THE LAST TEMPTATION OF
‘ANNIE ON ONE’ – Annie Nightingale on Radio One that is.
Dance Music’s Radio-Dial fixture for insomniac Clubbers. But
for the BBC’s first-ever female DJ this is just the latest incarnation
of a career that began... sort-of, by insulting John Lennon.
ANDREW DARLINGTON reads the book, sits in on the show,
and even finds time for an interview
ANNIE ON THE VERGE OF
A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN...?
‘It’s Annie on One – from four till 6:30am’ she opens. ‘You’re up for it? STAY up for it!’ Welcome to Annie-World, direct from the BBC’s Great Portland Street complex. I’d imagined I’d be stepping into a tech-feast equivalent of Todd Terry’s brain, neuron-buzzing with enough gadgets to get you wetting your cryosuit. But there are just four adjoining studios – three of them in darkness. And from here the Radio One crew – or most of them at least, rotate through twenty-four hours. Mark & Lard do it from Manchester, but come down in real-time through ISDN and then go out from here. While through a glass darkly Zoe Ball’s studio waits. A poster mock-up over her console admonishing her ‘KEEP IT SLOW ZO’. And there are rows of pigeon-holes labelled John Peel, Andy Kershaw, Judge Jules, Dave (‘Roll Another Fat One’) Pierce, Pete Tong, and Annie – each one crammed with mysterious communications.
Prior to the show we talk in the producer’s suite, as Carl Cox unwinds a trickymixology of relentless beats in the background. Annie Nightingale, face familiar from TV, voice unmistakably recognisable from thirty years of broadcasting. Radio One’s First Lady. Literally. ‘This Sunday morning slot is a bit mad, I know’ she gets in first. ‘But, believe it or not, it’s very very good, ‘cos all the DJ’s listen. All over the country they’re out there driving back from their gigs. They play one club at 2am, then drive over the M62 to play somewhere else. And as they’re driving, they listen to the radio – I’m on till six-thirty, and there’s no other national dance programme on, so it’s a great audience – but very critical. What makes me nervous is that they phone in if I make mistakes. Chemical Brothers. All of them. Whoever’s on tour. It don’t half keep you on your toes! It’s madness...’
‘South Park’ screen-savers flicker on the studio computers The on-air continuity promo announces ‘‘CARL’S ESSENTIAL MIX’ on Radio One’s Website.’ Then “Keep it Radio One 97-to-99FM for a Celebration Of Three Decades Of Annie On One”. Insomnia radio. In the final ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ episode, Steve Coogan brilliantly reprises his hideously insensitive failed chat-show host now banished to the Siberian wastes of twilight-shift local radio. ‘Up With The Partridge’...? Actually no, instead I’m ‘Up With The Nightingale’. Give her an hour. She gives you the stars.
Music is a very slight thing. An arrangement of sounds in sequences that we find pleasing. Nothing more. Yet it dominates our lives. While Disc Jockeys have always been the interface between music and audience. With the DJ’s job description changing and evolving considerably across the years she’s been doing it, all the way from Smashey & Nicey through to Armand Van Helden. So what’s it take to do it well? ‘I think to do it you’ve got to be honest about it. I would have to be.’ Does it help to be a Show-Off? ‘Well – being interviewed is a bit like undergoing psychotherapy. People ask me strange questions I’ve never been asked before. Like that one,’ she teases. ‘But I’ll tell you, I’m an Aries, and there ARE an awful lot of Aries at the BBC and in broadcasting in general – going back to my early contemporaries Nicky Campbell, David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Johnny Walker, Bob Harris, Janice Long, Paul Gambaccini, Philip Schofield – same day as me, April 1st, and Chris Evans! It’s very odd. Way over the national average. But when I tell people I’m actually a very shy person they go ‘ah, come off it’ – but it IS possible to be a combination of both shy and brash at the same time. The thing about Aries is that they are kind-of quite mouthy... but it’s all a cover!’
So I’m here increasing your Woman-On-The-Edge-Of-A-Nervous-Breakdown pre-Show paranoia? ‘Naw, that’s alright. Don’t worry.’
During Radio One’s 1970s peak years smug ‘Daredevil of Discdom’ Tony Blackburn and ‘hairy cornflake’ Dave Lee Travis were national celebrities. And they had mass audiences – largely because there was no competition. Now it’s different. With so many commercial stations each one has had to develop its own smaller more specialised ‘niche’ identity – including the BBC itself. Five years ago – nearly six now, Matthew Bannister undertook his Night Of The Long Knives to reinvent Radio One, losing ‘Europe’s Most Listened-To Radio Station’ millions of listeners in the process. Famous DJ’s left, nursing more grudges than Lonely High Court Judges, and no-one liked the new ones. Chris Evans arrived – his chaos and eventual departure cost the station dear. Leaving Radio One showing all the symptoms of a well-loved institution in the throws of terminal decline. Yet it survived. And survives. On the wall of this production studio there’s a map showing a geo-breakdown of What’s Going On headed ‘RADIO ONE: NATIONAL RELATIONS’. Sub-headings go from red hot-zones marked ‘THEY LOVE US’ (Cornwall, Scotland, North Yorkshire), through ‘FLIRTING’ (Wales), into ‘THEY’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS’ to the cool blue ‘TRIAL SEPARATION IN PROGRESS’ (Northern Ireland and most of London – significantly, regions with the densest waveband competition). Alan Partridge may well protest ‘I’m a national broadcaster trapped in the body of a regional disc jockey’, but hey, we’re all part of niche-broadcasting now, aren’t we?
‘But we are quite well-focused’ Annie argues back. ‘Radio One breaks the new bands. We break new music. Then commercial stations come along and cream it off. But that’s what we’re here for. A friend of mine on the local Brighton station plays by format – a record from the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, then one from now. But never anything that’s not already very successful. They daren’t. They have advertisers to deliver audiences to. So I feel quite sort-of pro what we’re doing here. I’m not here to plug the BBC, but we’ve got such a world-wide reputation for being innovative, and maybe if there was a similar set-up in other countries, with somewhere for talent to develop independent of commercial pressure, then you might get great sounds coming out of Malaysia. But there just isn’t that infrastructure to do it.’
‘Radio’ says Annie, is ‘an intimate phone-call performance’. No batteries required. She’s wearing a chill-out-blue low-cut lace-edged underskirt kind of thing which producer Claire Slevin calls ‘her strumpet dress’. Less sex kitten, more cool Bagpuss. But this is radio. She could broadcast naked. ‘This show plays new music, but every bit has to entertain. And the people who’re listening are quite shy about phoning in. So you suggest a topical subject, something to actually think about, and it makes it easier for them. You can then turn their calls into dreadful little stories to fit around the tunes, rather than phone-ins saying ‘WAAAAH! I’m having a GREAT GREAT night!!!’’ And phone-in voices get lured through the desk into a strange magical cyberland where, freed of identity, nationality or gender, they can be as weird as they want to be, ‘...‘cos that’s more funny... er, sorry, funn-ier! That goes back to my journalistic background again. Ha! But schadenfreude (delight in another’s misfortune) – is such a wonderful word isn’t it? And sometimes it inspires. Sometimes not. So we’ll see. You never know. Anyway – now I’ve got to go and DO it. I’ve got to get into the studio. Get the feel of what’s going on. See if it’s all working.’
Once she’s in the studio Claire and Natasha (wo)man the ‘phones, filtering out the loonies while jotting down ‘possibles’ for Annie’s attention. She then reads them out on air, interpreting them for maximum punch-line potential, delivering them like a pro. Well – not like a pro. She is the pro who sets the standards against which comparisons must be made. She dances barefoot beyond the glass, acts out the stories she’s relating theatrically – head-in-hands despair, hand-on-brow deep thoughts, then she jack-in-the-boxes up indicating wildly to Claire some urgent technical requirement – or perhaps just for another in a long line of coffees.
LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE
‘Wicked Speed’*, Annie’s autobiography stylishly dressed in its pseudo-Warhol sleeve, is ‘not a kiss-and-tell book’ she says – ah-shucks. Neither is it ‘an exercise in name-dropping’ – DOH! And it’s her second foray between literary covers, following ‘Chase The Fade’ (Blandford Press, 1982). But unlike – say, Mark Radcliffe’s book ‘Showbusiness’ (1999, Sceptre), punchlined with anecdotes and one-liners, this is a more personal history in which nevertheless, kisses are kissed, while names and other substances inevitably get dropped. How could it be otherwise? Irvine (with an ‘e’) Welsh – the guy who thefted Trainspotting from the anoraks and gifted it to the loved-up trendies, writes a story-flavoured intro to which the ‘cool funky tones’ of Annie’s radio show provide the soundtrack. To the fucked-up adolescent Welsh-protagonist she’s ‘more than a DJ, she’s a surrogate cool big sister’ with ‘healing powers’. She’s a voice from the speakers distinctively different from the ‘flatulent sounds of the loud, boring, thick and egotistical men’ who ‘strafe the airwaves’. Yeah and thrice-yeah.
To teenage Annie, trapped in Brighton, the Sixties was not so much a generation, more an escape committee who saw Rock ‘n’ Roll as the force that would change the world. And music was to be her magic one-way ticket out of suburbia. From a ‘Spin With Me’ record-review column in the ‘Brighton Evening Argus’ through a fortuitous Beatles interview as early as 1962 (determined to strike an impression she confronts Lennon with ‘so, John, you’re the difficult one, then?’, to which the lovably comedic mop-top instantly retorts ‘Eh?’), she gets to broadcast for local BBC West from ‘an unmanned studio’ inside the architectural weirdness of the Brighton Pavilion. It leads to fronting yoof-TV’s ‘That’s For Me’, a thirteen-week cross-over companion to the big Mod cult show ‘Ready Steady Go’, and then less credibly to a stint as bimbo game-show hostess for ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’, a kind of no-hoper Name-That-Tune vehicle for some-time actor Ronan O’Casey – whose best-remembered role is as the corpse in ‘Blow-Up’ (1966). Remember the shows? No. Neither do I. But she was also writing weekly columns for ‘Fab’ and ‘Honey’, and in a period when Pop-journalism was dismissed as strictly fluff for the kids, she also got to write for the tabloid ‘Daily Sketch’ too, providing limitless access to the intimate lives of the Rock-ristocracy. The relentless madness of Keith Moon, confusingly stoned encounter with LSD-tripping Roger McGuinn and ‘pretentious git’ Jim Morrison, and sessions of agonised conscience-searching over whether she should breach a confidence and leak an exclusive about the still-secret John & Yoko affair. Fortunately they upfront it themselves before she has a chance to commit herself.
Meanwhile, Homer Simpson’s local radio station dispenses with live DJ’s in favour of a DJ3000 computer ‘programmed with three varieties of inane chatter’. Yes, Radio One, it seems, has always been with us. Yet it was first foisted upon a reluctant Auntie Beeb in 1967 as a political sop by the Labour Govt responsible for banning ‘Pirate’ radio. And it proved equally resistant to the idea of employing female DJ’s (‘a Radio One job seemed to require me to own a dick!’), until Annie sneaked in under the guise of gender tokenism, as part of a ‘SOUNDS OF THE SEVENTIES’ intake alongside Noel Edmonds. She’s cool. She’s real. She’s the new John Peel. Well – not exactly, but against the odds (check out her list of surviving contemporaries) she hung on in there, successfully surfing from one generation to the next, in a precarious profession that’s left innumerable corpses along the way. DJ’s unable to change, unwilling to adapt or embrace new styles. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s so strange’ she muses in genuine puzzlement. ‘Perhaps they didn’t want to change or adapt?’ When ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris ducked out of presenting Punk on TV’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, Annie stepped in. Then she did ‘Live Aid’ – advised Simon Le Bon to marry Yasmin. And he did. She film-documented a Police World tour, calling off in Japan where groupies refused to give head – claiming it was illegal! Then she discovered House. And Ibiza – ‘DJ-ing at a party which had been going on for a thousand years.’
Along the way she also got Radio One-One-Wonderful commissions taking her into the Cold War Soviet Union, to Iran, Cuba and Rumania. Of course, we’re all a little more cynical and less naive than they were in the sixties, but oddly, Annie’s travels show that by now Rock ‘n’ Roll had BECOME a force that changed the world. Behind the then-Iron Curtain she discovered a samizdat underground in which western influences – with imported Pop at the top of the agenda, was helping undermine and ultimately destroy those totalitarian regimes. ‘Yes. In all those countries – but particularly in Rumania, television, communications and technology achieved that. You could not keep those people down. A lot of people are saying that in Communist Yugoslavia all the old grudges now coming back lethally to the surface in Kosovo and elsewhere were all held down, that the things that are happening there now weren’t allowed then. I’m not saying the old regimes were good or bad. But it’s all so complicated... but, I’ll tell you something which I’m absolutely gobsmacked about. There’s a Club called ‘Lush!’ (with an exclamation mark) in Portrush – Northern Ireland, where all the Catholics and Protestants are dancing together. Those Clubbers are doing more to sort out the ‘Troubles’ than any ‘Peace Process’. And that’s fantastic. That’s why I’m so keen on the nineties. Because there is this idealistic thing. There’s a young DJ called Adam Freeland. There’s a photo of him in my book. And he’s always saying ‘you’ve got to change the world’ – and it’s marvellous to have that attitude. It’s very important not to get cynical, defeated, and stuff like that. Maybe I’m ludicrously naive...?’
THE LAST TEMPTATION
OF ANNIE NIGHTINGALE...?
Annie slides seamlessly on-air with Rhinocerose “Machine Pour Les Oreilles”, then Freddy Fresh “It’s About The Groove”. As the Dance Anthem groove deepens she programmes new white-label club mixes of standards like the Stone Roses “Fools Gold”, Chemical Brothers’ “Life Is Sweet” and even Prodigy’s “Climbatize”, cutting them with a long ‘Funky Monkey’ mix, Barry Adamson, PFN and a Way-Out-West mix of JDI’s “Asian Vibes”. Following it with a trailer for ‘the Now-Legendary Todd Terry Mixing Up A Storm’.
‘Music’s very healthy at the moment’ she asserts. ‘But there are dips. There are times – like the pre-Acid House mid-eighties when things were pretty dull... but it’s always there if you look for it. House changed the sound of music completely. It just did. It’s been around now for a good ten-to-twelve years, perhaps not always on the overground, but you’ve still got the big clubs – ‘Cream’, ‘Ministry Of Sound’ and the like, they will be with us for a long time yet. It’s not always easy. There aren’t fortunes to be made DJ-ing, unless you suddenly break really big. But then again – what happens is that when something comes along – like Speed Garage, people jump on it too quickly and kill it. Suddenly you see it TV-advertised as ‘THE BEST SPEED GARAGE IN THE WORLD EVER... VOL.3’ – and you go WHAAAATTTT!?!?!? It’s bizarre, they over-expose it too quickly before it’s properly developed, and that just kills it. It’s one or the other, you know?’
Three Decades Of ‘Annie On One’. Perhaps Dance is the Last Temptation of Annie Nightingale? Maybe not. But Dance now makes up a good sixty-percent of the national record charts, even while the ‘inky’ Rock press are deliberately cutting back on their Dance content, because they prefer quotable ‘Stars’ they can splash across covers. BritPop was ideal for that. Whereas Dance is the antithesis of the Star system. It’s all about anonymity, cult credibility and style-elitism. ‘This is the point, absolutely. This is the problem. DJ’s are not Sexy Rock Gods. They’re mostly very quiet blokes. In the clubs they generally want to be left alone, because they’ve got to concentrate on what they’re doing. It’s more about having both good musical and engineering skills. Whereas people do want an Oasis. They want someone to look up to. They like heroes. I agree. But there is a very big dance press, great thick magazines like ‘Mixmag’, and now ‘Ministry’ which is quite a commercial enterprise. And ‘DJ’ and ‘Music’ – there’s loads of them. The market seems to be able to support quite a few, but then again, it all splits down to so many sub-genres. Like there’s this new sub-genre that I’m trying to help at the moment called Nu-Skool-Breaks (she spells it out). It’s quite funky. I don’t really know where it’s come from, but you’ll hear it here tonight. It’s beginning to get quite international, but they need help. Everybody’s looking for the Next Big Thing. People don’t know where it’s all going. Fortunately I get all this stuff. And I DO listen to it!’
Kevin Greening slouches stylishly in for some off-mike pre-hand-over bonding with Annie. While through a glass darkly Zoe Ball’s studio waits. A poster mock-up over her console admonishing her to ‘KEEP IT SLOW ZO’.
* ‘WICKED SPEED’ by ANNIE NIGHTINGALE
(introduction by Irvine Welsh) Sidgwick & Jackson
ISBN 0-283-06197-9 £15.99
Interview originally published in:
‘HOT PRESS Vol.23 no.9’
26th May’ (Eire – May 1999)