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About five years ago, Andy Kershaw was very much in the news, but unhappily it was for all the wrong reasons. Anybody reading this who is aware of what he was going through at the time will be as reassured as I am that he has bounced back, in his own words, as strong as a monkey's tail. If you missed it, it can be dredged up online if you really need to...but I for one hope he can draw a line under all that. Anyway....
'The boy Kershaw', as his hero and later friend John Peel sometimes wryly referred to him on air, has had a pretty remarkable life. He's been - taken a deep breath - a concert promoter while studying politics at Leeds University, Billy Bragg's driver across most of Europe, a presenter on BBC TV and successively also on Radios 1, 3 and 4, a news correspondent reporting from Iraq, Haiti, Angola and Rwanda, and also done time as a guest of Her Majesty.
By turns this memoir is very funny, very sad and very moving. Born in Rochdale in 1959, like many a boy growing up in the 1960s and 1970s he was fascinated by such delights of the time as manned space, the Observer's Books series, starting with the one on birds, and music, the first single he purchased being one by Slade. A career in music promoting and then broadcasting brought him face to face with many of the great, the good, the thoroughly agreeable and the occasionally downright appalling. There are glimpses of Bob Geldof at his most childish and embarrassing, Bob Dylan being handed a jar of hedgerow jam as a present (in Andy's words, the reaction was as if he had given a mobile phone to a monkey), and surely most hilarious of all, Frankie Howerd finding him irresistible in black leather trousers at a party and literally chasing him up and down the stairs.
A few precious broadcasting myths are shattered, such as the red fizzy pop he and his fellow 'Whistle Test' presenters were drinking while presenting the new year's eve edition of the programme as they were not allowed to quaff alcohol (it was red, but not fizzy pop), and the Radio 1 DJs' Christmas Day lunch being pre-recorded in September. Why did Andy have to be forcibly removed from the 1984 festive shinding before he nearly strangled one of his senior colleagues? And how did he manage to track down the man who was captured on tape as he famously shouted 'Judas!' at a Bob Dylan concert in Manchester in May 1966, over thirty years after the event? Read the book...
Needless to say, he waxes eloquently on his tastes in music. Some bands get short shrift, and early on he reveals why he salutes the legacy of the Rolling Stones more than the Beatles, or that of Little Richard more than Elvis Presley. A few years later he discovered African music. It is impossible not to feel fired by his sheer love of the sounds he discovered when he evidently found more than ample fulfilment in sharing with his listeners the records he lovingly hunted down in some of the most unlikely places, and was thrilled to be recording sessions with previously little-known musicians whom he had travelled almost to the ends of the earth to meet. He is equally forthright, and pulls no punches as to why, about rap 'music' [sic] and its endorsement of violence towards women, and likewise with the trendy top brass at Radio 1 who unthinkingly embraced it on the grounds that that was what their audience demanded. Give 'em what they want was their bottom line, and who cares if it's (a) cr*p and (b) demeaning to about 50% of the population. When he was sacked by Radio 1, the decision was condemned by a Member of Parliament in the House and at least one national newspaper, but John Peel remained silent. (In fairness to the late Mr Ravenscroft as-was, it should be pointed out that Andy had gone very public with his dismissive opinions on Peel's presentation of 'Home Truths' on Radio 4. Tit for tat?)
Although it has its serious side, much of the material dealing with his broadcasting days is very amusing, yet the real meat comes in his despatches from foreign lands, where famine and genocide were horribly the order of the day. In Haiti, a case of mistaken identity led to him briefly gazing down the barrel of a revolver, until his would-be killer was shown his passport and bought him a drink instead.
Just as poignant on a personal level is the chapter dealing with his domestic problems, which led to court orders, loss of contact with his children, imprisonment, recording an interview with John Humphrys which was suddenly pulled from the schedules after objections from his ex-partner, and having to catch his own fish to eat as he was so broke. It's heartwarming to read that he has surely placed that chapter in his life firmly behind him.
It is an extremely lively, well-written, energetic read from a man who has lived life to the full, scaled the highs and plumbed the depths, and is passionate about almost everything he encounters, either positively or negatively. Incidentally, it was a friend who gave him the title of the book, telling him that his trouble was that 'he had no off switch'. While I didn't always follow his programmes as attentively as I might have done, I loved this book - and I think the media needs more people like him.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on other sites]
A book that is in turns fascinating and exhausting to read. 'No off switch' is the perfect title and you will be left wondering how Andy has managed to fit so many careers into just one life. From Promoter to Roadie to Broadcaster to Journalist, and from music to serious war reporting. Andy's effervescent writings about numerous what he would never call 'world music' bands inspired me to check some of them out and broaden my own horizons.
Knowing a little of his back-story I found my self awaiting the point at which his life fell apart with trepidation. Andy deals with the very public break up of his relationship and his subsequent breakdown as honestly as he does his rise to proportional stardom. Although acknowledging he was the author of his own misadventure I did feel that the one sentence where he admits this is glossed over very quickly, equally I would have been interested to know more about his time in prison but I got the impression he has rather blanked this out understandably.
All in all a very enjoyable read and worth the price alone for the numerous anecdotes of Andy's time working with the sadly missed John Peel and John Walters.
Those moments in life when you feel a genuine connection with another person are few and far between; I'm talking about that moment you realise that there's someone who thinks the same as you, has the same values and ideas. Often it can come from books, for me it came through music and the person who made everything make sense was Andy Kershaw. As a teenager I did not follow the crowd; I had my own firm ideas about what made good music and those ideas were fueled by Kershaw's Radio 1 broadcasts. You might say I grew up with Kershaw; as the content of his shows grew wider and his travels took him all over the world so too did my musical (and often political) horizons expand. Did I mention I also had an enormous crush on the man too?
"No Off Switch" is an autobiography I've been eagerly awaiting for a long time. The shelves of bookstores real and virtual teem with so-called celebrity autobiographies but few of them can offer the stories that Kershaw has to tell. In professional terms the man has led a charmed life; personally he hardly covers himself with glory here but for his loyal admirers (and as he has carried his audience from Radio 1 onto Radio 3 and 4 his audience have grown up with him just as I did) there's little here that will change their opinion. Kershaw has always been outspoken, both in his contempt for the mass-marketed brainless drivel that the music industry peddles, and for the media that accept and promote it, and it's an attitude that prevails throughout the book. The Beatles he dismisses as "unexciting" while Elvis is "plastic" (and as this reader thinks that Elvis was an over-rated pub singer, Kershaw's opinion only amused me). Simple Minds and Boomtown Rats fans should probably make a point of avoiding this book though Kershaw's account of his first meeting with Bob Geldof is one of the highlights.
Born to head-teacher parents in Rochdale in 1959, Andy spent much of his childhood in the company of his older sister, Liz (known throughout the book as "Our Elizabeth"), in the care of his grandparents who, it seems, were more affectionate than his parents. He was a self-reliant child who was perfectly able to entertain himself and he spent his childhood and adolescence absorbed in a number of pastimes that became lifelong passions. While hardly a rebel, he was certainly a headstrong youth who knew what he wanted to do and made sure he did it. He recounts how, on his first day at Leeds University - then recognised as the university putting on the best gigs - Kershaw found the Entertainments officer and told him that one day he wanted his job; for the meantime the enthusiastic youngster was signed up as an events steward and crew member but he did, of course, in due time become Ents Officer himself, organizing some memorable gigs and it was Kershaw who was responsible for Leeds gigs opening up to non-students, a particular milestone at the time.
The rest of course is history; a brief spell at Radio Aire was followed by a stint as "road manager" (given some of the hotel dives they stayed in around Europe the term is perhaps rather grand) for Billy Bragg - Kershaw had been sent a copy of Bragg's "Life's a Riot...EP" and contacted Bragg to say how much he'd liked it - and before long he was being lined up to present BBC television's flagship music show "The Old Grey Whistle Test" and, when that programme ceased to be, the start of what was to become a long relationship with BBC Radio. Kershaw's stories from the period are funny and engaging although there are those, I'm sure, who wouldn't appreciate Kershaw's bluntness.
There's a marvellously compelling chapter in which Kershaw describes what it was like to spend a fortnight working for the Rolling Stones, and another brilliant piece of writing that documents his many visits to Haiti, a country he is clearly fond of.
But frequently, a new and darker Andy rears his head. Kershaw's much documented (in other places) stretches in prison for harassment and breaking of an injunction taken out by Juliette Banner , his former partner and mother of his children, don't crop up until several hundred pages in and when they do, we see plenty of evidence of a broken and desperate man, but sadly no real insight. I had expected a bit more self analysis from the Kershaw but gradually I came to realise that a man who refers gleefully to "leg over" at every verse end isn't one for introspection. His repeated acknowledgement that he is indeed a bit of a swine when it comes to his treatment of the female of the species struck me as rather pathetic but such is the quality of the writing on music and travel that I was willing to forgive these transgressions.
If his summation of a seventeen year relationship with Banner in little more than a paragraph is surprising, his views on long time Radio 1 colleague, the late John Peel may astonish many readers. Far from heaping praise on the man who is, to many, an icon, Kershaw is scathing in his appraisal and, although I'm inclined to agree on several points, I was surprised at how vociferously Kershaw expresses himself.
At times boorish and arrogant, certainly selfish and crude, but always erudite and fascinating, Kershaw is a man with many stories to tell. In "No Off Switch" Andy Kershaw reminds us just why he's won so many accolades and why, in spite of his personal issues, he has once again become a much loved broadcaster with an infectious passion. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will re-read it time and again. Clumsy and oafish, but still the man I fell in love with more than twenty years ago, Kershaw is entertaining and honest. He may not pick up any new fans with this autobiography but those who share his love of authentic, worthwhile music will love it.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Published by Serpent's Tail, June 2011
With thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.