Driving towards Tring on a drizzly morning with the radio tuned to 828 Medium Wave is like travelling back in time. On the M25 the signal is still too faint and crackly to make out that sonorous, diluted Mancunian voice once so familiar. Then, as you turn off at Junction 20, it really starts comin’ atcha through the windscreen wipers: ‘But just to get serious for a moment, folks. Let’s not forget that the police do a really great job…’ It ebbs again, lost to the atmospheric hiss as the four-wheeled time-machine enters a cleavage hewn through what must be the only hill in Hertfordshire. On the other side, the signal surges back across the ether, down the years, and washes over you like a warm, runny, Medium Wave of nostalgia.
Dave Lee Travis is taking a call from a woman who has a dog that can talk, or at least growl the sort of ‘hello’ sound made by tracheostomy patients with voice boxes. ‘You must be mad!’ Lee Travis splutters. ‘What’s the dog called?’ The woman who must be mad is also laughing now. ‘Buddy,’ she says. ‘I’ve got two. Buddy and Olly.’ The old pro, now giggling, pauses just long enough to wipe away a tear. ‘That’s okay. I have two cats called Flap and Mandu! Oh dear. I’d better play the next track. This is Fleetwood Mac.’
Of course it is. The track is a paradigm of the sort of mouldie oldie that the 52-year-old Lee Travis plays every morning on his Classic Gold show. This programme, in DLT-speak, ‘comes atcha through the cornflakes’ if you live in the Reading area (or Bristol or Carlisle or any of the dozen or so other regions to which the show is networked). He wasn’t always a ‘Radio Mould’ man, though. In the halcyon days of Radio 1 – the Seventies and early Eighties – Lee Travis bestrode the airwaves like a bell-bottomed colossus, pumping out a billion megawatts of p-p-p-power! to his nine million ‘completely bonkers’ listeners.
As I wait round the back of the Rose and Crown in Tring, chewing over the significance of this fall from grace, I don’t notice immediately the dark blue Ford Scorpio that has pulled up a few yards away. Then I see the door swing open and a fleshy, hairless hand, framed by a chunky gold bracelet, emerge to beckon me over.
Once inside the Ford, I can’t help noticing the air: a robust brand of freshener is at work on it. The second thing I notice is that the generous size of the driver’s pale, moon face is exaggerated by a chiaroscuro of salt-and-pepper whiskers and that famous mane of hair which, in 1980, moved the National Hairdressers’ Federation to name Dave Lee Travis Head of the Year. As we stop at some traffic lights five minutes later, Lee Travis turns and eyes me suspiciously through the tinted lenses of his glasses. ‘So what’s this interview about, then?’ he says. It’s a fair question. It’s partly, I suppose, about that lost generation of ‘completely bonkers’ DLT listeners out there in radioland.
The listeners were the sorts of people who had those bonkers dayglo cards which said ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!’ pinned above their bonkers desks. People who want everyone to think them endearingly bonkers usually do so because they fear they will be otherwise thought dull, something which they suspect they probably are. Pinning the card above the desk was like buying an off-the-peg personality. So was listening to DLT.
For DLT was bonkers, too. Or rather he was ‘zany’, an altogether more self-conscious proposition best summed up by his choice of car – a Pontiac Trans-Am called the Flying Banana – and by his gravelly voiced jingle offering ‘close encounters of the hairy kind’. But there was more to it than zaniness. Like those other Radio 1 jocks whose names – Batesie, Noelie, Readie, Wrightie – always ended in a chummy vowel, DLT-ie was an egomaniac. Treated like a rock star by his fans, he felt obliged to behave like one. Until things turned sour.
It’s now four years since Lee Travis made his melodramatic resignation from Radio 1. ‘There are changes being made here which go against my principles,’ he had intoned gravely, live on air. And not since Geoffrey Howe stood up in the House of Commons in 1990 to declare that ‘The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for too long’ had a resignation speech resonated across the land, caused jitters on the stock market, made everyone chuckle.
The comparisons with political life do not end there. Enoch Powell once observed that all parliamentary careers end in failure. The same can be said of a DJ’s working life. Indeed, theirs is one of the few professions where long years of faithful service – 26 in Lee Travis’s case – more or less guarantee the sack. But if, as the saying ought to go, old DJs never die, they only change format, what becomes of their bouncy-castle-sized egos? Do they die of malnutrition?
‘So what’s this interview about, then?’ Lee Travis has asked. The ‘what happens to giant inflatable egos?’ answer seems too rude – so reassuring things about the nation’s interest in him being sempiternal are muttered instead. Satisfied with this, Lee Travis starts talking in general terms about how the country is going to the dogs – but you just know he is thinking about Radio 1. ‘I feel strongly about the fact that people are paring everything down to the bone,’ he says. ‘In every walk of life. It’s sad that good people who have a feel for a job are replaced by youngsters because they’re cheaper.’
Lee Travis often starts his sentences with ‘I feel strongly about’; and years of having people in radioland listen to his opinions has left him assuming that if he feels strongly about something everyone else will, too.
It also means that he now no longer needs a second person present when having a conversation. His monologue about good people being replaced by youngsters lasts until we reach the 250-year-old farmhouse in Hertfordshire where he lives with Marianne, the Swedish blonde he married 26 years ago.
The outside of the house is painted ochre which complements the black leaded windows. A couple of sheep are grazing in a paddock and, in the garden, waddling around a rusting seed drill, are a dozen Indian runner ducks. Because Lee Travis feels he is too old to look after them properly, he no longer keeps the pot-bellied pigs he was wont to talk about on air. ‘I remember one listener writing in to say that no one wanted to hear about my stupid farm and that I should remember that not everyone could afford one,’ Lee Travis recalls as he brings the car to a halt and opens the door only to have it whipped from his hand by a gust of wind. There is a loud crunch as the metal on the door axis buckles and this is followed by an equally loud ‘Bollocks!’ from DLT.
‘Where was I?’ he says, running a finger over the paintwork. ‘That’s right. This letter. It was venomous. And I was really annoyed because it wasn’t signed. So I went on air and said, ‘To the man who wrote this letter, you didn’t give me a chance to reply. Will you phone in?’ He did and we had a long conversation. He went away happy.’
You can see why. Lee Travis has an earthy, engaging manner and a quality – decency? lack of pretension? – which can probably be best defined as blokishness. Perhaps it is something to do with his being called Dave. (Try and imagine him being called David. It just doesn’t work.) Or maybe it’s the quaint words and phrases he uses. He’ll say things like ‘not firing on all cylinders’, ‘you pilchard’, ‘hitherto’, and ‘the old grey matter’. Possibly the best illustration of this Factor X comes when the burglar alarm goes off with a nerve-jangling whoop (there is a maintenance man testing it). It prompts Lee Travis to say how paranoid he is about anything happening to his wife. ‘It’s not your professional thief that worries me,’ he says, every inch the bloke in the pub. ‘It’s the amateur because he might be armed with a knife and might use it on Marianne. If any thief comes in while I’m here, I’ll do anything to put him on the ground. I get annoyed very easily and when I do I get strength from somewhere.’
It reveals the bluffness that always set Lee Travis apart from the other Radio 1 jocks. Not for him the mawkish sentimentality of a Simon Bates or the relentless, smirking fatuity of a Noel Edmonds. And, unlike other jocks, he never spoke with an exclamation mark after every word, that grammatical equivalent to canned laughter. Instead there was always something excitingly dark, bullying and edgy bubbling underneath his warm affability. Here, you felt, was a DJ who’d give you a good kicking if you crossed him. And, indeed, he was prone to losing his temper or, if he got worked up about a subject, launching into a long tirade about it. On one occasion, when he felt compelled to put the nation off its breakfast by delivering an impromptu lecture, in gory detail, about the evils of seal culling, it nearly cost him his job.
‘I have a reputation for diving in feet first when I feel strongly about things,’ he now says with a shrug. ‘Being outspoken. But as far as I’m concerned the boss of the station always has the last word. Nowadays, if someone says something really outrageous people say, “This will be good for ratings.” There is a very obvious example of this, and I think that was probably plotted from day one.’ He is referring to Chris Evans, the DJ who briefly staunched the haemorrhage of Radio 1 listeners before leaving the BBC under a cloud in January.
‘I think Chris Evans is a very talented guy on television,’ Lee Travis says. ‘I just never felt he was right on the radio. He did what was expected of Channel 4 late at night on a national radio breakfast show at seven in the morning. I mean two guys in the toilet peeing and telling dirty jokes, followed by a quiz in which nine-year-old kids win prizes for getting the wrong answers, just isn’t on.’
Lee Travis adds that when he meets people who haven’t heard him since he left Radio 1 they always say, ‘Oh it all went wrong when they fired you, you know.’ This makes him wince because, he says, he wasn’t fired. That came later when he broke his contract – which he intended to honour for the few months it had left to run – by talking to the press. Lee Travis decided to sever his connection because he thought it was a mistake to replace old DJs with young ones, because it would mean abandoning listeners aged 25 to 45. The station’s version of events is different: Lee Travis had become a dinosaur and a Luddite who wanted to play album tracks all the time instead of chart music, and he would have been pushed anyway if he hadn’t jumped. Either way he claims he’s not bitter: ‘It’s just that I knew Radio 1 was going to collapse and it did. [Today Radio 1 has half as many listeners as in Lee Travis’s heyday.] The same way I know that, in five years’ time, we’re going to come full circle and want real broadcasters again, instead of kids who save you money in the short term. Radio 1 will have to get back the people who know how far they can and should go. People who can go into a studio, which has a live microphone and, when all the other equipment stops working, talk for two hours and entertain people without having to resort to swearing.’
Lee Travis’s two labradors, Spike and Sam, wander in to the room for a pat and, as he obliges, he warms to his theme. ‘Knowing how far you can push things, what things you cannot say on air, takes experience. Barriers of decency are coming down. Anything sexual or involving bad language will make the press nowadays.’ This moral indignation does not sit comfortably with the Lee Travis sense of humour – he keeps a collection of books on the theme of farting in his downstairs loo – nor with the series of photographs he once took of Page Three Stunnas for the Sun. But this does not necessarily make him a hypocrite. Though he swears freely in private, he never does on air. And though he is probably a long way from being a feminist, this seems more to do with his passive conservatism than any sense of active political antagonism.
Lee Travis seems instead to be a victim of his emotions. When he says, for instance, that he doesn’t have children himself but if he did he’d want to be able to walk with them in the park without worrying, he almost shakes with passion. ‘I feel strongly about the law and the way criminals are given better treatment than their victims,’ he says. ‘I want someone to stand in front of me and explain why we can’t list the names and addresses of all the paedophiles that they’ve got.’
This tendency to break off from the usual stream of inane DJ chat ‘just to get serious for a moment folks’, was so savagely and wittily satirised by Harry Enfield, it seems mean to dwell on it. Equally, though, you get the feeling that Dave Lee Travis will not feel comfortable until the subject of Dave ‘Nicey’ Nice is out of the way. ‘Was it hurtful?’ Lee Travis repeats. ‘Well, that question had to be in there, didn’t it? No. You’re fair game. You have to see the funny side. It was a funny period. Not arf! We were all there wearing medallions and flared trousers. I never want anyone to think I take myself seriously. I’m not a brain surgeon, after all. I’m a bloody disc-jockey. But it didn’t matter to me as Smashie and Nicey were based on Alan Freeman and Tony Blackburn.’
There is some evidence to the contrary. What about that one-off ‘popumentary’ in which a bitter Dave ‘Nicey’ Nice reflected upon his career as he walked about his farm? In it, Nicey recalled his first break on pirate radio (Lee Travis, too, began on Radio Caroline); his hitmungous single ‘I’m a Rocking Crackers Pilchard’ (Lee Travis’s novelty band, Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks, had a hit with a song called ‘Convoy’); his tobacco industry award for Pipeman of the Year (Lee Travis won it in 1982); and, finally, the hatred Dave Nice has felt for young people ever since being ousted from FAB FM.
And then there is the way Nice jokes constantly about the fragile state of his own interlobular region. Lee Travis, too, will say: ‘What has kept me semi-sane – I’m not sure that I am – is that everyone deals with me as a friend in the home. There is an ego trip. I love people to come up and greet me with a ‘Hiya, Dave, how y’doin’?’ but it’s not a fame trip like a pop star. I’ve never had that hot and cold of being in and out of favour. I’ve always just been warm. Although there was a period in the Seventies when DJs were almost pop stars, that was just a silly phase we were going through. Sounds like a pop song, doesn’t it?’ He sings a bar and then adds: ’10CC: “I’m Not In Love”.’
By any standards, though, Lee Travis is pretty much a popular cultural icon; and not just in Britain. For 20 years he has presented A Jolly Good Show for the World Service. It gets the biggest mailbag in Bush House, including one letter that arrived on Lee Travis’s desk from India, simply addressed to ‘DLT, England’.
Marianne breezes in, wearing jeans and big green pully, and places a tray of cheese sandwiches on the table. Speaking in a Swedish accent which, fascinatingly, incorporates flattened Northern vowels she has picked up from her husband, Marianne explains that she turned DLT into a vegetarian, persuaded him to give up his pipe, and is now lobbying him to have a wind turbine installed on the farm. ‘I’ve given up watching Top of the Pops, too,’ Lee Travis chips in. ‘It drives me potty. I prefer to listen to Radio 4 these days.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.