When Mark Radcliffe was given his first national Radio 1 show, Out on Blue Six, back in April 1991, it came with an enigmatic promotional shot of him wearing a black cowl and shades. By nature, a publicity-shy, self-deprecating sort of chap, Radcliffe preferred to keep the spotlight on the music he was playing.
Nowadays, of course, he’s very much a familiar figure, presenting BBC Radio 2‘s perennial Folk Show and co-presenting 6 Music‘s afternoon show (alongside Stuart Maconie) and the BBC’s annual Glastonbury coverage. Plus, he fronts the pirate-themed folk-rock band Galleon Blast in full costume, which just goes to show how far he’s come since the cowl and shades days (or possibly not).
Galleon Blast are playing as part of this year’s Manchester Folk Festival, but Radcliffe, Bolton-born and now resident in Knutsford, acknowledges that it’s hard to categorise precisely what it is that they do. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, he says: “All I say to people is that it’s just fun. We all dress up and it’s colourful. The band I had before this was called The Foes and that was very down-beat. It was sort of folky, but it was all kind of morose drinking songs and a bit Leonard Cohen-y. People kept asking ‘will you come and do our festival?’ and I said ‘Ah, no, it’s too depressing for that!’.”
So, with Galleon Blast, the idea was to form a band that would just be fun. Whether you were interested in the music or not, for 45 minutes at a festival it would be something that would engage and hold you.
“I was very much impressed by seeing Gogol Bordello and how much was going on onstage and what a lot of energy and panache they put into the showmanship of it, so I just thought I wanted to do a bit of that.”
Radcliffe’s previous band The Foes hasn’t been his only other real-life musical endeavour, however. Far from it. He’s been in one band or other for most of his life, as detailed in his fine 1999 memoir Showbusiness: The Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Nobody, each chapter of which covers a different live act, up to The Shirehorses and The Family Mahone. In his youth, he even spent a brief spell in Lancashire rock band Skrewdriver (thankfully, well before they began espousing white nationalism). Galleon Blast came along way after Showbusiness was written, but Radcliffe reckons that an equivalent chapter about them would certainly be upbeat.
“I think most of them are celebratory in their own way, apart from Skrewdriver. In fact, if anything it’s got more celebratory, because in the early days when you’re forming a band, they keep falling apart, because you’re just really hoping that you’re going to be a massive pop star and that you’re going to be discovered.
“Of course, I know that’s not going to happen now… although there is, like, 0000001 per cent of you that thinks, ‘well, what if Johnny Depp hears this and puts it in the next Pirates of the Caribbean film?’.
“But for me, it is fun,” adds Radcliffe. “And so, it doesn’t need to be anything more than that. I’m not expecting anything to happen other than living in the moment of it. So, if anything, the bands I’ve been in have got progressively more joyous.”
However, it doesn’t sound like the Galleon Blast story be a tale of debauchery to rival notorious Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods. “No, no. We’re men of simple pleasures really. I mean, we still have our misadventures. We made a discovery of gin and very strong rum and that led us into some dangerous waters, just more or less forgetting where you are.
“But mainly we just drink nice beer. At least beer lets you know where you’re up to most of the time. It’s all relatively sedate now, of course. The hardest it gets is that sometimes we have a little bit of McChrystal’s Snuff.”
The folk-rock tag is the only one that seems to suit what Galleon Blast do. “A couple of the guys in the band are really mad Fairport fans and I’ve always loved stuff like The Pogues and The Waterboys, so I think folk rock is the only way you could describe it. That was the most unfashionable thing you could say for a long time, but I think with people like False Lights, that’s OK again now.” Their set-list takes in the likes of traditional songs such as Eight Bells, The Whaling Song, The Smuggler and Bonnie Ship the Diamond. As Radcliffe says, “we tend to loosely stick to the water-borne theme.”
His long, varied history of playing in bands would seem to suggest that there’s something in Radcliffe that simply needs to be part of one. “There must be, I guess,” he says. “I played my first gig when I was 14 and I’m going to be 60 next year, so that’s a lot of gigs and a lot of time doing it. But I’m not tired of it. I don’t know, in these gender non-specific times, whether you can still even still say this, but I think blokes need something that’s not work or home or family, whether it’s a shed or a round of golf or a cricket team or an aerobics club.
He continues: “I’ve always felt that, since I’ve been 14, a band has been my gang, really. Your special friends, your club where your rules apply and no-one can tell you that you’re doing it wrong. For me and the guys in the band, it’s almost part of what we are, rather than what we do. We’re always planning a gig and thinking what we can we do and where we’re playing and how we’re going to get there. I really don’t know what would occupy that space in my brain in my life if I didn’t do it.”
It doesn’t sound as though turning 60 is going to change things too much for Radcliffe and his regular 6 Music show. “People say ‘you should be retired now’, but I kind of don’t know what else I’d do. And I like doing it: I walk the dog, I come to work at Salford, I get in for about half ten, I work with some nice people, play some good music, talk rubbish… I’m usually back home again by five. I mean, why would you want to stop doing that? Otherwise you’d just walk the dog and sit in the chair until it’s time to walk the dog again the next day.”
Radcliffe takes particular pleasure in presenting the weekly Radio 2 Folk Show, which he took on in 2013. “I love doing that. I hope to do that until I drop dead, really. I’d love to do that for the rest of my life, if they’d let me.”
He still enjoys juggling the assorted disciplines of radio presenting, playing live and occasional forays in writing. “I’ve no burning desire to do anything else,” he says. “Other than, I’d like to do some travelling. I want to see a lot more of India. I’ve never lived anywhere except the UK, so me and my wife have made a pact that when I’ve got some time, we’re going to go and live in Rome for six months or a year, just rent a flat in Rome and live there. I like the idea of getting up in the morning, walking down, getting a paper and a coffee and watching the world go by in a different country. I’ve never done that. But other than that, I don’t really have any ambitions and I’m in the fortunate position of not wanting anything materially.”
Recently, Radio 1 marked its 50th anniversary with a series of broadcasts on a special ‘pop-up’ digital station, which included an hour-long compilation celebrating Radcliffe’s hosting partnership with Marc ‘Lard’ Riley, which first took flight from 1993 during their regular show in the 10pm-midnight ‘graveyard slot’. It’s a period he remembers with evident fondness.
“That was first time we’d had a show that was on four days a week. So, it felt like ‘wow, this is really is happening now’. Me and Marc were so excited and thrilled. We’d get in at like 12 o’clock and start working on it for 10 o’clock that night because we were just like kids in a sweet shop being let loose in a studio. We didn’t care how long it took us. It was just like, ‘are you sure we’re getting paid for this?’. It was such a joy to play what we wanted and have on who we liked and do the little bits of comedy sketches or whatever. It was just such a laugh. We felt like we’d won the Lottery really.
“I think that a lot of the template for what we did for a very long time was set pretty early on on that show,” he adds. “Probably, we stuck to it a bit too rigidly, which is why the breakfast show didn’t work too well because we tried to make that the same sort of thing.”
Mark and Lard’s ill-starred spell as hosts of the Radio 1 breakfast show, when they were drafted in to replace the wayward Chris Evans, lasted a mere eight months during 1997, although it was actually a thing of rare, albeit not crowd-pleasing, wonder. Following on from that, they took over the Radio 1 afternoon slot, a much more comfortable fit, and to far greater success. “In a roundabout way, we got there to the afternoons and it all worked out well, so we were lucky. We survived. With the breakfast show, I have come in retrospect to see failure on that grand a scale as something noble, but it was pretty harrowing at the time.”
Reflecting on these experiences for Radio 1‘s anniversary has been a positive experience for Radcliffe, though. “I’m very proud of all that stuff, very happy to talk about it and very keen to celebrate it, because without doing all that neither me nor Marc [who now hosts his own late-night 6 Music show] would be doing what we’re doing. That was the channel that took us through to where we are now, and the popularity and success of that show is why were still employed and in demand.”
All told, Radcliffe seems to be in a very happy place with his career right now, and fronting Galleon Blast fits in very nicely. “Playing pop-rock covers or originals or whatever – that’s fine, and whilst I’m not knocking people who do it, I think for me personally I’d feel self-conscious doing that now. But dressing up as a pirate – well, it’s rather like the radio shows I do. For me it’s still, ‘take the music very seriously but don’t take yourself very seriously’. And that seems to have been the code by which I’ve lived and worked for a very long time.”
Radio 1 Vintage on BBC iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p059cwkn
Follow Mark on Twitter: @themarkrad