Category Archives: Interview

ANDY KERSHAW

FOR THE LAST FEW YEARS ANDY KERSHAW HAS OFTEN HAD TO SUFFER THE INDIGNITY OF THE PREFIX ‘TROUBLED’… WELL DOCUMENTED PERSONAL PROBLEMS (NOT LEAST BY HIMSELF IN HIS RIVETING 2011 AUTOBIOGRAPHY NO OFF SWITCH) HAVE  SOMETIMES TENDED TO OBSCURE HIS STATUS AS A RADIO AND TV MUSIC BROADCASTER OF AMBITIOUS SCOPE AND A RISK-TAKING BBC FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT OF ALMOST UNPARALLELED ACHIEVEMENT.

In his music radio days he would, as he says in our new interview, “give people not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted” by playing music unlikely to be heard anywhere else – often excavating songs from decades and genres pre-rock ‘n’ roll, and pioneering what has since become termed ‘world music’. On television he was, along with Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, part of the enthusiastic ‘Sixth Form common room dream team’ presenting WHISTLE TEST in the mid-1980s. In parallel his work as a foreign correspondent (in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola, Haiti, Bangkok and Korea, for instance) has seen him uncover otherwise untold stories of political and social import. In his live show THE ADVENTURES OF ANDY KERSHAW, a fascinating and often hilarious audio-visual presentation treats  audiences to recollections from a life well-lived, spent on the front lines of rock ‘n’ roll and on the front lines of some of the world’s most extreme and dangerous countries…

A FEW YEARS BACK I GREATLY ENJOYED YOUR BOOK NO OFF SWITCH, AND I’VE DUG IT OUT AGAIN RECENTLY TO HAVE ANOTHER GO… BOTH TIMES IT’S LEFT ME IN NO DOUBT THAT YOU’VE EXPERIENCED WHAT ONE IMAGINES IS JUST ABOUT ALL THERE IS TO EXPERIENCE…
Ha ha…

… OR MAYBE A BETTER WAY OF PUTTING IT IS THAT YOU’VE SEEN LIFE FROM ALMOST ALL CONCEIVABLE ANGLES?
Aye. I suppose so, yeah… I suppose I have. An old friend, someone I actually went to school with, said that I’d lived ten lives to everyone else’s one. Already! And it’s not finished yet.

YOUR LIFE HAS HAD SO MUCH ‘CONTENT’… 
Yes. Just one amazing stroke of luck after another. There’s always that old argument to say you make your own luck in life – and to one degree or another I suppose you could say that you do make your own luck. But if there is any common denominator running through, it’s that these things happened very much because of my pursuit of my own enthusiasms.

DO YOU LOOK BACK ACROSS YOUR LIFE – SO FAR! – AND THINK “HOW THE HELL HAVE I PACKED ALL THAT IN”?
Yeah – especially when I’m doing my one-man show THE ADVENTURES OF ANDY KERSHAW… It’s a hell of a lot to have to try and cram into two hours…

… SO, BECAUSE THERE’S SO MUCH TO GO AT, WHERE DO YOU START AND WHERE DO YOU END ON PUTTING SOMETHING LIKE THE SHOW OR THE BOOK TOGETHER?
Well, rather conventionally, with the show and as I did with the book, I started with childhood. So that’s how we go with the show – I start with childhood and explain the kind of background I was from. It’s like an illustrated talk, with significant photographs from my life projected onto a screen behind me. We work our way through Leeds University, the rock ‘n’ roll years, working with Billy Bragg, presenting WHISTLE TEST on the television and LIVE AID, of course… and on we go.  I work my way forward – because life did unfold in that way…

MY FIRST MEMORY OF YOU IS YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH BILLY BRAGG – YOU WERE BILLY’S TOUR MANAGER, ROADIE AND RIGHT-HAND MAN IN HIS EARLY DAYS… THAT YEAR OR EIGHTEEN MONTHS THAT YOU WERE DOING THAT MUST HAVE BEEN GREAT FUN – THE EXUBERANCE OF YOUTH, AND THE MOMENTUM OF AN EMERGING TALENT…
Oh, it was. It was… It was great fun. Billy and I were amateurs. We were The Blues Brothers. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd dilettantes. We lived it. Just me and Billy on the road, with his manager’s battered old Volvo estate – the ‘battle bus’ – and his two guitars and an amplifier in the back seat. We were rock ‘n’ roll guerillas…

… INCURSIONS ALL OVER EUROPE…
Yeah, that’s right! We went all over Europe. We would drive insane distances on these insane, practically lunatic, schedules.

WAS THAT YOUR FIRST REAL EXPERIENCE OF TRAVEL?
Certainly to that extent and at that level of intensity, yes. There had been a couple of Kershaw family forays into continental Europe when I was a kid. But that day-in day-out thing – “if it’s Wednesday it must be Hamburg” or, you know, “my goodness me, we’ve got to drive to Helsinki today” – well, there’d never been anything like that before. I just loved it. I liked driving, I like travel, and I like going to places I’ve not been before. I love the sort of ‘European lifestyle’, and I was just really really happy being on the road and working with Billy.

HOW DID YOU END UP WORKING WITH HIM… 
Well, I wrote to him – and I think it’s the only fan letter I’ve ever written. I got hold of his debut EP when it first came out, at the local radio station at which I was the station dogsbody at the time. This was in Leeds. I picked it up in the record library at the radio station. All the records that came in from record companies, the record librarian used to chuck them on one side unless they were made by Lionel Richie. So she’d thrown Billy’s record to one side, and I said “What’s this?” – it had just come in – and she said “I don’t know. You can take it if you want it”. So I did, and I took it home and played it. I thought “This is amazing. Who is this guy?” (‘cos obviously nobody knew who he was at the time – why should they? It was his first release)…

… THE LIFE’S A RIOT EP – WHICH SORT OF FUSES THE CLASH AND SPRINGSTEEN’S NEBRASKA ALBUM…
It does, yes, roughly speaking. It’s an amazing record. So I wrote to him, that night, care of the record label – which was Charisma Records. I sent the letter off and about three days later the ‘phone rang and it was Billy himself. I got him a couple of gigs in Leeds, and he came and stayed with us when he travelled up to do those… Within three or four months the radio station had huge financial difficulties and to save themselves thirty quid a week they sacked half the staff on one day – including me… Billy phoned up and said “Can you drive? I need a driver and tour manager”… I suppose you could argue that that totally changed my life. If I’d not thought “I’m gonna write to this bugger” in the first place, I’d never have ended up with that job tour managing him… And that then led to me being offered the job of presenting WHISTLE TEST on the television.

YOU WERE ONCE ASKED BY THE THEN-LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY, NEIL KINNOCK, TO ADVISE HIM ON ‘WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE WANT’…
I was, yeah… The most extraordinary meeting at the House Of Commons, yeah. I had to say to him “Neil, with respect, I’m the presenter of the WHISTLE TEST on BBC Two and I’m a DJ on Radio One – I’m very lucky. I’m not very typical of your average youth in this country”…

THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK IS NO OFF SWITCH – ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE AS IT’S FULL-ON, ALMOST BREATHLESS. THAT’S GREAT AS A READER BECAUSE THE DENSITY OF IT IS REALLY COMPELLING, AND ‘THE TRUTH’ OF IT… THERE’S NO COMPUNCTION TO SKIRT AROUND STUFF OR LEAVE ANY STONE UNTURNED… BUT I GUESS ‘YOU BEING YOU’ THERE’S JUST NO POINT IN WRITING IN ANY OTHER WAY?
Well, I’m the instinctive journalist and the instinctive historian. I suppose you’d put it like this: I’m a journalist and the ‘showbiz’ – radio DJing, the television and so on – has, really, been a sideline. Maybe even a distraction. So when I was writing the book I had to be as rigorous and as honest with my own life as I would be if I was writing a piece about… I don’t know… the assassination of President Kennedy. I’d want to get to the truth of that, the nub of it. I just applied those same standards to my own history.

SO MANY AUTOBIOGRAPHIES GIVE IN TO THE TEMPTATION TO…
… sanitise?

… YEAH, AND SELF-SERVE… BUT I DIDN’T GET THAT IMPRESSION OF YOU WHEN READING NO OFF SWITCH. YOU’RE ACTUALLY QUITE HARD ON YOURSELF, FROM TIME-TO-TIME… 
Mmm, well… erm, yeah… What happened on the Isle Of Man was part of my history and so it couldn’t be disregarded. But I suppose I can confidently and safely say this now, at this distance. But I did actually soft pedal, and let a lot of people off the hook, in those final chapters in regard to the way I was treated over the removal of my children. I had really jumpy publishers. I didn’t say anything that was untrue, but I could have said a lot more. But I didn’t want to start laying down fire in all directions, I suppose. The main thing that I’d thought was “You musn’t sound bitter”.

I GET THE SENSE THAT PEOPLE WOULD WANT TO SAY TO YOU “ANDY, VERY GLAD YOU’VE GOT YOUR LIFE BACK TOGETHER”… WHICH MUST FEEL A BIT PATRONISING?
Well yeah. It does a bit, to be honest. Occasionally people still say it to me and I say to them “Hang on a minute, it was eleven years ago”… Also, I got it back together very quickly. I wrote that book in 2010, two years after all those horrors on the Isle Of Man. Only two years later. Basket cases don’t write books like that.

OBVIOUSLY YOU HAVE THE LONG ASSOCIATION WITH MUSIC, BUT THERE’S ALSO YOUR WORK AS A DOCUMENTARY MAKER – REPORTER FROM THE FRONT-LINE OF THINGS HAPPENING IN PLACES WHICH ARE OFTEN OTHERWISE UNDER-REPORTED OR EVEN COMPLETELY UNREPORTED… RWANDA, ANGOLA, SIERRA LEONE, 
Yeah, that’s exactly why I snuck over the border into Rwanda from Burundi – because I was in Burundi thinking “Well the story’s not here”, and Rwanda was not being reported. I’m one of the few BBC journalists to have gone in to Rwanda. What was going on was horrific, and it needed reporting. That’s why I crossed over…

… THAT’S A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LEVEL OF COMMITMENT – YOU’VE BEEN IN SOME REALLY DANGEROUS SITUATIONS.
Aye, I guess so. There have been others, but Rwanda was the worst… Me and the Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrillas I was travelling with were in an ambush on this remote road. There were bullets flying everywhere, and to get out of that we had to walk down that road – which I later went back and measured. We’d had to walk eleven miles, with full kit in the dark, down a road which we knew before we set off to be full of land-mines. If that’s not your life in danger, I don’t know what is…

I WOULD IMAGINE THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF PEOPLE IN THIS WORLD. THOSE WHO, WHEN WALKING DOWN THAT ROAD, THINK TO THEMSELVES “CHRIST, I WISH I WAS BACK IN LEEDS PLAYING LIONEL RICHIE RECORDS”… AND THEN THERE’S YOU, INTENT ON PURSUING THE TRUTH.
Ha ha ha… Yeah. I’d rather be reporting from a war in central Africa than listening to Lionel Richie… Ha ha ha…

I SUPPOSE ALL OF YOUR TRAVEL WOULD BE WHY YOU WERE APPROACHED BY MI6 TO BECOME A SPY…
Well, I think I was approached, yeah… As far as I can gather, from people who’ve told me about these things, these people don’t come up to you and say “Hello, I’m from MI6. Would you like to work for us?”… It’s kind of done by a process of co-operation and assimilation and nods and winks and so on. Anyway, I was summoned to the Foreign Office after I’d gone to Equatorial Guinea in 1991. No-one went to Equatorial Guinea in those days… I was invited to the Foreign Office for what was described as “a bit of a chat”. At the end of this meeting with tea and biscuits, this woman handed me a bit of paper with a ‘phone number on it and said “If you’re going anywhere similar in the future, do give us a ring won’t you?”… It was only afterwards when I was thinking about it that I thought “Hang on a minute… I think I’ve just been asked to become a spy”…

THEY DIDN’T GIVE YOU YOUR INVISIBLE INK PEN THERE AND THEN?
Ha ha ha, no they didn’t…

IN KEEPING WITH YOUR OLD RADIO SHOWS, I THINK YOUR BOOK IS VALUABLE IN THAT IT HAS SEVERAL JUMPING OFF POINTS – BITS WHERE YOU MENTION AN ARTIST OR A SONG AND THE READER CAN JUMP OFF FOR A BIT AND INVESTIGATE THEM?
It was going to be like that because of my own enthusiasm and, a word I always come back to in life, curiosity. As a DJ I was never just going to sit there and do a programme made up of the records that the record companies sent to me. That would have been really dull. My job at Radio One, as I saw it, was a continuation of the ethos of the John Peel programme when it was at its best (and for that I’d mean the late 1970s)… Quite unashamedly I followed that model. You never knew what was coming next. I saw it as a duty of a DJ on the BBC not to give people what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted. I was always going to be looking to find those things that listeners wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

YOU MUST HAVE HAD TO DIG MOST OF THAT STUFF UP YOURSELF, THEN…
Yeah, that’s right. There were a number of record shops I’d go to – and chief amongst them was Sterns African Record Centre up behind Broadcasting House. Very often I’d go up there and – I’m not exaggerating for effect here – I’d spend more in that shop in a week than I’d get paid for doing the programme.

… AT ONE POINT YOU HAD THE BIZARRE ACCOLADE OF BEING ASKED TO PRESENT SONGS OF PRAISE…
Despite being an atheist… Yeah. I got a letter off the producer, asking me if I’d like to be one of the presenters. What I think had happened was… you know on my old Radio One and Radio Three music programmes? You know I’ve got a passion for 1940s, ’50s and ’60s black American gospel music? Like, if I ever got on DESERT ISLAND DISCS again, one of my records would be by a group from that period who were called The Swan Silvertones… I love that black American gospel from that period – even though I’m an atheist. So on my radio shows I used to play a lot of black American gospel – which, of course, is one of the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t it? So the producer of SONGS OF PRAISE must have heard me playing something by somebody like The Swan Silvertones or The Golden Quartet or The Mighty Clouds Of Joy and thought “This guy’s obviously religious”.

BUT THE MUSIC ITSELF IS THE RELIGION…
Yeah, it is. I’ve got my own religion, yeah.

IN THE BOOK YOU DISCUSS THE CLASH, AND YOU ASSERT THAT “ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWED IN THE NAME OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL WAS BY DEFINITION AT BEST SECOND RATE AND PROBABLY POINTLESS”…  
Yeah…

… SO NOTHING’S COME CLOSE?
Not really. Not really. For a rock ‘n’ roll band, in terms of outright excitement, The Clash at the time of LONDON CALLING still take some beating. Well, I mean, there’s always Springsteen and the E Street Band. When you go along to a Bruce Springsteen concert, particularly when he’s playing with the E Street Band, in the space of just two-and-a-half hours you’re getting the entire history of not just rock ‘n’ roll, but the entire history of American popular music. There’s no-one who embodies an entire tradition like Bruce does.

HE’S STILL AN EXTRAORDINARY PERFORMER…
He is. Bruce is in a category of his own. At sixty-whatever, sixty seven or whatever he is now, he’s still the most extraordinary performer of our age. I saw Springsteen when he was 29, and I’ve seen him in the last couple of years. And he’s still the most extraordinary performer of the age.

A WHILE AGO I GOT THE BOX SET OF BORN TO RUN, AND THERE’S A GREAT DVD OF SPRINGSTEEN’S FIRST EVER UK CONCERT…
Hammersmith Odeon, November 1975. Yeah…

THE OPENING 15 MINUTES ARE AMONGST THE BEST I’VE EVER SEEN – BY ANYONE. HE STARTS WITH A REALLY PARED DOWN THUNDER ROAD, THEN THE BAND COME ON FOR TENTH AVENUE FREEZE OUT AND… WELL, IT’S ALL QUITE SOMETHING. HIS FIRST EVER GIG IN ENGLAND, AND HE’S AT SUCH A PITCH STRAIGHT AWAY. IT’S NOT JUST MUSIC – IT SEEMS TO BE LIFE AND DEATH…
Yeah, ha ha… Rock music mattered!

THERE’S NOTHING AROUND THAT ‘SPEAKS’ TO YOU LIKE THAT NOW?
No. No, there isn’t. Rock music just doesn’t seem to matter like it used to. That’s not me changing – it’s that rock music hasn’t done anything valid for about thirty years… I mean, you name me a band who’ve done anything since those in that time?

BUT ‘THOSE IN THAT TIME’… SO MUCH TIME HAS PASSED SINCE THEN THAT THEY’VE DEVELOPED MORE WEIGHT AND MORE CONTEXT…
I think the context was there then, though. We knew they were important back then. We single out The Clash, here, but just think about all of the personalities and the sheer talent that was around at the same time… Ian Dury… Elvis Costello… Those people just aren’t there any more. Well, dear old Elvis chugs along. But there’s nobody of subsequent generations who has done anything as extraordinary as that generation did.

THE SMITHS, PERHAPS? NIRVANA, MAYBE? YOU WENT ON A BLIND DATE WITH COURTNEY LOVE…
I did. Yeah. I didn’t know who she was. She wasn’t known back then. Janice Long, do you remember Janice from Radio One? Janice Long used to take it upon herself to organise my social life. She announced that we were going out to the Hammersmith Odeon the following weekend to see Motorhead, and that she’d got me on a blind date. When I turned up there was this blonde American woman – who was a bit scruffy actually. She was not at all interested in me – and I wasn’t that bothered about her, either. We went to the Motorhead after-concert party, and she was just looking over me shoulder the whole time, to see if anybody more famous was entering the room… Only at the point when I mentioned – casually, and also because it was true – that Joe Strummer was a pal of mine, did she pay me any heed. I suddenly became the most fascinating man in the whole world…

… AMBITIOUS COURTNEY!
Well, aye. Three or four years later I was tipping the Sunday newspapers into the bin – you know how you do on about the Wednesday? The colour supplement’s going in the bin, and I looked at the picture of this woman plastered on the cover. I thought “Bloody hell, I know her from somewhere”… Instead of throwing it in the bin I retrieved it and I started to read the article about this woman. It turned out to be Courtney Love, and I thought “Bugger me, she was my date about five years ago at Motorhead”!

 

THE ADVENTURES OF ANDY KERSHAW
at Sale Waterside Arts Centre (Manchester)  //  FRIDAY 23rd NOVEMBER   Tickets