BBC radio DJ Mark Radcliffe on surviving cancer, winning Kate Bush’s trust and why he’s apologised to Mike Oldfield – ‘I’m a nicer person now’
The fates dealt Mark Radcliffe a tough hand in 2018. In the space of 12 months his father died, his dog passed away, the BBC 6 Music radio show he presents with Stuart Maconie was abruptly shunted from weekday afternoons to weekend mornings and – most worryingly of all – he was diagnosed with cancer of the head and neck.
"It did feel like I was at a bit of a crossroads and, to be honest, I didn't know how I would come out of it, if at all," says Radcliffe, one of the British airwaves' foremost droll Northerners, who's thankfully in remission from his illness and last week reached the milestone of 40 years in broadcasting.
"That notion of the crossroads stayed with me – I started thinking about the concept, not only in terms of physical crossroads or moments in personal lives, but also moments in society or music where something changed, often by accident."
The idea developed into his fourth book – inevitably titled Crossroads – which he is speaking about at the Off The Shelf festival in Sheffield.
It explores the pivotal occasions in pop and rock when new movements were born and innovations forged, such as the otherworldly records produced by Joe Meek in the 1960s, the cultural impact of the Windrush generation who brought reggae to the British charts, grunge torchbearers Nirvana's breakthrough in 1991 and Kraftwerk's pioneering achievements with synthesizers.
The first chapter starts at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 near Clarksdale, Mississippi, where it is claimed blues musician Robert Johnson did a deal with the devil in return for success.
To mark his 60th birthday last year, Radcliffe took a road trip across America with two friends who had just turned the same age – they visited some of the most important sites in the history of rock'n'roll and R&B, stopping at Johnson's fabled junction on the way. This was before he began cancer therapy, which left him with little energy to do anything other than write.
"All I had to do was get treatment and recover, so I had plenty of time," says Radcliffe. "When I read it back I was quite pleased it wasn't thoroughly depressing, because there were some dark times. I can see myself reaching towards the light, escaping through the writing of it."
He needed surgery to remove a walnut-sized growth on the back of his tongue, and another the size of an apple from his neck. The first inkling he had of anything untoward came when he shaved off his beard while on holiday in Cornwall last July, noticing what he initially thought was a swollen lymph gland.
"I thought I might be doing a lot more writing because when I had the operation I had to sign a waiver in case they damaged my vocal cords and I lost my broadcasting voice," he remembers. "Mercifully, that's not happened. Of course I had no choice, you've got to go through with the treatment."
He says the book has one particularly positive message. "It really does emphasise the power of the human spirit to be able to change things. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath chopped the tops of his fingers off in a factory the day before he left to go professional. Because of that and his desire to press on he had to change the sound of his guitar, and he more or less invented heavy metal."
Iommi isn't the only legend who features in Crossroads by way of an illuminating anecdote – readers are told how Brian Eno hit upon the notion of ambient music when he was unable to turn up the volume on his stereo as he recovered in bed following a car accident, while Robin Gibb briefly quit the Bee Gees in 1969 amid much strife after the brothers recorded a double concept album intended to be about the loss of a fictional ship.
Radcliffe has interviewed many stars himself - brilliantly, Kate Bush invited him to her house in 2005 when her comeback album Aerial was released, but the enigmatic singer-songwriter doesn't loom large in Crossroads.
"I haven't written all that much about her because I know how really fiercely she likes to be private," Radcliffe explains. "The fact she let me in, in a tiny way, into her life – she did that trustingly, not to reveal too much about her to people."
He does, however, find room in the book for a sincere apology to Mike Oldfield who, in 1992, unveiled Tubular Bells II, a sequel to his blockbuster instrumental LP from the 1970s. Radcliffe, then working for BBC Radio 1, was dispatched to interview Oldfield at a concert and remarked to the musician: "Well, Mike, it must have taken you ages to come up with the title."
Oldfield responded: "Yes, listeners, the next sound you will hear is me punching him in the face."
Today Radcliffe accepts it was 'a bit stupid'.
"It was gentle really, I wasn't trying to insult him. Nevertheless, I think I was in those days 'making my way up the DJ ladder'... which sounds horrific now."
Radcliffe spent his childhood in Bolton, Greater Manchester, and played in bands before being asked to present a show on Piccadilly Radio near his home town in 1979. He later spent 21 years with Radio 1, forming a long-running on-air partnership with ex-Fall guitarist Marc Riley, who went by the nickname 'Lard'.
"When we were working on Mark and Lard a degree of irreverence was part of our modus operandi," says Radcliffe. "I think I'm a nicer person now, but back then I achieved quite a lot by being very single-minded and unwilling to compromise."
Radcliffe and Riley are among the elite band of DJs who have hosted the Radio 1 breakfast show. Their divisive stint lasted only eight months and they were axed and moved to afternoons when ratings fell.
Afterwards Radcliffe heard station bosses had a shortlist of two for the morning slot - Mark and Lard or Ant and Dec.
"It seems remarkable, that,” he says. “Although we were there, and we were available. Ant and Dec you'd have thought would have been a dream booking. I think they were desperate because Chris Evans had walked out on them. We had deputised for Chris for a couple of weeks here and there, and it had gone quite well. None of us thought it would be a failure or we wouldn't have done it. People do say they liked it a lot but I've never listened to it, so I can't really say, but it didn't feel very comfortable at the time."
Mark and Lard went their separate ways in 2004 – Riley now has his own 6 Music show.
"We see each other at work and we're perfectly pleasant and might have a chat, but we're not mates in the sense we do stuff together. I think we spent so much time together we sort of used each other up in a way, but we never fell out and haven't to this day," says Radcliffe, who fronts the Radio 2 folk show as well as his gig with Maconie.
He was not expecting the BBC to shift Radcliffe & Maconie to Saturdays and Sundays, but is annoyed at being 'misrepresented' in the press.
"I was surprised and disappointed. But more's been made of this than needs to be. It was portrayed as me saying 'Heartless BBC sacked me while I was having cancer treatment', and I didn't mean that at all. I completely accept the need for change and I embraced that the day the controller of 6 Music said 'We're moving you'. I still bought him a pint."
In any case, he says he is enjoying doing less.
"I've done a daily radio show, latterly three hours, for most of my life," says Radcliffe, who has three daughters and lives with his second wife Bella in Knutsford, Cheshire. "I bumped into the wife of a friend of mine – she's naturally a very funny woman – and she said 'I don't hear so much of you these days – oh well, you out of all people must have said enough'. I thought 'That's probably right'. I miss some of the money because I've still got kids at school and uni’, but whatever. I'll manage. Being 61 and having come through cancer, it's probably a more sensible workload for me."
Crossroads, he believes, has mapped out a direction for his own future.
"These people were really forward-thinking. They were at some kind of watershed where something changed. I feel very like that now. I don't want to do things I've done before."
He has formed an electronica band called UNE, and is off travelling to Rajasthan in India soon, but he says he doesn't have a 'bucket list'.
"I just want to be healthy and for my kids to be OK. I would really like to go to the moon... but I don't suppose that's going to happen."
Crossroads is out now, published by Canongate, priced £16.99 in hardback. Mark Radcliffe appears at Off The Shelf on Monday, October 7, at 8pm in the Foundry at Sheffield University's Students' Union. See offtheshelf.org.uk for tickets.