Attention landlubbers. It looks like there’ll be something in the water in Lancashire next weekend, with Galleon Blast all set to splice their collective mainbraces by the River Ribble in Preston, heading for The Continental on Saturday, December 12th.
They’ll be arriving en route from a visit to The Greystones, Sheffield, two days earlier. And as I was saying to the band’s drummer, Mark Radcliffe – during a brief break from putting together his BBC 6 Music afternoon show – if there’s one thing in the world we haven’t got enough of, it’s pirate-themed bands.
It was with that in mind that this Cheshire-based music aficionado expanded his five-piece outfit Mark Radcliffe and the Foes into a septet (one short of pieces of eight, you could say), aiming for a more raucous audience experience. And while his new-look band reckon they were ‘press-ganged into service by an unscrupulous gangmaster from the Spanish Main (well, Knutsford actually)’, they at least have a little shore leave ‘to ply their raggle-taggle trade’.
Punters who turn up at those afore-mentioned Red and White Rose venues can expect ‘a selection of rum-soaked songs and shanties’, including tunes previously appropriated by The Pogues, The Dubliners, The Waterboys, Fisherman’s Friends, and Ewan MacColl. But why are these banjo, whistle, accordion and fiddle-playing pirates calling themselves Galleon Blast? Is it ‘because they arrgghh’? Well, let’s ask Mark, aka ‘the Jack Sparrow (or Jack Duckworth) of the Radio 2 Folk Show’ to explain himself.
“We had a little band called Mark Radcliffe and The Foes, very kind of low-key, chatty and downbeat songs, and people kept saying, ‘Come and play our beer festival’ or ‘Come and play our folk festival’. But it was too miserable to do festivals with, so we thought, ‘What should we do about that?’
“When my wife, Bella, turned 40 we had a party on our garden, a little festival we called Glastonbella. And her brother, a trombone player, brought a brass quartet called Galleon Blast – an anagram of Glastonbella – which I thought was a superb name.
“Then, while on holiday in America, I saw a sailing ship on the Florida Keys and thought it looked great, and having this name stored in my mind thought, let’s do all that – then we can do songs like The Irish Rover, a lot of sea shanties, and so on. So I texted my wing-man, mandolin player Chris Lee, from Florida, saying, ‘I’m back a week on Saturday. Get all the others together – this is what we’re doing’. And when I’d come back it was sorted!”
“Yes. With The Foes I sang and played guitar, but I’ve gone back on the drums now as well as singing, and we’ve a new vocalist/guitarist, Nick Mitchell, and a female fiddle player, Fluff. So there are seven of us, which is a brilliant plan – it guarantees we never make any money!”
I admit to Mark that it’s taken me a while to get the band name right, having gone with Galleon Drunk at first.
“Well, there’s already a band called Gallon Drunk”.
Exactly – so maybe Galleon Drunk could at least be the title of your first album.
“Ah, but our first album is called Band on the Rum.”
Inspired. So are Galleon Blast taking over from your Dr Feelgood tribute band, Mark Radcliffe and the Big Figures?
“The Big Figures is defunct. The last time I played at the Conti was with The Big Figures. Those are all my mates from the (nearby) Longton area, and they’ll all be coming this time too. They’re starting up again with a different singer, because I’m too busy, but that was great fun. They were a great band, so I’ll be delighted for them to be playing again. And I’m also starting to do a few shows on my own, involving some Foes songs … and a lot of talking.”
Sort of Mark Radcliffe Unplugged?
“Unhinged, more like. Yeah, I’m kind of feeling my way into all that, seeing how it goes.”
You’ll be going some to ever reach the meteoric heights you did with The Shirehorses though, surely (the band Mark he had with his radio rhythm buddy Marc Riley, best known for classic cuts like Why Is It Always Dairylea? (as ripped off by Travis), A Roll With It (as plagiarised by Oasis), and Feel Like Shite (which Supergrass famously put a happy spin on).
“I think that’s the only band I’ll ever do arenas with – when we played with Blur. That was really hilarious.”
I understand The Shirehorses turned down an appearance on Phoenix Nights, performing as folk band Half a Shilling, after concern over the script.
“We did. Tim Healy stepped in instead. It was probably a mistake, really. I can’t really remember how we came to that conclusion, but we made a lot of odd decisions back then, like doing a full tour and never having any t-shirts. I remember sitting in the pub, saying if we get these t-shirts done we’d have to go and see someone in Preston. But we decided we couldn’t be bothered, deciding to stay and have another couple of pints. That was how our decisions were made in those days. We weren’t exactly young businessmen of the year.”
It’s the kind of disregard for ambition I appreciate, a bit like the story of Half Man Half Biscuit turning down Channel 4’s The Tube – even with a helicopter offered to get them to the studio – because their beloved Tranmere Rovers playing that night.
“Well, I remember the time we didn’t go to The Brits because there was a pub quiz on in the Railway.”
Of course, I shouldn’t really be talking to Mark – seeing as I tend to refuse to go near tribute bands with a rock’n’roll style barge-pole. So how can I justify an interview with someone who’s been in a string of tribute acts (of sorts)?
“What? The Shirehorses? A tribute act? I think you’ve got that wrong, Malc. I think you’ll find a lot of people were a tribute to us. Let’s have it right.”
Fair point. In fact, while he’s in combative mode, I bring up a more controversial subject, that he was once with Skrewdriver, sitting in after an invite from his pal, Phil Walmsley. That was however during their non-political, non-racist punk days, before the band – without Mark and Phil – reinvented themselves as white supremacist, far right, neo-Nazis.
Actually, Mark explains all that in his hugely entertaining 1998 multi-band memoir, Showbusiness: The Diary of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Nobody, but I bring it up anyway. Is that something he wishes he could just remove from his CV?
“Probably, but that’s why I wrote about it. It’s much worse for Phil – who was also in the Big Figures – as it was his band at school. They went through an amazing time playing in London in ’76 and ’77 when the punk thing exploded, yet it’s all been tarnished now. Such a shame.
“I’m pretty clear on who I am though, and what it was about when I was in it – very briefly. Suggs was their roadie early on too, so there were a lot of people connected. But then it all went in a different direction.
“You’re probably right – it’s best to have no association at all. There will always be people who think, ‘no smoke without fire’, but there’s not much I can do about that other than to be completely clear in my conscience and know exactly what it was about when I was in it. If people choose not to believe me, there’s not much I can do about that. But anyone who knows me, if asked whether Mark Radcliffe was a racist, would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’”
With that cleared up, I move on to safer ground, reminding Mark he’s 57 now yet still happily spends his spare time on the pub and club trail.
“I don’t know what else I’d do really. I always thought it was a young man’s game, but perhaps The Rolling Stones thought that. I work on the radio, I look after my family, children and grandchildren, and my ‘me time’ involves going out, playing drums, drinking some beer and doing gigs. I still love it, so why would I stop?”
Last time I saw Mark in Preston was at the Charter Theatre, joining forces with his celebrity pal Noddy Holder and talking about his life in music, not least his days with the mighty Slade. They proved to be a great live double-act too, as publicised on this blog via this review at the time. Are they still doing a few shows?
“Not really. We just did one tour. I don’t really know what Nod wants to do. He’s really got to decide whether he wants to sing or not … but I think he doesn’t really, and I love him for that, especially when everyone else seems to be reforming. If he got Slade back together, he could make an absolute fortune. But he doesn’t really need it, and he’s happy with his life. I don’t think he wants to do it really. I still see him quite often though.”
Has Mark ever got over the thrill of being so close to the voice behind all those classic songs (and arguably the man who personifies Christmas more than any other living legend)?
“I think I have. He’s the only celebrity person who’s a proper friend. People like Guy Garvey and that are friends, but Nod’s the only kind of iconic person who’s a friend. But I am beyond that now really. You can’t go anywhere without Nod being recognised, and people are always so pleased to see him. But I just like his company – he’s just a nice fella.”
Having labelled Mark and Nod as a double-act, I move on to Radcliffe’s broadcasting collaborations, not just with Marc Riley (aka Lard) then Stuart Maconie, but also his Glastonbury Festival co-presenters, like fellow BBC 6 Music DJ Lauren Laverne and Jo Whiley. It’s hardly the worst job in the world, what with all this on-air doubling-up, is it?
“It seems to work in that way. Stuart’s off at the moment, so I’ve been doing a couple of weeks on my own, and like that too, but it’s nice to have someone to chat to and you get to places you wouldn’t on your own – the conversation leads to different places. I never really planned it that way, but it seems to work out okay.”
In my newspaper reporting days, I often interviewed golden or diamond wedding couples, leading to that inevitable question about their ‘secret of success’ in staying together so long. In radio terms, Mark’s 14 years with Marc Riley and around eight and a half with Stuart so far suggest a comparative parallel. So what’s the secret? Is it ‘give and take’, as those veteran pairs would often say?
“I suppose so. My relationship with Stuart is very different to that I had with Marc. When Marc and I started we were both learning how to do it and were best mates, together all the time. Stuart and I live separate lives and are at a different stage of life. He lives in Birmingham and sometimes in the Lake District, so we don’t see each other socially that much. But we make each other laugh.
“We’ve never sat down and worked out who does this and who does that. You do however develop a kind of understanding. If sometimes there’s a bit of needle, you know you can push a button and make that worse, or back off. You can’t work that close with someone and there never be a disagreement, but they’re only slight and fleeting moments.
“When I started with Marc, it was my show and he was just the sidekick. With Stuart we started on a much more equal footing. It’s hard to break it down really, but there’s often a nod, a wink and a look and we know what each of us is doing.”
Meanwhile, this Boltonian’s own radio career is now well into its fourth decade, going back to his formative broadcasting days on Manchester commercial station Piccadilly Radio.
“Yes, I started at Piccadilly in September 1979, just after university – as an assistant producer of drama and classical music, believe it or not. I stumbled into it. I wanted to be in a band, and didn’t take looking for a job or any career thoughts very seriously. Kids today are under a lot of pressure to decide what they want to do, whereas I had no idea when I left uni but thought anything to do with music would be okay.
“I kind of made a deal with myself – if I got some work I enjoyed I’d take that rather than chasing money. If I could get a semi-detached house and a reliable saloon car I thought that would be okay really. It’s turned out a bit better than that … but only because a series of happy accidents. I never really wanted to do any presenting, and never did student radio.
“But when I was at Piccadilly Radio and there were all those Factory Records around and Joy Division happening, I said to the people in charge, ‘We should be playing this stuff. It’s kind of an important part of our town now’. They said, ‘We haven’t got anybody who knows enough about it to do a programme’, and I said, ‘How hard can it be? I’ll do it!’ So they let me have Saturday afternoons during the football close season – and that’s where it began really.”
That show was Transmission. Has he listened back to the old reels in recent years?
“Yes, while writing one of my books I found an old cassette, and was quite surprised – I sounded like a manic depressive. I think I was trying to be Manchester’s John Peel, deliberately being as far away as I could from the other DJs, all very ‘Smashy and Nicey’. I think I was just marking my territory. I didn’t find it an easy listen, but I suppose it marked me out as different from everybody else there at the time.”
Pretty soon, Mark switched to the BBC, getting to know some of his broadcasting heroes along the way, not least through recording shifts at Maida Vale for those legendary Peel Sessions, Billy Bragg among those he produced.
“I went as a producer in 1983, and loved doing sessions for Billy, as you were finished after a couple of hours to go to the pub! There was only him and his guitar. Brilliant!
“I couldn’t believe it when I went to Radio 1. I remember sitting in my little office when there was a knock on the door and there was Anne Nightingale, who I’d listened to for years, asking if I was alright. It was an incredible time, getting to know Peel and all those people.
“Absolutely thrilling, even just walking up from the Tube and through the front doors of Broadcasting House – maybe the most famous building connected with broadcasting in the whole world. It just seemed extraordinary really. It was all going too well.”
In time came Radio 5’s Hit the North (1990) and a long spell with Marc Riley on Radio 1 from 1993, the pair proving a major success in the weekday evenings, before a short run in the coveted Breakfast Show spot then seven years in the afternoons, winning three Sony Gold Awards en route.
Then came the Radio 2 years, Mark in time joining forces with Stuart Maconie, the pair heading to 6 Music in early 2011. That said, Mark continues to present on Radio 2, where his duties include The Folk Show, having replaced Mike Harding.
With all that in mind, plus the TV voice-over work, I put it to Mark that it must worry him that we’re in danger of losing the BBC if certain Government factions get their way. We’re already heard about plans for BBC3 to become an internet-only channel. But Mark refuses to take my more pessimistic line.
“Well … the BBC 3 online thing seems pretty good if it’s aimed at young people. My kids tend to watch stuff online anyway. And I think the BBC will be here long after anyone who wants to get rid of it. There are things at the BBC that are a waste of money and where we could tighten our belts. But any Government will realise at a certain point there’s no vote in crushing the BBC.
“I’d like to see the BBC truly independent of political control. Maybe you could make it by subscription. If you could find a way of scrambling the signals then look at what you pay for. It’s not hard if you get Sky and all the sports packages and watch a lot of films to spend the licence fee in about a month and a half.
“Maybe they should stop everything on the BBC for a week. Let people see what that feels like – all the repeats, the documentaries, the things on other channels, the news – take everything the BBC does out of the equation. Then you could say, ‘Right, you’ve saved yourself four quid now!’”
Away from the day and night jobs, Mark has his writing too – with Showbusiness (1998) followed by his novel Northern Sky (2005), the anecdotal Thank you For The Days (2009) and further music memoir Reelin’ in the Years (2011).
Then there’s his family life on the ‘Knutsford City Limits’, with his daughters now aged 28, 16 and 13. He’s a grandparent too. So does he see himself as a legendary rock’n’roll grandad, or a barometer-tapping cardigan-wearer?
“I don’t know really. I try to be fun and active and do stuff with them rather than sat behind a newspaper, harrumphing – although I do that with my own kids, I imagine. I’m a comparatively-young grandad. It’s one of the very few things I’m comparatively young for. Half of the people I work with are a third of my age now, with many not even born when I started.”
Is there one band or act above any other you feel a sense of pride in helping to break?
“Probably Elbow. I was the first to play them. We played Newborn, and Guy (Garvey) says he always remembers them sitting at home listening to us play the full version on afternoon Radio 1, laughing their heads off, thinking, ‘We’re off! We’re on the way!’ I’ve always felt an affinity with those guys, and know they’ve always felt an affinity with me because they played at Glastonbella, on our garden. They don’t do that sort of thing very much.”
When was the last time someone put a radio playlist in front of you and expected you to work off it?
“Every day! We have a playlist At 6 Music. But the beauty of the station is that most of the things on there I’d happily play anyway. You don’t want to have to pick three hours of music every day. It would drive you insane. It would be like you putting a newspaper together on your own every day.
“The key is being somewhere where the playlist actually chimes and fits in with your taste. Then you’re not constantly battling with it. I’m quite happy to be told what to do as long as I respect the person telling me, and as long as they’re telling me what I know to be right.”
Finally, with Chris Evans currently doing the rounds with Don’t Forget It’s Friday (or whatever it is), is there a chance of you bringing back – 20 years on – The White Room to Channel 4?
“It’s not up to me, but if they wanted to bring it back and wanted me to do it, I would -happily. In fact, I’ll happily go anywhere people invite me these days, because I don’t get out much!
“I was sorry when that finished. It seemed to finish a bit too soon. I thought it was going to be like Later with Jools – a job for life. But I’ve learned to not think that about things. Things you think are going to last sometimes don’t, and things you think are just going to be temporary have a habit of drifting on forever. I’ve never made a plan and don’t intend to now. But even if that came back without me I’d be pleased to see it.”
Maybe if Jools Holland decides to call time on Later – providing that Gilson Lavis isn’t up to carrying it on – Mark could have a weekly drumming slot with happening guests for his own live music show.
“Yeah, perhaps so! That would be fun.”