Live Radio Session, Mark Radcliffe, BBC Radio One FM 2/1/95

It was a fair way to start the year off. The previous day I’d been nursing the mother of all hangovers - tomorrow I’d be back at work. The 2nd of January was destined to be an in-between sort of day, rescued at the last minute by a phone call early (too early) that morning, from WAWS’ editor. blah blah ... Kevin Ayers ... blah blah ... Wizards of Twiddly ... blah blah ... live session ... blah blah ... Radio One... Would I be interested? Of course I would.

Slowly resurrecting his live career in the UK with a few autumn dates, the paths of Kevin and the Wizards had crossed at the Powerhaus in Islington, when the band (all huge Ayers fans) had backed Kevin on a couple of numbers. The Wizards, for the uninitiated, play their own unique blend of madcap, jazzed up nonsense, and are probably the best live band around right now. They also make for a pretty high class backing band. The first gig together had been at the Picket, Liverpool (the Wizards’ home territory) in December, and, by all accounts, had been an impressive, if not yet totally blemish-free meeting of talents.

Mark Radcliffe has been one of the few DJs to champion the Wizards of Twiddly. He’s given them live sessions in his spells at Radio 5 (Hit The North) and now on Radio 1. Previous encounters saw a set which included a magnificent Slug Alert’. Another, which saw the one recorded track played at half speed, was apparently the death-knell of part recorded/ part live sessions. All the sessions have been memorable for the non-stop banter between band and DJ. Because, quite apart from being 1FM’s most open-minded DJ and playing the best music, Mark Radcliffe is also its most entertaining and sharp-witted. He is also, as a chat before the session proved, a closet Ayers fan.

For those of us not directly involved, it would prove to be a rich evening’s entertainment. But for the performers, live sessions are probably as nerve-wracking as it gets. Studio recordings allow you retakes; and faux pas at a live gig are often excused, or lost in the sound mix. Not so with a live session - every bum note is broadcast live in the most pristine of sound quality - there’s little hiding place. For the band, the work had started much earlier in the day, with rehearsals over in Liverpool.

From 6pm onwards the band had started setting up in the designated studio at the BBC in Manchester - a spacious, high-ceilinged room, with one door off the side leading to an engineers’ den; and another which led to a small room in which we all at various points crammed into: Kevin, the 5 Wizards, Pete (the Wizards’ manager), two Belgians (Kevin’s manager Jo and roadie Misjel), Kevin’s girlfriend Saffron, the Wizards’ photographer with myself and Martin looking on. Whilst the band soundchecked, tuned up, jammed away and generally set the scene, Kevin was taking a more backseat view - in the artists’ room coffee was turning into wine as the evening wore on, and Kevin made sporadic appearances in the studio to survey the scene. As the Wizards jammed on, one mutated line-up (bassist Andy on drums, trumpeter Martin on bass, Carl on guitar) had manager Pete screwing his face up. A Wizards spin-off band, perhaps? Maybe not.

Soundchecks over, the run-throughs commenced. An eerie experience - the idea was to fine-tune the engineering and time the performances, but it was apparent at this stage that the format of the music was by no means done and dusted - ideas rebounding between the band and Kevin even at this late stage. The ambience was eerie because, sitting in with the band as we were, Kevin’s voice was disappearing somewhere down the wires into the engineers’ pad behind - it certainly wasn’t audible to us! For the band, cans around their ears, it was a different story - their perception of the songs were presumably clear as day. Kevin might have had a different impressionof the band’s music, however, as he was having difficulties keeping the cans on his head. More fine-tuning and a trip into the soundroom to check out a recording of one track, and Kevin was as happy as he was likely to be.

After a brief excursion to the nearby Lass O’Gowrie (where the only dilemma was whether to stick to the LoG 35, or go for the rather more potent 42), we were back at the Beeb.

The show started at ten, and a somewhat tenser collection of characters were in place in the artists’ room waiting for the first call. The early moments of the show were being piped through to us via a speaker. Mark Radcliffe was into his usual quick-fire banter with sidekick Lard (actually Mark Riley, one-time Fall member) whilst in the artists room wine had turned to complimentary champagne. The musicians were already beginning a steady trek to the toilets - Kevin’s manager Jo keeping a beady eye on the schedule to make sure his man didn’t stray too far away. On one trip back I unwittingly emerged behind BBC1 newsreader Philip Hayton, made up to the eyeballs, a lot smaller than I’d imagined and whistling most inappropriately. I should have invited him along.

Back in the artists’ room the 1FM gopher was popping his head round the door, jollying everyone along and going through the running times - he got more popular later on when he arrived with a crate of lager. And at last, around 10.30, the session started, with Am I Really Marcel?’ I wasn’t too familiar with this one, but, hidden in the dark in the artists’ room, with the band now the other side of the large glass window, I could finally hear the Ayers voice booming loud and clear. It’s a strange experience watching a band perform only a few feet away, and yet hearing the results emerge simultaneously through a radio. Marcel’, despite some fine mute brass work, was probably the weakest song tonight, both in compositional and performance terms,but the stage was set for later antics by the opening exchanges between artist Ayers and DJ Radcliffe.Ayers voice booming loud and clear. It’s a strange

A tense twenty minutes, and then into the main event. A schedule had been pinned to the wall by now, and the plan for the next section was to perform one track, for Kevin to chat live with the DJ for around 5 minutes, and then straight into track 3. The gopher was stressing the need to stick to times fairly rigidly, but at the same time pointing out that timings within the programme were always approximate, due to Mark Radcliffe’s rather anarchic approach to things. The band were clearly taking this with a pinch of salt: no band comprising of this collection of musicians was likely to be too tied down by convention.

Lady Rachel’ came first and stole the night. Time after time this brings out the best in Kevin - now, backed by musicians with a complete empathy for the song, it was exquisite. Backed from the outset by haunting flute from Simon James, Ayers' emotive vocals (often whispered) took centre stage . As Carl Bowry laid down the guitar atmospherics for another quite chilling flute burst, I was ever so slightly aware that the band were taking a few liberties with the length of the solos. It was simply too good to bring to an end. A perfect moment.ever so slightly aware

Mark Radcliffe was clearly also gobsmacked. But, unlikely to be silent for long, he launched into the interview. It was always going to be a good match: a brash, Northern DJ, student of the zoo radio school, and rather good with it; and an artist’ from another generation - laid-back, slightly bewildered, charming, but in his own way just as sharp. Adding to the sense of the unreal was the fact that no-one could see the questioner - Kevin was responding to the larger than life voices coming through his cans - from a DJ who was probably several floors away. Ayers vs Radcliffe, and Ayers just about won, fending off a barrage of enquiries (“Yes ... No ... you’re so fast!”), camping it up a little when Radcliffe accused him of playing old songs (“My songs are timeless, darling”), and reducing us (and, rather more audibly, the Wizards) to hysterics with a succession of one-word answers to leading questions.

Eventually Radcliffe, flabbergasted, but clearly enjoying it, just gave up. Everybody’s Sometime, Some People’s All The Time Blues’ came next, and by now the band were swinging. The astonishing Lady Rachel’ and interview had given us all a lift, and the band were now clearly on a high.

One last track, half an hour later, finished things off. It was always likely to be Super Salesman’, amply allowing the band to jam as this band do rather well. Not only had 'Lady Rachel’ overrun so magnifcently, but the rather anarchic interview had stretched several minutes over schedule too. Back to more good-humoured negotiations over the length of the last track. “Could we lop a couple of minutes off the last track?”, asked the gopher ... “well, yeah, but when we go off on one ...” came back the response from one of the brass section, suggesting that anything could happen. The rehearsal run-through had logged in at seven and a half minutes; 1FM wanted five. Jo the manager suggested fifteen. The band just about behaved themselves. A quick tempo, and a particularly violent start to the guitar solo (which smacked of making up for lost time) were the only concessions to time-keeping. If you wanted to choose one track to display the collective talents of this band then Super Salesman’ would be it. It’s still divorced from the dissonance and utter madness of a standard Wizards set, but this was, in its own way, just as exuberant.

And so a weary band stumbled back in to applause from those of us on the other side of the glass. It had been a hectic and fairly draining night for all concerned. It had also been a practically flawless performance by Ayers and band, with some verbal histrionics thrown in to boot. And, for me, a totally unforgettable experience.

Phil Howitt

first published in WAWS #7, Feb 95