Andy Kershaw – No Off Switch

This is the autobiography of someone who seriously knows his onions musically: someone who I can credit with giving me something to dream about and think about, someone who planted some of the canes to wrap the tendrils of my very nascent social and cultural persona around.

 

OK, before we start reviewing let’s get one thing out of the way. Despite a certain affinity with the author of this book for being a cussed and opinionated Lancastrian, I’m not looking for a scrap and - given what we review on this site – I hope I don’t sound like a hypocrite when I say that John Peel’s famous late night show wasn’t the be all and end all of a teen’s musical education. We all loved it, we used to tape it and then coyly show the C120s (yes, those, the long tapes, remember them?), on the college bus, but to suggest that he didn’t drive you (ok, me) up the wall with endless Wedding Present or 14 Iced Bear sessions, or baffle you with some (for my era at least) Napalm Death – who were clearly shite chancers – is to put too much of a rose-tinted gloss on the past. (It’s the same when 40 somethings talk lovingly of being football casuals… if you’ll excuse the pun it’s just balls for the most part.)

In any case, to quote Peter Cook, after a while, you started to seek yet further kicks. And I think – certainly in giving some sort of context for this review - it’s vital to say that besides Peel there were three others who made a profound difference to the musical output of the BBC, and to my appreciation of sounds that were far out. These shows were Robert Sandal’s Mixing It on BBC Radio 3, Steve Barker’s brilliant On The Wire on BBC Radio Lancashire and Andy Kershaw’s BBC Radio 1 show. All had their strong points, all the presenters seemed braver and cheekier somehow than Peely, all introduced a very wide range of music and none were particularly hung up about playing old stuff – and in an era where you just could not get hold of(say)Prince Far I, Faust, or D.A.F.’s first LP, or didn’t really have the resources to check out if Crazy Horse were this great band everyone whispered about, OR couldn’t afford that Bhundhu Boys re-release – this was a very, very big thing indeed. Make no mistake about that.

So there, that’s the ground established. This is the autobiography of someone who seriously knows his onions musically: someone who I can credit with giving me something to dream about and think about, someone who planted some of the canes to wrap the tendrils of my very nascent social and cultural persona around. And if this book was an in depth examination of his musical tastes – with reference points to his life and travels along the way, (you know, at least 3 chapters on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan alone), I’d be more than happy, even if you weren’t. But it’s not. It’s less and more.

For one, No Off Switch is a rattling, sometimes bumpy read, and very much in keeping with Kershaw’s famous (and often combustible) honesty behind the mic as well as a written demonstration of his chatty presenting style. As he’s never been one to hide his feelings or opinions, this method can be supremely entertaining if a tad unnerving. Kershaw switches – often with a bewildering pace, and I suspect without fully realising it - between a whole host of literary approaches. We get anecdotes and confessions, explanations in sotto voce, and a mix of matter-of-fact reportage with some brilliant, heart-felt descriptions, (check out passages on his time by the track at motorcycle races and his time in Haiti), or just plain grandstanding and slagging off. We get entertaining nuggets often verging on the surreal, (the Carol Vorderman bit) and some long drawn out “pub-man” tales; all the while inserting nicknames, or giving out a wigging to someone or painting pen pictures of larger than life morons: (the guy Magruder at the Rolling Stones Roundhay Park gig in 1982 is a chateau bottled example).

In terms of talking about his parents and his recent and well publicised family travails, this full throttle approach is both endearing but also slightly unnerving, in that at times you wonder precisely why, despite always admiring his openness, he needs to tell you such matters so forthrightly in his book. Sometimes you want to give him a good shake and say give over lad, and this reviewer is certainly very wary of jumping down on any side of a fence when it comes to assessing other people’s relationships. In this regard there’s nowt so queer as folk. But I’m certain his narrative is not driven by any manipulative form of justification or an overt plea for sympathy. Still, at times it feels as if you are also dragged into the Kershaw whirlwind, wondering when Andy’s going to bring you down gently.

So it’s more than you bargained for in this respect, (and no I’m not going to go to find the blue disabled parking sign - acting as a surrogate plaque commemorating where Andy “did it” with his then ladyfriend), but it’s less when you are really engaged and want to find out more. Andy Kershaw has tried to pack it all in, and in terms of overall pace and narrative both he and his editorial team have done a damned fine job. And I really mean that. I hope I don’t sound patronising but this is a great general, coffee table read, if you don’t know much about him.

However, with the bits about Wunnerful Radio One deejays, or what went on with (the truly great) John Walters, I’d L.O.V.E. Love there to be at least another 400 pages’ worth of anecdote, grit and bitumen: just as a sort of delayed emotional pay back for having to listen to the atrocities of Steve Wright or Simon Bates on the school bus… But hey, you can’t have it all. In addition there is a radio play (of 5 hours’ duration at the very least) or a 500 page “alternative comic strip”, just waiting to be penned, called Room 318. But again, I digress. So we have what we have and as I’ve – hopefully - pointed out there’s a lot to enjoy. The best parts for me are his adventures in Haiti (some of which just sound insane), the funny meet up with Christopher Hitchens in North Korea, and his summation of the tragic story surrounding the Bhundhu Boys, a band I remember hearing on his show and being rooted to the spot, and their spiritual fulcrum, Biggie Tembo, is truly moving.

Overall, very enjoyable stuff indeed.