The strange life and turbulent times of Andy Kershaw
No Off Switch describes the only man in history to be a stagehand to the Stones, Radio 1 DJ, reporter on brutal struggles from Haiti to Rwanda, and boyfriend to, err... Carol Vorderman?
Andy Kershaw is a bit weird. That’s not a reference to his personal problems in recent years: a highly publicised meltdown after the break-up of a long-term relationship and battles in the family courts. No, he’s a freak because of the unique mixture of things he’s done in his life.
No Off Switch is often reminiscent of Woody Allen’s movie, Zelig. Kershaw seems to spend an awful lot of his life in the company of famous people or in the middle of major events in a way that a bright, shy boy from the fading industrial town of Rochdale could never have expected to be.
His description of his early life in Rochdale, where he was born in 1959, is a useful antidote to all those hackneyed images of the Swinging Sixties. ‘Our town remained pretty much untroubled by dizzying postwar social dynamics’, he writes. ‘In fact, I would say that Rochdale finally emerged from the Second World War some time around 1972.’ The young Kershaw is a nerd, though his passions are kept in check by rather controlling but unengaged parents who disapprove of his love of music. It was Kershaw’s grandparents, who ran pubs in the town, who were the real formative influence on him.
Music was an early fascination, in particular Bob Dylan. Describing Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, he writes: ‘I do remember playing it for the first time, bending over the record player and jolting back, as if I’d put my fingers in the mains, when ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ jumped out of the speaker. It was one of those moments – and I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced probably half a dozen of them in nearly 40 years of meddling with music – in which, from the first few seconds of that torrential opening track, I knew that things would never be the same again.’ He quotes with approval Bruce Springsteen’s assessment that it was ‘like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind’.
Kershaw’s other obsession was motorbikes, and it was the combination of Bob and bikes which nearly scuppered any hope of getting to university. He nipped over to the Isle of Man in 1978, days before his most important A-level exam, to watch former nine-time world champion Mike Hailwood makes his comeback in the TT races. It was all set up to be one of those should-have-stayed-retired moments, with the added twist that TT competitors have a bad habit of ending their days slamming into stone walls at 100 mph. But, as Kershaw wistfully relates, Hailwood won easily – and he’d been there to see history being made.
During that same exam period, Dylan played in London and Kershaw just had to be there, too. Legging it from his Economics exam ludicrously early, he made it just in time to take his seat in the nether regions of Earls Court as Dylan started playing. ‘After a couple of songs, and the initial thrill of telling myself that the tiny speck in the middle, way over yonder, was indeed Bob Dylan, in person, I had to confront a terrible reality: Bob was bloody awful.’ Still, he somehow managed to get an ‘A’ in Economics.
Those exam results against the odds won Kershaw a place at Leeds University. Not that he had the slightest interest in academia or in studying at any other institution. His main interest was that the university was the only decent concert venue in one of Britain’s biggest cities, which meant all the top acts played there. A classic album by The Who, Live at Leeds was recorded in the concert hall, which was actually the university refectory. The venue and its student organisers were held in high esteem by bands and tour managers. Having made a beeline for the entertainments office in freshers’ week, he secured a place on the stage crew. That was his key to meeting many of his heroes, including The Clash, Rory Gallagher and Elvis Costello, particularly once he became the union’s entertainment secretary and was actually doing the booking.
Indeed, so ludicrously well-connected did Kershaw become that towards the end of his tenure, he got a call from Harvey Goldsmith’s office. Goldsmith was organising The Rolling Stones’ mammoth Roundhay Park concert in the city and wanted Kershaw and the Leeds University stage crew to help put it together. Kershaw describes the madness of putting on such a big show, with all the ludicrous demands that touring bands have. For The Stones, these included creating a Japanese water garden in the VIP area. Why? No point in asking, just sort it out. Kershaw comes across rather like James Garner’s character in The Great Escape, obtaining the weird and wacky at short notice.
After a spell in local radio, Kershaw’s big break came not from hooking up with an established big-name act or mega-promoter but from landing the job of being Billy Bragg’s driver and tour manager. The Bard of Barking was just breaking through, but being unwilling to drive, needed a chauffeur who could also tune a guitar. Kershaw notes that life with Bragg was knackering but very enjoyable. Sadly, though, Bragg didn’t share Kershaw’s inclinations for drugs and groupies, preferring long political debates backstage to getting stoned and shagging.
It was round this time that Kershaw landed the chance to present The Old Grey Whistle Test. Brought into primetime BBC2 from its previous late-night slot, and rebranded as Whistle Test, Kershaw was the naughty child on the sofa to his better-spoken and metropolitan co-presenters Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. What Whistle Test did provide, however, was three blokes enjoying banter and banging on about their mutual obsession: music. Swap cars for the music, and increase the budget about 100-fold, and you have Top Gear.
It was off the back of Whistle Test that Kershaw ended up as one of the main presenters of the BBC’s Live Aid coverage in 1985. Yet he was an unwilling participant. ‘Musically, Live Aid was to be entirely predictable and boring’, he writes. ‘As they were wheeled out – or rather bullied by Geldof into playing – it became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.’
Although he rejects the idea that Live Aid was a cynical career move by Geldof, he found the attitude of St Bob and his showbiz mates to be ‘irritating, shallow, sanctimonious and self-satisfied’ while failing to even recognise the underlying causes of the Ethiopian famine. His contempt for Geldof – they’d earlier had a run-in at Leeds University when The Boomtown Rats played there – is compounded by Geldof’s decision over Live 8 20 years later to offer African musicians a separate show at the Eden Project. ‘I thought apartheid was dead’, he wrote in the Independent at the time.
One of the best things about Kershaw’s book is his withering assessments of musicians and those around him. He’s dismissive of Eighties mega-groups like U2 (‘a big bag of wind’) and fellow stadium acts like Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Sting and Simple Minds, trumpeted by a media that ‘hadn’t the imagination to look elsewhere’ and bought by people who ‘didn’t actually like music, didn’t have any previous appetite for it and now hadn’t a clue what to buy’. Kershaw’s a bit of a music snob, driven to searching the globe for the authentic and novel, but it’s not hard to be sympathetic with his view that mainstream music in the Eighties was disproportionately shite. That said, Whistle Test did provide a home for alternative fare – with none of the self-importance of The Tube – until it was scrapped by Janet Street-Porter, a woman ‘as desperate as the proverbial disco-dancing uncle at a wedding to be “down with the kids”’, in Kershaw’s words.
Kershaw by this time was also a Radio 1 DJ, touted as the New John Peel and sharing the gloomy one’s producer, John Walters. At first suspicious of the new tyke, Peel soon relaxed once he realised that Kershaw was not going to be direct competition to him at all. Kershaw has mixed feelings about Peel. Kershaw, Walters and Peel certainly had a good time in their messy office together, or round the corner in the pub. But while Peel’s show did showcase much new music, a lot of it was rubbish in Kershaw’s opinion, played for being new per se rather than because it was any good. Peel could also be moody if he wasn’t the centre of attention and didn’t stand up enough for Kershaw’s liking to the new wave of BBC bosses that ‘knew the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
For Kershaw, it was Walters who was the real star, and they rightly shared a Reithian view of the BBC’s role. When ‘the suits’ criticised Walters because ‘Peel was broadcasting a frightful old racket four nights a week and The Boy Kershaw was playing too much music from Bongo Bongo Land’, Walters told them: ‘We’re not here to give the public what it wants. We’re here to give the public what it didn’t know it wanted.’
Still, if Kershaw was a fish out of water at Radio 1, he managed to fall into a celebrity lifestyle nonetheless. For a once-shy boy from Rochdale, he certainly managed to pull more than his fair share of good-looking, decent women, at least one of whom he might have held on to if he hadn’t been, in his own words, such a ‘selfish dick’. While living in Leeds, he dated Carol Vorderman briefly (who then became a singer in his sister Liz’s band, Dawn Chorus and the Blue Tits), while at Radio 1 he managed to avoid, at various times, being unceremoniously rogered by Little Richard and Frankie Howerd. Like anyone with a willingness to party, Kershaw has a decent number of amusing showbiz tales to tell.
But what makes Kershaw really weird is that, while being a Radio 1 DJ, he takes it upon himself – and his own wallet – to scour America and later Africa for new music while other DJs were making money opening supermarkets. This willingness to travel soon expanded into a career as a successful foreign correspondent, too. He has eye-opening tales of reporting from Haiti, a country he’s particularly fond of, and truly harrowing stories from Rwanda, too. Even when he finally gives in and joins his partner for a relaxing, ‘normal’ holiday on Montserrat in the Caribbean, the local volcano decides now is the moment to blow.
Kershaw is an engaging writer, even if this hefty tome could easily have been split into two. But while his judgement of his musical and professional peers is usually spot on and bitchily amusing – likewise his assessment of the ‘bossyboots’ smoking ban as ‘no business of government’ – his political judgement is more often painfully wrong.
For example, writing about his time touring with Billy Bragg during the miners’ strike in the mid-Eighties, Kershaw has any illusions of the police shattered as the cops act as ‘eager, stupid and thuggish agents and enforcers of money and power’. Fair enough.
But then he adds, ‘my deepest contempt was directed at other working people who ought to have shown solidarity with the miners but who, to buy into the myth of Thatcher’s entrepreneurial individualism (selfishness) sold their loyalties for a pittance. They seemed to have no grasp of, nor any concern for, the prospect that they may be next… Chavs were born, and were soon to become an invasive species.’ This is the old left myth that Thatcher bought off some greedy and stupid members of the working class.
Like the British left, Kershaw displays a stunning amnesia for how the Labour Party and the trade unions themselves had let the working class down. Has Kershaw forgotten the Seventies Labour government, that crushed living standards and provoked the ‘Winter of Discontent’? Maybe he was too busy smoking dope at Leeds University to notice all those people on strike. And if the workers failed to show solidarity with the miners, maybe it’s because the rest of the labour movement – led by Neil Kinnock’s clear hatred for ‘militancy’ – had already decided to leave the miners in the lurch.
Kershaw’s judgement of Third World leaders is every bit as bad. He has to confess to being a fan of Robert Mugabe before things went pear-shaped in Zimbabwe. He worships Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, even though his reinstatement at the behest of US president Bill Clinton in 1994 – having been previously deposed in a military coup – left him as little more than a feeble client of America. Aristide had to flee in 2004 after an uprising against him and the armed gangs he had turned to for protection.
Worse still, he regards Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame, as a ‘brilliant leader and master tactician’ and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as the country’s ‘liberators’ who saved Rwanda from genocide. In reality, while in no way excusing the brutal reaction of its opponents, the RPF was attempting to invade and occupy Rwanda and was substantially responsible for fomenting the conditions that led to the terrible massacres of hundreds of thousands of people.
Kershaw’s sympathies may be understandable, given his dramatic account of being saved by Kagame’s soldiers after coming under fire on a visit to the country at the height of the killings. But did Kershaw not notice as he was writing his book last year that even many members of Kagame’s erstwhile fan club have become more than a little troubled by the blatantly rigged elections, murders of political opponents and involvement in mass killings? Even Human Rights Watch, which promoted the idea of a Rwandan ‘genocide’ in the first place, has noted how Kagame has used the idea of a genocide as justification for suppressing opposition.
These political failings are a shame, because Kershaw comes across as an interesting and cheeky, if hyperactive, individual with a unique career who shoots from the lip. Despite its failings, No Off Switch is certainly worth a look.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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