Behind every successful career you tend to find a mix of good fortune and hard work, but you’re unlikely to hear any gripes about the latter from highly-affable broadcaster, TV presenter and DJ Gary Crowley.
His on-air charm and warm patter, delivered in that infectious and often excitable, unmistakeable London accent, have marked him out as a good ‘un ever since his arguably fortuitous break into the media world in the late ’70s.
Starting out at Decca Records straight from school, this lad from the Lisson Green estate, near Marylebone, reckons he’s led something of a charmed life, career-wise. And from taking over Danny Baker’s role on reception at the NME to his 1980 broadcasting debut on Capital Radio – becoming the UK’s youngest radio presenter – onwards, it’s certainly been an epic journey.
Soon enough, he was hosting club nights at trendy watering holes like the Wag Club and Bogart’s in Harrow, showcasing prominent chart acts early in their career like The Style Council, Bananarama, and Wham! Then came the small screen, starting out on ITV’s Saturday morning Fun Factory and game shows like Poparound, while delivering weekly show The Magic Box on Capital, even getting to compere the first Wham! national tour.
And Gary continued to make waves in the ‘90s, hosting ITV music show The Beat and helping introducing BritPop to a wider audience – conducting a first national TV interview with Oasis among other big moments, and by 1996 introducing them at Knebworth – and remaining at the forefront of a burgeoning scene through championing the likes of Blur, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, Bjork, Suede, and Massive Attack.
There was Rockworld TV too, and BBC Greater London Radio, and it was there that I last heard him regularly for a while, having moved North in 1994. And isn’t it easy to forget now how it was before internet access to radio shows across the world?
After a brief stint leading a charge on indie station XFM, he returned to a by-now renamed BBC London, where he still presents his Saturday evening show and regular features, simultaneously making a big impression in recent years with his splendid My London interviews, and currently working on A to Z features on music and areas of his beloved city, while also helping curate the region’s BBC Introducing series.
It doesn’t stop there, with occasional BBC 6 Music sit-in slots and a monthly show on Soho Radio with good friend Jim Lahat, inspiring his first music compilation for Demon/Edsel, 2017’s Gary Crowley’s Punk and New Wave, a personal spin on the period from 1977 to 1982, the era when he made his first foray into a fruitful career.
And now there’s a new venture, Gary Crowley’s Lost ‘80s, a 63-song journey through the decade that made his name, delivered in 4CD format (or as a 30-track triple-LP on 180g coloured vinyl) packaged with an accompanying 40-page book, including extensive sleevenotes from Gary and memories from the likes of Nick Heyward (Haircut 100), Sarah Dallin (Bananarama), Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet), Annabella Lwin (Bow Wow Wow) and Clare Grogan (Altered Images).
As he put it on the press release, “The ‘80s, especially the first part, was an amazing time for music. It was a mad, fast, kaleidoscopic rollercoaster ride where the chancers taking your money not only walked the walk, they backed it up with innovative, amazing tunes that changed the way music was made forever.
“I’ve collected together the best in my personal opinion of the guitar bands, dance acts and synth groups that made up the soundtrack of that gloriously-thrilling decade for me and my friends, and some of its most memorable 12” remixes. and let me just state for the record, you’ll find no Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran, Dire Straits or the like appearing on these discs.”
Those were exciting times, not least for a Surrey lad who’d not long since blown out 12 candles on his birthday cake when the ’80s arrived. I loved my radio and regularly heard Gary on the airwaves, listening in the garden on another sunny day (at least that’s what the memory tells me) or up in my bedroom, tuned into 194 on the medium waveband or 95.8 on VHF. I quickly understood the sentiment of The Clash’s derision at the less inspiring sounds coming from Euston Tower, but there were DJs within who proved exceptions to that supposed ‘in tune with nothing’ airplay policy, going that extra mile, not least that young gun Crowley.
There’s a great new film about him currently doing the rounds, The Life, Music and Hairstyles of Gary Crowley, shot and edited by Lee Cogswell, produced by Mark Baxter for Mono Media Films, which is responsible for many other similar projects, including those on or featuring Peter Blake, Tubby Hayes, LeRoy Hutson, John Simons, and Paul Weller. And that 12-minute film wastes no time getting to the heart of its subject, having me thinking about Gary’s own roots, growing up in South West London.
Early in our conversation, he told me he was blown away by early reaction to that film, not least the fact that his 13-year-old daughter had seen it and decided he was cool. Praise indeed from a young teen, although I may now have blown that status for him by mentioning it.
I didn’t want to go in too deep too soon, but on the subject of family, he mentioned in that documentary how his aunt bought him a transistor radio in time for the launch of Capital Radio, and how, when his parents split, he immersed himself in music. That’s something that seems to crop up a lot, I find, the example jumping out at me that of fellow London estate kid Mick Jones. Even if both were seemingly unaware of it at the time, ensconcing themselves in sounds proved crucial, a love of good tunes over-riding less healthy potential career moves.
“That’s right. It becomes an intuitive thing, doesn’t it. I’m now 57, while Mick is 63, and with kids in the ‘70s I think it was becoming a lot more common where parents were starting to split up. My daughter and her mother live in Copenhagen, and it is now – I guess – closer to the norm, but whether it’s music or something else, kids find another outlet, and hopefully it’s positive.”
Well, that’s true, think of Mick’s ‘Stay Free’, which kind of suggests The Clash guitarist’s life might have gone a different way.
“True, and my brother did for a little while. Nothing awful. Kids’ stuff really, just a few run-ins with the police. But thankfully he mended his ways, and music became my thing. And I pretty much lost myself in The Beatles for a couple of years before punk happened. And that was something my friends and I had in common in the mid-70s, and I think all of us were probably waiting for something like punk – bands a couple of years older than us of whom we could say, ‘This is ours!’”
I think what appealed to me about punk – and in my case I’m talking about catching up a little later – was that whole back-to-basics, DIY element, not least as someone who – like Gary – initially found a way of getting involved through the world of the self-published fanzine. In his case it was with The Modern World, a whole host of big names interviewed.
“Yeah, that whole ‘have a go’ attitude, and like you said it wasn’t something I analysed at the time – it was more of an intuitive thing. All these bands were coming through, and I don’t forget that I was incredibly lucky – brought up a stone’s throw from my school, and that was on Edgware Road, where I saw Joe Strummer go into the café there, and got an interview with him.
“This was the Metropolitan Café, sadly no more, so when we went to the fish and chippy to spend our money, I literally bumped into him. I said, ‘Oh my God! Listen, we’ve just started a punk fanzine, and Joe – would you be up for an interview?’ And I can only assume that he was impressed by my hutzpah! I got back to school, told a couple of pals, and then the word got around. This would have been early summer in ’77. I said, ‘Can I bring a friend’, and he said, ‘Of course’, but when word got around, I think seven or eight turned up from my school at (The Clash’s Camden HQ) Rehearsal Rehearsals. And bless his cottons, he couldn’t have been more welcoming.”
In the photograph I saw, I can’t work out if you’re wearing school uniform or a Jam suit.
“D’you know what, Malcolm, well spotted! It was a Jam suit but also masquerading as a school uniform. Money was incredibly tight, and there was no way I could have afforded the clothes from Sex or Seditionaries, or anything like that. You had to customise what you had really.”
Perhaps he could have nipped round to the workshop next door to The Clash, asking the mechanics there to sort him out a boiler suit with a spray can and hammer. But more to the point, Gary also managed to nip along to his local phone box and call Paul Weller, at that stage still living at home in Woking.
“Yes, that was on Bell Street. And it’s still there, right opposite my school, which during my time was Rutherford’s School, named after the physicist George Rutherford. The estate I lived on was literally a five or 10-minute walk from there, on the Lisson Green estate.”
So he wasn’t far from the dole office where The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, with The Slits’ Viv Albertine, famously had a stare-out with Joe Strummer before approaching him to join their band. And as it turned out, that phone box more or less turned out to be his labour exchange, putting him on the road to an amazing career.
“I suppose so. I vividly remember seeing a couple of The Slits walking in there, and that would have been in ‘1977. And if you walk down from the school down Bell Street, past the phone box, towards that dole office, literally just before you get there there’s a little block where Steve Jones and Paul Cook lived. If you went one way you bumped into Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in the Metropolitan Café, and in the other direction you’ve got them.”
Looking back at your early fanzine covers, you interviewed the Sex Pistols too, didn’t you?
“Well, Steve and Paul did an interview for us, and I have a vivid memory – I remember this like it was yesterday – of coming out of school with a pal, walking slowly up past them. We knew they lived there so we’d change our way home. I found out later that this was the day – Paul Cook told me – the Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records. They were given a black limousine for the day to carry them around, and I remember this limo pulled up outside their flat, all four of them inside. It was like a cartoon, they fell out of this limo, looking very merry. It was like, ‘Bloody hell – it’s all four of them!’”
Amazing. Where I was – down the A3 – I felt happy enough just knowing The Stranglers had rehearsed in my village scout hut, that Jet Black once ran an off-licence in town and sent his band out selling ice cream from his fleet of vans, and that a couple of mates had spotted Vapors frontman Dave Fenton walk down into town, past our secondary school.
“Well, I’m not being irreverend here. Fucking hell, how lucky was I, in the middle of it all! My daughter was asking the other day how confident I must have been. But I wasn’t. I was shy, but knew if I didn’t pipe up, none of my mates would. We’d all just be standing there, kind of looking at the floor.”
I can sympathise. I would have been like that – far too shy, then regretting it for the next however many years.
“Well, do you know what, Malcolm – we were incredibly lucky, being so young, Joe Strummer, Tony James and Billy Idol probably thinking, ‘Who are these kids?’ But we had that enthusiasm, and I think that was incredibly beneficial.”
Meanwhile, my Dad was from Woking, my brother worked there, and my Nan still lived there, so when you reel off Paul Weller’s old Maybury phone number on that documentary, that makes me smile.
“I couldn’t believe I remembered that number – honestly! Maybury 64717!”
Gary’s first job from school was as a junior at Decca Records. And even that impresses me.
“Yeah, I was with Decca for about a year, then through working there – again incredibly luckily – I got offered Danny’s job (Danny Baker switching from answering the phones at the NME to becoming a staff writer there before his own move into broadcasting) and was on reception there for a year.
“Then, again very luckily – and that word keeps coming up – I got offered a job working for a very good friend, Clive Banks – and both him and his wife, Moira Bellas, remain so – this very successful independent radio and TV promotions man looking after press for the likes of The Who and Elvis Costello. I think what swung it for me was that he’d just taken on The Jam. He asked if I had a friend who’d like to come and work for him, and I said, ‘Well, I’d be interested!’ He thought I’d be happy enough at the NME.
“Through that I started getting offered a few bits and pieces on radio, and that was quite something at the time. I mean, someone with such a strong regional accent – that was very, very rare.”
True. I guess Janet Street-Porter paved the way, but I can’t think of anyone else with a strong accent presenting at the time.
“That ‘s right, and again it was all very fortuitous.”
At this point I tell Gary I have a clear memory of listening to him one baking hot Sunday afternoon in the early ‘80s, I’m guessing on Capital, possibly with Animal Nightlife or Working Week doing a live session for him, maybe an outside broadcast, and recall him announce, ‘If it’s too loud, you’re too old!’ For some reason that stayed with me. So is it too loud yet, all these years on?
“I honestly can’t remember that. Ha! But again, I keep saying this, to still be doing it and just about paying the bills … And the nice thing is that myself and one of my best pals, Jim (Lahat), got that chance to curate the punk and new wave boxset we did. That was a lovely thing to do, reflecting on that time in my life.
“Then I said to Ben, this lovely fella at Demon, ’Look, I’ve an idea for another thing and it hasn’t really been done yet. All these ‘80s compilations seem to feature invariably the same bands and same tracks. Would you be interested in something a little more personal, based on my memories, including some of the people I’ve known for a long time?’ So that was the kind of idea.”
I have to say that although I probably bought more records in the ‘80s than any other decade, and so many I still love, the term ’80s music equates to most people chiefly as the era of Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and Wham! And while I appreciate a few tracks by most of those bands, that’s not my ‘80s. But you’ve showcased a far healthier scene, including a few lesser-known tracks by some of those bands. Take for example Spandau Ballet. I loved ‘Chant No.1’, much as I disliked ‘True’ and ‘Gold’. And you’ve come up here with another fine track in ‘Confused’.
And that’s just part of the appeal. In a sense it’s about reappraising that era, bringing in great Scottish bands like The Associates, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and everyone from old punks Vic Godard and Pete Shelley to Altered Images, Bush Tetras, Grandmaster Flash and Haircut 100, as well as The Redskins, Tom Tom Club and 23 Skidoo.
At time of going to press I’d only heard an 18-track sampler, a mix of tracks I knew and loved and a few more that were new to me. But looking down the track listing, I also see other old favourites like Carmel, the Pale Fountains, Pigbag, Prefab Sprout, The Questions, The Staple Singers, Strawberry Switchblade, and Was (Not Was). It’s hardly the accepted MTV vision of that decade.
“Well, that word ‘personal’ I suppose is important – that’s what I tried to do with it really. When I look back to that first Spandau album, there’s about two or three tracks I really love. I remember seeing them very early on, and ‘Confused’ will always stand out for me.
“Chris Sullivan (author, journalist and Wag Club founder) makes a point about the ‘80s and how a lot of people who were in bands at that time would have grown up listening to the radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so their influences were classic songwriters like Holland/Dozier/Holland or Marriott and Lane, Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney, and so on. They had a good pop ear, I suppose.
“And a girl in her early 20s working for Demon sent me a lovely message this morning, saying she really enjoyed the documentary, and how she’d grown up in that era. Yet, back then I was always wishing I’d grown up in the ‘60s. I guess the grass is always greener.”
That said, I’m glad you didn’t carry on down the rap line, judging by that on-air clip of you guesting with pioneering US hip-hop combo The World’s Famous Supreme Team at Capital.
“I know! Again, when I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ And what am I wearing when I’m coming out of the estate?”
He’s got a point. I won’t try and describe the look. Judge for yourself by watching the film. I was however wondering if he was wearing plus-fours or if he was just about to get on his bike, presumably locked up in a stairwell somewhere.
“Yeah, I’d just tucked my trousers in! It was my kind of Postcard look, I suppose.”
Speaking of which, you’re up against some stiff boxset competition, including another compilation from Cherry Red, Big Gold Dreams, featuring some great Scottish music.
“How weird is it that it comes out at the same time? Yes, it’s a great compilation, and Cherry Red seem to be able to turn these round really quickly. I really enjoyed their Harmony in My Head compilation too, but end up thinking, ‘I hope I haven’t got the same tracks,’ because I loved a lot of those bands. The Bluebells I was particularly close to, as they signed a publishing deal with Clive (Banks). I met Roddy (Frame) and Edwyn (Collins) around that time too, but sadly couldn’t get Orange Juice on this compilation, because of the rights.”
I note it was the same with The Smiths on an Ace compilation I featured recently, Manchester – A City United in Music. But you at least have Dream Academy doing ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’.
“That’s right, and I always loved that version. The one I also wanted, from the days I used to DJ a lot, was the ‘This Charming Man’ New York version (a club hit by DJ Francois Kevorkian from December 1983). I believe Morrissey hated that, but I loved it.”
Out of interest, if there was an Orange Juice track on this boxset, what would it be?
“The one I wanted, again a big one for me, was ‘I Can’t Help Myself’. I could have gone for something from the Postcard years, but always loved the poppiness of that, a big radio song for me back then.”
And while I’m at it, what was the first record you ever bought?
“Single-wise, with my own money, it was ‘Rain’ by Status Quo, and my first album would have been The Jam’s In the City. As schoolfriends, into The Beatles, we’d lend each other records, so I got a couple of their records off my aunt and uncle – my Dad’s younger brother. I’ve still got the Jam one, but not the Quo single.”
Of all the interviews you’ve conducted over the years, TV and radio, could you list off the top of your head a top-three?
“Yeah, number one, easy-peasy, Paul McCartney, as a massive Beatles fan. Again, what a joy! He had a lovely PR fella, Geoff Baker, around the time of the Run Devil Run album …”
Ah, I love that album.
“Me too. We were invited – me and my producer – to interview him at MPL, Soho Square, and honestly, Malcolm, if I went to the toilet once, I must have gone about 20 times! But he couldn’t have been more hospitable. Geoff said afterwards – because I think we were with him for about 45 minutes – ‘Gary, he likes you. You almost got double the time.’
“Second, definitely, Jack Lemmon. I love my films, and he’s one of my favourite actors, and again … to be in that man’s company. That was only 15/20 minutes, but fucking hell!”
At that point he breaks off, telling me he’ll give it proper thought before texting a third choice, and we talked about his My London interview series, now sadly finished, although he’s hopeful it may return one day. That would be good. Then he interrupts.
“Hang on – I am going to tell you my third choice – Sian Phillips, the actress. That was from My London and she was just the most beautiful, classiest person, everything I wanted her to be and more. Really engaged, and what a life!”
Thinking of that and all the others on your interview list over the years, from Jenny Agutter and Mel Brooks, and right through the alphabet, surely your 19-year-old self would have been beside himself at all those you got to spend a little precious time with.
“Well, yeah. Look at some of the photos and you’ll see I can’t help but look like the cat that got the canary! And having this opportunity to interview people you want to meet has become increasingly rare, so I’m very fortunate to have had that.”
Yep, this inner London kid hasn’t done so bad. And it all started in Marylebone for you, didn’t it?
“Yeah, we moved around a bit, but the bulk of my formative years were on the Lisson Green estate, between there and Paddington really.”
And have you strayed far from there since?
“No, not at all – the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. I live in Maida Vale now.”
But you still don’t possess a legit pair of plus-fours?
“No, thank fuck! Ha!”
Gary Crowley will be out and about in May for screenings of The Life, Music and Hairstyles of Gary Crowley, followed by a Q&A and signing session for his two acclaimed compilations, both available to buy on the night. The events are on Thursday, May 23rd at Hotel Pelirocco, Brighton (tickets here) and on Thursday, May 30th at The Fiery Bird, Woking (tickets here).
Gary Crowley’s Lost ‘80s (Edsel, 2019) track listing:
- Vic Godard – Stop That Girl
- The Pale Fountains – (There’s Always) Something On My Mind
- Haircut 100 – Milk Film
- Aztec Camera – Pillar To Post
- The Bluebells – Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool
- Johnny Britton – Happy-Go-Lucky Girls
- Prefab Sprout – Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)
- Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain)
- The Suede Crocodiles – Stop The Rain
- Friends Again – Honey At The Core
- Strawberry Switchblade – Trees And Flowers
- April Showers – Abandon Ship
- A Craze – Wearing Your Jumper
- Paul Quinn – Ain’t That Always The Way
- Hurrah! – Sweet Sanity
- The Dream Academy – Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
- Bush Tetras – Too Many Creeps
- Bow Wow Wow – Mickey Put It Down
- Theatre of Hate – Do You Believe In The West World?
- The Apollinaires – The Feeling’s Gone
- The Redskins – Keep On Keeping On
- Carmel – More More More
- JoBoxers – Is This Really The First Time You’ve Been In Love
- Makin’ Time – Feels Like It’s Love
- Hey! Elastica- This Town
- Fashion – Streetplayer (Mechanik)
- The Main T Posse – Fickle Public Speakin’
- The Associates – 18 Carat Love Affair
- Spandau Ballet – Confused
- Matt Fretton – It’s So High
- Depeche Mode – Shake The Disease
- Paul Haig – Running Away
- The Questions – Tuesday Sunshine (Jock Mix)
- The Kane Gang – Brother Brother
- Sunset Gun – Be Thankful For What You’ve Got
- Altered Images – Love To Stay
- Wham! – A Ray Of Sunshine
- Grandmaster Flash – The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel
- Tom Tom Club – Genius Of Love
- The Jellies – Jive Baby On A Saturday Night
- I Level – Give Me [U.S. Remix]
- Jimmy Young – Times Are Tight
- Whodini – Magic’s Wand
- Blue Rondo à la Turk – Klacto Vee Sedstein
- Culture Club – I’m Afraid Of Me [Extended Dance Mix]
- Pigbag – The Big Bean
- Monyaka – Go Deh Yaka
- 23 Skidoo – Coup
- Funkapolitan – If Only
- The Staple Singers – Slippery People [Club Version]
- Matt Bianco – Matt’s Mood
- Bananarama- Aie A Mwana [U.S. Extended Version]
- Intaferon – GetoutofLondon [Intacontinentalballisticmix]
- Pete Shelley – Homosapien [Dance Version]
- Quando Quango – Genius
- Was (Not Was) – (Return To The Valley Of) Out Come The Freaks [Extended Remix]
- Defunkt – The Razor’s Edge
- Chic – Hangin’ [12 Inch]
- Gang Of Four – I Love A Man In A Uniform [Extended]
- Animal Magnet – Welcome To The Monkey House
- Fun Boy Three – The Alibi [Extended Mix]
- Brilliant – It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World [Extended]
- Morgan McVey – Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch
LP1 – The Jingly Jangley LP (A1. Vic Godard – Stop That Girl; A2. The Pale Fountains – (There’s Always) Something On My Mind; A3. Haircut 100 – Milk Film; A4. Aztec Camera – Pillar To Post; A5. The Bluebells – Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool; A6. Prefab Sprout – Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone); B1. Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain); B2. The Suede Crocodiles – Stop The Rain; B3. Friends Again – Honey At The Core; B4. Strawberry Switchblade – Trees And Flowers; B5. April Showers – Abandon Ship; B6. Paul Quinn – Ain’t That Always The Way).
LP2 – Fuck Art Let’s Dance (C1. Bush Tetras – Too Many Creeps; C2. Bow Wow Wow – Mickey Put It Down; C3. The Apollinaires – The Feeling’s Gone; C4. The Redskins – Keep On Keeping On; C5. JoBoxers – Is This Really The First Time You’ve Been In Love; D1. Hey! Elastica- This Town; D2. Spandau Ballet – Confused; D3. Depeche Mode – Shake The Disease; D4. Paul Haig – Running Away; D5. Altered Images – Love To Stay).
LP3 – Dance This Mess Around (E1. Wham! – A Ray Of Sunshine; E2. Grandmaster Flash – The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel; E3. Tom Tom Club – Genius Of Love; E4. Whodini – Magic’s Wand [Special Extended Mix]; F1. Blue Rondo à la Turk – Klacto Vee Sedstein; F2. Pigbag – The Big Bean; F3. Funkapolitan – If Only; F4. The Staple Singers – Slippery People [Club Version]).