Mark Radcliffe, electronica god: 'I'm not just some radio bloke having a dabble'

The Guardian Entertainment 1 month ago

Mark Radcliffe and Paul Langley are sipping tea in central Manchester. The former is the much-loved radio star; the latter is something of a mystery. “Good, the less said the better,” Langley says from behind his spectacles and pot of Earl Grey. However, I do know he once made an EP in an outfit called Rack-It! “That was with Martyn Walsh from Inspiral Carpets,” he laughs. “He said, ‘You wanna do a track called Sex on Acid – that’ll annoy people.’ And it did.”

Radcliffe and Langley are, they tell me, “soon to be legendary”. This will be in the guise of UNE, the name they have given themselves. The pair have made Lost, an album of lovely, plaintive electronica over which Radcliffe sings. They met five years ago in the Builder’s Arms in Knutsford, Cheshire. Radcliffe, new to the area, asked locals which pub was dog-friendly. This led to dog-walk encounters with Langley, and the pair were soon bantering over pints, about music and Manchester City.

One day Langley mentioned the fact he made electronic music, and Radcliffe groaned. “I didn’t think it would be any good,” he says, “because he’s such a clown. But his hidden shallows turned out to be hidden depths. When I heard it, I thought, ‘This is surprisingly good.’”

Radcliffe was reading Lost in Translation, Ella Frances Sanders’ illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world. He wondered if it was possible to write a song called Boketto, which means “to gaze vacantly into the distance without thinking” in Japanese. “So I’d give Paul the idea and the picture from the book. He’d write music and I’d go away and write words.” The pair were surprised at how effectively this created what Radcliffe calls “electronic pop songs, but very warm and dreamlike”.

Radcliffe hopes UNE aren’t seen as “some radio bloke having a dabble”. He was, after all, in bands before becoming a DJ. “I’ve never really seen a divide between the two. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t because radio people think, ‘We can’t play that – it’s Mark.’ I just hope we get the same chance as everyone else.”

Over the years, his DJing has coexisted with playing in the not-yet-legendary pirate folkies Galleon Blast, spoof combo the Shirehorses, and Dr Feelgood-inspired Mark Radcliffe and the Big Figures. Early on, he even played drums in Skrewdriver, before singer Ian Donaldson became known as a white supremacist. “There were never any obvious signs of that while I was in them,” says the avowedly anti-racist DJ. “He did wear jackboots, though. God, I’m making this worse, aren’t I?”

Meanwhile, UNE’s press release calls Langley a “Haçienda DJ-booth fixture”. Langley laughs. “My brother was actually the DJ. But I carried his record box around the world.”

‘I don’t pay my licence fee to hear scummy northerners’ … Mark Radcliffe with ‘Lard’ Riley in their breakfast show days. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Radcliffe’s radio career began in 1979 when, at the age of 21, Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio asked him to present Transmissions, a show about the music exploding in the city, triggered by Joy Division and Factory Records. “I thought, ‘How hard can that be?’ I tried to be Manchester’s John Peel, telling people what we were playing in a manic depressive voice.”

In 1997, he found himself (alongside ex-Fall guitarist Marc “Lard” Riley) briefly hosting Radio 1’s flagship breakfast show. “It was the biggest show in Europe – until we took it over,” he chuckles. Their anarchic, edgy, Mancunian humour didn’t always travel. “I’ve never forgotten the focus-group woman in Guildford who said, ‘I don’t pay my licence fee to hear scummy northerners.’”

But his radio persona – self-effacing, ordinary bloke lost in music – works because it’s real. Langley roars at the tale Radcliffe tells of the time he and Lard were in David Bowie’s dressing room with the star asking where “Heroes” should go on the setlist. “I’m thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’” Radcliffe hoots. “Don’t ask us, Dave!”

In August last year, Radcliffe was diagnosed with cancer. As Langley ferried his mate around during treatment, the pair became even closer. Radcliffe is now cancer-free and doesn’t want to spend his life worrying that it will come back. After well-received performances at Bluedot and Kendal Calling festivals, there will be more gigs, although the pair have yet to master the demands of being electronic gods.

“One night,” says Radcliffe, “instead of singing, ‘The distant clatter of a thunderstorm’, I sang, ‘The distant clatter of a leprechaun.’ You can see the trouble we’ve got.”

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