theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs
theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Mary Anne Hobbs
Radio 1's queen of the small hours on life, the universe and bootleg Maltesers
It's the ultimate childhood dream, isn't it – the other world, the Narnia or whatever, that the child can escape from oppressive reality into? But for you that other world really existed...
Yes. I knew I had to get to London, but I had no idea how. In my dream of writing for Sounds, I had no idea of what the editor of Sounds would want to see. It never occurred to me to simply go to a gig at Preston Guildhall, review it, and just send the review in to the editor. Nothing so simple occurred to me. I thought I would somehow need to demonstrate to him that I was part of that world of rock. So there was a working men's club in Garstang, and about twice a year they used to have a live band on, an actual rock band, and I remember one day on the chalk board outside this message appearing saying “HERETIC – FROM LONDON” and a date for the gig, and I thought “This is it, this is my moment, I am going to get a job with this band and move to London!” And to cut a long story short, that is exactly what happened: I ran away to London right then with this band.
We lived on a coach park in Hayes in Middlesex, in a bus for over a year. It's something I look back on now and just think all these moments are like scenes from a Mike Leigh movie. We lived on this absolutely knackered old bus that we called “The Blue Goose Hotel” and the band were a hard rock band, kind of along the lines of Thin Lizzy; I thought they were amazing. I did all sorts: principally I was their lighting designer, but I designed and made all their costumes, painted their backdrops, I designed their record sleeves and I was the bus mechanic as well. In those days you had to pay to play; you weren't paid for any gigs, and if you got half a lager and five straws it was an absolute miracle. So we all worked the shittiest day jobs: two of the band were gravediggers, two of them worked in a factory where they were sticking stickers with the manufacturer's name on the bottom of dog dishes on a conveyor belt – and me and the singer worked in a sweet factory where they would every day ship in these enormous barrels of Maltesers that were supposedly seconds, but they obviously had some sort of racket going on where we picked out anything that looked like it could be repackaged and they repackaged them as legitimate Maltesers. And that's what we did all day, sifted through Maltesers.
So we saved every every single penny; we lived on a bag of chips a day, literally, and once we'd got enough money to fix this knackered old bus and we had backline equipment – we had a whole PA system, Marshall amps, a lighting rig, all of which was built out of ricketty bits of wooden boxes and stuff but it could be repaired and it did work from time to time – we'd get an issue of Sounds, go through the adverts, ring up every venue in there, book a tour and off we'd go round all these places. I could tell you a billion adventures from those days, most of which have some excruciating climax, but the upshot is it's just a really really rough way to live.
Well, if nothing else, that shows a pretty impressive degree of dedication to rock'n'roll.
I just didn't see there was any other way. Coming from a tiny village with no communications whatsoever – and we used to have a lock on the phone too when I was little – the only way to achieve anything was to just go and do it. With no real information either. So I also thought the editor of Sounds would probably want to see would be that I can publish my own magazine. This was very much the era of fanzines so I published a couple of issues of this fanzine which I called 'Krush', with a “k”. Then I sent the most demented CV off to him.
But in a strange, and perhaps a little fateful, way, maybe that was what stood out, [chokes back a laugh] looking at this CV and it had all the duties that I'd performed in the last year for the band while living on a bus and a tour diary of everything we'd done and stuff. Something must have captured his imagination, because at 19 he wrote to me, and I still have the letter: it was sent to a friend of the band's house, I remember him bringing it, with the Sounds logo on the outside of the envelope and I just... I nearly... Oh God, it was just one of the most glorious days of my entire life, I couldn't believe it. It was proper old-fashioned typewritten and it said, “Would you like to come and see us?” And that is how it all started, really...
And the band that you were with, did they have particular ambitions too, or was it simply about living the life of a rock band for the sake of it?
Well, they were playing the old Marquee, which really was quite a prestige gig in London, it very definitely was The One. And they had a great fanbase, but the demise of the band was down to the fact that we lived so rough on that bus. You can't conceive of how freezing fucking cold it was in January: we used to sleep in all our clothes with every scrap of fabric that we could piled on top because it was so bitterly cold, and we just had one paraffin heater that would billow out black smoke.
It was a miracle that we didn't completely asphyxiate ourselves, but the singer ended up in intensive care eventually and was in there for the best part of four months – at that point the first EP had just come out and we had this huge tour planned and all the rest of it, but he became really just desperately ill, so we had to cancel everything. You know what it's like when you're eighteen, four months just feels like the whole rest of time, you feel like you've completely lost momentum and everything's ruined, you've lost the kudos you had with the promoters because you've let them all down, the label's going berserk because you've cancelled the tour and they won't release anything else and blah blah blah... It was just a desperate moment because they'd just worked so hard to build up that momentum – but it was a very very different time.
You were only visible when you were there in front of people, there was minimal media and of course no internet, you couldn't communicate that somebody was ill to people, there was no way of doing that bar trying and trying to persuade the NME or Sounds to mention it, and they wouldn't be interested. This was before the media became obsessed with everybody's state of mind and state of health and every last scrap of personal information – on the contrary, they were really only interested in records and gigs, and if for whatever reason you'd blown out all the gigs and the record company were saying, “We're not going to release anything else,” then it was almost curtains anyway. You couldn't get a MySpace or web page where you could say, “Our singer is critically ill, he's in intensive care in hospital, he's really at death's door as a consequence of the way that we've lived on this bus, we hope that he's going to pull through so we can reschedule everything.” In those times you had to be there, the momentum was all about building on real physical presence and physical releases, and if you couldn't do that you were pretty much fucked really. It seems really harsh, but it's just how it was in those days, it was a different time.
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