In a more in-depth version of a feature he did for the Lancashire Evening Post, the blogger talks to a forthright broadcaster who’s seen more than his fair share of drama over the years – on and off air.
A bluffer’s guide to Andy Kershaw on his official website offers a wealth of information about this iconic broadcaster’s eventful career.
The 53-year-old has seen his fair share of dramas and TV, radio and print firsts, much of which is covered in his acclaimed autobiography No Off Switch.
It’s certainly been a full-throttle career for this motorbike-mad Rochdale lad so far, one he gives a glimpse into in his one-man show, The Adventures of Andy Kershaw.
That show dropping in at The Continental in Preston on Saturday, November 2nd (see footnote at end of feature) proved a good excuse for me to catch up with this award-winning DJ and investigative journalist.
Besides, I hadn’t seen him in person since an early That Petrol Emotion gig at the Pindar of Wakefield, London WC1 – now the Water Rats Theatre Bar – in the summer of 1985.
In a pub whose former imbibers apparently included Vladimir Lenin, Bob Dylan, Peggy Seeger, Dominic Behan and Ewan MacColl (yes, not just Dylan but fellow acclaimed songwriting pair Lenin/MacColl too), that night – like many others around that era – went down in folklore history for myself and my fellow giggers.
Not just because there was such a buzz about Damian and John O’Neill’s post-Undertones band, but also because it was the night my brother attracted this fresh-faced Radio One-by-default DJ’s attention as he made to leave the venue late on.
To be fair, a few drinks had been consumed, but as he shouted ‘Andy!’ we assumed it was someone he worked with. But no, we quickly clocked his identity, and to his credit the somewhat self-conscious presenter answered a question about his level of enjoyment with a rather under-stated, “They were quite good in parts, weren’t they?” in those tell-tale Northern tones.
Andy then sidled off into the night, and for years to come, whatever heights an artist reached, we’d often use that self-same yardstick, agreeing that a band – however good they appeared – would never be more than ‘quite good in parts’.
I’d like to think that the following interview with the man himself was in itself quite good in parts. But you can be the judge of that.
Andy’s (later cancelled) Continental appearance follows a booking from Preston indie and alternative music promoter Enrico La Rocca, following on nicely from his Tuff Life Boogie series of UnPeeled dates at the same venue, marking the ninth anniversary of the death of the man he once shared a messy office with, the revered John Peel.
From his days promoting gigs at Leeds Uni to time as a driver and roadie for Billy Bragg and a TV presenting break on Whistle Test and in turn Live Aid in1985, it’s been a busy life for this enthusiastic music and world affairs aficionado.
That included spells working for The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, along the way amassing a record collection weighing more than seven tons, one now slowly being re-located to his home in Todmorden, just across the West Yorkshire border and 10 miles from his Lancashire hometown, where his mum still lives.
So why Todmorden?
“I’m in that lucky position where I’m able to live anywhere, determined only really by price. I saw a lot of houses that fulfil 70/80 % of what I was looking for and was then alerted to this one which fulfilled 100% and was also a steal. I don’t need some Northern kitchen sink 1960s drama set to get back to my Northern roots, far from it. I’ve lived here almost a year and can probably count the number of visits I’ve made back to Rochdale on one hand.”
After all your travels over the years with work, have you any big trips afoot?
“No, just travelling around the country. In one sense I feel an affinity with Bob Dylan. Like Bob I appear to be on a never-ending tour. It isn’t a tour as such, if anyone wants me to do one of these one-man shows at a literary festival or something at a small theatre or arts centre, when we agree satisfactory terms I just go and do it. For most places in the UK, unless it’s Devon and Cornwall, North of Blackpool or Edinburgh, I can generally do my gig and drive home after at night on quiet motorways, and just do them whenever, which his how I got booked for Preston, at the Continental. The other thing I’ve realised in the last 12 months is the ubiquity of things like Facebook. It’s wonderful, I no longer need a booking agent! People like ‘yer man’ in Preston (Enrico La Rocca) is a good example. He just popped up on Facebook and left me a message asking ‘would I like to do a gig in Preston?’, and I said sure. It’s wonderful in that sense, and that’s how I’m doing most of my gigs now.”
It says on your website you’ve visited 97 or 194 countries. Does that suggest you want to tick off the rest?
“No, I’m not doing this numerically, I visit countries because of some interest to me for one reason or another.”
Is your celebrated love of World Music a big influence on those travels?
“In some cases it’s been the music. But there are a variety of reasons. The roots of everything really, whether it’s the music of the war reporting, is journalism and is there a good story. Is there something I find fascinating and in which I want to immerse myself.”
I guess I was first aware of that through your championing of various Zimbabwean bands on your Radio One show in the mid-80s.
“Zimbabwe back then was an irresistible place for me. For particularly historical reasons, the music there at that point at the end of the1980s was especially brilliant, as I explain in the book in more detail. It was a lot to do with the honeymoon period following independence in 1980.”
You certainly turned me on to a lot of that music, between yourself and John Peel – from The Bhundu Boys to the Real Sounds of Africa.
“Well, at that point, Zimbabwe was over-flowing with world-class bands.”
You’ve mentioned how your vinyl LP and CD collection weighs around seven tonnes. What size are we talking about there? And is that all in Todmorden?
“Not at the moment, but it will be. The CDs are here, the vinyl is still in storage in a warehouse until I can get the shelving done. This whole shelving business has been a work in progress now for 12 months. My CDs, my LPs, and my huge book collection, it’s taking a long time to get all this stuff done. The CDs alone cover two walls floor to ceiling in my office!”
Have you been won over by the digital download revolution?
“It’s music for convenience more than anything. If I need to get hold of a piece of music – and this has been true while my collection’s been in storage – platforms like YouTube and iTunes are very useful, and I carry around a few things on my mobile phone.”
Ever think while growing up in Rochdale that you might end up broadcasting on Radio One, let alone Radio Three and Radio Four?
“No. One of the extraordinary things about what happened to me in the mid-1980s, was I became a Radio 1 DJ crucially with a free hand to choose my own music. There were very few DJs that had that freedom. I became a Radio 1 DJ without ever having any ambitions to become one, and without even trying. And as far as I know I’m the only one in the station’s history who can claim that distinction. It happened by accident. I was already presenting Whistle Test on BBC Two when Radio One offered me a radio programme. When I was a kid in Rochdale in the early and mid 1970s you just didn’t think those sort of things were possible. It was a series really of happy accidents.”
Do you still miss the two Johns – Messrs Peel and Walters?
“Oh, I do. Enormously, because they were more than just work colleagues. They were like soul brothers. They were almost like family. Especially Walters, who took if not a paternal then an avuncular attitude towards me. He wasn’t just my protector professionally, he safeguarded the Peel and Kershaw programmes on the airwaves, justifying them to the BBC. Also, it went further than that for me. In all aspects of life Waters was a great source of wisdom and guidance for me, whether it was the right choice of girlfriends or telling me how to go about buying a flat, anything and everything. Waters was an amazing man, and to anyone who knew him closely, he filled all available space in your life. He was such a big personality.”
Your (later cancelled) appearance at the Continental provides a fitting postscript to the promoter’s series of events to mark the anniversary of the passing of John Peel. He was clearly a major influence on you, wasn’t he?
“Absolutely, along with thousands of others, he broadened my musical tastes and horizons. He was largely responsible for the wide-ranging tastes, and as a broadcaster I learned so much – albeit sub-consciously – from listening to him. He was one of the great naturals of broadcasting.”
You mentioned John Walters’ advice, and no doubt that included a sage bit of advice about who to steer clear of as well, some of those who have since popped up in the news.
“Well, I wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph in the earlier part of this year when I’d reached a point of exasperation with a lot of the nonsense and lies that many people in the media were spewing about Jimmy Savile, rewriting history and their own part in that history. So I wrote a piece with a few realities, and one of those was that almost as soon as I arrived at Radio 1 in the summer of 1985, Walters told me to steer clear of Jimmy Savile. It was widely known all over not just the BBC, but all over the media and throughout showbiz circles that Savile was a wrong ‘un.”
Whistle Test was our first sight of you. I can still see you know enthusing about bands like the Long Ryders, and pretty soon had gone out and bought I Had A Dream. Were those good days?
“It was wonderful, this was a programme along with the Peel show on the radio, a programme that was so formative in my youth, in shaping my musical taste and introducing me to so many artists that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. Also you have to member in the days of The Old Grey Whistle Test in the ‘70s, with Bob Harris presenting, that was the only place! There wasn’t a proliferation of music programmes and TV channels as there is now. That was the only programme and the only place you could see a lot of those artists perform, those you’d only read about in the music papers or perhaps heard on record or on the Peel programme. I was introduced to so many of those artists through Whistle Test and with many of them I’ve almost formed life-long relationships, people like Little Feat and Kevin Coyne, Rory Gallagher, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
Jools Holland is one of the few who presents such a show today, isn’t he?
“Well, what they did was re-invent Whistle Test, gave it a presenter, a studio audience and called it Later with Jools Holland.”
I’m guessing you feel there’s room out there for something else?
“There’s room out there to bring back Whistle Test! There’s still an appetite and demand for the kind of music Whistle Test used to feature ….”
I believe you have more Sony Awards than any other broadcaster?
Is there anything you’ve received in the way of plaudits that means more to you than the rest of those accolades?
“I would say it’s recognition from those people I really admire in their fields. So the tributes I’ve received for the book, the things Stephen Fry said, and I just thought, ‘by God’, because I’m as huge admirer of Stephen, and he’s been making me laugh like a drain for more than 30 years. In another area, to have Fergal Keane say such kind things, from the rock’n’roll world, Pete Townshend, and again from the foreign correspondents’ world, Dame Ann Leslie, for whom I’ve got huge admiration. I’ve worked in the field with Ann in a difficult place like Haiti, and she is the goddess of foreign correspondents. Coming from those kind of folks it means the world, really.”
You mentioned Bob Dylan before, and he’s doing the rounds again at the moment. Will you be going to see him on this tour?
“No. The proper time to see him was in 1966, and I was too young then. I went to see him in 1978, and I’ve tried several times since, and he was absolutely dreadful … I wouldn’t go again … It’s one of my great regrets that I wasn’t old enough to see him in ’66. If I were able to travel back in a time capsule in history, one of those journeys would be to see him on that electric tour with his band, when he was at the peak of his powers.”
Would you let the guy who shouted Judas go with you?
“I’m afraid John Cardwell’s dead. I made a documentary about it. He and I actually became good friends, and he turned out to be a really nice guy. I’m afraid he died in 2001, from a bee sting.”
Ever crossed your mind you might have settled down with Courtney Love and changed the face of ‘90s music?
“Not at all. As I say in the book and recount the incident, I didn’t know who she was. She wasn’t well known at that stage, she was a hustling young actress trying to get parts in some film in London …”
Would you ever change your mind about appearing on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, which I believe you once turned down?
“I don’t think so. They approached me once, I didn’t even know what it was. The kids had to tell me what it was. When they told me, I turned it down. They (the programme makers) were absolutely astonished. I don’t think they were accustomed to people turning round saying, ‘Do you know what? I’m not even interested …”
Do you get nervous before live shows?
“No. I enjoy them. Almost by definition of people coming along, I’m among friends and supporters, and I love just going out there and giving them a good time, regaling them with a few robust anecdotes.”
And is it fair to say your life’s back on track again after a pretty difficult (and well-documented) time a few years ago?
“Well, yes, of course. It’s seven years ago, all that on the Isle of Man, and self-evidently, I’m reporting regularly for The One Show, have written an autobiography … That’s a long time ago … My crime was to want to see my children. Oh, and by the way, my children wanted to see their Dad.”
You’ll note that there are a few bits here and there where I’ve trailed off while Andy’s been at his most impassioned … notably in his opinions on Jools Holland’s presenting, Bob Dylan’s last 45-plus years as a performer, Courtney Love’s formative UK days, and the Manx legal system. Hopefully that doesn’t dilute the finished product. For more on those lines, check out his autobiography and own published writing. But as writewyattuk doesn’t have a big-shot lawyer on its books, I’ll stay on the fence.
* For more about Andy and how to get hold of No Off Switch, head to his website here
* Thanks to Enrico La Rocca for his help in setting this up, and the Lancashire Evening Post, where an earlier version of this interview was first published.
* In something of a sad footnote, I should point out that Andy Kershaw’s show at the Continental was pulled during the final week after low ticket sales, promoter Tuff Life Boogie unable to bear any further losses after his UnPeeled series of gigs in Preston, which included successful shows by the likes of The Primitives and Nic Jones.
Kershaw announced on his Facebook page: “I’m afraid my gig at Preston’s Continental next Sunday has been cancelled. The promoter has lost quite a lot of money, alas, on other recent gigs and has decided he cannot continue organising events for the time being. I hope he’s soon back in business. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused. All other Adventures of AK gigs are still on, and they are listed on my website.” (link here).