Mark Radcliffe still hasn’t given up on cracking the music business

The radio legend’s cancer battle has not dimmed his music dreams as he discusses his new electronic album and book in a revealing Letter To My Younger Self

When I was 16 I was living in Bolton, and I’d just finished my O-levels at grammar school. I was the singing drummer in my band and that was my only hobby; I loved it. I was quite a clean-cut teenager though, I’ve never looked very rock’n’roll. I drank cider like everyone else but there were a few guys keen to experiment with drugs and I wasn’t one of them. I was quite studious and bookish. I never grew my hair long like the rest of my band. I look at old photos of us now and it looks like three guys in a band next to a man who collects library fines.

I never considered any kind of job in the media when I was young. I was going to be the drummer in a big rock band and that was it. I left university with no idea at all what I wanted to do, other than wait for my inevitable big break in music. Such was the extent of my lack of planning that I applied to be a sales rep for Avery grocers’ scales, because the job came with an Opel Kadett estate car. And I thought, I could get my drums in that. I also made a deal with myself, and that’s one of the things I feel most proud of my younger self for. I remember vividly saying to myself, you’ll be working for a long time – go for something you enjoy, rather than chasing the money. Try to get enough to get a semi-detached house and a hatchback car, but don’t become a businessman and end up with a life you don’t like. In the end, it all worked out slightly better than that.

I started working at Piccadilly Radio, the radio station in Manchester in 1979, when Factory Records really started happening, and Manchester had a big, thriving scene. I ended up presenting, probably thinking of myself as a sort of junior John Peel. I was very measured. I’ve heard tapes of those shows and I sound like a manic depressive. Then I moved on to present a show on the old Radio 5 called Hit the North, once a week for £60. I thought, this is a good hobby.

Some people say that Marc [Riley, Radcliffe’s previous on-air partner] and my breakfast show was the best one Radio 1 ever had. But I don’t think I agree with them. It never really felt like us. Having a sudden idea then wittering on about it for half an hour, like we had done on the graveyard shift, just didn’t fit into the fast pace of mornings. It felt like a very big deal at the time, taking over Chris Evans after he left so dramatically. The change was front-page tabloid news. We were in the full glare. That wasn’t our world and we weren’t ready for it. I think back now –  a little part of me thinks perhaps we should have moved to London, maybe we should have just embraced it all and maxed out that opportunity. But on the other hand, I think maybe I’ve benefitted in the long run by never being a big flavour of the month star. We know now Radio 1 had a shortlist of two for that show – us and Ant and Dec. Why on earth did they choose us?

I’m releasing an album of electronic music this month [as part of the duo Une] and the funny thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever accepted that I won’t have a career in music. I still harbour that dream, the one I had when I was 16. I know there’s a 99.999 recurring chance it won’t happen, but there’s still a 0.000001 chance that Quentin Tarantino will hear my album and put it in a film. The only certainty is, if you don’t try it’ll never happen. I don’t think I’ve ever lost that hope.

There are things I regret about getting divorced. I’m a very happily married man now, and I’ve had two more children, and I’m very close to all three of my children and they all get on. And I get on with my ex-wife. With the passage of time it’s all fine. But when you get divorced you have to really hold your nerve and that can appear quite cruel, because you’re doing a very selfish thing. I look back at that person and I do have regrets about that.

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I’m not as self-contained now as I once was. I’ve noticed that happening to me. When I was young I went off on holiday on my own quite a lot but I don’t relish being on my own the way I once did. Perhaps I got bored with myself. Perhaps as you get older you crave the bosom of your family more. When you’re young you feel bulletproof and the world stretches out in front of you. But when you’re 61 – and especially since I had cancer [Radcliffe was diagnosed with head and neck cancer last year] – I feel the nurturing effect of my family more. Last year would have been so much more difficult if I’d been on my own.

I always regretted that all my grandparents died when I was relatively young. I wish they’d still been around when I could afford to take them out and buy them a nice meal. Repay some of the love they gave me. The other sense of real loss I feel is actually over my old dog, a cocker spaniel called Toto. He was my shadow for 12 years and he died last year. I still really miss him. Dogs are the most beautiful and empathetic animals. There were times when I was ill, and I kept thinking, I wish Toto was here. He could just sit with me and I would feel better. I knew I loved him but it wasn’t until he went that I realised how much. It was absolutely traumatic. I was an incomplete person really, and it took me a long time… I just wanted him to be there. 

If I could live one year of my life again it would be my first year at university, living in student halls. That first taste of freedom, being away from home, meeting all these new people who were free for the first time in the same way. No one to tell us what to do, and no real responsibilities or bills to pay yet. It was bliss, sheer unbridled joy. No one had any friends, we were all desperate to forge new bonds. We saw lots of bands and we drank lots of beer and it felt like all eternity was stretching out in front of us.

I think my friends and my family would say I’ve become quieter. Sometimes I’ll just be sitting on the sofa in silence and my wife will come in and say, are you alright? And I’ll say, yeah, I’m great. I’m just enjoying looking at a tree outside. I’m doing a bit less radio now and I quite like that too. I bumped into the wife of an old friend recently and she said, I don’t hear you so much these days. And I said, no, I’m doing a bit less. And she said, you of all people must have said enough. And I thought, yes, actually. Maybe I have said enough.

Crossroads: In Search of the Moments that Changed Music by Mark Radcliffe is out now (Canongate, £16.99)

Image: BBC