Gary Crowley, Ruling the (Air)Waves
Very few people have championed the amount of soon-to-be world famous artists as legendary broadcaster, Gary Crowley. And no one has done it with such joy and enthusiasm. From his teenage post punk fanzine days to Britpop and beyond, Gary’s illustrious career is filled with great stories and even greater sounds. Into Creative recently caught up with the dapper doyen of the decks and convinced him to spill the beans on forty odd incredible years as a cultural chronicler and London’s finest platter spinner.
George: A Fab Four loving estate kid with acting ambitions, growing up in the pre punk, subculture rich London of the mid seventies. Was there one specific event which made music the overwhelming focus of your attention?
Gary: Yes. Watching an episode of Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love was a turning point for me. This episode was completely devoted to the Beatles and I just fell in love with them. The music, the humour. They just outshone every other band who were around at that time in the mid 70s. I immediately started buying as many Beatles records as I could afford with my pocket money as well as visiting the local library to read up about them. Everything in my life became about the Beatles. I was in the club and I think, subconsciously, that made my decision to be involved with music somehow.
As the tectonic plates started pushing glam and hard rock into a sonic sinkhole, the new frontiers of punk, new wave and soul, were being staked out all over these islands. Music obsessed teenagers, like Bobby ‘Bluebell’ Hodgens in Glasgow, in every town in the country started writing fanzines featuring bands – and tribes – who were not only new but accessible. Tell me about ‘The Modern World’.
Punk was such an important time for me. I was 15 years of age and absolutely primed for it. That period of one’s life is, of course, so important for a whole raft of reasons and when Punk/ New Wave hit in 1977, I knew straight away that this was MY time, as being a Teddy Boy was for my father.
The energy and excitement was so exciting and infectious, it inspired me and my school pals to start our own fanzine called ‘The Modern World‘. We wanted to be involved somehow and this was our way. Being in the centre of London helped us in so many ways. I literally bumped into Joe Strummer outside of our school and asked him for an interview – to which he said yes – while the West End, and clubs like the Marquee, 100 Club and Vortex, were a 20 minute bus hop away. So, Soho and the West End became our playground.
On leaving school, you briefly worked for Decca Records before having the opportunity to replace Danny Baker on the phones at the NME’s offices in Carnaby Street. From fanzines to the summit of the British music press in just over a year. Working with Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and the like must have been some apprenticeship for you. Can you give us a taste of that remarkable experience?
Through working at Decca, I had to drop new records off for review at the music papers like the NME. Not that they reviewed them as they were mostly awful! But I did get to know Fiona and Val on the NME reception who asked if I fancied being their new switchboard operator as Danny (Baker) was going on to the staff as a full time writer. I bit their hand off and immediately said yes.
On my first day, editor Neil Spencer presented me with a pair of Dr Martens loafers then the following week, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill gave me a signed copy of their book, The Boy Looked at Johnny, as a way of welcoming me to the NME.
I knew that I’d made the right decision!
Remember, this was 1979 and British Post Punk was sizzling. There seemed to be a never ending stream of exciting new bands bursting out of cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Coventry, Glasgow, Bristol etc being written about by young writers like Adrian Thrills, Paul Morley, Ian Penman as well as amazing photographers like Pennie Smith, Anton Corbyn and Jill Furmanovsky continuously stopping by. I was 17. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
By the early eighties, your infectious enthusiasm had caught the attention of the big wigs at Capital Radio who made you the youngest radio DJ in the UK while you were still in your teens. From your ‘Tuesday Club’ show, you not only championed an incredible number of up and coming artists, but you opened concerts and toured with them too. What was it like to ‘ride the wave’ with bands, like Wham! for instance, who were on the cusp of worldwide stardom?
I joined Capital in 1982…Britain’s youngest DJ at the time (as me and my pals would joke!) and was given a weekly radio show to attract what the station had been losing, the younger audience. This was far out news in early 1982!
On shows like the Tuesday Club, the Magic Box and later the Red Hot Club, we played a mix of the exciting, vital Pop being made while mixing in quirky oldies with the exciting Rap and Hip Hop music that was blowing in from America.
We were the first to play Culture Club, Wham! and a whole raft of artists who would later go onto become household names while also being a champion of that terrific wave of Scottish bands from the first half of the 80s. I was in the perfect place at the right time. And as I was out at clubs and gigs almost every night, I’d constantly be hearing of new signings.
Guests on the programme would include the likes of the Style Council, Malcolm McLaren, Everything But The Girl, Big Audio Dynamite, Dusty Springfield and Elton John, who flew in especially from the South Of France to guest present the show.
We also began the Junior Best Disco In Town, which became a must attend to London’s teenage cognoscenti. It was around this time that I first started presenting on TV, an opportunity I grabbed with both hands.
Though your profile steadily grew, as the pop dominated 80’s gave way to the Britpop 90’s, the passion for uncovering new music remained your stock in trade. From three hundred people at Bogart’s in South Harrow to introducing Oasis to a quarter of a million fans at their career high Knebworth appearance a decade later, what was it that kept you in demand while many of your early contemporaries had moved on or fallen out of fashion?
Playing new bands/artists has been important to me since day one. And having that platform to be able to do that is something that I’ve never taken for granted. Landing at BBC Radio London (which subsequently became GLR) in the late 1980’s was an exciting time in radio, with the likes of Chris Morris, Emma Freud, Johnnie Walker, Danny Baker and Chris Evans all presenting entertaining, groundbreaking shows.
My Sunday afternoon show became a platform for new and emerging artists, featuring new sounds coming out of London but also from America and Manchester, of course.
One of the staple features of the show was the weekly Demo Clash, where band’s demo tapes would be aired and battle to return the following week. The winner was chosen by the number of votes they received from the public. Suede, Dodgy and Bush were just some of the bands who received their first radio exposure via the show, with groups like the La’s, Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Saint Etienne all regular guests. It was such an enjoyable show to present.
Was there any band or artist in particular which stood out?
I always loved interviewing Bjork. I can remember her coming into the GLR show around the release of “Debut”. She had her little boy with her who was absolutely delightful so we ended up talking about dinosaurs for a large part of the interview!
Over the last few years, in addition to your regular shows on BBC Radio London and Soho Radio, you found the time to put together a superb pair of compilation albums; The Punk and New Wave Box Set and Gary Crowley’s Lost 80’s. Did revisiting the artists and the tracks which featured on these albums represent a kind of full circle journey for you?
Definitely. And both were such fun to put together. The Gary Crowley’s Punk and New Wave set was compiled alongside with my pal Jim (Lahat) who’s my radio other half on the Soho Radio show. His enthusiasm and knowledge, I’d like to think, complimented mine and hopefully made for a rewarding end result. John Peel’s influence, by the way, is all over that box set as we were both massive fans of his late night radio show as kids and would’ve heard the bulk of the tracks for the first time on there.
The Lost 80’s collection just seemed like the perfect follow up to the Punk and New Wave one and focuses largely on the first half of the decade and that rewarding, eclectic time for music.
A lot of the media continues to feed us this image of the 80s being just about big hair and naff Pop but the way I remember it, that period saw an ear bending, disparate, at times schizophrenic mix of contrasting styles resulting in some memorable, enduring Pop. Plus the tribal late 70’s music lovers were opening their ears to new sounds. A lot of the tracks featured on those records, I would’ve championed on my Capital shows.
The house is burning. You’ve got enough time to grab three records. Go for it!
Ferk! Three Feet High and Rising by De La Soul…Have to be a Fabs album and today, it’s A Hard Day’s Night.
Flames are lapping…
Cashier No. 9 – To the Death of Fun. Produced by David Holmes. Takes me back to happy times in 2011.
As you move into a remarkable sixth decade as one of the UK’s undisputed champions of new music – and showing no signs of letting up – what’s next on the GC horizon? And can we expect a (long overdue) autobiography?
There is talk. As a wise man once said…. “you never know!”
Finally, the question everyone wants answered. Why did you convince Weller to break up the Jam?
Haha! Shurely shome mishtake!! It weren’t me guv!!!
Listen to Gary Crowley every Saturday on BBC Radio London and on GC’s Punk & New Wave Show at Soho Radio.
His excellent compilation albums – Gary Crowley’s Punk and New Wave and Lost 80’s are available HERE.