Tony Blackburn: The veteran DJ on the 1960s, bringing his live show to Sheffield and feeling misunderstood – ‘I don’t think people realised how much I loved music’

The weekend belongs to Tony Blackburn – on the airwaves, at least.

Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 11:49 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th February 2020, 2:41 pm

Every Friday the veteran broadcaster presents a daytime programme on BBC Radio Berkshire, then in the evening he hosts The Golden Hour on BBC Radio 2. The next morning he has to be up at 3.30am for a 6am start fronting Radio 2’s Sounds of the Sixties, and at midday on Sunday he’s at it again with a soul music show on BBC Radio London – not forgetting his pre-recorded three-hour Sunday slot on Kent-focused commercial station KMFM.

It all means that, at 76, he’s maintaining a work rate that would put those decades younger than him to shame.

“I'm pretty busy, which is nice,” he says, acknowledging the demand he’s still in more than 55 years since listeners first encountered his irrepressibly upbeat voice on the legendary offshore pirate station Radio Caroline. “Friday and Saturday is quite a day for me. I only have about four hours' sleep… luckily I don't sleep very well.”

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DJ Tony Blackburn presenting his early morning show on Radio 1. (Photo by William G Vanderson/Getty Images)
DJ Tony Blackburn presenting his early morning show on Radio 1. (Photo by William G Vanderson/Getty Images)

Blackburn will have an even more hectic weekend when he appears at Sheffield City Hall on Saturday, April 25 as part of his live tour that brings Sounds of the Sixties to the stage.

Audiences can hear an eight-piece band playing versions of more than 100 hits from the decade in a series of medleys, while Blackburn will tell stories from his long career - starting with his beginnings as a singer, to the day in 1967 when he was the first DJ to speak on BBC Radio 1, announcing the network's 'exciting new sound' at breakfast time before playing Flowers In The Rain by The Move.

"We're going all over the place, it's a really big tour," he says. "It was due to finish at Christmas but - touch wood - it's been so successful they asked if I'd like to continue it."

The 1960s was 'a very special time' for Blackburn. "So much happened in a few short years. It was a very exciting era that I'm proud to have been a part of."

Tony Blackburn. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks had a knack for writing 'very short, memorable songs', he thinks - but he hesitates to say that no-one is achieving the same trick today.

"I think that's why I'm still around," he suggests. "It's very important as a broadcaster to keep up to date. I love technology. I had one of the first sat navs in the country."

Some things have changed massively though - not least the fact that there are so many routes to fame in 2020. In the 60s, gaining a slot on Radio 1 was a virtual guarantee of stardom as there was little else to tune in to - and the job came with the chance to regularly host Top of the Pops on television.

"In order to make a name for yourself it was a lot easier in those days," Blackburn says.

30th September 1967: Tony Blackburn balancing a single on his head at the opening of Radio 1. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The pirate stations - which transmitted from ships stationed far enough from the British coast to be in international waters - were a reaction to the perceived stuffiness of the BBC and catered to the public’s demand to hear more pop and rock songs.

Did Blackburn feel like a rebel by stepping aboard Radio Caroline?

"Funnily enough no, not really," he says. "OK, we went out into the sea and we were outside this country's jurisdiction - we flew the Panamanian flag - but we were out there for a reason. If you've seen the film 'The Boat That Rocked', it wasn't that. It was really to make the point that the BBC monopoly needed to be broken. It couldn't have gone on like that. The only way was to go out there and show the Government that it was really needed. I was out there for three years and enjoyed every moment of it. It was a great way of life."

He was born in Guildford, but grew up in Poole and Bournemouth on the south coast, making him familiar with the vagaries of boats - seasickness was never an issue for him as a pirate disc jockey.

Tony Blackburn. (Photo: BBC)

"One or two of the DJs suffered from that, some of them had to leave because they couldn't take the rough seas. And it did get very rough out there. At one stage we were shipwrecked off the coast of Frinton and were taken off by the lifeguards."

The UK Government soon shut down the legal loophole that allowed the pirates to operate, and Radio 1 was born as a 'legitimate' replacement to satisfy an under-served demographic. Blackburn admits that accepting a show with the BBC felt like joining the Establishment, but says the corporation was extremely welcoming.

"They didn't say 'Now the pirate ships have closed you'll do it our way'. They said 'Look, we've been told by the Government that we've got to supply a pop music station for the kids and you guys know how to do it, so we'd like you to show us how'. Kenny Everett and I designed the first self-operating studio there, and they let us have quite a free hand. It was a big deal for us."

He's worked for the BBC in some form or other ever since, apart from a brief spell in 2016 when he was taken off air over evidence he gave to the inquiry set up following the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal. At the time, Blackburn said he had been made a 'scapegoat', but now he has only kind words for the corporation.

"They've always been very easy to work for. All the music I play I choose myself. I'm given a very free hand to just go there and broadcast which is a lot better than commercial radio nowadays, which is very restricted. Three in a row and a time check - you can't have a personality."

KMFM, he quickly adds, is an exception - his show is sponsored by P&O Ferries so gets left to his own devices and picks his own tracks there too.

Blackburn and Annie Nightingale are the BBC's longest-serving DJs now, although they're very different characters. Nightingale's playlists filled with cutting-edge dance and electronica can be found late at night on Radio 1, while Blackburn has always preferred 'the very commercial world', as he puts it - a sunny, dynamic style of broadcasting that made him the inspiration for Paul Whitehouse's toothsome comedy character Dave Nice, half of the spoof radio duo Smashie and Nicey.

"I don't think, with my telling silly jokes and being that sort of DJ, people realised how much I loved the music," says Blackburn. "I think they do now. My deep love is soul music - I did the very first soul programme in this country on Big L Radio London in 1966. In those days it was always about John Peel and things like that. Everybody assumed if you just did a daily show like I did and played pop, the music was secondary."

Peel - who died in 2004 and championed alternative music, giving bands such as The Fall, The Smiths and Pulp early exposure - would secretly have loved to have presented a breakfast show, Blackburn surmises.

"John was a strange character. He did a lot for up-and-coming groups and he was very good at what he did. But by virtue of the fact he didn't go for personality radio, he did actually create a big personality for himself."

Peel professed to dislike Blackburn, calling him 'The Antichrist' for engaging with the mainstream, but Blackburn says he wasn't bothered 'in the slightest'.

"It was up to me, at the times I was on during the day, to get a big audience. In the evening, he didn't get a big audience, but he got one that appreciated him a lot. I was completely different, more of the Radio 1 Roadshow type. He was more serious. Music is there to enjoy and have fun with. I like a good tune."

And anyway, Blackburn thinks Peel secretly respected him.

"He did say to me once, when we were just chatting, 'I don't think people realise how much you've done for soul music'. I said 'I bet you'd never say that publicly', and he said 'No, I wouldn't'. He actually, although he'd never say it, admired me for what I did."

Nevertheless it's probably fair to say Peel would have shuddered at the thought of entering I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, the ITV reality show that Blackburn won the first series of in 2002.

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," Blackburn says. "I didn't go into it to change my career or anything - I went because I was asked to, and I'd never been to Australia."

Producers were initially confused - he was a vegetarian, didn't particularly like the outdoors, and assumed everyone would retire to a nice hotel after filming had finished for the day.

"The person who was interviewing me said 'What are you doing here?' I thought that was it, but about a week later I got the call, and they wanted me to do it. It changed my life a little bit."

Blackburn accepts the media is 'going through a revolution' in the era of online streaming, but he believes radio has a bright future.

"The mistake a lot of people are panicking about - and TV's the same - is that they're chasing a younger audience which isn't there. My daughter Victoria is 22 and she doesn't listen to the radio. She's on Spotify and YouTube and things like that. When you get older, your tastes change and you grow into radio. I don't think they should worry as much as they do. There's always another audience coming up."

Blackburn also has a son, Simon, 46, and lives in Barnet, north London, with his second wife Debbie, a theatre agent.

"I never want to retire," he says. "I think it's a big mistake. I like having the day off, but I wouldn't like to be doing that the whole time. You've got to have something to work for."

See www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk/event/tony-blackburn-60s for details of Sounds of the Sixties Live and to book tickets.