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Extract: No Off Switch - A Bluebottle at Radio 1 | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: No Off Switch - A Bluebottle at Radio 1

Extract: No Off Switch - A Bluebottle at Radio 1

In his new autobiography, Andy Kershaw recalls his debut as a Radio 1 DJ

'That young lad you've got doing the Whistle Test these days, has he ever done any radio?'Al Thompson

I walked in to find my new Radio 1 producer standing on our secretary’s desk – she was on the phone – wearing a sombrero, a huge rubber ear, and playing the trumpet. Around him, in the third floor typing pool of the Nation’s Favourite – unable, given the din of The Peanut Vendor, to mew to one another comparisons of train journeys to and from East Croydon – secretaries were varnishing their nails or even typing programme running orders.

Down the corridor in our office – Room 318 of Egton House, a hideous 1960s office block, next door to Broadcasting House, and the home of Radio 1 – the world’s most admired broadcaster was having another anxiety attack about something trivial, opening his post, imagining he'd got cancer (again) and disappearing beneath a swelling pile of brown 12-inch cardboard mailers.

It was 10 o'clock in the morning, just another day at work. But it hadn’t always been like this.

There I was, happily trundling along as the hot young gunslinger of Whistle Test, when Trevor Dann, himself a former Radio 1 producer, was approached by an executive of the station.

"That young lad you”ve got doing the Whistle Test these days, has he ever done any radio?"

“Get together a box of your favourite records,” said Trevor, “and we”ll go into a studio and make a tape.”

If I ever had a list of those records, it is long lost. No doubt there were in there representatives of all my favourite styles from R&B to roots reggae and, I dare say, the Paisley Underground was more than quorate.

But the only track I clearly recall playing was Loretta Lynn’s "Don’t Come Home a Drinkin' with Lovin' on Your Mind". That the appearance of an old honky-tonk country record on my Radio 1 demo didn’t alert the management into pulling up the Egton House drawbridge suggests they either regarded it as an amusing novelty number or didn’t listen that far into the tape. Because their intentions soon became clear, if unspoken: I was being sounded out as a young replacement for John Peel. And one who would perhaps be persuaded to play a less coltish variety of rock than old Fatty was pumping out. Disregarding the fact that John was the most influential figure in the history of rock music in the UK – Radio 1 management had a track record of not recognising the station’s assets, however meagre – by 1985 Peel had reached, my goodness me, the un-poptastic age of 45. (Yes, you're right: and I've never been able to explain the phenomenon of Jimmy Saville either...)

Trevor decided our demo had to be made out of sight and earshot of others at Radio 1. I was to be tested instead, like some secret weapon, in the relative anonymity of the studios of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, on which Trevor himself presented a rock show at the weekends. We drove up there together one night, in early 1985. Trevor had borrowed a studio and in it we met John Leonard, a Radio 1 producer based at the BBC’s regional centre in Manchester and also a popular performer on the British folk circuit. It had been John’s idea, which he had voiced to Stuart Grundy, a Radio 1 executive, that I should be auditioned.

I sat in a studio and gushed between my selections about their life-enriching properties. Trevor then drove me home and John took the tape back up to Manchester to edit out all my fluffs and most of my gobbledegook before putting it in front of Radio 1 bosses.

Over the next couple of weeks, I thought little more of our clandestine caper in Cambridge. Then one morning, a fortnight or so later, as I walked into the Whistle Test office, Trevor looked up from his desk.

“Congratulations,” he beamed. “You”re a Radio 1 DJ.”

 

Walters_Peel__Andy_in_1990_courtesy_of_the_BBC

BETWEEN RECORDING THE DEMO and presenting for the first time my own programme on Radio 1, I had already deputised for John Peel on a couple of occasions. One of those was when John had gone to watch Liverpool Football Club play a match at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium and where he was a witness to the deaths of 39 spectators. On the other, most likely, he was having one of his 24-hour nervous breakdowns for which I was yanked in at the last minute to cover while the old boy was having a bit of a lie down. More significantly, these substitutions were to be my earliest encounters with the wonderfully preposterous figure of John Walters (pictured above with Peel and Kershaw).

My first Radio 1 programme was pre-recorded and produced, like those of my first two months for the network, by John Leonard in Manchester. It was necessarily pre-recorded because on 6 July, 1985, the day it was transmitted, in the early evening of a Saturday, I was again working in Roundhay Park in Leeds, doing the same Backstage Labour Coordinator job for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as I had done in 1982 for The Rolling Stones.

I lay on the grass outside our Portakabin office to listen to it and, from what I heard through the roar of fork-lift trucks and the testing of Springsteen’s PA, I was quite pleased with my efforts. The job in hand, however, denied any celebrations and I was preoccupied with the immense gig taking place the day after.

John Leonard and I carried on making these agreeable little programmes out of Manchester for another few weeks, largely unnoticed, it seemed, both by audiences and critics. I liked John very much. He, too, had very broad tastes and grasped, even before he put me on the air, that the AK catholicism and enthusiasm – as opposed to a narrow musical tribalism and any self-conscious regard for what may be considered cool – was a strength not a weakness.

I would have been more than happy to work with John indefinitely and hoped I might do so until the afternoon I drove over the M62, following one of our recordings in Manchester, to stay overnight with Our Elizabeth, who was still living at the Shire Oak Road flat in Leeds. Elizabeth was out when I let myself in. But on the telephone table in the hall, she'd left a message scribbled on a blue Post-It note. "Stuart Grundy of Radio 1 phoned,” it read. “You are being sent to John Walters.”

 

THOSE SUBSTITUTIONS for Peel had already steeled me for the state of the office and prepared me to cope with Walters. Over the 15 years I was a Radio 1 DJ the question I was asked most frequently about the producer I shared with John Peel was routinely prefaced with the questioner’s own analysis: "So, you and Peel both choose your own records. And the session artists. So... what exactly does John Walters do for your programmes?”

My stock answer was to say, “I don’t know.” It was just too tricky to attempt to explain to someone who in their line of work had not enjoyed the benefits of their boss bellowing Ethel Merman.

Walters takes charge. A very rare appearance by my producer, in the Radio 1 studios, during a programme. Minutes before my first Live Radio 1 broadcast, in 1985, and after taking me for a pizza, Walters went home. Unknown impressions up the corporate stairwell, the incalculable contribution that this – or one of Walters’s hour-long monologues concerning the weekend antics of Algy, his homosexual cockerel - made to general job satisfaction around the Radio 1 building. It was even harder, for the illumination of outsiders, and as an asset to life in the world’s most admired broadcasting organisation, to quantify. Walters, I explained to myself, very early on, was employed by the BBC – although they didn’t know it – to be Walters. And that contribution was immense.

Andy_K_at_home_in_the_early_2000s_courtesy_of_Retna-PhotoshotTo best understand, perhaps, the value of Walters, my own experience speaks volumes. I would go down into central London, even on days on which I had no programme to prepare for Radio 1, simply to sit in the office with Walters. Facing each other across the old desk and the heaps of detritus, we'd chew the fat, sort out the world and, as his protégé, I would bathe in his wisdom and wit. Walters needed an audience. I was delighted to provide one. And if Peel wasn’t in a sulk with his old friend, he was usually there too, chucking droll pebbles into the Walters flow.

Walters made it great fun to go to work. And, in my own case, the work was enriched by those days spent hanging around the office, playing through new releases, dissecting with Walters popular culture and social history, deciding which artists should be booked for sessions and getting the post answered. Simultaneously, Walters – like those early TV variety show performers who could spin a number of plates on the ends of wobbly poles – kept a dozen or more tales running while fielding phone calls and brushing aside irritably the appearances at the door of Room 318 of oily record company pluggers and twitching Radio 1 managers.

'Andy, with boundless energy, leaping around a lot, trying to lick your face, is Tigger'

 

“What has it been like,” Walters was asked by Gillian Reynolds, venerable radio critic of The Daily Telegraph, soon after my arrival in Room 318, “after all the years of just you and Peel, now to have Andy with you as well?”

“It’s as though someone walked in and let a bluebottle out of a jar,” said Walters.

To another writer, he modified this analysis.

“It was as if an elderly couple,” he reflected, “in the twilight of their lives, armchairs on either side of the hearth, suddenly and against all medical probability, had a child.”

From where the child stood – or, rather, sat, on an upturned steel waste-paper basket because there was no third chair, nor any room for one in 318 – I saw my new parents played by a couple of pantomime dames – the Hinge and Bracket of Radio 1.

Another observer drew a strikingly accurate literary analogy, identifying Room 318 as a reflection of The House at Pooh Corner.

“Walters,” they said, “is Pooh Bear because he is rather tubby, lugubrious, world-weary and a bit pompous. Peel is Eeyore, full of self-pity and miserable, but happiest being so, especially when he’s standing in the corner of his field in the drizzle and there are no thistles left to eat. Janice (our programme secretary at the time) is Piglet because, like Piglet, she is tiny, nervous, pink and she squeaks. And Andy, with boundless energy, leaping around a lot, trying to lick your face, is Tigger.”

But, even as a bit of an AA Milne student myself, I do not recall – try as I might – Christopher Robin’s house being filled to bursting point with shite. And if you will bear with me, I will now go and compose myself for five minutes with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a walk around the back yard before we embark – many years after it was bulldozed, although the horror of it refuses to die – on a guided tour of Room 318...

Listen to Andy Kershaw in interview on Radio 5 Live

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