Sipping a cup of tea ahead of his ‘In Conversation With’ event at Liverpool’s British Music Experience, Mark Radcliffe looks better than I’ve ever seen him, which is pretty amazing for somebody in remission from cancer.
“It’s almost like it happened to someone else now,” he tells me. “I think about it in a sense of being the best and the worst thing that happened to me because it’s made me appreciate life and I’m much healthier. I don’t eat the same crap, I don’t drink very much, I lost weight and I feel good and I feel happy.”
The award-winning radio presenter, musician and author is in a typically upbeat mood as we talk about his latest non-fiction work, ‘Crossroads – In Search of the Moments That Changed Music’.
The book is a journey through some of the most pivotal tracks in history and how the musicians who wrote them arrived at their own life-changing moments. It’s also something of a personal journey for Radcliffe who took the central theme from a milestone birthday trip to the USA.
Standing at the very junction in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where American blues guitarist Robert Johnson is said to have met the devil, Radcliffe found himself facing his own crossroads. Aged 60, he had just mourned the death of his father, only to be handed a diagnosis of mouth and throat cancer.
“In the context of the crossroads, things feed in and a lot of other different things feed out, so for me, it was never my intention to have cancer,” he says. “I think that what I was trying to write was a book about embracing misfortune. Accidents, unexpected events; thing like that happen that you don’t expect and don’t want, and yet there’s a positive route out of all those crossroads.”
My favourite chapters in ‘Crossroads’ cover the origins of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Donna Summer’s orgasmic vocals and how The Beatles were the true pioneers of feedback. I tell Mark that I think it’s a great read; very funny and informative, without being too nerdy.
“What I really wanted to do was not write a book for people who are real musos,” he laughs. “I think when you’re writing a book like this it’s much better if people have heard the music.
“At first I wasn’t going to put the Beatles in, just because so much has been written about them already and how do you pick their ‘moment’? That chapter is about the first six seconds of ‘I Feel Fine’, which has strange noises and feedback before the main song kicks in.
“They left those notes on, so it’s the first instance of recorded feedback. It’s almost like the road to Sgt. Pepper starts there. It’s a tiny glimpse early on that The Beatles are clearly going to be more than a pop group. They’ve got more sonic adventures in them and that six seconds before the song starts identifies the Beatles as pioneers of experimental rock.”
The Quarrymen and the Cavern Club also get a mention in ‘Crossroads’, but Radcliffe tells me that his real connection with Liverpool’s music scene started with punk.
“We used to come over to Eric’s and then eventually I got to know Roger Eagle who came to Manchester to do the International Club. At Eric’s, I can remember seeing the Flamin’ Groovies and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers. It was a big thing for punk and even though we had Rafters and the Electric Circus in Manchester, you still used to come to Eric’s.”
This is Radcliffe’s fifth book but he is probably most famous for a prestigious radio career and was recently named as one of Britain’s all-time top broadcasters. Many will remember him and Mark ‘Lard’ Riley from Radio 1 and I think my own ‘crossroads’ moment came when I heard the music of Elliot Smith for the first time on their afternoon show.
“We really wanted to create our own world with a radio show, we wanted to make it different to anyone else and we did that for better or worse. Certainly for worse on the Breakfast Show,” he laughs. “I know that I’ve done a lot of radio programmes for many years and I’ve been there throughout a lot of people growing up. I feel really proud of all that stuff that made an impact on people’s lives.”
Currently, you’ll find Mark Radcliffe on Six Music and Radio 2 and in October he hosted the UK’s first official folk album chart, topped by Liverpool’s very own Jamie Webster.
“If we’d done the first folk album chart and the first thing was the reissue of ‘Liege & Lief’ by Fairport Convention or Shirley Collins new record that would be great, but the fact that it was someone new and young was good because it reinforces that folk music isn’t a museum piece, it’s a living breathing thing,” he says. “Someone like Jamie, who is catching the lives of people in Liverpool as they are now and reaching an audience and hitting home, that struck me as a really good thing.
“‘Crossroads’ is a very optimistic book and I think that more than ever now, we have to embrace change. I’m a firm believer in understanding that nothing lasts forever. You have to be proud and fond of the past but keep looking and moving forward.”
‘Crossroads – In Search of the Moments That Changed Music’ is out now in paperback, hardback and Ebook.
Vicky M Andrews
Feature Image Credit: Katie Huckstep