In the third instalment of Music’s section where we find out the soundtrack to the lives of Oxford dons, Matthew Prudham speaks to Tom Fletcher, Principal of Hertford College and former British Ambassador to Lebanon, about everything from bringing Keane to Beirut to running to Hamilton.
MP: Hi Tom! Let’s dive straight in. What is the one song you can’t stop listening to at the moment?
TF: So, the song I can’t stop listening to at the moment is ‘My Shot’ from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton. This is partly just because it’s the kind of energising song that you need when you’re in a pandemic; we are locked down, we all feel a bit more lethargic. It’s so good to go run to something with the tempo of that song.
MP: You need a bit high tempo to lift your spirits up.
TF: It’s just the right tempo – not that I could ever sing along to it. It will never be my karaoke song! The time of life it captures for Hamilton – looking ahead and that sense of hope and expectation and ambition and aspiration that he has in that song…when I talk to our students about how sad it is that they’re missing out on these experiences, the normal Hertford experiences, I say to them “Who’s to say this isn’t the Hertford experience… you know we own this, we’re gonna own this time”. In a way, that’s why I wanted to be here. Back in Oxford, back at Hertford, to be connected to that sense of energy that “we can go and change the world.”
MP: That’s a really thoughtful answer. And I think that the high tempo music is so important right now. Of course, people are doing different conferences and different zoom calls and whatever. But especially, you know, if you’re at home and you’re in the same room, day in, day out, it can be really hard to get out of the monotony.
TF: You need to get your heart rate up a bit. I think we’re all learning every day how to cope with the way a lockdown changes, the nature of lockdown changes, the way that this lockdown is different to the last one. But I think music is a massive part of that for me. I try every day to learn something, to teach something, to slow down and experience a bit of nature, to eat better, to sleep better. You know there’s lots of things I hope that I will be doing better as a result of this lockdown.
The other thing by the way that’s helped get me through the lockdown is that I have a group of old Oxford friends who were students at the same time as me. We spend our lives doing WhatsApp Spotify playlists. If I just give you some examples. The last one we did, we did Sun versus Rain, so all the songs about Sun versus all the ones about Rain to see which one wins. It’s ridiculous the sort of things that we debate. “90s Gold”; “soaring strings”. We did the best Beatles covers just recently, and we’ve got a great playlist on all the songs that are better than the original. “The best duets”. “The best Beatle songs post Beatles”. This is quite a good one for a party or a Zoom quiz, it’s called “Hard Day’s Night” and it’s all the songs that you can get from the first chord within two seconds.
MP: It’s a great way to connect with your friends.
TF: We can spend hours debating which songs make the cut, and which ones don’t.
MP: So when you were studying at Oxford, what was the music that you listened to?
TF: So I was here in the mid-90s. And so there was a lot of Britpop. A lot of amazing music coming out of Manchester, of course coming in Liverpool as well. Oasis were huge. The two big Oasis albums were playing pretty much constantly while I was at Hartford; you were crammed into a small room, 30 of you, blasting out… ‘Live Forever’, these huge Oasis anthems. Arguably, they weren’t amazing musical masterpieces… sorry that’s probably heresy. Yet, the first time I heard ‘Live Forever’, it was genuinely lifechanging, breath-taking.
“I just want to live, I don’t want to die…I can live forever.” When I was in Lebanon, I used to have a lot of assassination threats against me. I used to go running there – I had a track and the bodyguards would seal off the track. I would often run to ‘Live Forever’, partly because it’s that sense of you know, “They’re not going to kill me.” And partly because it connected me back to that feeling of being a student here and your life’s ahead of you.
I listened to a lot of Pulp at the time, a lot of Blur. Yes. One of the one of the things about being a student here is you get that fusion of everyone else’s musical tastes. You get all the rubbish. But every day, people are showing up in your room with a new CD.
MP: Of course, you were in Oxford when Radiohead must have been absolutely exploding everywhere.
TF: At that time, they were still living in Cowley. So, a friend of mine… actually I think he worked for Cherwell. I think he was actually maybe doing your job (laughs) as Music Editor – he went down to Cowley and interviewed them. There was another band with Gaz Coombs with (sings) “if you want to go…”
TF: Yes, Supergrass. They were great as well. I mean Oxford wasn’t the centre of the musical universe. But it was still pretty amazing. By the way, before I came to Oxford. I was the lead singer in a band. I sang in a band called Freshly Squeezed. I would say we were probably ahead of their time, our time hasn’t yet come. We had a particular niche in Nirvana covers and Pearl Jam covers Yeah, yes. I used to kind of have to smoke a couple of cigarettes and basically try and sound like Kurt Cobain. And I was hopeless… a terrible, terrible lead singer.
MP: I would say that anyone can sing no matter their supposed musical quality; and half the thing about being a lead singer in the band is the is the presence.
TF: The problem was I had no presence. In a way, as Liam Gallagher shows if you can’t actually sing in tune at least have the presence and the charisma. Or Mick Jagger… But, you know, I had neither talent nor charisma. And thus…Freshly Squeezed. But I had the guts to stand up and do it. No one else was going to do that and that kept me singing for them.
MP: So, say you were back in the diplomatic service, and you have to pick some tunes for a diplomatic service party, what’s going on the stereo?
TF: I hosted a lot of parties in Lebanon. And one tune we played a lot there was by a guy called Khaled, and it’s called ‘C’est La Vie.’ And then the chorus goes “On va s’aimer, on va danser/Oui c’est la vie, la la la la la”. Basically, we’re going to dance we’re going to live we’re going to party… it’s disco-trash in many ways. It used to always get everyone moving. So that was always a great party tune.
In Paris we threw a lot of parties and we had a big 30th birthday and so on. The tune in that era…so where are we then… 2007 or so… that used to always work was ‘Sexbomb’ by Tom Jones. You’re not going to get high quality from me today, nor a sophisticated taste. But I’m going to give you the honest truth. ‘Sexbomb’ is a very good one for getting people dancing. Just before I met my wife, I was, let’s just say, performing that song in a bar in Cork, and I was asked very gently to leave the bar. As a result, I went into a cafe and bumped into my wife. And so, if it wasn’t for that song I wouldn’t have met my wife.
MP: You touched briefly on your time in Lebanon and the country itself has a really fantastic musical culture. Is there any music that particularly stuck with you from the local music scene, whilst you were ambassador in Lebanon?
TF: Lebanon has an extraordinary tradition of very emotional moving songs about the place, about Beirut. If you think about British songs about a place that there’s often kind of irony to them… so a ‘dirty old town,’ you know that sort of feel; but in Lebanon, there’s a real sincerity when they sing about Beirut So anyone who wants to listen to Lebanese music should start with Fairuz, the sort of Queen of Lebanese music, but if you want something a bit more contemporary I’d really recommend a band called Mashrou’ Leila – an absolutely superb fusion of traditional Arabic rhythms, and in some cases instruments, with somewhat more modern funk. Have a look at the collaboration they did recently with Mika – the half-Lebanese pop singer, who had one big album around 2010. They did really good collaboration with him, just after the after the warehouse explosion in Beirut in August. That gives you a good sense of the vibe. When I was there and things were going quite bad, I organised a huge concert, where we got together all of Lebanon’s top stars basically from across the political divide, and we host this massive concert called One Lebanon: United for Tomorrow. There’s a great song that the musicians wrote for that. It was like on Live Aid, where all the artists were coming together to basically say we’re stronger together than apart. And it was you know it was a very successful event.
MP: So, just following on from that, would you say that’s the best concert you’ve ever attended in terms of what it meant to you?
TF: It was very emotional, having spent a lot of time putting it all together. But we’ve been to some fantastic concerts, I mean, last New Year’s Eve I was at Bruno Mars. The New Year’s Eve before that, I was at Coldplay, two extraordinary New Year’s Eve. music. The last concert before lockdown was Stormzy. I mean I wouldn’t put it up there the top, top category of the concerts that I’ve been to – because, to be honest, my kids knew his music better than I do. But we saw Stormzy, we saw Machine Gun Kelly as well around about that time. You can probably guess from my fairly more middle of the road, let’s say, musical tastes. Over my life, if any one band has been sort of the soundtrack to my life, it’s U2. I’ve probably seen U2 five or six times on different tours and those have been brilliant concepts
First concert I ever went to first proper concert was James. ‘Sit down’ where you all sit down and ‘Come Home’, there’s some big live anthems I went to a lot of concerts when I was at Oxford, I went to see Suede. What a mixture! I think probably the one where I was most blown away was actually when U2 the Joshua Tree again.
I went to see them in Amsterdam. The first four songs of Joshua Tree, I would say, I don’t think there’s ever been a better first four songs to any album. I would challenge you and your readers to prove me wrong! To see U2 perform those songs back to back at the beginning of that concert was just extraordinary.
MP: And have you had any with your plan to attend cancelled or postponed, thanks to the pandemic?
TF: We were going to go and see Post Malone, and that was cancelled. More recently…no I don’t think so. I would have gone to see Hamilton, but no, no cancelled concerts since then.
Let me tell you one story about a concert I helped organise in Lebanon. I helped bring Keane to Beirut. And at the time the security situation was a bit dodgy. So, I did a conference call with them; they were asking, “Is it safe to come?”; I’m like “Come on, you’ve got to come, it’ll get people’s morale going. I was and still am a big Keane fan. They asked, “isn’t it bit dangerous” and I said, “no, no, no, it’s not dangerous… look at our travel advice”. “But your travel advice is to avoid big groups. Now, when we do a concert, we tend to attract a fairly big group.” So, I say “Ah, ok, obviously that’s a bit different.” But in the end, they did come and, you know, we worked really hard to get a lot of fantastic musicians to Beirut: David Gray came. Always we’d have to really twist their arms and say “look, Pet Shop Boys, you’ll really enjoy performing here because the Lebanese will just bounce around”. They’re a fantastic audience.
MP: So, what artists do you think that this year’s freshers are listening to right now?
TF: I’d have to see what my sons are listening to and that would be probably more of a clue…
TF: I was talking to one fresher the other day and he actually had a quote from Hamilton on the wall behind him: “The Room where it happens”. There’s a song called ‘I want to be in the room where it happens’. So maybe some of them are listening to Hamilton!
MP: I think there’s still the Hamilton craze at the moment; I don’t think it’s ever gone away.
TF: So maybe there’s a bit of that, but I suspect that their musical tastes are much more sophisticated than mine. But I guess they’re not getting to karaoke… you know when we were we, there was a lot of karaoke. My karaoke song when I was at Oxford was ‘Mustang Sally’. It was the year, just after the Commitments. And so, I used to do a lot of ‘Mustang Sally’ in the college bar.
MP: So, you would have to pick three artists who would have been the most important in throughout your life, which artists would those be?
TF: Just because they’ve always been there in the backgrounds me, I’d have to say U2. Partly too because they formed when I was an impressionable age. They helped me form a worldview as well. The fact that they were singing about Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, about apartheid, about poverty. I think a lot of people are quite cynical about that. They get a lot of flak for that. But when I was growing up, that was my first exposure to many of those things and so, if I’m honest, they did influence a lot of the work that I’ve done since. They gave me a sense of purpose around many of those campaigns like Make Poverty History, Band aid and Live Aid. I was working on the G8, and the G20, in government, on many of those things around climate and development, poverty – and I suppose they gave me that first inspiration to care about world issues.
More recently Spotify in the last two years tells me that I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen more than anything else. I’m finding particularly late Springsteen recent Springsteen the last couple of albums. Springsteen on Broadway, the show he did – basically his autobiography but told through music, just him with a piano and a guitar. I found those very powerful I’ve listened to those so much over the last two years, Springsteen, for me, is a great guide to growing older, as well.
MP: He just seems to get better as well…he’s just very timeless in what he does.
TF: I’ve always loved unplugged versions of songs. The song I would run into the waves to save on Desert Island Discs is Willie Nelson’s cover of ‘Always on My Mind.’ I think Springsteen stuff paired back is just so raw and powerful. When you hear him do the Springfield on Broadway stuff with just a guitar. When you hear him do ‘This Land is Your Land’, the Woody Guthrie song, that takes me right back to Obama being elected and that sense of hope.
So, U2 and Springsteen are the first two, which is very middle of the road, isn’t it, I’m basically centrist dad. Which other artist? I think it’s Bowie. In 2016, so many of these extraordinary artists, who shaped my generation’s musical horizons, died. But Bowie’s death was the one that really hit me hardest that year. I almost always fall back on Bowie.
MP: What era of Bowie, would you say, is your favourite?
TF: I do love the Ziggy Stardust era, such as ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’; there is a poignancy, there is a rawness in that era. In fact, I think I’m probably the only head of college who has Bowie on the wall. Mainly because you’ve got the quote here “I don’t know where I’m coming from here but I promise it won’t be boring,” which is basically my motto for the running of Hertford.
MP: Finally, if you could sum up Oxford in a song, what would you choose?
TF: Wow. For me, Oxford is all about its potential and opportunity and that energy of use. I’d go for ‘Come Together’ by Primal Scream.
MP: Absolutely fantastic choice, one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite albums.
TF: It’s because of the song’s sense of pulling together and being a community. A college was an idea before it was a building. You may think of a college as bricks and mortar but it’s actually the idea of a community. At the moment when we’re not here physically, songs like that I think capture even more sort of sense of the spirit of the place and that sense of a community. So yeah, ‘Come Together’ by Primal Scream. I used to be a boxer, and I’d go out there into the room to Primal Scream, to ‘Movin’ On Up’. That was the song I would enter the ring in there, doing a bit of this, a bit of that. (laughs) And it would always get my adrenaline going. I had one opponent who had T-shirts made saying “Fletcher goes home on a stretcher.” Hopefully, that’s not a motto for my time in Oxford!
MP: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us – it’s been an absolute pleasure!
TF: My mates all think my musical tastes mostly frozen by the year 2000, probably, I think I’ve proved today that they’re probably right (laughs).
MP: You got some Post Malone, Machine Gun Kelly got stuff going on in there!
TF: That’s true. In a way, my musical tastes slightly froze in the era when I was last in Oxford – so there’s an association with Oxford through all of that music, which is very powerful for me.
Listen to the Spotify playlist @cherwellmusic.
Image credit: Hertford College.