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No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Sat Aug 13, 2011 3:52 pm
by garth cartwright
Being a Serpents Tail author I was given a copy of this. I certainly would not have bought it and am not sure why I read it - partly out of interest to see if Kershaw is as big a twat as he has appeared in recent years (he is) and partly to see if he has any interesting observations on musicians/industry figures that interest me (occasionally he does). Beyond that there's little to recommend, Andy being a middle class British blowhard who reminds me here of Jeremy Clarkson more than anyone else - I know this is autobiography but he goes on and on about himself, not just as the centre of attention but a bloke who everyone admires and comes to and praise and wants to shag (if you are female) and is constantly having adventures in dangerous places (when not hanging out with rock legends - who praise him - or African musicians - who tell him he is a white African). He appears to be unable to reflect on his failings, constantly blaming others for his misfortune - snide comments about John Peel abound due to Peel not supporting our hero when Radio 1 dumped him (this could have been cos Peel was sick to his back teeth of this blowhard) and the harassment issues that saw him jailed are barely dealt with.

I was never a fan of Kershaw's radio show - he seemed to love extended live recordings by the likes of Neil Young, the Who and Bruuuuuuucceee alongside Billy Bragg and other dreadful pub rock types while the African and Southern soul music I tuned in for rarely got much space. But I do realise that he helped popularize African music in the UK and he has much to say on this (although a little on the Bhundu Boys would suit me fine). He also writes well on entering Rwanda just as the genocide came to a close. His observations on Haiti and other impoverished states occasionally demonstrate a keen journalistic eye. But too often he falls into the "look at me, I'm somewhere really crazy!" Thus his three trips to North Korea are boasted about because that nation is simply so repressive and odd. But there is little attempt to understand the people there and how they have to live under such a pernicious regime.

Charlie does get a nice mention as he takes Andy to Sterns and introduces him to the staff there. But most everyone else is treated with contempt. Andy doesn't seem to realise that he got very, very lucky - a Radio 1 show, lots of TV presenting and Radio 4 reporting - without ever having displayed any real skills beyond enthusiasm and an ability to talk his way into situations. And now that his luck's soured and he's virtually unemployable he doesn't appear to be thinking of what he can do to reinvent himself. He is, like Clarkson, a British bloke who believes he's the centre of the universe. Well, Clarkson's awful TV shows have made him a fortune and an international star. But Kershaw is forgotten by all but us world music geeks. And I can't see this book helping to redeem him as a writer - only rarely does he display a gift of narrative and much insight.

If No Off Switch bombs - and considering a publisher at ST told me it had garnered the worst reviews of any book he had ever worked on - I wonder what is next for Andy? When you're a hot media property everyone loves you. But when you have cooled to the point of being left in a prison cell to chill out it's unlikely there's a lot of work offers flowing your way. His love of motorbikes and the Isle Of Man races suggests that, like Clarkson, he would be best suited presenting bloke TV. Who knows?

Anyone who wants to read No Off Switch drop me a line and I'll give it to you at the next Ritzy Gypsy night - August 25th with the wonderful MODESTE HUGHES (Madagascar) performing. No need to return it.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Sat Aug 13, 2011 5:06 pm
by Des
To be fair, Kershaw has been doing some stuff on Radio 3 recently so he's not completely unemployable as far as broadcasting is concerned. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is another matter of course.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Sat Aug 13, 2011 8:50 pm
by Jonathan E.
Careful now, Garth, you're making me seem nice in my literary criticism of music-oriented books I didn't care for.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 2:24 am
by Hugh Weldon
Well I took up Garth's offer and though I share certain of the less favourable feelings expressed, perhaps I can offer more of a balanced perspective.

I should, however, declare an interest. Whilst not a friend or even acquaintance, there's a lot of common ground. I was born a couple of years before Kershaw, not so many miles away, and grew up in pretty similar circumstances. Grammar school and university. We both moved to London within a few months of each other, and had early obsessions with Rory Gallagher and Dylan. And even more passionate ones later with The Clash and Springsteen.

I loved the Radio 1 programme, especially in the early years, but stayed faithful throughout. Not only was I taken with many of his enthusiasms, I often found myself bumping into him at gigs. He'd always be there at the front, egging on whoever it was, like he was supporting his favourite team from the terraces. A particularly memorable example was Sleepy LaBeef at the George Robey in Finsbury Park. An incredible gig which Sleepy finished off with an extended medley of rock and country standards which went on for half an hour or more. Kershaw and I shouted a few suggestions for the next tune. 'The Race Is On' I proffered. 'Good one' shouts Kershaw. And of course Sleepy went straight into it.

I suppose after that I should say we went on to become great mates. But we didn't. As a struggling teacher I never got out to follow my musical enthusiasms as much as I would have liked. While AK on the other hand (and he does admit this Garth) was one of the luckiest bastards alive. In fact one of the regrets of my life for many years was that I wasn't Andy Kershaw. And his story of walking into those dream jobs shows perhaps just a little more cheek and chutzpah than I was able to summon up, rather than any special qualifications.

But the title says it all. Garth calls him a blowhard, which is a little strong, but not altogether wide of the mark. His problem is not so much that he's got no off switch though, it's that the volume is always up to the max. This is fine for spreading excitement and enthusiasm, but the lack of a more judicious and thoughtful approach (so evident with Charlie) results in an over-emphasis on the exciting, the unusual, the loud, the over-the-top. Which is not to say that he didn't discover and push many great artists who deserved wider exposure. It's just that there's a lack of perspective, along with blind spots and idiosyncracies (does it really make much sense to speak of a genre called country soul? - he seems to have invented that one himself, or at least shoehorned people into it who fit rather uncomfortably) which means that everyone is either praised to the skies or damned to everlasting torment. (though I agree with many of the usual suspects on his damnation list.)

The excuse he offers for this is an inborn intolerance for boredom. Thus his Graham Greene syndrome, globetrotting to war zones and front lines because that's where the action is, and the kick he gets from being at the centre of things are as important to him, you feel, as any attempt to seriously understand what's going on. Yes, his reports from half-forgotten conflicts tell it like it was, but I began to skip them after a bit. The dustbin of history is full of accounts of man's inhumanity to man. They begin to pall after a while, unredeemed by the ironies and nuances that a great writer like Greene was able to perceive. (Kershaw appears only to have read The Comedians, a minor opus in the Greene canon, and his other reading appears to be largely politics and history. When I met him once at his bar in Crouch End he was buried in a thick tome. I asked him what he was reading. 'A history of Haiti. Third one I've read this year.')

And yet, and yet. He is right about a lot of things, particularly right about the managerialism and rule by accountants – Birtism he calls it – that infected the BBC. Though he was very fortunate to be picked up again by a sympathetic Radio 3 controller and given a new lease of life there, it was never quite the same. (How unfair that Charlie was not given that national radio break a lot earlier than he was, Garth said to me). Kershaw hammers on incessantly about the BBC public service remit, broadcasting rather than narrowcasting, not giving people what they like but what they didn't know they liked, etc etc, all very laudable of course, but it doesn't sit easily with his large ego and determination to play what he thinks is good and if you don't bloody like it you can bloody lump it (Rochdale accent required for that last bit).

Difficult to criticise an autobiography without criticising the person of course, and those with a more objective perspective will no doubt find much of interest. But I failed to warm to him as he told his story, in the way I'd very much warmed to him as a DJ. The fall from grace episode makes for difficult reading in some ways. It is as honest as you could hope for, given that he was pretty much out of control in many ways for a long period. You can only have sympathy for a bloke of good character and no obvious violent tendencies denied access to his kids. I dread to think how I'd deal with it. But to go on Desert Island Discs and sign off praising your partner of seventeen years and mother of your children as the love of your life while simultaneously demonstrating an attitude to fidelity perhaps forgiveable in a randy teenager calls down some pretty big karma I would guess. We don't of course have the whole story and only one side of it, and these are private and sensitive matters. But sensitivity is not a Kershaw trait. Insight is lacking, self-pity and petulance are verged upon.

All that said, I'm grateful to him for so much music, for his explorations, his pushing boundaries, for his wild enthusiasms and discoveries. The adolescent intensity and frenzy of music obsession is a powerful and life-enhancing thing in so many ways, and I've shared a lot of that with him. But there are times you need to grow up and calm down, despite what The Clash said. And reach for the off switch.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 2:46 am
by Jonathan E.
Nice one, Hugh. Thanks.

But, really, I don't think I need to read the book now!

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 7:13 am
by DavidM
Thanks for that, Hugh.

...I'm grateful to him for so much music, for his explorations, his pushing boundaries, for his wild enthusiasms and discoveries. The adolescent intensity and frenzy of music obsession is a powerful and life-enhancing thing in so many ways, and I've shared a lot of that with him.


I think you've put that perfectly. For someone like me who really only knows Andy Kershaw's BBC World Service programmes, the 26 minute show that he started, and which Charlie eventually took over, I have much the same feeling. I'm grateful for those programmes, too, despite the behavioral problems that subsequently took over his career.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 7:24 am
by uiwangmike
Round about 1990, Andy was hosting a very amiable world music-meets-folk program called Break For The Border on BFBS, the forces network, together with Wally Whyton, Does he mention it in the book? It's possible he got he term "country soul" from Barney Hoskyns' book Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted, though it may go back further than that.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 10:17 am
by AndyM
Wally Whyton!!!??? I'm having such a nostalgia onrush I may need to go for a lie-down.

Also, I own some 'country soul' compilations, so the term has some currency.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 10:22 am
by AndyM
For the first time ever, I am tempted to write a Wikipedia entry, as Pussy Cat Willum, Fred Barker and Ollie Beak do NOT have their own pages. A disgrace.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 11:47 am
by uiwangmike
AndyM wrote: I am tempted to write a Wikipedia entry, as Pussy Cat Willum, Fred Barker and Ollie Beak do NOT have their own pages.

But these guys do.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b974X44XhTE

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vipers_Skiffle_Group

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 12:16 pm
by AndyM
Nice, but a mere bagatelle compared to Ollie Beak.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 7:00 pm
by garth cartwright
Nice review, Hugh. You certainly are a fast reader. If Kershaw had calmed down and reflected on his highs and lows he might have written an interesting book - I just found No Off Switch as dull as being seated in a flight next to some Brit blowhard who just wants to talk about how wild and crazy they are. Compared to Nick Kent's autobiog - which we discussed here last year - No Off Switch is a failure. I was disappointed by Kent's book simply because he used to be a really good music writer and that book traded largely in gossipy, not particularly well written rock star stories. But when Kent wrote on the awfulness of being a homeless junkie and how his addiction and egoistic behaviour had ruined his reputation to the point casual strangers appeared to aggressively loathe him the book was very moving - he hit bottom and realised so. Andy didn't seem to be able to recognise what a mess he had made of things, he lacks the ability to honestly reflect upon and confront his own demons. And this is a big difference when reading an autobiography - at least to me: do they gain any wisdom from their own boorish behaviour? NIck did. Andy doesn't appear to. Apparently Kent's book sold really well so it will be interesting to see if Kershaw's finds a similar audience. Toughest review I've seen so far was in The Observer by Rachel Cooke. I doubt he ever had a large female listenership - women certainly won't be flocking to read No Off Switch.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 7:08 pm
by AndyM
garth cartwright wrote: I doubt he ever had a large female listenership - women certainly won't be flocking to read No Off Switch.


Or men who don't think domestic violence can be excused as an outpouring of wounded macho pride.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 8:42 pm
by Adam Blake
AndyM wrote:For the first time ever, I am tempted to write a Wikipedia entry, as Pussy Cat Willum, Fred Barker and Ollie Beak do NOT have their own pages. A disgrace.


Nor can I find any YouTube clips! How do you explain them to a curious Californian? Glove puppets just doesn't do them justice.

Did you know there were no existing copies of any episodes of "Lift Off With Ayshea Brough"?? I think that's a crime, but I DID find this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m60-Lf05Bv0

Andy - as a Move fan did you know this? I didn't. A classic full-on-eccentric Roy Wood production, and I bet he wrote the song too.

Apologies for the thread drift.

Re: No Off Switch by Andy Kershaw

PostPosted: Tue Aug 30, 2011 10:02 pm
by AndyM
I had forgotten it, but I knew it at the time, and hearing it again does bring memories stumbling back.

There is an Middle Eastern instrument in that deranged record - an oud? a (wrong spelling warning) shennai?? - it's on 'The Fool On the Hill' isn't it, or 'Baby You're A Rich Man' - and Beatle-warped Roy just slings it in regardless. Jeff Lynne should listen to this and weep.

Ayshea Brough, on reflection, was almost certainly the first non-white presenter to host a mainstream British TV show - there's a history there yet to be written.

And Roy......well. Needs rescuing from the image of his eccentricities, as he made some visionary records. Like a straight, hairy Joe Meek.