Andy Kershaw - "No Off Switch: An Autobiography" - Review

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“Best autobiography I have ever read”

Back in March 2012 I finished reading Andy Kershaw’s autobiography “No Off Switch” and wrote on the blog page of

“Best autobiography I have ever read. Bar none. Thoroughly recommend it. Nuff said. I’m looking to write a review of it when I get a moment or ten and I’ll expand my thoughts in that, so watch this space . . .”

It’s taken 6 months for that moment to arrive and it’s been one of the most difficult reviews to write. I stand by what I said back then: “Best autobiography I have ever read”. Now I need to explain why…

Andy Kershaw only really popped his head up into my consciousness around 1989. Kershaw and protest singer Billy Bragg were being filmed crossing the Andes on 'The Silver Road’ from Potosí in Bolivia, one of the highest cities in the world, all the way down to Arica in the Atacama Desert in Chile (both areas I was familiar with myself having travelled them in the mid-80s, so I was interested in what they’d got to say about it). The film was for the BBC series “Great Journeys”.

Picture the scene. It’s night-time, way up high in the Bolivian altiplano. It’s bitterly cold, very dark and there’s a small camp-fire lit under the stars. Around it are our two heroes and a couple of Aymaras (members of the indigenous population). The locals finish singing and playing a piece of deep Andean music that probably has roots in pre-Incan folklore. They indicate to Barking and Rochdale’s finest that they would like to hear a piece of traditional English folklore in return. It’s the basic rules of hospitality when travelling, share and share alike. Well, there’s only one song you can sing when sat around a campfire isn’t there? Ready? All together now:

“Giiin… Gaaaan… Goolie-Goolie-Goolie, Watchum, Gin Gan Goo, Gin Gan Goo . . .”

"A man of adventure, integrity and supreme silliness."

From that moment Andy Kershaw had earned his stripes for me. A man of adventure, integrity and supreme silliness.

You might think you know all you need to about “the Boy Kershaw”, but trust me, if you haven’t read this autobiography, you know nothing. It’s a substantial book and yet he packs more into each and every chapter than most autobiographers have lived in a lifetime. It’s truly astounding. I kept thinking: he can’t top that now, can he? And yet you turn another page and he does. There’s story after story. And they’re absolute bobby-dazzlers!

"Kershaw lays it all on the line, often with embarrassing candour."

From his days as a spotty Herbert in 1960s Rochdale, becoming a cub reporter for motorbike racing, being at the helm of the famous Leeds Uni Ents Dept and Stage Crew, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, The Who, his days as a roadie to Billy Bragg, presenter for Radio Aire, presenting the Old Grey Whistle Test, consistently winning awards for his ground-breaking Radio One shows, his years spent sharing an office and producer with John Peel, championing the musics of the world, The Bhundu Boys, Ali Farka Toure, his interminable wars with the Birtists at the BBC, his globe-trotting documentaries (both on music and harrowing wars) and the switch from Radio 1 to Radios 3 and 4 and to being an official FOOC (From Our Own Correspondent), the dangers of Rwanda and to his own dark days on the run in 2008 following the breakdown of his marriage, Kershaw lays it all on the line, often with embarrassing candour.

"style, wit and ... great grace. He is a wonderful writer."

I’m barely scratching the surface with this description. What makes this book remarkable, is that not only has Kershaw led the kind of life most of us could never even begin to imagine, he writes about it with style, wit and above all great grace. He is a wonderful writer.

"Engaging, passionate and with a real love of language and storytelling."

The book is truly a joy to read from beginning to the very end. This is no dodgy ghost-written money-spinner, nor some old bore’s collection of cobbled-together after-dinner anecdotes. This is proper writing. Engaging, passionate and with a real love of language and storytelling.

"you feel you’re at his shoulder the entire way"

I promise - no, I guarantee - you’ll not only be blown away by the wealth of experiences and characters, but you’ll be laughing and crying along with him throughout. Kershaw has that quality of writing (just like his radio shows) as if he’s talking just to you alone.   You feel you’re at his shoulder the entire way, whether he’s belatedly popping his cherry in the back of an Austin Allegro in Saddleworth (accompanied by a rampant girl, Van Morrison’s “Cypress Avenue” and a hundred mallard ducks - you see it’s those little details…) or, on a sober note, peering down a Rwandan well full to the brim with the chopped-up remains of machete-massacred victims and trying not to vomit. The truth is Andy’s been there, done that and - luckily for us - has now written the book.

"He’s also a serious, hardcore journalist"

Kershaw’s personality is a combination of Boys Own hero, stubborn activist, musical explorer and excitable kid and it’s this combination that is so endearing. He’s also a serious, hardcore journalist - and this is precisely because he is not part of the cozy club. It’s his status as an outsider that makes him so credible and pertinent. You might not always agree with his opinions (and he's got plenty of those), but they’re always worth listening to.

"a bottomless bag of one-liners"

One of the problems with reviewing a work like this is that it is difficult not to repeat what he’s already said or give the game away.  Andy’s already taken all the best lines for himself!  He has a bottomless bag of one-liners. In fact, he’s at his best when taking the curved scimitar of his tongue and slicing the legs off the kind of arrogant characters who routinely strut around the entertainments business - and there are pallets full of those . . . ! He doesn’t pull punches either. His critiques of Bob Geldof are scathing, hilarious (and worth the price of the book alone) especially their showdown at Leeds University where the Boomtown Rats were performing. I also remember seeing the Boomtown Rats at Sheffield during that same tour and likewise hated Geldof on sight too!

What’s great about “No Off Switch” is the ‘behind-the-scenes’ and ‘warts-and-all’ approach. It’s not a gratuitous kiss-and-tell as such (well, occasionally), but it is illuminating and very, very funny. The chapter on the Rolling Stones at Roundhay Park in 1982 is priceless. If you ever need to know how to find enough ‘grass-green’ paint for a mile-long 10’ high plywood fence, or more importantly, how to source a thrust-grommet for a 60˚ inverter with a retaining flange, at a moment’s notice then Andy’s yer man.

Want the inside gen on the workings of BBC Radio, (especially Radio 1 from the mid-80s)? Get the lowdown on such ‘personalities’ as Simon Bates, Steve Wright, Peter Powell, Bruno Brookes and all the rest of their happy, fun-loving gang . . . (including the currently very topical Jimmy Savile). Find out what it really was like sharing an office with the two John’s, Peel and Walters . His insights into Peel are absolutely fascinating - like shining a torch into the newly broached underground tomb of some fabled pharoah’s pyramid. Vignettes of loads of people before they were famous: Mark Mardell, James Whale, Carol Vordermann, Caron Keating, Courtney Love, Duran Duran…

Want to find out what on earth the likes of Frankie Howerd, Little Richard and Ned Sherrin could all possibly want out of our hero in person? Then you need to get hold of this book.

In fact, if you were ever even alive between 1960 and now, then this book has something for you.

"the great and the good as well as the vile and evil of the past 50 years"

It’s peopled with the great and the good as well as the vile and evil of the past 50 years - and Andy’s been there with ‘em all: talented musicians, egotistical musicians, talented and egotistical musicians (plenty of those), DJs (from the de-hagiofied John Peel through all of Radio 1, 3 and 4 down to the execrable Tim Westwood!) as well as media-types (from the awful Janet Street-Porter to innovative and committed producers like Chris Lycett and John Walters).

Kershaw also hangs out with the Heads of State of almost every African country (saints and sinners aplenty), mass-murdering warlords and dictators (from the Ton Ton Macoute to Hastings Banda of Malawi), freedom fighters and political activists (from boy soldiers in Rwanda to Jean-Baptiste Aristide of Haiti and Mandela days after his release from prison).

"you never know what’s coming next."

The thing is, you won’t believe me until you read it for yourself. People pop in and out of Kershaw’s life in the bizarrest of circumstances (from Jimmy Carter and Princess Margaret to Tariq Ali and a particularly poignant encounter with Prince). The secret of Kershaw's  autobiography is that - like his radio show - you never know what’s coming next.

Let’s face it, the musicians he’s been involved with in one form or other wrote much of the soundtrack to the last half-century, and the DJs he's worked alongside have broadcast it (or in many cases didn’t!).

His job as a reporter on world events is woefully ignored by many in the business and yet he’s travelled to 97 of the world’s 193 countries and put himself, quite literally, in the front-line of wars, coups and revolutions in a way that most acknowledged reporters wouldn’t dream of - and often financed his trips out of his own pocket. As he says: “The frontlines of the Angolan Civil War were not what you’d call overcrowded with R1 DJs”. I don’t care what anybody says: the man’s got credibility.

Reading “No Off Switch” made me realise just how much more there is to ‘our Andy’ than “the one that plays all the weird stuff”, or the tabloids’ image of him as ”the troubled DJ”.  The last two chapters were probably for me the most poignant in the whole book - as a loving Dad of two young boys myself I can only say I’d have cracked long before if that had happened to me.

"Just who the chuffin’ ‘eck is Andy Kershaw?"

So the big question is: ‘just who the chuffin’ ‘eck is Andy Kershaw?’ If you want to find out, then read this book. You will not regret it. I promise.

As for me, am I on any kick-back for this review? No. I’ve not been asked to write this or had any contact with him or his publishers or anything. Don’t know him personally, never met him before. I just read it and thought it was just a book that screamed for attention. Yes, I would like to meet him one day - although there’s always that fear that once you meet them in the flesh you discover a completely different person.

Thing is with Kershaw, you feel like you know him personally. That Rochdale burr, the rhythm of his delivery, it’s all there and instantly comforting. But, apart from that, I’m only also 3 years younger than him; we’ve grown up in parallel lives throughout the same periods of culture and politics, often loving the same music, so in a sense “No Off Switch” is about my life too (you see Andy, I too have an original vinyl copy of “Sixty Miles By Road or Rail” and furthermore I only have to look at a faded tartan, brushed-cotton shirt to instinctively think of Rory Gallagher).

The truth is, one day I want to ride the trail alongside Our Andy, the Boy Kershaw, The Rochdale Cowboy, as our horses trot along side-by-side to the sound of a North Korean pop band playing a jit-jive version of “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and we ride off into the sunset in search of some long-forgotten musical hero washed up in the faded hotel of a potty banana republic.

Of course, what I really want to do is pop Andy the question that’s on a million red-blooded, middle-aged blokes’ lips: did the wild, thumping beats of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin' Else” (booming out of a Rock-Ola Jukebox at full volume) ever tickle the auditory senses of the delicious Carol Vordermann?

No idea what I’m going on about? Then you’ll have to buy the book and find out!
Go on, our Andy, spill the beans!

Glyn Phillips (4/10/2012)

"No Off Switch: An Autobiography" by Andy Kershaw is published in paperback by Random House and hardback by Serpent's Tail.