Danny Bakers Internet Treehouse


"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 further remark.

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 the research."

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.

Danny Baker with (From left) Allis Moss, Andy Darling and Laurie Sore"ATTACK-ATTACK-ATTACK" 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 show."

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."

Baker's support system imported from Radio 5 (from left) Allis Moss, Andy Darling and Laurie Sore.What 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 like rap.

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.

Danny BakerDanny 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 us.

"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…..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.

Danny BakerWhat 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 know-alls.
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 should imagine."

"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 mentality."

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 will.

By David Hepworth in Mojo Magazine

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