the front cover to have featured Sandy's pavement chalk-drawing rather than having it appear only on the back of the sleeve.) Musing further in relation to Tony's memories of Strawbs' album covers, I enquired about the location of the photograph on the back of the "Dragonfly" sleeve, of sun-kissed Tony, Dave and Ron Chesterman standing on rugged rocks, an image which has always seemed to relate to several of the songs on the album really well to me. Tony was unsure of the exact location, but remembered it was somewhere near Tintagel, Cornwall, and taken by his girlfriend of the time.
While Tony's fondest memories of his years as a Strawb derive from the 'Antiques and Curios' period, musically he declared the 'Grave New World' era his most satisfying. Tony divulged that he met his ex-wife at a party held by Mark Plummer (writer for Melody Maker) following the making of the 'Grave New World' film, and laughed at the memory of the platform shoes he had been wearing at the time, as had been required earlier by a scene in the film. He further recounted going to the cinema to watch the film following its general release (it was shown with Emerson, Lake and Palmer's 'Pictures at an Exhibition') with other members of the band, and how they had cringed at seeing themselves on the big screen. During the autumn of 1972, however, Tony parted company with Strawbs following the band's increased rock orientation, a musical path he did not relish. He continued working within the music industry however, as a record producer. Among his early production work, together with Dave Cousins, Tony co-produced an album entitled 'Scenery' by Paper Bubble, released on the Deram label in 1969. Having adored the album since acquiring it some time during the 1970s, I enquired whether Tony knew what had happened to Paper Bubble (Terry Brake and Brian Crane); he apparently met Terry approximately six or seven years ago, and believes he was then living in the Richmond area of West London.
During the early 1970s Tony was also involved with York Records for a couple of years; I recounted my own little memory of visiting York's offices above a shop in Carnaby Street…….but not until the mid 1970s unfortunately. I had recently discovered a very pleasant (self-titled) album on the York label by Davey and Morris, released in 1973, which lists Tony as producer. Having climbed the staircase leading up to York's offices a school friend and I dared each other to enquire of a bemused receptionist where we might be able to find Tony; as he would have ceased working with York by then I now understand why our private investigations drew a blank. Incidentally, the album also lists Richard Hudson on drums, Dave Lambert on electric guitar and Claire Deniz on cello, and Tony informed me that Shaun Davey (www.shaundavey.com) is now one of Ireland's leading classical composers, which may have something to do with the substantial amounts of money the album now sells for. Other artists which Tony produced during that particular period of his career include The Settlers, and an album by Ian Page which unfortunately remained unreleased.
By 1974 Tony had changed professional direction again; he had moved to Hampshire, married, and started work as a technical writer for the local water treatment company in Laverstoke. He later became an engineer for the same company, and was subsequently employed as an electronics engineer before becoming a Director for a company in Basingstoke which made very high power welding equipment. Tony later found himself back working for the MoD, just as during his earlier aircraft industry era. However, when his work began to involve the design of equipment to monitor the blast pattern of shell, making it possible to kill people more effectively, he felt "enough was enough". Unsurprisingly, yet another change of career direction followed, this time catering for a life-long passion for books; ever-resourceful Tony became a freelance book editor.
By this time, Tony and his family (one son, one daughter) had moved to an idyllic thatched 16th Century cottage in Popham, and his years in the music industry seemed to be firmly behind him……until he received a call during the early 1980s to say Strawbs had been invited to perform on "Gastank", a series of programmes on Channel Four, to be presented by his ex-colleague in Strawbs, Rick Wakeman, and Tony Ashton. Following hasty reformation the band performed 'The Hangman and the Papist', an appearance which led to an invitation to play at the 1983 Cambridge Folk Festival. Strawbs were well and truly reborn. A feature appeared in Tony's local newspaper detailing his association with Strawbs and his desire to play more frequently "to keep his fingers moving" for intermittent Strawbs gigs. As a result he was contacted by barn dance band Pitchfork, and has greatly enjoyed playing at various functions with them ever since (www.pitchforkband.co.uk).
During the early 1990s the ever-versatile Tony also turned his hand to writing books and had a series of educational books for the 11-13 year old age group published (still available – the "Breakthrough" series, published by Heinemann Library). Topics covered were as diverse as genetics, surgery and electricity. On being asked whether he had a particular interest in genetics, Tony explained that he is interested in 'everything' (as was apparent during our discussions!). Incidentally, whether attributable to genetics or otherwise, brains definitely appear to run in Tony's family; his daughter studied history at Oxford and his son is studying for a degree in economics. Tony's primary motivation for writing the books was financial, however, and he declared no future plans to write for publication. In tandem with his other projects, however, Tony's association with the chameleonic Strawbs continued throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, and together with the majority of former and then members of the band he participated in the enormously successful and catalytic 30th Anniversary Reunion concert at Chiswick House in 1998. Incidentally, Tony was highly dissatisfied with his own performance that day; I expressed my opinion that he was being unnecessarily self-critical and that his contribution had been an absolute delight for the audience, but Tony's perfectionism ensures he remains his own harshest critic. Tony further divulged that he used to become so nervous he would literally be sick before musical performances; for many, myself included, it is difficult to understand why anyone would choose to put themselves through such unpleasant experiences. Tony explained that, for him, the motivation lies in (hopefully) receiving eventual applause as confirmation of a good personal performance. Tony's perfectionist streak has led him to decline invitations to play at events such as Strawbs' Christmas party; unfortunately he considers personal satisfaction with his performance would require so much preparation as to make a solitary appearance unfeasible.
Tony's songwriting contributions and purity of voice will undoubtedly always remain highly regarded among many Strawbs fans. Lyrically, incidentally, Tony cites' All the Little Ladies' (written with Dave Cousins) as his most satisfying piece of songwriting. He explained, however, that disillusionment with writing songs which failed to be recorded for release led to a conscious decision, fairly early in his career, not to expend further energy in that area. Currently, Tony greatly enjoys performing without the pressures involved in professional musicianship. Apart from his membership of Pitchfork, an entirely different musical project with which Tony is involved is a predominantly traditional/Renaissance trio called Misalliance (Tony, Elaine Charlson and Patricia Taylor), in which a wide diversity of instrumentation is used. Misalliance meet regularly, and Tony was happy to report that their new album is due for release some time during 2008 - further details to be posted on Strawbsweb in due course. Professionally however, for the past fifteen years Tony has been employed by Palgrave Macmillan as a designer of book covers, just a short drive from his home in Micheldever. This latest career diversification resulted from his previous experience of computer design systems; he now uses an Apple Mac to design vast numbers of book jackets (approximately five hundred and fifty during 2007).
Eventually our fascinating and wide-ranging discussion came to a close; members of Tony's family had been waiting patiently for him in the pub's restaurant, and we said our goodbyes. I sat for a while, pondering what a lovely experience it had been to have the opportunity, at long last, for such an in-depth and revealing discussion with one of my musical heroes.
Thank you, Tony!