An Interview with Annie Nightingale
Annie Nightingale might not take too kindly to being labelled the Grande Dame of the airwaves, but the legendary DJ is currently celebrating 40-years at the BBC. Matt Callard caught up with her for a chat as she prepares for a stint in the speakers’ tent at one of the summer’s big Yorkshire festivals…
Congratulations on your 40 years in the Radio 1 hot seat! It’s been a long, twisting ride, I guess?
Yes. It has been a long twisting ride, up and down, here and there, good and bad, hither and thither. Mostly thither.
You started out presenting prog rock shows and now present dance/chill out sessions – and you must have been involved in most other genres along the way. Eclectic hardly does your ‘career’ justice, does it?
Chill out was waaaaaay back. Now there’s a new genre every week. We’ve had nu skool, breaks, crunk, UK funky, dub step, drum ‘n’ bass, drum step, 2 step, nu-disco, lo-fi. Just ‘bass’ pretty much covers it for now.
Your Sunday Night Request Show lives in the memory of many people from my generation. On straight after the chart rundown it must have held a big audience. It provided a musical education as much as John Peel’s show in many ways.
The Request Show was put there as a three month filler in around 1982 – and went on for twelve years. The audience took it over as I wanted them to. But the music became more and more idiosyncratic. Every week I thought it was getting too weird – though I thought wonderful – and that the powers that be would take it off the air.
“I thought I would last a year max”
You seem like the last bastion of something credible in radio DJs – do you bemoan the absence of younger talents coming through who are ready to carry the flame?
Au contraire. The new DJs, the specialist ones, some are really hot and truly know their stuff. Mistajam is excellent. I like Nick Grimshaw, Huw Stephens, and Skream of Magnetic Man – well, he is the shizzle.
You needed to be incredibly tenacious to break into Radio 1. Do you see yourself as a trailblazer? Could you have imagined you’d still be there 40 years on?
Yes. Of course I didn’t expect to be there all that time. I didn’t expect Radio 1 to be there all that time, and I thought that as the token woman, who I was, I would last a year, max.
Do you enjoy festival events? We know you quite enjoy the intimacy of a radio studio – festivals couldn’t be much more different!
Well I normally DJ at festivals rather than talk, but yes, I love them. Because unlike clubs, which are very dark, I quite like playing in the daylight where you can SEE the audience. And festival crowds are really friendly and there to have a great time. They are usually more open minded about music.
What do you think of the ‘superstar DJ’ set? It’s amazing how that culture emerged from its underground rave/house scene beginnings.
The DJ as star certainly came about through acid house, which was one of the most significant breakthroughs in modern British music underground culture. I wanted to feature it even more in this film I’ve made for BBC TV about my journey through music. It happened through DJs in Ibiza mixing guitar music with Chicago house and Detroit beats. This gang of Brits heard this happening in all-night clubs there and brought the music, the party life and the ecstasy back to the UK. There was nowhere they could play, so they set up their own events in unlicensed premises, and at open air raves. It was as important as punk. And it gave the DJ some credibility. Before that in clubs it was pretty hateful. Especially if you were hired as a radio 1 DJ! Some of my then colleagues used to give away cash at gigs.
You’ve always seemed like an outsider looking in on the industry. To paraphrase Ian Brown, is the music industry really the ‘filthiest business in the universe’?
I’ve always thought that there are just enough really, really good people in it to make up for all the really bad people. Just. The more money there is the nastier it gets, where there’s muck, etc. But I think the film business has got more shysters and con men in it. People in music can be quite honest.
“Choral singing is a musical pleasure”
You’ve interviewed just about anyone who’s anyone in the music industry. Which artists are the most memorable for good and bad reasons?
Worst interviewees have been Americans because of the culture of sycophancy around their stars. The worst were Bobby Darin and Neil Diamond. Then I met Neil Diamond again in LA. I didn’t mention the first episode, he didn’t remember it or me, and he was quite charming. Best interviewees have been Yoko Ono, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of The Clash, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, The Beatles, Lily Allen, Keith Moon, Ms Dynamite, Katy B.
My colleague is shouting out ‘ask her about Morrissey’ – have you met him?
I’ve never met Morrissey, though I used to play The Smiths all the time. Frank Sidebottom, the late and much missed, did a cover version tribute to me, of Hang The DJ (‘Panic‘), called ‘Anne the DJ’. I found the printed lyrics the other day. It’s very touching.
What is your musical guilty pleasure?
It’s a musical pleasure but I’m not guilty about it, is listening to choral singing, like Handel’s The Messiah. We used to sing it in the school choir. I only wanted to join because it was our only contact as an all girls school, with the all boys school next door. I couldn’t sing, they sort of mixed me out. But I loved that kind of music – still do.
“It’s good to listen to someone else’s music”
Speaking generally, it might take me a couple of weeks to get into a record and to really start enjoying it. How do you possibly have time to listen to music for pleasure? There must be an endless supply of new stuff to listen to.
I get hundreds of downloads every week to listen to, often with up to eight mixes. So what was once a three minute single can last an hour. Usually the best mix is the last one. I start listening to music as soon as I wake up, every spare moment, and still you can’t get through it. It’s always a worry that there’s some great music waiting to be heard and no one has found it yet. So I don’t have time to listen unless it’s to compile a show. But that’s my job and I love every moment of it. I am very lucky. The only time I hear music that isn’t brand new is if I’m round someone else’s house. It’s good to listen to someone else’s choices. On the other hand I can’t stand listening to really awful music. Like in department stores at Christmas, I just run out screaming.
As an expert, what do you think of my lacklustre interviewing technique?
Most of your questions are statements. Or could be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Beware! I have fallen into this trap myself. Most memorably on live TV, by satellite between London and Hong Kong. In London the ‘Rock and Pop Awards’ were being hosted, forerunners to ‘The Brits’. I was in Hong Kong with The Police, making a film for BBC TV. They had just won album of the year and I was to make the presentation. I asked Sting if he ever imagined while they were making the album that he’d end up in Hong Kong receiving an award for it. ‘Yes’, he said, deadpan. See what I mean?