At an age when other DJs have been put out to pasture, Radio 1’s Annie Nightingale is still discovering new talent and partying till dawn – all because she’s terrified of looking back. Nigel Farndale meets a reluctant ‘melancholic’ with low self-esteem but masses of stamina
Before I meet Annie Nightingale, or rather ‘the legendary Annie Nightingale’, as she is styled on the Radio 1 website, I look for her on a group photograph of current Radio 1 DJs and staff. It is hanging on the wall of the meeting room at the Radio 1 building in London.
She is not hard to spot with her bottle-blond hair and sunglasses (she is one of the few non-blind people in the world who can carry off wearing sunglasses indoors). Also she is the oldest in the group by, I would say, 25 years. Not that she looks old. In fact, she looks pretty much as she did when she first posed for a group photograph of Radio 1 presenters back in 1970, the year she became the station’s first female DJ.
I hear her before I see her, greeting staff, air-kissing the station’s controller, passing through the open-plan office, with its plastic cups and stained carpets, like a visiting dignitary to a third-world country. The door opens and she teeters in on stacked heels, shouldering a bag, wearing a plunging neckline, her words tumbling out. Sorry she’s late. Been at the dentist. Implants. Oh, the traffic.
In contrast with her laid-back, confidential, husky-voiced radio style she talks quickly. And there is an air of mild chaos about her. I have read that her record and CD collection is split between her office here and her home a ten-minute drive away – and she’s not organised enough to know what is where. Also we had planned to meet in Brighton the previous week for dinner before one of her DJ-ing gigs (she is doing a national tour of clubs, playing the breakbeat music she specialises in; that and presenting new DJs as part of the BBC Introducing talent search), but I had to cancel, and now she says that this was just as well because before she set off from London that day she lost her purse, and her credit cards, and had to ring the promoter to lend her some money and…
We are getting ahead of ourselves. She mentioned implants. Is that cosmetic dentistry? She waves the question away. ‘Oh, implants were just a good solution to something. Anyway – would you believe it? – my dentist asked me to put him on the guest list. I sometimes think I was put on this earth to put people on guest lists.’
I am meeting her the day before her birthday, but when I check that this means she will be 66 she waves this away, too. ‘I don’t ever confirm or deny my age. Not important.’ It is hard to disagree with her. She does, after all, do a show on Radio 1 that goes out at 5am on a Saturday morning – a graveyard slot you might suppose but, actually, club culture being what it is, the show is one of the station’s most listened-to worldwide, especially since the ‘listen again’ facility came in. ‘The audience is between 18 and 25,’ she says breathily. ‘It’s very strange but they couldn’t care less how old I am. I had an email from a listener the other day saying, “I don’t know how you stay up so late, Annie. I can’t manage it and I’m 17 years old.”‘
She does the show live? I had imagined it was pre-recorded. ‘Sometimes. But I stay up late anyway. I’m not a morning person. Never have been. I’m always on New York time. It’s difficult for me to get going until about five in the afternoon. I did the breakfast show once on millennium day and never again. Today I got up at 11, which was early for me.’ (It is 2pm now.) Presumably her listeners can stay up only with the help of drugs? ‘Yeah, but it wouldn’t make any difference. This music isn’t particularly about that. A lot of music has been associated with a particular stimulant. Punk and speed. Acid and E. With breakbeat I think it is more drink culture.’
The music she plays is not to everyone’s taste: it’s hard to hum any of the tracks once they are over as they all seem to merge into one pounding, electronic swirl. Do her friends – friends her own age, I mean – share her taste in music? She laughs. ‘One came round the other day and I was listening to some stuff and she said, “This is like root-canal work to me.” Trouble is, I don’t want to play more mainstream stuff at home because that could have been time spent listening to new stuff. I get sent it constantly, on CD, vinyl, MP3s, digital downloads. If I’ve been away for two days it will take a long time to catch up.’
Does she ever listen to mainstream music? ‘You do try and stay in touch with what is happening in the charts. Even if you are a specialist.’ Can she name the top five songs in the charts at the moment? She laughs again. ‘I can for the DJ download breaks chart.’ What about the music she used to listen to when she started out as a DJ? She must still enjoy some of that, surely? ‘Unless I’m in a taxi which has an oldies station on I never hear it. Anyway, it’s a bad thing. I’m scared of nostalgia. You can’t go back. It’s in its box. I get terribly affected by music and if it’s a tune that I associate with something bad happening in my life… Well, I was once diagnosed as melancholic, which is a posh name for depression, I think. As a matter of self-preservation I will only listen to up music. I don’t like to wallow in self-pity.’ Didn’t she used to play the Smiths? ‘Yeah, but they had great melodies and great lyrics as well.’
Presumably the ‘bad things’ she refers to include the break-up of her two marriages? ‘Yes, well… sure. It’s hard to say. I’ve never been particularly good at relationships.’ Her first marriage, to a Fleet Street reporter, was brief. He is the father of her two grown children, Alex and Lucy. Her second marriage lasted longer, ten years. But the rock ‘n’ roll life she was leading, the endless partying and accompanying bands such as the Police on tours, meant that relationship was doomed as well. ‘I just couldn’t do this housewife business, being locked at home.’ As soon as they were old enough she would take her children with her to festivals and to the studio.
Other bad times include her childhood. She was chronically insecure, she says, and utterly lacking in self-esteem, especially about her looks. She says she still lacked confidence even when she became a successful broadcaster on television as well as radio (she used to host The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2). Strangely, when she was mugged in Havana in 1996 her confidence improved. ‘He came up behind me. My automatic response, my mistake, was to try and hang on to my bag. I sustained multiple injuries, including a broken leg. Six months later I still didn’t know whether I would ever walk again. I was on crutches. I felt low. But then I decided it had to be a positive thing. I thought, “If I can get through this it will make me a stronger person and I will not take any nonsense from anybody.” I think until then I had been too easy-going.’ Even so, it was after that incident that the dark glasses became a permanent fixture.
The failed marriages, unhappy childhood and mugging apart, when you ask her to reminisce, most of her memories are fond. She was a trusted friend of the Beatles, for example, and spent many hours sitting around the Apple offices, often happily stoned. ‘Yeah, people like Lauren Bacall would drop in at Apple and one day a gang of hell’s angels came in and they ended up staying for three months. There was a thing of trust there. The Beatles knew I wasn’t going to drop them in it. I was very sad about Neil Aspinall [the Beatles’ road manager], who died the other week. He held it together. Very unimpressed by all the fame, he was.’
As for others of that era: Jimi Hendrix was ‘charming’, Jim Morrison ‘a bit of an arse’, Marc Bolan ‘hilarious’. Many of the big names came to the epic parties she held at her house in Brighton. Keith Moon and Pete Townshend were regulars, as were Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. In later years bands like the Happy Mondays would come along. In 1992 she hosted a rave there that lasted six days. All those stars, I say, all those drugs. Weren’t they nervous she would compromise them? ‘There has to be an element of trust,’ she says. ‘There were a lot of casualties in those early days. You feel sad when you think of the people who died young, but what can you do? I still think they’re around. That I’ll bump into them. We never thought Keith Moon was going to live to 70 anyway.’
Her best-known show – the Sunday-night request show, broadcast just after the top 40 – began its 12-year run in 1982. One gimmick was to allow the intro of the first song to play uninterrupted, then she would say ‘Hi’ at the very last second before the vocals started. ‘That was simply because I followed the chart show and we had to think of a way to keep people listening,’ she says. ‘People would hang around because they knew I did this thing and they would try and guess when I was going to say hi… I kept thinking they would take that show off because it was too weird, but people like Irvine Welsh and Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] have since said to me how much it meant to them. There’s something very intimate about the radio mike, I think. It feels one-to-one. It’s like phoning friends and saying, “I’ve heard this song. See what you think.”‘
It is strange to think that this is the woman I listened to as a teenager. Even stranger to think she has a son who is older than me. She had him when she was 19. He used to manage Primal Scream and is now the Chemical Brothers’ agent. She must, I suggest, have been a cool mother. ‘Actually, I think Alex found me an embarrassment. We have great arguments about music. I will say, “Have you heard of so and so?” It is sort of competitive. More like sibling rivalry.’
Nightingale’s name is often mentioned in the same breath as the late John Peel’s, partly because they worked at Radio 1 longer than anyone else, partly because they managed to retain their enthusiasm for new music. ‘You can’t fake it. John was the same. He would get passionate about something new and have to keep playing it. I miss him a lot because he was the only person here I could really relate to. I’m trying to fly the flag for him.’
From its start in 1967 Radio 1 always seems to have had an identity crisis. In the 1970s its stars were the likes of Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates, Smashie and Nicey types. Yet all the while there were cooler DJs there as well, the Peels and the Nightingales. ‘Well,’ she says with an arch of her eyebrow, ‘we used to say of Radio 1 that it was figures by day, reputation by night.’
As we part I say I will try to see her at the White House in London, where she is introducing a DJ called J Mecca. Perhaps she could put me on the guest list. What time is she on? ‘Midnight.’ When she sees the look of horror on my face she laughs and says: ‘It’s all right, you don’t have to come. I’ll understand.’