Interview: Marc Riley (Part 1)

By on Thursday, 22nd December 2011 at 3:00 pm

Packing up and sorting through the music collection you’ve scuttled away for years are daunting chores for anyone preparing to change locales. BBC 6music presenter Marc Riley knows this all too well: when he and his staff were getting ready for the big move from the BBC Manchester studios on Oxford Road to their shiny new digs at MediaCityUK at Salford Quays, they were faced with a dilemma. “We had thousands of CDs because we had lots of cupboards. Then we were told when we moved here, we didn’t have lots of cupboards. So that was a problem, because I pick the music for the programme, whereas lots of other programmes get the music given to them, because it’s on a computer, you know? I normally put the shows together, look at the shelves and say, ‘play that, play that’ and take stuff out of the cupboards. So what had to do, we had to take all the CDs out of the cases and put them in little plastic slips and put them in little cellophane albums. That took forever!”

I got to speak to the great man on the 1st of December in the Dock House green room, a place that few beyond the people that actually work here have seen yet, simply because the place is so new. Beyond the physical CDs that I think we all would have predicted them having, Marc also had some very interesting things that I suggested should be put in a future 6music museum: “It’s strange, it’s kind of indicative of where we are (technologically). But when I started the job, I bought lots of research books and things. Of course, I haven’t looked at them for the last 10 years because of the internet. Encyclopedia of Rock…and reggae…and all kinds of things, redundant! And whilst you don’t need them, they’re just sat on the shelf, you ignore them, and the shelf gets fuller and fuller as the years go by. And then when you’re told to leave, it’s like…this is going to take some doing. It was a big effort to move out of there, 21 years of clutter.” Sadly though instead of keeping them for posterity, some lucky charity shops in Manchester have most of Marc’s old books. Just saying, if you live round that way and you’re interested…

When I ask him how he feels in the new place at Salford Quays, he’s honest. “I was quite prepared to be miserable and moan about this place for the next 2 years, but I love it. It’s great. The studio is slightly bigger than our old studio, and the bands sound great. The gear is new to me but it’s real easy to use. So I’ve been looking for something to moan about, but I’m struggling at the moment. It’s good, I like it.” I wondered if the location – moving from near the university over to the “west”, in Salford, posed a problem. “Yeah, I just went to a friend’s leaving do, just by the BBC (on Oxford Street), funnily enough. Went out there, waited for a quarter of an hour for a cab here, took a quarter of an hour to get there, we’re only talking about a half-hour. But the bands, when they come in here, when they go straight from here to do a gig in Manchester, it’s just not as convenient. There’s no point about thinking about it, because this is where we are. And they’ll have to deal with it like we do.”

We go back to the start of Marc’s musical upbringing. “My uncle was a drummer in a band. They played village halls and things like that. He used to play music all the time, particularly like the Beatles and the usual ‘60s and the Bee Gees, and that kind of stuff. What happened was I used to watch him play along to records and I just got into what he liked. That was my first introduction (to music), through my Uncle Chris. It was the first thing I saw on tv that I thought for me was T. Rex doing ‘Ride a White Swan’ on Top of the Pops. I liked that, I knew it was something a little different, a little special. Actually, it was about a year later on David Bowie on a show called Lift Off with Ayshea, he was doing ‘Starman’ on it and I was bamboozled and blown away by him. I didn’t understand completely what I’d seen, because at that point in time, I would have been 11 years old and I didn’t know what hit me! The following week David Bowie went on Top of the Pops, when the whole Davie Bowie thing went ballistic: that’s when everyone saw him, that appearance was really what set him off. But I’d seen him the previous and I was already in, and when I saw him again, I thought, ‘I know this fella!’ Never in a million years had I ever seen anything like David Bowie. That was the thing that made me think music is very important to me, it shook me. Bowie doing that made me think, ‘this is mine, this is amazing. My parents don’t like it, and I absolutely adore it. But that’s where it all kicked off.

“Then from there, it was really seeing things on tv, because I was too young to go to gigs at that point. I saw Genesis doing ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and then Genesis became a big part of what I was listening to. I started going to gigs in 1974. The first band I ever saw was Queen, supporting Mott the Hoople. The second band was T. Rex, the third was Lou Reed, and then Mick Ronson…and that’s how I went through a really, really healthy time. A lot of people view the mid-Seventies as really terrible, everyone cites it being the reason why punk happened. Genesis and Camel, you know, some of the prog stuff. But I used to love all of that. Any show that came to town. If I couldn’t afford a ticket, I’d sneak in. I’d go to see bands I didn’t even have any awareness of, really. Backstreet Crawler with Paul Kossoff in it, and Robin Trower. I didn’t have a clue who they were but it was a gig, so I went. And then it was the second of the two legendary Sex Pistols gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester that I went to. Buzzcocks’ first ever gig, Buzzcocks were promoting it. The middle band on the bill was Slaughter and the Dogs, who I used to see play little clubs and the Sex Pistols were headlining. Though I didn’t really understand what was going on with the Sex Pistols, maybe a couple months later the punk thing getting momentum. So I was really into the punk thing at that time. I saw the Fall, became the Fall’s roadie, and then in a few months, I was playing bass for them. That’s the journey. None of everything I’ve ever done has been planned. Everything has been a lucky series of accidents. Lucky for me but not necessarily lucky for everyone else.”

Marc’s history with the Fall, if you believe Wikipedia, was acrimonious, so I had to press him for more information on what it was like being employed by Mark E. Smith. “The drummer in the band, Karl Burns, is quite a character. He had the first ever Fall shirt. I had the second; I made a stencil and made my own t-shirt. I think the first gig I ever saw them do, they opened for Penetration or Wayne County. Me and my mate Craig were blown away by them and then they became my favourite band in the world. Because I was obviously into the band, I had a t-shirt and everything, Mark E. Smith approached n a club called Rafters, which was the first place I had seen them, and he asked me and asked if I wanted to be their roadie. It involved no money, but it meant I could see them whenever they played, so that was good enough for me. I was still in school at the time, I was have been just 16 at the time. So I used to go roadie for them and I was there for every gig.

“They fell out with the bass player, they’d lost one bass player, and then by that time they’d lost a second bass player, and they asked me to join. I’m not a very good player, I still can’t play anything properly now. But it wasn’t that complicated music, and so yeah, I wasn’t 17 yet, and I was playing bass in my favourite band in the world. I was in there for 5 years, most of it was great. Mark just became more and more erratic. I mean, Mark is an erratic character, I know that he is, and he’s gotten more and more erratic, but even at that point in time, he was around 21, he already was getting a strange side to his character which made him quite hard to deal with. And he was running it as a dictatorship already at that point, and he was quite happy to have me and my mates as his backing band because he thought we would put up with whatever he did. Increasingly, I didn’t, so we fell out and we had a fight one night and stuff like that. Then we had a fight in Australia and it became quite obvious I’d not last much longer in the band. And then about 4 months later, I got my marching orders. And then, the rest of it…I formed my own band, I had a my own label, was a record plugger. And none of it was ever planned.” While he says all of this, he has this look on his face, half surprise and half thankfulness.

I am starting to think there is something inherently mystical and magical about Manchester, that nothing ever is planned in this town, but everything is fated. Why? Because who should walk in during our interview, preparing to leave the office for the day, but Stuart Maconie? Not going to lie, I was already overwhelmed sitting in the middle of the 6music Manchester green room chatting to Marc Riley, and then my favourite living author turns up, asking about drinks later at the Ritz. Apparently Marc thinks I have no idea who Stuart is…er, I do actually. Like, a lot. Embarrassingly. I’m kind of a Maconie geek. I know about the Wainwrights in Cumbria only because Stuart has climbed them all, but I don’t let on. I breathe a sigh of astonishment mixed with relief that he knows who I am. I know I look slightly petrified but I’m smiling, at least on the outside. Inside I’m dying, thinking, “oh my god, Stuart Maconie knows who I am!”

After this brief interruption, we go back to the matter at hand, the interview. We chat a bit about the live band Marc has on tonight’s show (the 1st of December), Field Music, and then asked after the Fall, how he got into radio. “I had a band called the Creepers, and I had a record label. I got to know a local guy called Tony Michaelides. He was on Piccadilly Radio, and he was also a record plugger. One day I went into his office to see if he could get me some tickets to one of his bands, which was Happy Mondays. Turns out that very day someone had just left his office, so he asked me if I wanted to be a record plugger for him. And despite the fact that I had a band and a record label, I still didn’t really know what a record plugger did. So I said, yeah, sure. And for about 3 years I worked for Tony, he looked after for bands like Massive Attack, World of Twist, the Pixies. We had the Factory label and 4 AD. So we worked with bands I really loved, like Massive Attack and World of Twist, and then some terrible…well, not terrible, bands I didn’t like, like Hue and Cry. So a bit of a mixed bag. So I had to persuade people to play records even I didn’t like, which is a difficult place to be. So I ended up starting to going to a new station that has just opened called 5 Live, then called Radio 5.

“At that point in time, they were just starting to put together a series of programmes, 5 nights a week from different parts of the country. The one that was going to come from the North of England was from Manchester, and the producer asked me if I wanted to present it, because he knew of the bands I had and liked them. I told him, I’m not a presenter: all I’d ever done on radio was interview Iggy Pop once because Tony Michaelides couldn’t do it, because he also had a radio programme. So I suggested Mark Radcliffe, who at that point was producing but used to be on Piccadilly Radio before Tony Michaelides was on there…it’s all a bit convoluted! And so Mark got the job presenting this programme, named ironically ‘Hit the North!’ after the Fall song. And then Mark, who had a lady who came in every other week just to talk about Manchester and the music scene, they didn’t really work, they didn’t gel. So they asked me to do it, and I did, we got on, and we had a laugh. It was every other week, and then it was every week, and then we got offered a nighttime show, 4 nights a week. So I did 3 of them, and I was the researcher, and I was a producer, but I was still on air. Eventually, Mark and I got a reputation as a double act and Mark and Lard, we broadcast together for 14 years and had a massive audience on Radio1. Yeah, it was ginormous. We’re talking, 8, 9 million a week. Then we did the breakfast show: some people liked it, some didn’t, we hated it. Then eventually, we were too old for Radio1 so they did a deal with Lesley Douglas, who runs 6music and Radio2. Mark Radcliffe went to Radio2 and I went to 6music. So we went our separate ways, though these days Mark Radcliffe is on 6music with Stuart Maconie. So again, as I said before, it was a happy accident, it’s just the way things went.”

As a listener, 6music has always felt to me like a really big, happy family, a group of people that not just know each other but also really likes working with one another. So I ask Marc if he feels this way too. He’s quick to give props to his fellow presenters, with the exception of someone who has departed: “No, absolutely. It is. No name, but there was someone here at the station not that long ago who stuck out like a sore thumb and nobody liked, but I don’t think he liked anyone anyway, so it was mutual. So since he’s gone, yeah, they’re a great bunch. I know Shaun Keaveny pretty well, he’s a brilliant fella. I’ve only met Lauren (Laverne) a couple of times. I don’t run into her very often. Ironically, I was telling the bosses for a long time that Lauren Laverne was so right for 6music and she had to be here, and eventually she ended on the station, and she’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve known Steve Lamacq for a long time through Radio1, obviously Mark and Stuart, the first time I ever met Mark Radcliffe was when he produced a Creepers session for John Peel. And Gideon Coe is a good mate. And then you have the people on the weekend, Guy Garvey is one of my best mates, Jarvis (Cocker) is great, I don’t know them all…Craig Charles…it sounds like I’m saying everyone is great, but they are.

“Last week we all went down to London, and everyone was there. And there wasn’t anyone there I didn’t want to talk to. So yeah, it is a happy family, and everybody’s enjoying what they do. There is much more freedom than anywhere else. The playlist, to my mind, I find the playlist to be a bit small. I don’t have to adhere to it anyway, but the 6music playlist is, by a country mile, better than any other playlist in the country that I’m aware of. And yeah, it’s a brilliant organisation. And it’s only been probably over the last 2 years that it understands what it’s supposed to be. It started off as an experiment, I think it was called Network Y? It was digital broadcasting, what is it? Put on a couple stations. Let’s put whatever we want on there and field it and see how it goes. I think 6music started as a free for all, I think everyone could play anything they wanted really, with no real structure, but great people like Phill Jupitus, Gideon Coe, Tom Robinson. Then over the years, it meandered a little bit, trying to find its feet.

“Then what really focused it was when the BBC tried to shut it down. So that really focused a lot of people’s minds. It does…the threat of redundancy focuses the mind a little bit. That really brought everybody together. Apparently a pivotal part of keeping 6music alive was, I organised a meeting for myself, Guy Garvey, Jarvis Cocker and Gideon Coe to go and see the BBC Trust and a guy, David Liddiment. We had an hour to state the case of 6music not getting shut down. And the guy from the Trust, a really amazing man named David Liddiment, he used to run Granada TV a few blocks away from here. And he was putting all the arguments on shutting the station, and none of them held up. We just completely obliterated them. At the end of it he did said, that has been most helpful, thanks very much. And we’ve since heard it played a large part on keeping the station alive. As did the listeners and all the other people at the station who did their bit.

“A lot of what went on that people don’t know about…a lot of it was very cloak and dagger, it’s a strange thing the BBC, they’re trying to shut you down and kill you, but you’re not allowed to defend yourself. So really, ostensibly, on the surface, we had to say, ‘okay, you keep on with this’, but we didn’t. The four of us went to talk to the Trust, and the listeners went mad, and the people at 6music did an awful lot to make sure what needed to be done, what could be done, was done. So that really brought everyone together. You know the cliché, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger‘? Well, it did. They said we had 700,000 listeners and it’s not enough, and then when they gave us all the publicity for free, we ended up getting over 1 million, 200 thousand. So that really took the wind out of the sails of the Director General and his team that wanted to get rid of us. So here we are, still 1 million, 200 thousand listeners and maybe there are more people who want to hear us and know about us. Maybe there isn’t, maybe there are only 1 million, 200 thousand people in Britain who want to hear us. That’s fine by me, that’s a lot of people. I know when Cerys (Matthews) was depping about a year ago, she’d play a 10-minute Noi track, you’re not going to get that anywhere else! If there are only 1 million, 200 thousand in Britain that can stand hearing krautrock at 2 in the afternoon, great! Because I’m in that 1 million, 200 thousand. And if by any chance we could get another 400,000 listeners by playing Razorlight or the Killers, no thanks. Not really interested in that. That’s me, that’s my personal view.”

Stay tuned for the riveting conclusion of my interview with Marc Riley, which posts tomorrow.

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