Forever switched on – back in touch with Andy Kershaw

Two Johns: Andy Kershaw reliving his days at Broadcasting House with John Peel and John Walters at a 2012 event.

It’s been 35 years since Andy Kershaw left West Yorkshire’s Radio Aire, redundancy from his promotions manager role in November 1983 proving the catalyst for a wealth of  adventures in rock’n’roll and broadcasting.

“Was there ever a more productive sacking, Malcolm?”

The former University of Leeds ents sec. started the next phase of his career as singer-songwriter Billy Bragg’s driver, roadie and tour manager, handed the keys of manager Pete Jenner’s battered Volvo estate in early 1984. Happy days?

“Very happy, yeah. I look back at those days with a lot of fondness.”

Which musicians did you have most fun working with in those days? Billy? Or (in his Roundhay Park, Leeds, concert promotion years) with the Rolling Stones (1982) or Bruce Springsteen (1985)?

“Well, I wasn’t working with Bruce and the Stones as closely as I was with Billy. I was working on their gigs rather than with them. But in their different ways they were all extraordinary experiences.

“We’re going back 36 years with the Stones, and even then it was the most extravagant operation in rock’n’roll. And I dare say it’s become even bigger, more extravagant and more preposterous since. That was 1982, and I now categorise it as the most farcical fortnight in my life.”

Flicking back through No Off Switch before picking up the phone to speak to you, I was reminded that you worked on an Ian Dury show at Leeds at one stage too (December 1980). Another amazing performer and artist.

“Oh yeah. There were some characters in rock’n’roll then, and by God we could do with some now.”

Go on. Admit it, dear reader. You were reading those responses in your own take on Andy’s distinctive accent, the 59-year-old from Littleborough, Rochdale (younger brother of fellow BBC radio presenter Liz Kershaw, or ‘Our Elizabeth’, as he’d have it) instantly recognisable on the box and the wireless, having become a TV regular since joining the revamped Whistle Test in 1984 then co-hosting the BBC’s TV coverage of Live Aid the following year, when he also joined Radio One and started his long association with that medium.

Along the way, he became close to fellow presenter John Peel and producer John Walters, and – he left Radio 1 in 2000, by which time he’d also featured on Radio 4 – over the years also served Radio 3 and the BBC’s World Service.

Did he realise it’s now been 14 years since we lost Peel and 17 since Walters’ departure? And that both would have been turning 80 next year?

“Would they now? Crikey. I still expect the phone to ring at 2.15 every day, Walters on, ‘Did you hear The Archers?’ straight after. I miss them both, still. Everyone forgets that about Walters, not just a great producer but a great broadcaster in his own right. They were both great eccentrics of broadcasting.”

And do you keep in touch with your first proper rock’n’roll employer, Billy Bragg?

“Not really. I suppose our lives diverged. He sits in his castle on a cliff in Dorset, while I’m still scrabbling around for a job here and a job there.”

Home for Andy is Todmorden, just six or so miles from his roots but now on the White Rose side of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border. Last time we spoke, I reminded him, his vast vinyl record collection was in storage and he was working on the shelving to move it in. Did that finally happen?

“Err, no, not yet. We had to come to an uncomfortable decision that if the vinyl’s going to come home, I’m going to have to build an extension. I’m serious. And the problem is getting the money together to do that.”

Bush Craft: Andy Kershaw in the Kalahari, Namibia, 2010, for BBC Radio 3’s Music Planet (Photo: Marvin Ware)

Andy’s lad Sonny’s now 21 while daughter Dolly’s 19. Have either followed his lead into broadcasting of some description?

“No indications of that at the moment. Dolly’s at Sussex University doing zoology and Sonny’s working as an administrator for Centrepoint, the homeless charity in London.”

And you’re proud of both, no doubt.

“Very.”

Getting back to that proposed new extension, the occasional pay-slip from his contributions to BBC 1’s The One Show now and again must help.

“Yeah … the roving reporter.”

And this summer you became a regular correspondent for that show from Coniston Water in the Lake District.

“Well yeah, I took the idea of the Bluebird restoration to them when I found out it was nearing completion. I’ve made three films about Bluebird now, and become deeply involved in it … emotionally involved, even.

“I’m afraid I’m old enough to remember the moment when Donald Campbell was killed, hearing the news. And when I was a kid, he was a fairly big figure in British life.”

Beach Boy: Andy Kershaw takes time out near Nouakchott, Mauritania, 2005 (Photo: Roger Short)

Although I was born during the year of the Bluebird disaster, I’d later tell people – perceiving street cred from a Campbell connection – that I was named after Donald’s father, Malcolm Campbell. Fact was that it was more likely composer, organist and conductor Malcolm Sargent though. And only later did I discover more about Campbell Sr.’s loathsome right-wing politics.

“Well, Malcolm Campbell – for all the research I’ve done – there’s hardly anyone who’s got a good word to say about him. He was a thoroughly horrible man.

“Donald on the other hand – and of course there are far more still around who knew him – everyone I spoke to who knew him speaks of him with nothing but warmth and affection, saying what a lovely bloke he was.”

He obviously had that drive of his father’s, if nothing else.

“Oh, he did, but he also had charm and consideration for other people, which his father didn’t have.”

What do you think it was about the Bluebird story that really grabbed your attention and so many more of us? I suspect it was something we also saw in that same era with the Apollo and Soyuz space programs.

“Exactly. you’ve hit the nail on it. It was a time of human endeavour, and adventure and achievement, and people doing implausible things like that. Now of course we live in a country that is ‘risk-averse’, I think the phrase is. And boring.

“Everyone will now think of reasons why things can’t be done rather than thinking of ways to make things happen. They were very different times and very different characters. And I have huge admiration for those kind of people … including the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.”

Real Buzz: Andy Kershaw meets and interviews another hero, Buzz Aldrin, on The One Show, 2015 (Photo: BBC)

Andy was set for a return to Coniston the weekend after we spoke for a Sports and Social Club event, another of his The Adventures of Andy Kershaw shows, the next of which is at Sale’s Waterside Arts Club on Friday, November 23rd (see details below). So what do the punters get on these occasions?

“It’s an audio-visual presentation, about two hours of significant moments in broadcasting and life on the front-lines of rock’n’roll over 35 years, and almost as long on the front-lines of some of the world’s most extreme countries.”

He’s also returned to promoting gigs of late, it turns out, putting on a recent date with The Oldham Tinkers, the stalwart folk band with whom he’s enjoyed a long association, at a venue not far over the Yorkshire border from his home.

“Yeah, only as a big Tinkers fan though. They’d come in and do sessions on my programme on both Radio One and Radio Three. John Howarth, one of the founders, rang and told me they wanted to do a gig in Hebden Bridge, and asked where they should play.

“I told him there was only one place they could really, the Trades Club, a really nice venue too. He asked me to see if they’d have them. I rang up, and when I was asked, ‘Who are the Oldham Tinkers?’ I said, ‘Listen – if I’ve got to explain … let me hire the venue’.

“So I’m still promoting after all these years. I booked the venue, got the posters printed, and spent two days plodding around Hebden Bridge getting them in loads of shop windows.”

At this point, I talk to Andy about another shared interest, that of The Clash. in fact, I’ve used a quote from his No Off Switch biography in my (warning – blatant plug alert) soon to be released biography of the band (available for pre-orders via this link), in which he talks glowingly about the band’s appearance at the University of Leeds in January 1980 on their 16 Tons tour, marking the release of London Calling, concluding, ‘After that gig I came to realise anything that followed in the name of rock music was by definition, at best second-rate, and probably pointless.’ Does he still stand by that assessment?

“Generally speaking, with one or two notable exceptions … and there will always be Springsteen and the E-Street Band. Because there’s no greater embodiment of not just the spirit of rock’n’roll but the history of American popular music in one concert than you get with a Springsteen and E-Street Band concert.

“But certainly in terms of British rock’n’roll, I’ll stand by what I say in the book. It all seemed rather pointless after The Clash split up. Who could you go and see for that excitement?

“There’s nothing shaken me for a long time. I wish there were something to shake me. My ears are certainly not closed. My radar is always on. But I’ve not heard anything that’s thrilled me to the core. The last act I came across that I thought, ‘Wow!’ was when I came across Tinariwen at the Festival in the Desert, 100 miles north of Timbuktu, in 2003, when nobody outside of the Sahara had ever heard of them.”

Korea Opportunity: AK with a 90ft tall bronze Kim Il Sung, Pyongyang, North Korea, 2006 (Photo: James Parkin)

Talking of past influential moments, I’ll go back a little further. Does Slade’s ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’, the ex-jukebox single you bought off a stall on Oldham Market for 30p in September 1972 and made such a huge impression on you back then, still get aired at Kershaw HQ?

“Oh, from time to time. It’s still a good loutish record … and by God we could do with some loutishness in rock’n’roll now. It’s all so bloody polite.”

And isn’t it time we had a follow-up of some description to 2011’s No Off Switch?

“Ha. Yeah, you may be right. There’s certainly enough material.”

Continuing the story, or trying something completely different?

“Well, I was only able to put a fraction of those foreign adventures in No Off Switch. I decided to concentrate on four very significant places – Zimbabwe, North Korea, Haiti and Rwanda. So I suppose the follow-up book would be a collection of foreign travels.”

And is there a game plan these days, with life and career ambitions still to tick off?

“I just love reporting. I always have. So at the moment as a roving reporter for The One Show every day is different. I’m in a different place, meeting different people, covering a different story. I’ve always been driven by curiosity and a need for stimulation. And it satisfies both.”

Well, that certainly comes over. I mentioned your recent Coniston reports, and there was definitely an excited schoolboy out there by the lake, mic. in hand. In fact, it could still be that fresh-faced lad – this John Noakes for a new generation – I first saw introducing the video for The Long Ryders’ ‘I Had a Dream’ on Whistle Test in early 1985.

“Ha. Oh, nothing’s changed. No. I’ll never grow up.”

Dune Rider: AK tries to recall where he parked his bike, Algeria, 2010, for BBC Radio 3 (Photo: Tim Parkin)

For a link to the previous WriteWyattUK feature with Andy Kershaw, from October 2013, head here.

The Adventures of Andy Kershaw calls at Sale’s Waterside Arts Centre (0161 912 5616) next Friday, November 23rd. For ticket details try here. And for all the latest from Andy, head to his website and keep up to date via his Facebook and Twitter pages.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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