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Matt Jacobson interviews radio broadcaster, writer and musician, Mark Radcliffe

Mark Radcliffe has been one of national radio’s most respected and distinctive voices for over two decades. One half of Radio 1′s semi-legendary Mark and Lard, he hosted the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, after which he presented the afternoon programme for almost seven years. For Radio 2, Mark presents The Folk Show and on 6 Music he co-hosts the weekend show Radcliffe and Maconie. In recent years he has presented ‘Richest Songs’ and ‘The Story of Indie’ on BBC4 and regularly hosts BBC2’s Glastonbury coverage. 

Standing at the crossroads – the Mississippi crossroads of Robert Johnson and the devil’s infamous meeting – Mark Radcliffe found himself facing his own personal crunch point. Aged sixty, he had just mourned the death of his father, only to be handed a diagnosis of mouth and throat cancer. This momentous time in his life and being at the most famous junction in music history, led Mark Radcliffe to think about the pivotal tracks in music and how the musicians who wrote and performed them – from Woodie Guthrie to Gloria Gaynor, Kurt Cobain to Bob Marley – had reached the crossroads that led to such life changing music. 

It is a heart-warming, intimate account of music and its power to transform our lives. So, I met up with him to talk about his new book, Bowie, Lennon and playing the drums on Ringo’s face 

The early years, what band or singer did you connect with?  

When I was about nine, the first things that I can remember hearing are psychedelic records that were in the charts, like Traffic, Hole in my Shoe and Simon Dupree and the Big Sound and Kites.  I remember those records on the radio and they both had a little bit of talking within them. Hole in My Shoe also had the lyrics, “I climbed on the back of a giant albatross, which flew through a crack in the cloud” – it was like a fairy story in music. 

And without knowing what it was about, and without knowing they were all on mind bending narcotics, I realised it was a story and the idea music could take you to a different place and it was escapism through music.

The first band I was captured by was The Monkeys. I liked their music, they were on telly and seemed to be mates in matching shirts and they went places together in a car to play music. I even bought The Monkeys monthly magazine!

However, my first drum kit was a Ringo Star drum kit and I used to play along to Top of The Pops. The skin on the drums had a big picture of Ringo across it, so as I was learning to play the drums – I was punching Ringo in the face! (laughs) 

Do you recall your first gigs and feelings from the live experience?

I grew up in Bolton and most bands played the Bolton Institute of Technology, where Buzzcocks later formed. The bands that played there well, if they weren’t Hawkwind or Gong, they were someone just like Hawkwind or Gong with lots of hair, beards and songs that lasted twenty minutes!  

And at Bolton Town Hall, we would see the lower division bands as such, but my first big gigs I went to was at the end of 1972 when I jumped on the bus with my mates for Bowie at Manchester Hard Rock – it blew my mind! Shortly after in 1973 at Manchester Opera House, I saw Genesis – Peter Gabriel – and that also blew my mind! They were my first two big concert hall gigs but what a way to start going to gigs… 

I believe you became friends with Bowie?

Friends, well, maybe that’s putting it a bit strong as such, but I did meet him 7 or 8 times and he did reply to my emails to him. He also gave me a quote for the front of one of my books, so I certainly knew him a little bit. 

I recall one time, I was with him in his dressing room at the Hammersmith Odeon, and he was showing me a handwritten setlist for the night and he was asking me “What do you think if I put Changes there, and move Heroes to here? “I was stood there, thinking, this is crazy and ridiculous – I had bought Ziggy Stardust with my paper round money in Bolton and listened to it sitting on my bed at home and he’s here now– it was just insane! 

Did you sort out the setlist?

I did remain calm somehow and provided advice, I was suggesting moving the songs to be played after Suffragette City! But inside, I couldn’t believe the situation, it was bonkers. 

But those moments somehow have happened to me. On another occasion, I was recording the BBC Special Sold on Song and it was all about the art of song writing. I was sat in Studio 2 of Abbey Road with Paul McCartney. There was only the two of us in the room and he picked up his acoustic guitar then starts showing me how he wrote Blackbird and again, it was insane! Those moments are amazing to reflect on.

Matt Jacobson interviews radio broadcaster, writer and musician, Mark Radcliffe
Mark Radcliffe – Photo by Michelle Marshall

You spent time of your early career as a producer for the John Peel show, what bands do you recall from the sessions that had an impact on you? 

Well, I started at local radio in Manchester and then went to Radio 1 in 1983 and yes, I was the producer for the show. But all my favourite bands came from the era before the show. 

I was having this same conversation with Neil Tennant who was once the editor for Smash Hits and we were saying there was lots of music press around at the time, the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds etc. and you could read about all these bands but you could never hear the music. 

If you wanted to hear music, you had to get the bus into town, go to the record shop or an electrical shop that also sold records, order it, pay for it, go back home and wait two weeks. Then, get the bus back, pick it up, get the bus home and play it and it might be rubbish. 

But as Neil was saying, the excitement to order, buy then play was something else. But Peel gave a great insight with things like Television and Patti Smith, and those were the special Peel moments

I remember reading about The Ramones and how they had played a set with 17 songs, all played within 30 minutes and I thought, well the bands I had been watching played one song for 30 minutes! And when I heard them for the first time, I thought this is it, this is totally it!

Congratulations on your career on Radio and TV, what was your favourite era when you look back?

Thank you. Part of me wants to say now, because l don’t want to be one of those blokes who says it was better in my day and I don’t want to be crippled with nostalgia. But I suppose when Mark and Lard had the slot on Radio 1, which was the graveyard shift that ran between ten and midnight, it was a regular show and we booked bands, poets and comedians. We used to arrive midday and go into the studio and invent things, play around with things – it certainly didn’t feel like work. We made it up as we went along. We didn’t try to be different; we just were different. It amused us and no one stopped us for about three years

And you then moved to the breakfast show…

Yes, we replaced Chris Evans, but that didn’t work out really. I’m told they couldn’t decide between me and Lard, or Ant and Dec!  We were cheaper, I suppose, but we then moved to the afternoon slot and it lasted for many years. 

With festivals on hold, from the festivals you have covered, which ones do you reflect on most?

Well, we went to Glastonbury this year but we were on our own in an empty field, so in many ways, it was the best Glastonbury ever with no queuing! I remember thinking how small it is without the crowds and without 100,000 people there watching a band like The Rolling Stones. 

Glastonbury is so special and the effort to make it look so special is fantastic. You see, it stretches up the hill and it’s like fairyland. You have the bands playing, but then you see someone 12-foot-high walking on stilts, then a giant spider, 50-foot-tall that’s breathing fire and then a bunch of kids dressed in foil running around with a ribbon. It’s escapism, it really is. 

But, the best day at Glastonbury was on my 50th birthday. I played with my band on the Avalon stage with Zane Lowe introducing us. After it, I went up in a helicopter to look over the site and then I watched Leonard Cohen from the side of the stage – amazing moment when he was singing Hallelujah to 70,000 people, so it wasn’t bad at all!

The creatives from working class areas, I feel use their surroundings for inspiration, to dig deep and to escape, maybe to give them a better life. With lockdown, do you think it will make the creatives dig deeper inside to create, or will lockdown sort of restrict, or flatten their inspiration?

I think it’s different for different people. I’ve spoken with many artists and some have told me it has been fantastic as they can create and they don’t have to travel, but for others it is the opposite, they haven’t been anywhere or seen anyone so nothing has inspired them.

Interestingly, I was hosting the first official folk album chart and number 1 and number 7 was Jamie Webster. So, there is someone who’s written about the life in Liverpool and observing the working-class man and woman all in a folk tradition. So, there will be people who can respond in a creative and unique way and then take advantage of this situation and he may well be one of them. He has sprung fully formed into the music world. 

But it’s been a terrible time for everyone. Gigs have gone so everyone loses; venues, engineers, tour managers have not been paid since March. And it’s not easy to get a job if they wanted one, so it’s been a rough and tough time

I read a quote from you where you say you have been very kind to John Lennon in your new book – Crossroads, and you also quoted the lyrics to Imagine. I know you have been through ill health – have his lyrics, or lyrics in general, become more prevalent to you?

Yes, I had cancer and maybe they have. It’s given me a kinder and more hopeful outlook on life because I’m not dead, I’m here! 

With John Lennon, he’s a complicated character. He was difficult and objectional, but he was a visionary and a poet and he dared to dream. Many sneer at John Lennon, imagining there are no possessions as he lived in his big white house with a big car. And when he sings ‘Imagine no possessions ‘, this brought criticism but he acknowledged that. He was looking beyond his own trappings, looking further afield and thinking as a dreamer and poet. But you must think that maybe one day – it is a possibility, we could be nicer to each other and we all could live as one. Clichés, I know, but it’s too easy to dismiss it.

I agree, I always thought he was hemmed in by the trappings of fame…

Yeah for sure. He was a true visionary. I think it’s easy to forget about The Beatles and experimentation. George Harrison was making electronic albums while he was in The Beatles. John Lennon was doing concept pieces with Yoko – they might have been unlistenable, but he didn’t have to do any of that. He was in the biggest pop group in the world, he also didn’t have to sit in a bed for peace and people laughed at him, but he was trying and trying to do something different. 

Brian Eno said to me he left Roxy Music because having made a success of those two albums, he had opened this world of opportunities and the least attractive was sticking with the same formula

But Lennon thought, I can do what I want, he had freedom and with that freedom, what would you do? Would you choose to make pop records or experiment? There are other ways to look at the world

A huge risk though?

Yeah, but everyone sort of hated him and Yoko anyway and many asked ‘what are you doing with your b**** s out on a record and sitting in bed for days? Just sing!’ – but I admire him for it, I really do.

Your new book, Crossroads, was it a long process or a real labour of love?

No, I hated it (laughs)! It was a struggle; I don’t like writing. I have loads of things to say and I have ideas and I can talk to you about them, but when it comes to writing, I don’t enjoy it. I wrote much of it while recovering from my cancer treatment, I was sat there in the kitchen with the dog by my side and the place just felt cold and miserable! So not a labour of love really…

But it was nice to read it back when completed, I am paying tribute to the artists like Lennon and those in the book who made amazing pieces of music by taking a chance at a huge crossroads in their life, from misfortune, from illness, from finding themselves in the wrong place or discovering new technology and thinking – this isn’t what was expected but what can we do with it and how do we make it work? 

Brian Eno said “Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention”, so when you veer off the plan into areas you don’t expect is when interesting things can be made; but it’s about daring to be different and about taking a chance, responding to misfortune and overcoming stuff. 

I felt low with the cancer treatment but that doesn’t come out in the book, it is positive in tone, but it was escapism for me and reaching for the light.

I am delighted you are much better now,

Thank you, thank you so much

Is the music industry unrecognisable now?

Yes, people used to release albums and people bought them (laughs)! People used to make a fortune from records and nothing on tour, that was the model. And then streaming started, so nobody earns money from records. They give away the album, so people buy a ticket and then hopefully they buy a t shirt at the concert. Most bands make money from merchandise. They play arenas, sell t-shirts for £25 and its pretty much all yours.  Take the middle men out of a record sale and there is little left. But with merchandise, there may well be a split with a merchandise company but its 80% artist and 20% company. No distribution. Get a van, fill it up, sell t-shirts, open the van, fill with money – brilliant!

The idea of streaming is ok, but rates are wrong, if the model and money is right it could work. If you think about it, if someone buys a record, they buy it once and only pay for it once, but if they stream again and again then they should pay again and again, but the model must be resolved

Bigger gigs may one day be socially distanced, but all involved may have to realise they won’t make the same money they used to make. The punters are struggling and lots of other people have had wage cuts so it can be expected of them – the gravy train has certainly left.

We are in the BME now, the home of music memorabilia and memories, do you have any memorabilia and if so, what is your favourite item?

I’m not a collector or hoarder really. I have cherished records signed by artists, such as 4 or 5 things signed by Bowie, The White Album signed by McCartney, Horses signed by Patti Smith, so maybe 10 or 20 signed items. I’d love to have Bowie’s guitar, that beautiful blue 12 string, but its beyond my budget!

Here we are in Liverpool, what bands from Liverpool do you admire? 

I used to go to Eric’s and watched many bands. But I came over here lots as a boy with my Dad, who was a journalist who actually went on the road with The Beatles. We came over to see Gerry & The Pacemakers. I loved The Teardrop Explodes and loved The Bunnymen – the first few Bunnymen albums were amazing, wonderful records. The Bunnymen will always have a place in my heart.

And finally, just one last question. When your show went down from five days to two and you stayed with Stuart Maconie, you said it was “like renewing our marriage vows”. I’m just wondering what the wedding night was like with Stuart?!

(Laughs), some things need to remain private!!! 

Mark, thank you so much, it’s been an honour and pleasure and I wish you all the very best for the future

Matt, thank you, thanks so much.

READ MORE: Matt Jacobson interviews Liverpool band the Banshees, Paul Holligan & Vinny Pereira

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