Mary Anne Hobbs - Part 1 (of 2)
© Brian David Stevens
Mary Anne Hobbs is not without her critics. There are those who imagine that she must be a dilettante, a bandwagon jumper, having come from indie and rock journalism via the Radio 1 rock show (where, incidentally, she would cover some truly extreme metal) to a show dedicated to leftfield electronic music, and particularly – since she underwent a dramatic conversion around 2005 – the sound of dubstep and similar bass-driven music. And there are those who accuse her of empty hyperbole, suggesting she’s a kind of underground Jo Whiley for whom everything is “brilliant” and “amazing”.
The former criticism doesn’t really hold water – especially not if you are aware of the total dedication with which she has applied herself to the dubstep scene, becoming a crucial part of it and its dissemination around the world. And her ability to traverse genres and sub-genres while maintaining a sense of the spirit that connects them is precisely what makes her the ideal candidate to be my first interviewee for this site. The ability of individual figures to maintain their own identity while being part of various cultural threads is precisely what VeryVeryMuch is about. As to the latter criticism – well, it’s certainly true that her broadcasting style can be an acquired taste, and she is certainly not shy of massive emphasis in holding forth about the things she plays. But as regular listeners will realise, and as this interview hopefully makes clear, this is anything but mindless enthusiasm, there is nothing Pollyanna-ish about Mary Anne’s discourse; rather, she speaks from conviction borne of total immersion in and knowledge of the music she plays. As such she is a mirror-world version of many of Radio 1’s current crop of “AMAZING!” daytime DJs. She is a forensically close follower of musical movements, and as such her enthusiasm comes from sometimes terrifyingly total knowledge.
This interview took place late at night in a tiny room above Radio 1, more usually used by security guards to take a nap, as Mary Anne prepared to do her show. It felt like an appropriate time and place given her self-confessed addiction to the romance of night-time radio, inspired first by John Peel then by the discovery of London’s pirate broadcasters. The chat went around the houses and back, but as you can see, even when prone to lengthy diversions, Mary Anne is very much a woman who knows what the point she’s making is, and always gets to it eventually. And if her tendency to hyperbole sometimes runs into flattery of her interviewer – well, I’m not complaining. And, if I may return the flattery I am, genuinely, very proud to present this interview with one of the staunchest supporters of underground music operating today:
When I’ve spoken to you before, you described being addicted to radio as a kid as a contact with the outside world…
Yep, the village where grew up really was like a ledge on the edge of the Pennines, just our family and a couple of goats… but no, seriously, I grew up in a tiny, tiny village in an age before the internet, so as you can imagine the outside world was an absolutely enormous place to me. It’s almost impossible to quantify how different it was then. And from a very early age, the two things that connected me to – you can’t even call it the real world, it was more like a whole other world, it was kind of like a utopia to me – were John Peel and Sounds music paper, which doesn’t exist any more.
As a young kid, I was way into punk rock, but my dad, who was an extremely violent alcoholic, had banned all music from the house, completely banned it. So this is how it was: if you wanted to buy a record, you would have to go to the local toy shop, Mears Toyshop, and you would go in there with your cash and place an order, and then one 7” single would take nine weeks to reach the shop, so you can imagine it was quite a feat record-buying back in the day. At 12, 13, I was really really into punk, it was massively appealing to me because of all the – how can I describe this – I cannot tell you how thrilling it was to sit in a class at school and be told in very grave and serious tones about how the Sex Pistols were literally on the brink of destroying civilised society as we knew it. I mean, God almighty, you cannot imagine anything more provocative, anything more thrilling, anything more exciting, and I guess stimulating than that sort of lecture being given to us as pre-teens at school.
And I guess given your family circumstances you had no great love for the status quo, so that rebellion seemed doubly attractive?
Absolutely. I mean, I would do my best to hide the singles I bought, but my dad would find them and take great pleasure in smashing them up in front of me. But as is well documented, I had a little tiny transistor radio, about as big as a sardine tin, about this big [holds fingers 2” apart], and he never found it, I would always find better places to hide it, and I used to lie in bed with the blankets over my head like this [hunches over] in the dead of night, and I had no idea how to find Peel, I would just scroll along the dial and scroll back, forwards and back, forwards and back til I could find him. But Peel really stood at the gateway, I felt, to a completely different world, to my idea of utopia I guess. Hearing John Peel broadcast, and hearing him play all this incredible punk and speaking about the scene that was happening in London at the time, and reading Sounds music paper as well… it was weird actually given that I ended up at NME but back in the day, Sounds was really the paper that wrote about punk and rock music: NME wrote quite a bit about punk but was much more concerned with Marxist politics and I really couldn’t understand it when I was little. So, again, I would really count the days until Sounds would arrive at the newsagents – I had a subscription to it – and it was evidence along with Peel that this other world existed. It was like a glittering bauble that existed somewhere far away, hanging in the ether, and it’s what I knew I had to head for. So anyway the long and the short of it is, I was kicked out of home at fifteen and a half, I was working in an egg-packing factory… but my dream was to write for Sounds paper, I thought I really, really want to work for this paper, because if I can make it to this paper that will be the threshold to this other world I believed existed. It’s kind of funny, in those days you had no concept of what London even looked like except maybe from a couple of pictures of Big Ben that you’d seen or something. There was one bus a week I think that left Garstang for Blackpool – as a side issue, that’s where my love of motorbikes came from, that’s why I was so desperate to ride a moped at sixteen, because it was literally the only way out…
It’s every child’s dream isn’t it – the other world, the Narnia or whatever, that the child can escape into? But for you that other world had a sense that it really existed…
Yes. But I had no idea – I knew I had to get to London but I had no idea how I was going to achieve that. In my dream of wanting to write for Sounds, I had no idea whatsoever of what the editor of Sounds would want to see… it never occurred to me to do something like, for example, go to a gig at Preston Guildhall and review it, just send the review in to the editor. Nothing like that occurred to me, nothing so simple. I thought I would somehow need to demonstrate to him that I had worked for a band, surely that’s got to be the starting point – how would I know anything about how things operate unless I had worked for a band? So again long story short, there was a working men’s club in Garstang, and about twice a year they used to have a live band on, an actual rock band, and I remember one day on the chalk board outside this message appearing saying “HERETIC – FROM LONDON” and a date for the gig, and I thought “this is it, this is my moment, I am going to get a job with this band and move to London!”. And to cut an even longer story short, that is exactly what happened: I ran away to London with this band.
We lived on a coach park in Hayes in Middlesex, in a bus for over a year. There’s all kinds of stories from that period: it’s something I look back on now and just think all these moments are like scenes from an early Mike Leigh movie or something. We lived on this absolutely knackered old bus that we called “The Blue Goose Hotel” and the band were a hard rock band, kind of along the lines of Thin Lizzy; I thought they were amazing. They were called Heretic, and I was their – well I did all sorts: principally I was their lighting designer, but I designed and made all their costumes, painted their backdrops, I designed their record sleeves and I was the bus mechanic as well. In those days you had to pay to play; you weren’t paid for any gigs, and if you got half a lager and five straws it was an absolute miracle. So what we used to do, we all worked the shittiest day jobs: two of the band were gravediggers, two of them worked in a factory where they were sticking stickers with the manufacturer’s name on the bottom of dog dishes on a conveyor belt – and me and the singer worked in a sweet factory where they would every day ship in these enormous barrels of Maltesers that were supposedly seconds, but I dunno, this factory obviously had some sort of racket going on where we picked out anything that looked like it could be repackaged and they repackaged them as legitimate Maltesers. And that’s what we did all day, sifted through Maltesers.
So we saved every penny that we earned, every single penny; we lived on a bag of chips a day, literally, and once we’d got enough money to fix this knackered old bus and we had backline equipment – we had a whole PA system, Marshall amps, a lighting rig, all of which was built out of ricketty bits of wooden boxes and stuff but it could be repaired and it did work from time to time – once we’d got enough money to fix up all the gear we’d get an issue of Sounds, we’d go through the adverts at the back, we’d ring up every venue in there, we’d book a tour and off we’d go round all these places. And it was the most absolutely incredible period of my life. I could tell you a billion adventures from those days, most of which have some excruciating climax, but the upshot is it’s just a really really rough way to live.
What’s really interesting now when you live in a vehicle – certainly in those days, I don’t know if it happens so much now – is that you realise that lots and lots of other people live in vehicles too, they just don’t reveal themselves to you unless you live in a vehicle. So we had a few friends on the coach park we lived on, one of whom we called the Dog Man; he was this guy and he was very very high up in the military and had seen a great deal of military service, then they’d pensioned him off and put him in this very cute little semi-detached bungalow but he absolutely hated it. He couldn’t live like that after all those years of active service, so eventually he got himself this green van, and his base was the same coach park as us. In the back of the van he had a load of straw and about eight dogs who he lived with and he was just the craziest old guy, but he was just about the only person who could start our bus: he’d wrap rags around these big iron rods and dip them in petrol, and he’d be heating up different bits of it, and chanting like a maniac – but somehow he was always able to start our bus, even in the dead of winter.
This presumably being someone who’d started vehicles in more inhospitable conditions than that…
Absolutely, yeah. And then there was this other extraordinary man who didn’t reveal himself to us for a very long time. I remember we were just sitting there one day and he came tottering over and invited us over for [disbelieving] tea! So we went “wow, where do you live” and he said “oh I’m in the back of the artic [articulated lorry] over at the back of the park”, and we thought “Christ, we never even knew anyone was in there”. So we went over thinking “wicked, we’re going to get fed”, which was a miracle, and we went round the back of the artic and he let us in – and his “front room” was exactly like an old-school Hilda Ogden Coronation Street type setup, with a full three-piece settee, ducks on the wall, everything…
All this in a container??
Yeah, in this big white container. And he brought out his finest bone china with Earl Grey and a cake stand with fondant fancies on, gave us all Earl Grey and a cake, and we were just completely flabbergasted, this shabby little rock band that we were. He was just this very shy, very nervy, bird-like little man, and we didn’t see him very often – but it was just extraordinary to think there were us, this horrible gyppo little 18-year-old hard rock band, the Dog Man and this amazing sort of high camp… I dunno, we never found out what his story was, he never divulged what had happened to put him in the back of this container, but he never moved, he was there the entire time we were.
Anyway, as you can imagine it was a very rough life, I mean we had to go to the local public loo which is no fun in January I can tell you – washing in a public toilet, uggh, God…
Well, if nothing else, that shows a pretty impressive degree of dedication to rock’n’roll!
I just didn’t see there was any other way. Coming from a tiny village with no communications whatsoever – and we used to have a lock on the phone too when I was little, so I had to go and beg my dad for the key if I wanted to make one local phonecall – the only way to achieve anything was to just go and do it. With no real information either, beyond what I’d seen on the pages of Sounds, and that was no real guide to how to do it… But by the same token I thought, the other thing the editor of Sounds would probably want to see would be that I can publish my own magazine. This was very much the era of fanzines so I published a couple of issues of this fanzine which I called ‘Krush’, with a “k”. Then I sent what must’ve been the most demented CV that the editor of Sounds had ever seen in his entire life off to him. But in a strange, and perhaps a little fateful, way, maybe that was what stood out for him from all those people who did just send in reviews, [chokes back a laugh] looking at this CV and it had all the duties that I’d performed in the last year for the band while living on a bus and a tour diary of everything we’d done and stuff – and something must have captured his imagination, because at nineteen he wrote to me, and I still have the letter: it was sent to a friend of the band’s house, and I remember him bringing it to the bus, I remember the day that he did. It had the Sounds logo on the outside of the envelope and I just… I nearly… Oh GOD, it was just one of the most glorious days of my entire life, I couldn’t believe it. This was in the days of proper old-fashioned typewritten letters and it said “would you like to come and see us”, and that is how it all started really…
And the band that you were with, did they have particular ambitions too, or was it just about living the life of a rock band?
Well they were absolutely brilliant, I thought, for their time period. I mean it was very much old school hard rock, as I say, in the vein of Thin Lizzy, and they had a deal with this little label called Magnum Force Music. They were playing the old Marquee, which really was quite a prestige gig in London, it very definitely was The One, and once you were playing the Marquee on a regular basis you had broken through so to speak. And they had a great fanbase, locally in London they did really well, but what happened basically was the demise of the band was down to the fact that we lived so rough on that bus, I cannot begin to tell you, you can’t conceive of how freezing fucking cold it was in January: we used to sleep in all our clothes with every conceivable scrap or piece of fabric that we could piled on top of each other because it was so bitterly cold, and we just had one paraffin heater that would billow out black smoke through the bus. It was a miracle that we didn’t completely asphyxiate ourselves, but purely because of living so rough the singer ended up in intensive care eventually and was in there for the best part of four months – at that point the first EP had just come out and we had this huge tour planned and all the rest of it, but he became really just desperately ill, so we had to cancel everything. You know what it’s like when you’re eighteen, four months just feels like the whole rest of time, you feel like you’ve completely lost momentum and everything’s ruined, you’ve lost the kudos you had with the promoters because you’ve let them all down, the label’s going bezerk because you’ve cancelled the tour and they won’t release anything else and blah blah blah… It was just a desperate moment because they’d just worked so hard, even before I hooked up with them they’d worked so hard to build up that momentum – but in those days it was a very very different time. Again you were only visible when you were there in front of people, there was minimal media and of course no internet, you couldn’t communicate that somebody was ill to people, there was no way of doing that bar trying and trying to persuade the NME or Sounds to mention it…
…and that would just be a column inch news story…
Yeah, but it wasn’t even the sort of thing they’d be interested even for that. This was before the media became obsessed with everybody’s state of mind and state of health and every last scrap of personal information – on the contrary, they were really only interested in records and gigs, and if for whatever reason you’d blown out all the gigs and the record company were saying “we’re not going to release anything else” then it was almost curtains anyway. The time was so different, you couldn’t get a MySpace or web page where you could say “our singer is critically ill, he’s in intensive care in hospital, he’s really at death’s door as a consequence of the way that we’ve lived on this bus, we hope that he’s going to pull through so we can reschedule everything”. In those times you had to be there, the momentum was all about building on real physical presence and physical releases, and if you couldn’t do that you were pretty much fucked really. It seems really harsh, but it’s just how it was in those days, it was a different time.
Well I guess bands still have to work constantly to keep their presence felt out there now, but then it was more absolute, more do-or-die?
It’s strange, like how did we ever get any information out there at all? We might as well have lit a bonfire and sent smoke signals off the roof of the bus. It was really like that. It’s strange now, but a lot of the crew that I work with now, I try to explain to them what the world was like before the internet, how even after I’d got away from home, somebody like Chuck D was just so, so important to me because that guy was telling me what life was like in black America. There was just no way of getting that information, and Chuck D was actually putting his own safety and that of his friends and family at risk to get that out there – and he was the only voice that you had to refer to, there wasn’t anywhere you could turn to access this kind of information. It’s almost impossible for people to conceive of what life was like before the internet if they don’t know, and how difficult it was for even the most committed and diligent ordinary person to get hold of any meaningful information outside of the limited agenda the news media chose to represent. What did you have – encyclopaedias? That was about it.
Unless you entered the media or academia, which was where that information was actually physically accumulated…
Well the media was a lot more formal then. A lot of the stuff you would look at in terms of books in libraries would first of all be massively outdated, but also would have this huge separate agenda and you would have no idea how to quantify that, and unless you dedicated your life to reading an entire book and then another and then another, there was no way to cross-reference the one piece of information you were interested in and work out its veracity and the agendas behind it as you can do on the internet nowadays. Now when you read a book, you can instantly Google, and find out “what was the agenda of this writer when they put this together?” - but then to actually research anything was so difference, for me you really had to be face-to-face with someone to ask them what the deal was, and so often that was just completely impossible, it wasn’t tenable at all. It’s funny when I think back and I think “Jesus, how did the world work?”, it’s so bizarre. So as a young person you were so reliant on a lot of the artists you aligned yourself with, you were completely reliant on their voice and their message and their opinions to find out what was actually going on.
So in your journalistic career, who were the artists you aligned yourself with?
Well Chuck D above all else, Bowie too, but also the Pistols, who I later met, were hugely, hugely influential on me as people. I remember Chuck D wrote a book, as I’m sure you know, and he was on a spoken word tour, so I went to see him at the Jazz Café, having seen Public Enemy countless times and really curious about what he was going to do. He wasn’t just reading from the book, it was a kind of open mic debating session where he was going to speak, and I remember him being incredibly late, like literally about three hours late for this thing, and they had to keep the Jazz Café open later than the licensing hours would allow, after he showed up they just put the lights off and let us stay. And I remember him being the most phenomenal speaker, the most captivating man, and he spoke about all kinds of things, all sorts of different issues, things that were very personal to him, things that corresponded with his history in hip hop, things about the book, things about American politics… And I remember one thing stuck in my mind, which was about Rakim having just put together some new stuff and he was very very excited to hear what Rakim had done, and I’d actually got a white label of one of these tunes… Now, Chuck came into Radio 1 the next day, and he did this thing where he just came in, sat down and stared at the wall, and I thought “I wonder if he’s going to take me seriously, I don’t know whether or not he will”. I went to introduce myself to begin the conversation, and originally I was going to give this record to him at the end of the interview, but I made a snap decision and said “Oh I’ve got a gift for you”. He didn’t turn around or look up or anything, and I carried on, I told him I’d seen him at the Jazz Café because I was interested in what he had to say, and I’d heard him say he wanted the new Rakim record and I had a white label to give him – and I think I won his heart. From that moment, even if he was exhausted because he’d been up really late the evening before, he clearly thought “this girl is down” and opened up to me so we ended up having the best conversation and I didn’t feel like any subject was out of bounds.
And the Sex Pistols? Also not renowned for being easy company…
I’m sure anybody of my generation would have the same opinion about the Pistols – growing up they were such a profound influence on me as a teenager: my father and them for completely separate reasons gave me the drive to just charge at my dreams and away from that empty village. I met Lydon years later, when the Pistols first reformed, at the age of 40, and we went to interview all four of the original members for a Radio 1 documentary. And, God, it was fascinating, really really fascinating; I was very conscious that nobody had asked him anything confrontational, I remember them doing the press conference in the 100 Club, and him just sitting there mocking every journalist in the room for their inability to question them properly. So I listened to the footage of that and thought, right, and I’d read his book, No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs and obviously I was a huge fan and knew an enormous amount about him, but I thought I’m gonna ask him the questions everyone wants to know about why the u-turn, basically, why he’s turned on his heel at the age of 40 and gone against everything he stands for to reform the band.
In my heart of hearts I already knew the reason, I knew it was unfinished business and because he probably needs the money too, but I’m going to put together probably one of the most confrontational interviews I’ve ever done, and it was. I remember putting together the trail of it for the show and there was this moment where he stood up and was screaming [she leaps up and shrieks, in a shockingly close approximation of Lydon’s banshee voice] “don’t you DARE quote my book back at me little girl!!!” and it was just brilliant. We did it in the place, what’s it called, where John Belushi died, the Chateau Marmont in LA, and they had a suite, one of the big suites just kind of at the back of the hotel – they’re like little houses almost with a little lawn out at the back and everything. We did two hours with each member which is what we had agreed, and he… I remember he stalked in looking every inch Rotten, with green hair gelled into absolutely perfectly sculpted shape, and he was furious because Nora [Lydon’s wife] had been knocked off her pushbike on Venice beach – and in the interview he was just absolutely devastating, it was everything I could dream of, he was everything I could ever imagine Rotten to be…
It’s funny I remember the producer Rhys, he was sitting there with the sweat literally dripping off his chin because this interview was so confrontational, it was rolling down his face and dripping off his chin, and he was just looking at me wide-eyed as if to say “oh my God are you certain you know what you’re doing here” but I thought, even as a fan I have loved this man for so long that I know what he will respond to and I know what he wants, he’s not here to fuck around, he wants to have it out. It’s really funny, I remember after we finished he went stalking off into the garden and he went [again, perfectly getting Lydon’s camp, declamatory tone] “RIGHT Steve, it’s YOUR turn, go on Jonesy… what she’ll say to you is ‘all you’re fit for these days is Guns’n’Roses encores, I guarantee it!’” and he went stalking off into this garden. And after all these interviews we’d done – Paul Cook was awesome, Matlock was just exactly as you’d imagine him to be, you could totally understand why the rest of the band had fallen out with him – after all these interviews were finished, he decided he was going to come drinking with us.
And from the minute we stepped outside the Chateau Marmont he was Lydon again, he just switched off Rotten and was Lydon again. And because he’d been in LA for so long he just wanted to know all about British football, what was going on in England, political issues, musical, cultural issues. So we sat on the roof of the Four Seasons hotel and talked and he just drank more than I have ever seen anybody drink in my life before; for every drink anyone ordered he would order four. Then, as legend would have it, I went to meet a friend of mine – and I’m very glad I did as it was the last time I saw him alive, it was Raven the bassist from Killing Joke who died quite recently – I’d arranged to meet Raven in LA because I hadn’t seen him for ages and ages. The rest of them – Lydon was shit faced by this point – went on to some fantastically opulent Hollywood restaurant, where I’m told he proceeded to throw his dinner at the other diners across the room, which I would have loved to have seen. As I say though, I’m not sad I made a different decision because I saw Raven again so it was the right decision to make. But by the time the party got to the Viper Room they had to disown him; what happened was that as he got more and more pissed he reverted to Rotten again, even before I left them you could see the beginnings of the re-emergence of this phenomenal alter-ego of Rotten.
But when the interview went out, the Pistols heard it and said “right, that’s it, we’re not doing any more interviews – if you want the story, listen to that programme, that’s the one”, and they bought the rights to syndicate it which I was really proud of because as I say they were my childhood idols, this was such a big, big deal for me.
Well, there is the dichotomy of punk: the nihilistic Rotten who wants to destroy and rant and kick against the pricks, and the cultured, engaged, sociable Lydon…
I guess I’ve always responded to those people who are enormously creative and pioneering in everything they do, but defiant, even to the point of perversity, in the face of all mediocrity around them. I definitely saw Peel as that kind of broadcaster, actually, much as he as a character is almost entirely different certainly to Rotten; as a human being he is hyper-intelligent just like Lydon but he’s a much more gentle character and his approach is very different. But I’ve always responded to that spirit of defiance, whether it be someone like Chris Morris – he’s defiant in spite of the fact that he’s such a high artist as a broadcaster – or in someone like Paxman as a newscaster – I love his defiance in the face of what is acceptable news broadcasting, that he will ask the same question so many times, what, 24 times, because he wants the answer and it’s a perfectly simple question, it’s a yes or no, what’s the answer?
And I guess to a degree I was defiant in the face of my dad, it was the same things, it was a defiance like “you think I’m nothing, you think all I’m worth is battery and constant character assassination but I will show you what I can do”, and obviously he thought I would fail and amount to nothing. Now I didn’t make it to the BBC… I was a really good journalist, not that he would have known because he would never have read any of the articles I’d written, but I’d learned the craft of journalism before he died, but I hadn’t actually made it to the BBC before he died – he committed suicide in the end. [there’s no flicker of emotion here bar a grim setting of the jaw, and she continues without pausing] But I identified with those people, all my heroes have been those people who were extremely defiant but went on to do something enormously culturally significant, they’re not just destructive for the sake of it but they’re defiant in the face of what they think of as listless and… what’s the right expression… of people squandering the precious moments that God has given them on this earth. People who want to make the best of it and don’t just want to wallow in inertia and acceptance of what they’re given. There is just this awful, insidious, way that the mainstream just consumes you, that it’s possible to sit there and let it consume you whole and I love the people who push against the tide of that and really have the courage to do that – because it’s huge, it’s a huge undertaking to do that and I’ve always identified with people who do that. Not in the way that… well: I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never chucked a TV out of a hotel room, I’ve never slashed my wrists with broken glass, probably the most illegal thing I’ve ever done is hotwired a car as a kid. How wold you say it? I’m not an evil person, but I am defiant in the face of mediocrity and cultural inertia.
So your idea of rock’n’roll or underground culture or whatever you want to call it, is not about being an outlaw for the sake of it?
No that’s it, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. I used to be pretty wild - I would concede that - and I will still make a decision [clicks fingers] in a moment, I’d make a hot decision in an minute, if I think an idea’s hot I’ll move on it in a second, I’m not going to sit around and stroke my chin and wonder if it’s the way, I’ll just do it. If I feel instinctively that it’s right I’ll charge at it and I’ll never look back, and I don’t really have many regrets, in fact I don’t have any regrets, because even the shit that’s gone really tits-up, you learn a lot of life’s great lessons from that, so there’s no point moaning about any of that crap, you just have to pick yourself up and get on with it really. So I suppose… it’s a funny thing isn’t it? When I think about Peel now, I often think about his last moments in Peru – and I’ve never really spoken to Sheila [Peel’s wife] about it because I don’t want to upset her – but I know in my heart of hearts that if he did have a moment of seeing his achievements and his life, having that classic moment where they flash before you, in Peru, that he will have been able to, I think, feel fully satisfied before he passed.
And that’s what it’s all about, at the end of the day isn’t it? As time accelerates and culture accelerates and you have to achieve optimum speed within the first 20 minutes of your eyes opening in the morning and just go FWOOOOF [mimes a plane taking off] so, you know, you can fly into the traffic stream of life, and to stay at the peak of your game you have to stay at that velocity, so you find that life flashes by you quicker and quicker, and it’s almost like you barely have a moment to sit back, sit back, contemplate, relax and enjoy it because you have to keep moving at optimum velocity to stay ahead, for the next set of deadlines, the next show you have to do – I’m sure it’s the same for you with the next article you have to write – you barely have a moment to reflect… But for me, it’s really significant to feel that I’m doing the right thing, that’s all that matters to me, the rest is insignificant.
But that conception of “the right thing” is something you’ve had to construct for yourself presumably? Or it’s certainly not something you got from your upbringing or authority figures…
Heh, no. Well, aside from Peel. Peel taught me a lot of great lessons about life. [wistful, distant for a second, then laughs] I’m just thinking of a really funny story that he would love me to tell… I remember at his 65th birthday party, we had a really amazing conversation, very in depth, really funny. And his brother was making his way over to where we were standing, and he said to me, he goes “right, my brother’s coming over now and I’m going to introduce you to him… for God’s sake don’t witter on about what a wonderful man I am because I’ve never sold out anything I believe in and I’ve stood by all my principles;” he said, “don’t witter on about any of that crap – tell him how much I’ve taught you about BBC politics – THAT will really make me happy” But I did learn so much from John about how to live this life, really. It wasn’t just about what he achieved as a broadcaster, but what he gave to the world of underground music in terms of that incredible validation, that incredible pedestal – it’s almost impossible to conceive of how the cultural landscape would lie without his influence. But it’s what he was as a man, it’s the principles that he constructed, that were the foundation stones of his life and everything he stood for as a man.
I remember this brilliant incident – he won’t mind me telling this story either – where… Well, I was very wild when I began at the BBC. I’d come from being this very confrontational journalist at the NME – those were the days when confrontational journalism was the order of the day, it was what you did – and I’d come from five years broadcasting on XFM where my interviews were notorious for being some of the most confrontational ever on radio, practically… and that’s how I got the job at Radio 1, do you know this story?
OK, just to divert quickly: when I was at XFM we did trial broadcasts for five years, pretty much just broadcasting to Camden for one month a year. But in those days, there was no alternative radio in the UK whatsoever and it was the revolution: as far as we were concerned this one network would change everything. Now I remember one day – obviously we were all in charge of our own shows, and I used to construct mine with the most painstaking care, I got some of the best guests nd we used to have the most fantastic concepts: I remember there was this one thing we used to do on the side, we’d do this thing called Bushell & Bragg, obviously Garry Bushell in one corner and Billy Bragg in the other and they’d pick the topic of the week, we’d open the phonelines and they’d just go at each other like Rottweilers, just one of the most fantastic pieces of broadcasting, I’d tried out all kinds of cultural ideas, but this was when Garry Bushell had just taken the job at The Sun so he had completely done a u-turn in political terms and Billy was devastated because they’d been such good friends but he’d sold out everything he believed in to take The Sun’s money, which just fuelled the hostility between them. And obviously they’re such incredibly intelligent and passionate men, that we would just open the phonelines on the hot political issue of the week and I would marshall it and referee it and it was just completely brilliant, just absolutely fantastic radio.
But anyway, we had a blank sheet, we were in charge of our own playlists and our own guests, and with my NME contacts at the time and the people I was writing about I was able to pull in some really really big names – now I remember being incredibly excited because we’d got Mudhoney confirmed for this particular day to come in and do an interview and do a live session and I was over the moon I’d got them for XFM, and I’d interviewed them before and I knew how brilliant they were and this was when they were right at the peak of their game, ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ era so it was just brilliant. And I remember the controller of XFM coming into me, Sammy Jacob and saying “ermm… yeah, actually tomorrow on your show, you’re going to have Trevor Dann on the programme, he’s head of production at Radio 1 and he’s coming in to play an hour of his favourite records” - and I went absolutely ballistic. I went “you’ve got to be joking, I’ve got Mudhoney on the show, there’s no fucking way – and who the fuck is this guy? And why is he coming on XFM? You know, he’s got a 24-hour national network, tell him to find a window of opportunity on his own fucking station!” And I was absolutely furious, totally livid, I said “why?? I don’t understand this at all”. And to be fair, on Trevor’s part it was a really shrewd move – I mean, I didn’t know who the fuck this guy was, I had no idea at all, but unbeknown to me, he and Matthew Bannister had just come to Radio 1 to begin the process, the…
The big pogrom! [Bannister famously wiped out the “Smashy & Nicey” school of Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis, Gary Davies and Steve Wright]
Yeah basically, they were swinging the guillotine over all the old school DJs. But yes I was furious, but I had to concede that it was [Jacob’s] network and Mudhoney got shifted to the next show – OOF! [she looks genuinely as if she is still peeved by this fact] – and I got Trevor. So I said “look, this guy can’t just walk in on my show and play an hour of records – at least you’ve got to allow me to interview him first, that’s my condition of agreeing to this.” So me being this jumped-up little upstart from NME, I dragged him by the hair over hot coals in this interview, I mean I was ferocious because I was still seething about this Mudhoney thing. I saw this 50-year-old guy walk in and I thought “HUHHH?”, I just couldn’t work it out, so I put together the most hostile and confrontational interview you could possibly imagine.
Now, unbeknown to me, everybody at Radio 1 knew this was happening and were really interested to know what would go on and what would Trevor Dann would do on Radio 1. From his perspective it was a smart way to reach the audience that he wanted to bring in after he had made the reformations that he wanted to at Radio 1. But I didn’t know that everybody at Radio 1 was pretty much terrified of him, because he’d been employed as the grim reaper, and he was a ferociously intelligent and extraordinarily powerful man at the BBC; all this just passed me by and I was just mortified about Mudhoney and smarting about this. So what happened was, somebody at Radio 1 taped this interview, and people thought it was so funny that this jumped-up little child was giving hell to the grim reaper basically, that this tape ended up being bootlegged and circulated around Radio 1 and eventually ended up on Matthew Bannister’s desk – the new controller. He thought he was going to be listening to demos for new shows, and inadvertently popped this tape in his tape recorder, pressed play, and was like “fucking hell, who’s this girl?” and he rang Trevor and said “we’ve got to give this girl a job”. They rang me the very next day and offered me a job, and of course I just couldn’t believe it – but these were the days in which Matthew Bannister had very much a more journalistic agenda and speech-based agenda for Radio 1. But he must have just laughed and thought “who has got the balls to do this kind of interview?”
Continued in Part 2.