An Interview with Russell Clarke
Somewhere in the realms where entertainment meets expertise reigns BBC Radio’s Russell Clarke
When did you first realise you could write, & write well?
About ten years ago I was invited to write a half-hour contribution to a radio show in London on Pink Floyd and the response from the listeners was very, very positive so I was invited back the next week and every week after that. I’m all about the history of rock and roll and I always try and tell a story, rather than just give a whole loads of random facts. The BBC has a very dedicated audience and so word got round, especially the BBC and its local radio stations so I’ve pretty much been on every one talking about anything of rock and roll significance. I’m proud to say I am currently BBC Radio Berkshire’s go-to guy for anything rock and roll relayed. I may even be a household name in Reading!
Can you tell us about your literary output thus far?
I’ve written and presented over 300 pieces for the radio in the last ten years, mainly on BBC Radio London. I’ve tried to systematically tell the story of rock and roll in the UK from 1951 onwards so I’ve covered Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele, our earliest rock and roll stars all the way up to Acid House and Brit Pop, with everything inbetween: the Floyd, Zep, Stones and especially the Beatles. I’m a huge fan of the Beatles and there is so much to tell. A book can’t be far behind if I can find the time!
You are a transatlantic radio star – can you tell us more?
Through a few contacts, I came to the attention of a production company in San Francisco which specialises in putting together packaged shows for National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA, a bit like the BBC. When they’re doing something on rock and roll I get the call. If you think about it, some of America’s favourite music is British. They have deified the Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin way more than we ever did, so they like a British accent and luckily they like mine. They put together a 12-15 minute package to tell the story and edit ion other people they have interviewed, so I can honestly say I appeared alongside Eric Clapton,. Pete Townshend and Anjelica Huston (though didn’t actually meet any of them).
What is it about Rock music that makes you buzz with so much enthusiasm?
I don’t know why but I find it as fascinating now as I did when I first saw T.Rex or Marvin Gaye on Top of the Pops when I was 9 years old. When I was at school, all the other kids got the Beano or Dandy every week; I got the New Musical Express and my best mate Pete got the Melody Maker so we swapped. Each week from the age of 11 to 18, I read two music papers a week and just had that kind of brain that could remember all the detail. I’m pretty useful in a Quiz Night, I have to say. But it goes hand in hand with the music. I bought my first single in 1972 and every time I got 40p I would buy another one. When I got more money I progressed the LPs. I had an overdraft of course when I left University, but it was because I bought so many records and not because I drank too much beer. Although I did drink a lot of beer at University.
Which of the Rock eras do you specialize in & why?
I confess it’s a little while since I kept an eye on the charts and I don’t buy a lot of new music – although my stepdaughter has made sure I know who Stormzy is – so I tend to specialise in just about anything before the mid-90s. I like the history or rock and roll and how it fits into its time. Rock and roll started in the mid-50s when after years of austerity and bombsites, young kids just thought we want something exciting and a bit exotic. And then Elvis Presley appeared with Heartbreak Hotel and kids were never the same again. The same thing happened in the 60s when the Beatles swept away all who came before with their songs and their energy. All of a sudden the World went from black and white to colour. The Seventies is my decade really, I was a teenager and came of age but what tumultuous times they were. If the music hadn’t been so good, I wonder how we would have got through them. The Eighties were just enormous fun.
What is it about doing your radio shows that you love the most?
I think it’s the opportunity to tell a story. I love all rock and roll and whilst I may not be a huge fan of someone’s music, I am almost certainly a fan of their story: where they came from, how they got a break, where they lived, where they made their records, all that kind of stuff. It’s also very rewarding when people write in and say how much they enjoyed the show and how much the music of whoever I’ve talked about means to them. It means I chose my subject well.
You’re stranded on a desert island for an indeterminate amount of time with only three albums & a solar-powered CD player – what would they be?
My All-Time Favourite Album of All-Time is The River by Bruce Springsteen, which I bought for £5.99 on the day it came out in 1980 and played to death for months after. I’ve never really tired of it to be honest, it’s rather timeless. ABC’s The Lexicon of Love is really about 1982 but I was a young guy, quite fancied myself in a gold lamé suit – we all did in 1982 – had the correct hair and let’s face it every track is a belter. Finally I’d have to have a Beatles album. They are our Civilisation’s favourite pop group, so I’d take a Greatest Hits collection or if that’s not allowed I’d take Revolver, their finest LP.
You’re debuting at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; what are you bringing to the table?
If I’m bringing anything it’s the enthusiasm I have for telling a story. We all know who Elvis Presley is and certainly what he became, but I tell his story from when he was a kid, how he accidentally invented rock and roll as we know it and became the biggest star in the world. I hope everyone else will be as amazed as I was when I managed to link Elvis to another internationally famous singer by just an awesome bit of trivia. I can’t tell you what it is, you’ll have to come to the show for that, but I’ll give you a clue: it’s something to do with his trousers. That’s just the start of the Chain of Trivia. We’ve got stories of Nobel prizes, lawsuits, radio bans and asteroids, all the way to Freddie Mercury and Queen ten steps later. At the very least, you’ll leave the show knowing a hundred things more than you did when you went in!
What is the biggest obstacle you overcame while putting the show together?
I cant honestly think of any obstacles. We’ve been coming to the Fringe for years as punters and I had already developed this show which I’d done in London on several occasions and just thought it might work in Edinburgh. Once you’ve reached that point, you’ve got to find yourself a promoter/venue and you’re off. Luckily the guys at SpaceUK liked my pitch and we did a deal on the Surgeons Hall on Nicholson Street. I’ve seen all sorts of shows there over the years so I know the place well and can recommend their pizzas. I’m really looking forward to spending three weeks in this city. It’s just fabulous when the Fringe is on.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show to somebody in the street…
You look intelligent, you look curious, you like rock and roll. Put all that together and find out things you never knew about some of the most significant rock and roll stars of the last 60 years, starting with Elvis. There’s more trivia than you can shake a stick at!