Tony Blackburn


The scene is the Eden night-club in Ibiza, where 10, 000 young ravers arrive every week to dance themselves into a state of blissed-out oblivion.

But in the pulsating sea of waving limbs, flashing lights, and sweating, smiling faces, one clubber is convinced he is having some sort of horrible hallucination, the kind of nightmarish flashback guaranteed to sober up instantly and vow to take the pledge of abstinence.

He is convinced he has just seen Tony Blackburn – a grinning, sweating, ghost from his childhood – wearing
a purple sequinned cape, an enormous plastic medallion,
and matching Union Jack lycra singlet and beach shorts, amongst the throng of faces dancing to the throbbing techno.

Like a bad acid trip, Blackburn’s frightening, grinning visage, sprung out at him, shouting something in his face.

“It was really funny,” grins Blackburn, a man who, judging from the number of times he grins, seems to think pretty much anything either of you say is funny.

“I was in this costume so I just crept up to him and went ‘boo !’ I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”

Welcome to the surreal and faintly troubling world of Tony Blackburn – the youngest 57-year-old in town, former Radio One disk jockey, inspiration behind Nicey from Harry Enfield’s Smashey & Nicey, and current icon on the Ibiza club scene.

Back at home, sitting in the hexagonal glass ‘conservatory’ of his home in one of the leafier lanes in Barnet, Tony is raring to go.

“I always get up terribly early. I have about 4 hours sleep a night. I’m a sort of male Maggie Thatcher – only not quite so barmy.”

On the positive side, he grins, the fact that he’s awake so much “means I’ve lived longer than anybody else. In real time, I’m probably about 108 !”

I tell him he doesn’t look a day over 97, but the fact is that Tony Blackburn is one of those figures from the 70s who never seems to age. His enthusiasm for music or for radio certainly has not waned from the days when he was ten and he would wire up speakers in the hall so that he could broadcast to the family.

The things that make him happiest haven’t changed: playing records on the radio, making imbecilicly bad jokes

“Les Dawson could make bad jokes seem good,” he grins. “Whereas I can make good jokes seem bad !”

He is still buzzing from Ibiza.
“I even got into the trance music”, he beams, like a teenager, although he’s careful to emphasise “I wasn’t on Ecstasy or anything. I’ve never had Es. If you’re enjoying yourself and having fun, I don’t see the necessity. I can have fun without the stimulation.”

This has always been the way with Tony.
“I never took acid, not even in the 60s. I would worry me what it would do for me. Funnily enough, the 60s weren’t as druggy as people said it was. I was never offered any.”

His agent had to persuade him to go out to play the Ibiza gig.
“My worry was that they would all be pissed or stoned out of their minds,” Blackburn grins. “But I thought it was brilliant. I was really impressed. I thought the people were having a lovely time, enjoying themselves. There was no trouble and I thought the atmosphere was really great.”

In fact, he says, some of the people at the corporate shows he plays round the country are much worse.
“The women are the worst. Once they get drunk, they always want to come on stage and dance. And you know they’re going to fall over.”

As befits someone who has spent a lifetime sheltered from reality by a soundproof studio, talking to himself for a living, Tony Blackburn has a habit of drifting on to a parallel subject to the one you thought you’re talking about.

“I’ve never been able to understand this argument about pot versus alcohol,” he announces. “It’s the biggest drug in the world isn’t it – drink ? I just happen to think that pot is probably less harmful than alcohol. If you gave football fans pot, they’d all be hugging each other !”

For Blackburn, his experience in Ibiza was a flashback to his heyday, DJ-ing in the 60s and the 70s, when he was a veritable super-star.

He was mobbed by fans making “we are not worthy !” gestures and welcomed by resident ‘superstar’ DJs like Brandon Block and Boy George who asked Tony if he could have his picture taken with him. The compere at Eden introduced with the eulogy: “he’s a cult icon, one of the all-time greats. The bloke’s a living legend… Tony Blackburn ! ”

Female demand for the signed photos he was giving out onstage was overwhelming, particularly for the pictures he had rubbed playfully over the crotch of his Union Jack shorts.

“What you don’t realise,” he grins, “is that I’m still a Sex God !”

So twenty years after he left Radio One, and after several years languishing in the Alan Partridge-esque twilight world of local radio and voice-overs, Tony Blackburn is back. He is busier and happier than ever.

“People keep saying I’ve re-invented myself,” he laughs.
“I don’t know why. I don’t do it on purpose.”

His personal life is, transparently, blissful.

In 1992 he married Debbie Thomson, an actress/singer/dancer 17 years younger than he is, whom he met in a production of Cinderella – just as, somewhat surrealistically, he met his first wife. Three years ago, he became a parent for the second time when Debi gave birth to their precocious daughter Victoria, some 24 years after his first child, from his first marriage, Simon.

“Slight age gap there hahaha. Victoria’s great. I look at her and I just see myself totally. It’s like living with Shirley Temple,” he enthuses, ignoring the connection he has just made.

He was 54 when Victoria was born.
“I think in a strange sort of way, I find it easier this time around. When you’re a bit older, your career is not the be all and end-all. I can look at her and just feel the pure joy of it. We secretly both wanted a daughter and I’ve fallen completely in love with her.”

He announces – with typical, but still admirable enthusiasm in the circumstances – that they won’t be having any more children because he has “had the snip.”

“I think it would be a mistake at 57. Scotty from Star Trek having a child at 80… I think that’s unfair. Debi only wanted one child, always. She’s an only child herself. If I was an only child, it wouldn’t bother me.”

Professionally, he is so busy, Debi jokes, “I hardly see him,’ she smiles, adding adoringly “which in Tony’s case is not a bad thing really.”

Debi magically appears to make more coffee giving Tony a plate of biscuits left over from a children’s party, making sure he was warm enough, turning the heater up.

After a spell in the “rather worrying” wilderness of a weekend show, he is now doing Capital Gold’s daily ‘Drivetime’ show at 4pm.

“Capital Gold !” one of jingles boasts. “Keeping Tony Blackburn off the streets” – pure Partridge.

On top of this, he has a four hour show – playing the jazz, funk, and soul music he loves so much – once a week on Jazz FM. He is out virtually every night, playing Corporate functions or student discos at Universities around the country.

“If I was playing Ibiza every day. I’d get bored because I’ve got a short attention span. Tonight, for example,” he exclaims, like an excited teenager, “I’m going to Peterborough.”

“A lot of guys who work on Capital Gold, they do the DJ job and that’s it. I’m so lucky because I’m doing other things. I’m doing radio, clubs, TV Shopping – that’s the big thing of the future. It’s radio television.”

He appears on the Ideal World Shopping Channel, QVC’s rival, on Sky Digital.
“I sold a 100 singing lobsters last week. I’m very proud of that.”

Even as he tries to sell me the wisdom of buying a plastic singing lobster myself (“sings three different songs. Bloody good value”), I can only admire his enthusiasm.
After 36 years in the business, his sheer perseverance and energy are astonishing.

When he played Ibiza, he completed his radio show at 7pm, flew out on the 11 o’clock flight from Stanstead, arrived at the club in Ibiza at about 2am, went on stage between 4 and 5, flew back at 10am the following morning, and went straight on to do his next radio show at 4pm.

Then there is the extra consideration that Tony Blackburn’s live appearances do not consist of simply playing a few records. Far from it.

As DJs go, Tony Blackburn, is probably unique. He doesn’t have any records for a start, or any record decks.
“I’ve condensed my whole act onto to just two CDs !” he beams. “YMCA, I Will Survive. Songs that I know will work.”

Even more unusual – and ingenious – is that, his contract requires that every club Tony Blackburn deejays at must provide a DJ to take care of the music.

This is because, whereas most DJs’ performance consists of crouching over their decks, holding headphones to their ears, Tony is stage-front, stripping down to his Union Jack underwear, working the crowd hurling himself round like a lunatic, and generally behaving like a Club 18-30s’

“It’s a complete send-up. I wear this medallion the size of a manhole cover. I’ll show you the costumes I had made up. In ‘Dancing Queen’, I do The Dance of The Dying Swan. I tell the crowd, ‘in this song, I get shot, and I might die’ and I hope the audience will cheer. It’s like panto really.”

In Ibiza, even the most hardcore clubbers were speechless as he crouched forward and started maniacally thrashing his head round and round, spinning the gigantic medallion round his neck to the tune of Wake-Me-Up-Before You-Go-Go: one of the most bizarre and pointless feats I have ever seen, and a strange way for a man of 57 to make a living.

“I didn’t compromise anything,’ he beams, looking back at the show, “and it went down really well.”

Tony, it’s safe to say, has always been something of an oddball.

Although he is the son of a doctor, he has lived his life as both a latent hypochondriac, and rejected the whole concept of taking either exercise or diet seriously.

“He lives on lentil soup and processed peas,” one paper once claimed.

“Food to me is just fuel. Pasta and tomato sauce is about as exotic as I get. Or Quorn.”

As for the idea of exercise, he says, “My father said that exercise kept doctors in a living. Most people who start doing exercise over-do it and either have a dreadful heart attack or end up keeling over. I was watching this woman on a treadmill once. She was deeply unattractive. She was perspiring badly and she didn’t look happy. I thought ‘this isn’t for me.’”

Whether Tony is prone to such musings because he is, as he puts it, “a bit of a worrier”, or because of the occupational hazard of just getting used to always hearing himself speak, the habit has jeopardised his career more than once.

He had to pay fellow Radio One DJ, Simon Bates one thousand pounds for comments he made about him on air, and to this day, people still remember him for breaking down in tears on air when his first wife (actress Tessa Wyatt) left him.

In 1973, at the peak of his success, he was once suspended from Radio One for saying that he thought the miners should stop complaining and get back to work.

In the end, he was contractually forbidden from commenting on the news. Luckily, his show on Capital Gold is not subject to such controls, and consequently, like a real life version of Alan Partridge, on air, you never know what Blackburn is going to say, or do, next.

When one caller phoned in to ask for a dedication because he was leaving the Navy after 30 years service,
Blackburn welcomed him, declaring that he too was “an old sea salt” thanks to his two years on Britain’s pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline. He then launched into a chorus of the ‘In the Navy’, before pausing perfectly, before asking: “Do you look like one of the Village People, John ?”

“Have you noticed,” he mentioned as ‘I’ve Been Through The Desert On A Horse With No Name’ faded out, “that if you go up to a girl and say ‘is that your nose or are you eating a banana ?’ it seems to upset them ? Here’s River Deep Mountain High…”

He is avidly interested in politics (“I quite often sit and watch the Parliament Channel – that’s how sad I am”), but says he tries to refrain from too much political comment.
“I vote but I never tell anybody what I vote for. I think it’s a mistake for anyone in the business that I’m in – cos you alienate that side of your audience.”

Rather endearingly ignoring his own advice, he then goes on to mention William Hague (“he just doesn’t look the part”), John Prescott (“I met him on BBC Breakfast Time. He was being quite rude to a make-up girl”), and Ken Livingstone (“I would have voted for him. Mind you I disagree with him about getting rid of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.”)

Fuel prices, speed bumps, and fox-hunting seem to trouble him greatly.
“Fox-hunting is appalling. I would actually like to see the people who go fox-hunted be hunted.”

Issues like these preyed on his mind so ceaselessly, some nights he would get up and call the late-night phone-in shows on LBC, until Capital stopped him.

“They said I was under exclusive contract to broadcast for them,” he shrugs. “I used to enjoy doing that. Radio 5, Radio 4, is more my kind of entertainment… To be absolutely honest with you, I don’t listen to any music stations.”

In his quest to become the first DJ without any records, bizarrely the playlist for his show on Capital Gold is on a computer, randomly selecting hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s but none from the present-day, giving the show a distinct time-warp quality.

“Funnily enough,” he grins regardless of whether what he is about to say is necessarily that positive, “I started in 1964 between 4 and 6 in the afternoon and I’m still there. Not only that, I’m playing the same records !”

He broke into broadcasting, aged 21, one Monday in 1964 when he answered an ad for Radio Caroline in the New Musical Express. By Wednesday, he was at sea, on air, alongside the likes of Kenny Everitt.

“I saved his life once. He’d taken some LSD or something. He was about to step off the boat. He thought he was going to walk to Frinton. I grabbed his arm and said, ‘where are you going Kenny ?’ and he said ‘Frinton’. I said ‘there isn’t a boat there.’ And he said ‘ I can do it’.”

Three years later, on September 30th, Tony Blackburn’s was the first voice of the first show on Radio One, launching the station with the words, “Welcome to the exciting new sound of Radio One.”

His breakfast show in the 70s used to have an audience of 22 million listeners.

Simon Garfield’s brilliant book, The Nation’s Favourite, chronicles the demise of the immortal generation of Radio One DJs such as Blackburn, Jimmy Saville and DLT, so effectively killed off by Harry Enfield’s Smashey & Nicey parody.

“I thought it was wonderful, although it did make the controllers wonder if they were employing people who are a bit passé. DLT didn’t like it very much, even though it wasn’t even modelled on him. Smashey was modelled on Alan Freedman. I’m Nicey.”

As for John Peel, “he annoys me to be honest with you. He always maintains he was the only one at Radio One who ever liked music. He’s got this inverted snobbery. But he’s just as much of a rent-a-gob as the rest of us, doing

Tony Blackburn grew up in Poole but has always had a passion for soul music

“I’m a bit racist with my music. I don’t like white music quite as much. I did the first Motown shows in this country. I toured with Diana Ross in the 60s – doing a nation-wide tour. I knew Bobby Womack very well.
I actually like Del Shannon’s Runaway and some of the Beatles stuff, they’re good tunes. But not like Rick James and Teena Marie. They make a vibration go up and down my spine… with the beauty of it. I don’t get that from Del Shannon. Or the Beatles.”

Despite this, Tony Blackburn’s house is bizarrely free of records. Most of the songs that he selects for his Jazz, Funk and Soul show on Radio London are at the station and he admits slightly disconsolately that he doesn’t buy CDs any more.

Instead, he has condensed everything he needs on to CDs.
“I’ve got one of these machines that record CD to CD. I’ll show you those,” he says, eagerly, leading me upstairs to his music room, a small box-room with just a couple of cardboard boxes of home-made CDs on the floor.

The room is a strangely half-hearted shrine to a career that has spanned five decades. The original copy of the first record ever played on Radio One (‘Flowers In The Rain by The Move – “I picked it because of the crashing noise at the beginning”) takes pride of place.

Alongside framed pictures of Blackburn with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and David Cassidy, is one of Tony with Mr. Blobby.

“Good old Blobby,” he sighs fondly, oblivious to the concept that perhaps Mr Blobby shouldn’t rank as highly as his soul heroes like Stevie Wonder.

“Oh I don’t know,” he muses. “There’s something about Old Blobby.”

When he has any free time at home, he says, rather than listen to music, he “goes and sits upstairs and makes up jokes.”

Like a boy, there is nothing that makes him happier than being asked to tell some of them. Although he likes the fact people think they’re awful, it’s painful the way part of him wants you to find them funny, and, of course, to like him.

“I’ve got one for every subject. A lift – it has its ups and downs. A door – the whole programme hinges on it. A fish – do fish ever get thirsty ? Do they take a shower when it rains ? I can’t remember long jokes. I get bored with long jokes.”

His enthusiasm remains so unquenchable that in ten years time, he says, he would like to be doing exactly what he is doing now.

“When I go to play a club, I’m not trying to be a youngster but I do feel that, mentally, I’m younger than they are. I’m younger in my outlook than my son, in a way.”

The other side of this enthusiasm is a seemingly endless stream of things to worry about.

He offers me a lift, and I find myself enjoying the surreal experience of being driven into the West End by Tony Blackburn in his ostentatious, quaintly Union Jack mini.
Even his car – it’s tempting to conclude – is stuck in the 70s.

He visibly grows more nervous as we get into the city centre. He starts to run through the problems with the cars, the buses, the tube which, he says, is “unhealthy.”

“The number of pot holes in the road is awful isn’t it ?” he says, his smile dimming by the minute. “Did you watch Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link yesterday ? Terrible.”

He drives carefully, slowing down as he approaches green lights in case they turn to amber.

It’s as if he has been talking professionally into space for so long he cannot stop.

“Society worries me a little bit,” he announces cautiously, as if he is about to share a tremendously confidence.
“All this begging in the streets worries me too.”

What worries him even more is that “all these beggars in shop doorways and those old drunks, they all know me. It’s Very odd.”

He worries about what’s going on in Palestine (“what we’re putting the children there through, I hate that”), and admits frankly, “excessive alcohol worries me a bit. The effect it has on people. The violence. I wish people weren’t so violent. I’m not mad about religion either. I think religion’s been responsible for so many deaths.”

He has a free parking space reserved for him by the radio station in the NCP car-park round the corner.

“35 pounds a day, it costs to park here ! Oh I forgot to show you my costumes,” he realises, still smiling.”

The man who does the valet parking is twenty yards away, but before Tony Blackburn walks over to him to give him the car-keys, I watch him walk round his mini making sure the doors are locked. Then carefully, he pushes the car radio aerial down.

At first I think it is strange, significant, as if he is – despite all his years visualising himself, talking to the void, being a DJ, ever since he was ten – shutting it off, thoughtlessly closing it down.

But then I realise what he is doing: keeping it safe, like a boy with his favourite toy.