"ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK!" GLORIOUSLY UNFETTERED,
RELIGIOUSLY UNCOMPROMISED, A BROADCASTING REVOLUTION, DANNY
BAKER'S WEEKEND SALVOS ON THE REVAMPED RADIO ONE WERE THE
JEWEL IN THE BIRTIAN CROWN. NOW, WITH THE RATINGS SLUMP, IT'S
CRUCIFIXION TIME. "I WORK BETTER IN A SIEGE MENTALITY.
THIS SHOW WORKS!"
"YOU'VE GOT AN EXCLUSIVE HERE. This could be the last
show." Just fifteen minutes to go before his 10 o'clock
airtime and Danny Baker offers this announcement in his characteristically
airy fashion. Long time Baker observers, and having known
him since he ran One Stop Records in South Molton Street back
in 1975, I count myself as one, are apt to take these pronouncements
lightly. He used to announce his departure from G.L.R. regularly,
signing off one weekend with a convincing farewell that jammed
the switchboard, only to return the following week without
His career as NME hack, scriptwriter, TV presenter and DJ
have built on his ability to elevate whims into categorical
statements, kinks of personal taste into emphatic principles,
to talk about trivia as if it were of enormous import and
to scatter heavy issues like so much fluff. But at the end
of the week where he's come under fire from an unholy alliance
of sacked DJs ("Radio One's Norman Lamonts" as one
insider describes them), along with record pluggers concerned
that their cosy relationship with Radio One is threatened,
gleeful commercial stations seeing their audience share increase
and tabloid editors keen to make a meal of the man who sells
the Daz, he's clearly winded.
A Thursday meeting with Radio One's Controller Matthew Bannister,
the man who has staked the future of his station on the talents
of a new breed of presenter of whom Danny Baker is probably
the most prominent and certainly the most quotable, had been
uncomfortable. The audience numbers in what had previously
been Radio One's most popular slot, when more Britons are
car washing, relation visiting, superstore shopping or lying
abed and available to listen, had continued their downward
trend. The qualitative research had indicated that many of
Radio One's listeners found Baker's show unfathomable. He
talks over the records. He sounds as if he doesn't approve
of Radio One. He doesn't play chart records. He gives people
too much information. "I give then too much information,
" he repeats incredulously. "I said, Isn't that
what people were dying for in Red Square? Or wherever it was."
He's eyeing the clock now and rifling through the piles of
CDs brought in from home for this Sunday show. "I thought,
people will expect me to be bombastic in response to this
but I thought no, I'll try and be a pro and take on board
On the Saturday he'd tried. He played a few records off the
play list. He's even played a Carter record. "Yesterday's
show was a dog. I hated it. I was putting on these records
but I was having to disengage my sensibilities, disengage
my mind." At ten o'clock he takes over from Kevin Greening
in the studio next door. His opening words - "Boo. Off
they go. See you on the other side at one o'clock" -
are probably not what Matthew Bannister had in mind when he
talked about "building an audience". He plays Earth
Wind and Fire's September. After that he opens the microphone
and seems about to make a statement about yesterday's show.
His three regular Sunday colleagues, Allis Moss, Andy Darling
and Laurie sore, look as if they're anticipating an on-air
resignation. "Having everything in the broad light of
day, I've decided there's only one policy open to me. And
that's attack-attack-attack." He slams the fader and
in comes Paul Germino's rousing Let Freedom Ring.
WAS THE DANNY BAKER CREDO when he first started doing radio
in 1988. The programme was the weekend breakfast shift on
G.L.R., the BBC's local station in London, only because they
were the only people to ask him. The bosses of G.L.R. at the
time, Matthew Bannister and Trevor Dann, were trying to position
the ailing Radio London as a grown-up rock station and Danny
looked at least as if he'd get the audience talking.
"He was very adamant about what he would do and what
he wouldn't", recalls Dann. "He said he's get to
the news on time but he wouldn't be told what to talk about
or what records to play. He had his own act and that was what
we were going to get. "It was quite common for Danny
to start the weekend breakfast show at 7am with The Ramones'
Blitzkrieg Bop "and then build it up from there."
"He broke the three cardinal rules of broadcasting,"
recalls Dann. "He always talked over records, at first
because he couldn't work the desk. You're not supposed to
rubbish the opposition, but he turned it into an art form.
And he talked about how much money he got - £70 per
G.L.R.'s small but passionately devoted audience knew they
were getting something denied to most radio listeners, and
that was a bit more than Joni Mitchell on during daytime.
These were the days when another unemployable called Chris
Evans was running the riskiest, most delirious radio ever
heard in Britain, starting every week with the theme from
Happy Days and then, third record in, playing the Sanford
Townsend Band's Smoke From A Distant Fire, every week. Even
tolerant managers like Dann and Bannister had to rein him
in occasionally, like the time he launched a phone-in called
Name That Git in which he invited women who'd been taken advantage
of by married men t ring in and name them on air.
G.L.R.'s money may have been derisory but it was the only
place that was going to allow Danny Baker to do what he thought
DJs did. "I'm not a radio listener. I actually thought
out of pure innocence that you took in a big bunch of records
and just barked up a show for three hours."
he was proposing to do nobody had ever done before, not at
least, in Britain. Broadly speaking, there are two types of
DJ in this Country. There are the populists, the personalities
who got their start at Butlins and will do anything at all
to maximise their personal popularity. They see themselves
as entertainers and their idea of perfect programming means
music that will ingratiate them with the widest possible public.
That means Meat Loaf, Whitney Houston and Jennifer Rush's
The Power of Love.
Then there are the elitists, those who see themselves as being
almost as involved in the music business as in radio. Their
job is evangelism, though they preach largely to the converted.
Their idea of perfect programming is music, which will integrate
them with the narrowest possible public. That means The Boo
Radleys, The Fall and "later tonight, Cud in session".
Both varieties of presenter have traditionally worked with
producers, the first lot because they weren't very introduced
in music anyway and the latter group because they had a tendency
to identify far more readily with musicians than with the
demands of their audience. With the massive growth of "narrowcast"
commercial stations in the late '80s the balance of power
tilted even further away from the DJ in favour of playlist
committees and computerised running orders.
These work as follows. The Head of Music at a station works
out a template for an ideal, say, drive time show. This might
go Top 40 hit, oldie, dance record, weather flash, climber,
weepie, new top 40 hit and so on. When new records are added
to the playlist their basic characteristics (tempo, male or
female, dance-orientated, hard ending or fade, etc.) are logged
in. Press a button each day and the computer will then spew
out an ideal drive time show for the date in question. If
this sounds antithetical to the spirit of popular music then
it is, but it's probably not as bad as the list that would
come out if you left it to the presenter, most of whom have
dismal and dismally obvious taste.
Gary Davies's last Radio One show preceded one of Baker's
first. Gary bade tearjerking farewells to his colleagues and
his listeners, recalled what a privilege it had been to serve
them and then closed with the record that he considered appropriate
to such a weighty moment, the full eight minutes of Layla.
Baker waited until the very last chord had faded away and
then came in. "And if you tune to Virgin 1215 you can
hear that again and again and again and again
And he played The Beatles Rain. Danny Baker won't wear playlist
science but neither does he fall into the alternative trap
of thinking his job is to act as a shop window for the music
industry's new product lines. This week he plays Elvis Costello's
new single but points out that he thinks "it will hit
the charts with a loud flubbing sound". When the British
media succumbed from end to end with Zooropa fever, Baker
not only didn't play it, but felt bound to point out how crap
it was. One of the most liberating moments of his life, he
says, was when he felt able to stand up and say that he didn't
Occasionally a less-than-impressive record will sneak through
and he'll pull it off halfway. On one G.L.R. programme he
invited in Mark Perry, his old Sniffin' Glue partner, to talk
about the old days. Perry, who still traded in a small way
under the Alternative TV name, inevitably had a new single
he wished to play. Danny gave it about a minute and then whipped
of off in front of his old friend. It's this impatience with
compromise, this impatience with anything, which makes his
show so uniquely attractive to the people who like it and
so impenetrable to those brought up on the traditions that
colour the work of everyone in British radio from Simon Bates
to Mark Goodyear. The only broadcaster who made even less
effort to be liked was Chris Morris (now a national figure
through The Day Today), and his truly savage show was the
only competitor Baker was happy to defer to.
Baker's programmes, first on G.L.R., then on Radio Five and
now on Radio One, have worked on the premise that the best
record is the one Danny wants to hear right at the precise
moment that Danny wants to hear it. It didn't ought to work
but it does, partly because he's heard it all, discarded most
and forgotten none of it. The ideal Danny Baker record can
come from any musical era but it will probably be brisk, tuneful,
half-forgotten and worthy of remark.
I ask him to name five great radio records and he comes back
with Phil Collin's Heat On The Street ("it just is"),
Brooklyn Owes The Charmer by Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell's Free
Man In Paris, LeeDorsey's Eeny Meeny Mini Mo and Ray Charle's
Mess Around. "I'm not trying to educate people or show
off my record collection. These are just records that work
like a steam train. Everything else can flag but those will
always whip it up again." But there's more to it than
that. We all have friends who have the irritating habit of
trying to get us to listen to music. Danny Baker is one of
those fortunate individuals who can carry it off without alienating
"When I first joined Radio One, before we had the nightmare
we're having now, they said would you like to contribute to
our roaster of records that should be on an eternal playlist.
I thought of those five but couldn't get any further because
they won't work for everyone." For today's show he has
upwards of 50 CDs. While one is playing he is constantly peering
at track lists, taking discs out of their jewel cases and
sorting them into piles, changing his mind and putting them
away again. Out of thousands of options this morning he will
find time for George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, Sting's new
single and The Clash's Safe European Home. The new Morrissey
will be followed by Abacab, Spindoctors, Creedence, T.Rex.,
The Proclaimers, The Ramones' Surfin' Bird, Jackson Five's
Rockin' Robin, The New Dylans and many others. 40 minutes
into the programme, mixing from Mary Chapin Carpenter's He
Thinks He'll Keep Her to Carlene Carter's I Fell In Love,
he looks at Allis Moss and smiles. "I'm enjoying this.
I may not quit."
By this point the Danny Baker show has set out it's stall
for the morning. Listeners are invited to guess which of a
number of statements are authentic David Icke. The answer
is "I am a snowplough". There's a man here who claims
he played darts with Freddie Mercury, another who reckons
he got drunk with the lead singer of The Stylistics who, apparently,
drank pints of lager with scotches tipped into them. He punches
a cartridge and Laurie's distinctive American tones deadpan
"Radio One - your kick boxing station". Is it true
that the theme tune of the Moroccan ski-jumping team is Wind
Beneath My Wings? Somebody calls with the urban myth about
the boil that burst to disgorge strange insects. Allis pursues
an item from a previous programme about how you can calculate
the temperature from listening to the number of clicks made
by a cricket.
When he takes calls he stands and waves his arms around, as
if wafting the conversation along. Somebody met Black Lace,
somebody else Tom Jones. "Who says Radio One's not at
the cutting edge?" He's impatient with flannel, whether
from guests or from callers. Don't be cute. That's the deal.
That one died like a louse in a Russian's beard. The previous
week he slaughtered a man who wanted to propose to his fiancée
on the air. "You just want to get on the radio, don't
you?" Then there are the hapless souls who ask to make
a dedication and are left, twisting in the wind, trying to
name all their acquaintances as Baker keeps completely silent.
"Hello, Danny. Danny? Are you there, Danny
While the music is playing he works furiously, shuffling
and re-shuffling his little packs of CDs and regularly consulting
black book containing neatly typed details of much of the
schtick he's come out with in the last few years. Radio is
the ideal medium for his ornate windups, bizarre intimations,
daydreams and non-sequiturs. If you're out shopping right
now just go up to the counter and you can have £30 of
goods for nothing. It's all part of a Radio One promotion.
Can a CD machine play a pizza? Do you want the Top 40 singles?
You can have mine. Congratulations, you've won a set of drums.
Today he talks about precisely how relieved he was that the
letter he impulsively sent to John Gotti's wife came back
postage due. The thought trails off as the music slams in.
Because self-operating DJs are left to drive the desk (lining
up the next record, watching the timings, playing in the jingles
and trails) they quickly develop the knack of talking without
thinking. In most cases this comes out as a ribbon of tripe.
Danny Baker, on the other hand, is better at coming up with
lines off the top of his head than he is thinking about them.
The format of the show ensures he is always talking to somebody
(callers, Alice and, most effectively with his Saturday sparring
partner Danny Kelly) and never just the listener. Today he
chides a slow caller with fact that he first heard a particular
story from a cab driver "who omitted all the flabby detail,
a gift I see not given to our Tim." He's very pleased
when he gets to the end of sentences as felicitous as that.
The other day he had to write a TV Heroes script about bob
Harris and it took him two hours to come up with a line about
having a voice like a vibrator in six feet of sand.
makes the show, he says, is the calls. According to Trevor
Dann at G.L.R. Baker's constituency was small but devoted
and consisted of three sorts of people. Clever people who
got the gags, exact contemporaries who recognised the terms
of reference and Jack The Lads who liked to hear one of their
own on the radio. The conventional wisdom post-Radio One is
that Baker doesn't play north of Watford and that for some
people he represents everything they despise about metropolitan
Tony, who phones from Surrey to offer his theory about why
Seven-Up is so-called, is one of the partisans who have followed
Danny Baker to the national station. A solicitor in his 40s,
he's not a person who would normally be found anywhere this
place on the dial. What he likes, apart from the music, is
"he's obviously very bright, he has a good command of
ideas and the ability to express himself. I believe if you're
on the radio you have an obligation not to talk crap."
The Daily Telegraph radio critic Gillian Reynolds, a prominent
crusader for quality radio, describes him as "a rare
radio presenter. He thinks, he remembers, he connects his
view of life with that of other people. He doesn't talk down,
or up, or for effect. Sometimes he talks too much but it seldom
bothers me because he doesn't do it to hear his own voice
but just to let all his thoughts out."
Six years ago Danny Baker could consider himself lucky to
have been hired at G.L.R., and now he finds himself at the
sharp end of a debate about John Birt's new BBC. The Director
General, who has gone on the record praising Baker's "invigorating
torrents of thought," believes that the only way the
BBC can defend it's license fee and frequencies is by offering
"distinctive" services, not by duplicating the output
of commercial broadcasters. The new Controller of Radio One
was appointed with a clear mandate to defend this unique position
and Danny Baker was always part of the plan. The problem seems
to be that for every ABC1 solicitor in Surrey attracted to
Radio One by this kind of radio, there's a couple of teenagers
north of The Wash who find it merely perplexing and wonder
what happened to The Shamen.
In the pub round the corner, he looks at the options. "I'm
not in the business of building audiences. I've got this one
show. This is as good or as bad as it gets. Why would I want
to make it more popular? I enjoy expressing Osibisa and Man
as percentages. I could announce Take That dates on the show
but would you want that as a listener? You'd think, no, Dan,
I can't watch you on telly but I love you on the radio, now
you're doing this to us.
"The show is wilfully obscure and wilfully exclusive
but nevertheless it has an enormous popular side. Hats off
to Matthew for giving the audience a lot of credit and saying,
this is not going to come at you saying, Love me, love me.
I've got a contract through to October but I shall be surprised
if it lasts that long. If the show goes off the air I shall
perfectly understand it. Matthew's got a business to run.
But someone else will be happy to snap the old show up, I
"I think perhaps it would work better on Virgin which
is a rock 'n' roll station but then again I was interviewed
by Virgin and they wanted me to play their playlist. I'm an
arrogant sod in the sense I've got enough money to say to
people, no I don't want to do that. This show works. There
may be only a couple of million people who understand it -
there all your As and Bs, by the way - but there it is.
"I know the most dangerous thing you can say is that
you're too clever for your listeners. I am 36. Everything
that was in my favour six months ago is coming back to damn
me. Perhaps we overreached in thinking that we're all rock
'n' roll literate. People still aren't. It doesn't mean anything
any more. Maybe we are a generation who are hipper than our
kids. "If you took Steve Bruce of Man.Utd. and entered
him in the Men's Singles at Wimbledon, he's have a nightmare.
However it doesn't either mean that Steve Bruce can't play
football or that Wimbledon isn't a great institution. That
maybe what's happened here."
Gillian Reynolds concurs. "There are two problems with
switching him from G.L.R. or Radio 5 to Radio One. First is
that he talks to a universal audience and Radio One is clearly
targeted at only a segment of that audience. The second is
that it's like putting on a chamber concert in the Albert
Hall. You lose the intimacy."
He's adamant that he will never submit to any conventional
form of production. He brought his producers and his entire
team from Radio Five. TV is what he does for a living. Radio
is what he's best at and what he enjoys most but it's only
this kind of radio. "I do the Daz adverts and go and
perform for a load of drunken salesmen at a conference so
that I can do what I like on the radio. I own my own house.
I'm quite rich. There it is."
But how long will they continue coming through with cheques
if you're no longer so high profile? "Well, you see,
they paid me so I'm in a post-advert state," he cackles.
"I would happily do G.L.R. again. It's not about profile.
I don't need a network radio show. I work better against the
grain. The show used to be better because there was this siege
Gillian Reynolds puts him up there with Brian Redhead, Alistair
Cooke and John Arlott in the sense that he has that rare gift
of making us think we know him. The man we all know finishes
his beer and assures a grateful nation, or at least the part
of it that's listening, that he'll be on the radio forever.
"Tune into the Sandwich Islands between two and four
in the morning and you'll find me." We will Danny. We
By David Hepworth in Mojo