No Off Switch: The Autobiography by Andy Kershaw

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No Off Switch: The Autobiography by Andy Kershaw

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The memoirs of Andy Kershaw, once a teenage promoter of major rock gigs, later roadie for singer Billy Bragg and later highly respected music presenter on radio and TV.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846687440

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About four years ago, Andy Kershaw was very much in the news, but unhappily 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.

'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 manned space flight, 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 perhaps most hilarious of all, Frankie Howerd finding him irresistible in black leather trousers at a party and literally chasing him up and down 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 (er – 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 colleagues? And how did he manage to find the man who famously shouted 'Judas!' at the Bob Dylan concert in Manchester in May 1966, over thirty years later? 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 wanted. 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 sadly John Peel remained silent.

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 too much 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 placed that chapter in his life 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'. I think the media needs more people like him.

Our thanks to Serpents Tail for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, you will also relish Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft. For the memoirs of a somewhat more mainstream but often equally maverick radio presenter, The Autobiography by Johnnie Walker is also recommended, while from a very different perspective there is also Poptastic! My Life in Radio by Tony Blackburn.

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