Annie Nightingale is celebrating her 50th year as a broadcaster. Or, at least, she’s celebrating as much as anyone who positively, absolutely refuses to look back can celebrate such a milestone.
‘I get constantly excited by what’s around the corner,’ the veteran DJ tells Weekend. ‘For example, they’re talking about people going to live in Martian colonies, so I said on Twitter today, “Right, who’s up for the first space rave on Mars?”
‘They say the last 100 years have seen the greatest changes in the whole of history, which is kind of mind-blowing, and I do feel very fortunate to have lived through that,’ she concedes. ‘But I almost think… well, don’t gloat about it.’
But surely nostalgia is just human nature – even she must surrender to it sometimes? ‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘I haven’t got time. Actually I’m a bit scared of it. There’s no point being wistful, because you can’t go back. You can’t. Why torture yourself? I think it makes people sad.’
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone that Annie Nightingale keeps her eyes firmly forward. You don’t become the longest-serving DJ on Radio 1 – she became the station’s first female presenter on the very first day of the 1970s – without staying ahead of the curve. Along with her friend John Peel, she was one of the only Radio 1 presenters to champion punk and, a decade later, was re-born as the queen of the acid house scene.
At 75, her current show – broadcast in the early hours of Friday mornings – specialises in breakbeat, trap (ask your kids) and “the biggest bass bangers”, and she still regularly DJs at clubs and festivals. So don’t expect her to take up the mid-morning slot on Magic FM any time soon.
Born and raised in London, Nightingale began her career as a journalist on the Brighton Evening Argus, where she first met The Beatles. ‘They were very open,’ she recalls. ‘They were from Liverpool, so they weren’t London-centric and snobby about who they were going to meet. I phoned up their first press officer, Tony Barrow, and said, “Can I interview The Beatles?” and they just set it up.
‘Some pictures recently came to light, taken by the Argus of them coming off stage in Brighton,’ she smiles, ‘and I’m just this scruffy kid standing there, looking really unimpressed. As if to say, “Yeah, you may be The Beatles but the pubs close in half an hour.” And by the time Ringo comes off, I’ve turned my back on him!’
By the late 60s, Nightingale had become a trusted member of the band’s inner sanctum, and it was Tony Barrow’s successor, the legendary Derek Taylor, who proved instrumental in introducing her to Radio 1 (she’d already made the leap from print, having fronted That’s For Me, the short-lived sister show to TV pop phenomenon Ready Steady Go!).
Up until that point, “the nation’s favourite” didn’t so much have an unwritten policy of not hiring women, as a written one. ‘They said women had no authority, and that DJs should be “husband substitutes” for housewives,’ she recalls. ‘It was ridiculous, but that’s how they thought of women – the little wife at home. But I kept saying, “Can I have a go?” And this wave of change was coming, and I think they thought, “Okay, we’d better have someone, a token woman”. And that’s how I got my opportunity.’ Amazingly, it would be another 12 years before Nightingale was joined at the station by another woman, Janice Long.
Of course, much has been made, in the post-Savile era, of the culture of sexism and predatory abuse that appeared to be rife at the BBC at the time. Nightingale insists she saw no evidence of this – ‘Your relationship was with your producer, really, and you’d just see these other guys in the corridor occasionally’ – but admits there was a certain atmosphere of ‘locker room humour’ when the DJs did get together. ‘They were all very much in competition with each other, and they didn’t really regard me as a threat,’ she says. ‘I was quite dismissed, I think.’
So can she take some pleasure in having outlasted every male presenter on Radio 1? ‘I don’t know,’ she shrugs. ‘Some of them just moved on to Radio 2, so I wouldn’t say I’ve outlasted them, necessarily.’
Over the years, she’s juggled Radio 1 duties with television (she replaced Bob Harris as the main presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test), and has travelled the world DJ-ing and making music documentaries. In 1996, she was mugged in Havana and had to be airlifted back to London. It’s been said her distinctive, apparently omnipresent shades are to hide the injuries she sustained, but she’s not wearing them when Weekend meets her at Radio 1, and looks perfectly well.
It sometimes seems Nightingale – whose honours range from the CBE to Muzik Magazine’s Caner of the Year award – has dedicated her whole life to music. What else does she like to do? ‘I don’t have much time to do other stuff,’ she says. ‘Especially now, when there’s so much music out there.’
Perhaps this unstinting devotion to rock, roll and repetitive beats – from world tours with The Police and hanging with Duran Duran in Montserrat to DJ-ing in Ibiza – was a factor in the breakdown of her two marriages. Or perhaps not – we don’t know, and she’s not telling: ‘I don’t generally talk about my family,’ she says, politely but firmly. We do know she has two grown-up children, Alex and Lucy; the former was born when she was 19, and she had to fight her parents’ attempts to make him a ward of the court.
And so we return, inevitably, to the music. After 50 years, Nightingale still worries about making the grade, feeling she’s only ever as good as her last show. ‘I don’t have a lot of self-confidence,’ she admits. ‘But I have made low self-esteem work for me.’
Next week, she will be interviewed by her friend Nick Grimshaw for a Radio 1 special to mark her half-century of broadcasting. She has also compiled an album for Ministry of Sound’s Masterpiece series, bringing together tracks from across her decades on air with the blessing of old friends like Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones – the latter waiving their ‘no compilations’ rule for the first time.
With so much history in the air, Weekend has one more go at trying to draw Nightingale into the past. What, would she say, is her overriding memory of the last 50 years?
‘I think it’s excitement about looking forward,’ she says.
Well of course.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 19, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend