Normally reluctant when it comes to interviews, Mark Lamarr decided to break with tradition and speak with Famous Last Words.
When it was finally announced that the quintessential radio programme for all rock ‘n’ roll aficionados Shake, Rattle and Roll was no longer going to be a part of BBC Radio Two’s schedule, it came as a knockout blow. Mark Lamarr – longstanding DJ, TV presenter and person responsible for this quite stupendous rock ‘n’ roll programme – had decided to pack his bag of 45s and call time on said radio programme, along with his other prized possession God’s Jukebox and thus compounding the misery further.
For the first time in the existence of FLW, there was a radio programme that truly meant something because not only was the host truly exceptional in his knowledge of all things rock ‘n’ roll but also the enthusiastic and passionate delivery of the subject matter, spliced with various anecdotes, made those Monday/Tuesday evenings for twelve weeks at a time worth getting excited about. The decision to leave his post genuinely left a gaping hole as it felt like losing a close-friend and making Herzog’s research concerning human interaction and dependency on certain media content all the more plausible.
With the dust having finally settled after approximately a two-year hiatus, the name Mark Lamarr appears to have slipped off the radar with no resurgence in terms of a radio career, let alone television work. Still struggling to come to terms with this loss, FLW decided to conduct some investigative work to see if Mark Lamarr could be persuaded to not necessarily set the record straight on his decision to leave Radio Two because that is a personal matter, but more importantly to climb inside that encyclopaedia of music knowledge in order to realise his passions for all things music related, especially when it comes to vinyl records.
Granting access for an interview is never easy at the best of times, but what transpired was purely coincidental and made one Sunday morning via a text message resemble the joy felt when finally unearthing that long-lost record for practically nothing, when normally you would be expected to part with a few bars of gold bullion, as Mark Lamarr gave FLW the green light to his inner sanctum.
Several messages later, coupled with a telephone call that recalled an extremely funny stand-up performance in Liverpool that eventually gave way to much heckling and resembled the equivalent of a tennis match with its return serve of acerbic wit, FLW found itself somewhere in the capital city at the agreed destination. Once inside, FLW was greeted with “Fancy a cup of tea?” and then ushered to the basement with a perfectly good reason as it was here that Mark Lamarr spends many hours researching and listening to his ever-expanding record collection. The whole experience resembled a kid in a sweet shop as row after row of vinyl and CD box sets glistened in the dimly lit surroundings as this was the equivalent to Aladdin’s cave, only the trinkets perched on top of the skyscraper-sized racks of vinyl were of the 50s kitsch variety.
Wiping the feverish sweat from the brow of FLW and not forgetting to mop the pool of salvia forming around the ankles and threatening to ruin Mr Lamarr’s carpet, FLW watched in awe as the former Shake, Rattle and Roll presenter fixed two cups of tea in between asking questions about FLW and its tastes in music, whilst not forgetting to play a few gospel numbers recently added to his collection.
Once the tea had been downed and the musical anorak hung up to dry, it was time to get down to business in an attempt to gain an insight into Mark Lamarr’s passion for music and his thoughts regarding his former radio career.
“I think it was twelve years,” responds Mark Lamarr regarding the duration of Shake, Rattle and Roll on BBC Radio Two. “It was a long time, and when those things happen, and they don’t happen that often, it confuses people into thinking it’s the norm. So there will be a generation who will grow up with a rock ‘n’ roll show on the radio and they’re going to miss it more than people who’ve never heard one because I grew up for most of my life and there wasn’t one. I don’t associate the radio with good music but I hope some people did for a while when I was on, or while other DJs are on, because that’s a real tragedy that nobody associates mainstream radio with good music. I always thought that’s what it should be, those two or three moments in your life when you think I heard this [song] for the first time on the radio.”
Are there moments when you miss presenting Shake, Rattle and Roll and God’s Jukebox?
“I don’t miss them because it ended up with quite an ugly relationship in terms of the management,” replies Mark. “It was like any relationship ending; you remember the bad bits better than the good bits. So I don’t miss the programmes in the sense that I want to be back there, but they certainly hadn’t run their course; good music doesn’t run its course as it’s not a thing it could do. I don’t want my job back but I want someone to have it; I desperately want that to be the case.”
If a radio station approached you now, do you think that you would you consider presenting a music programme again?
“Yeah, I will at one point,” replies Mark without any hesitation, “but like I said, I took on too big a workload, particularly God’s Jukebox which is the show I’m proudest of. I casted too wide a net because to say that you’re going to specialise in everything from the twenties to the present was crazy! To get up every day for five years and think about what you’re going to hear for eight hours at a time, for a music fan that’s like a punishment. I never thought during those five years that I’m just going to put on some Ray Charles, I never once did that and I really missed Ray Charles! As a fan that’s what you want to do, but as a job I took on this mantle of responsibility, and I’m glad that I did but I’m in no rush to do that again. The day after I finished, I put on a Sam Cooke CD and when it finished I put it on again and it just brought me so much joy because I hadn’t listened to a single record twice in five years. So that’s why I’m not missing radio as much as I should, and it’s not like I won’t ever do it again, but for the moment I’m really happy playing Sam Cooke twice [through]. I think if I did a radio show again, I’d be much lazier as I’ve got an almost endless catalogue of favourite records that I can play.”
With the life of a DJ on a definite hiatus for the foreseeable future, Mark Lamarr has spent considerable time scouring the globe for rare and interesting records not only for the aforementioned radio programmes but also to help compile various compilation albums for several different record labels. However, in order to get to this point in his life, the knowledge and passion for his favourite subject has been brewing for some considerable time.
Growing up in Swindon when rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll music was going through a renaissance in the UK during the 70s and continuing into the 80s, Mark Lamarr’s passion for music really took hold during these periods as he explains.
“By the mid-70s when I was at that age of starting to get into music, rock ‘n’ roll was everywhere with Happy Days [TV] and Grease [film] and there was always Buddy Holly albums in the charts. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ seemed to be in the charts and was one of those records which has been number one five times or something stupid, and it never seemed an extraordinary thing to be listening to that because it wasn’t very old then. So it [rock ‘n’ roll] was everywhere and helped introduce me to a lifetime of all sorts of music. I’m plainly a massive rock ‘n’ roll fan but I always have to make this big statement that I like all sorts of music. For some reason I have to do that because apparently well-round people like lots of different things, but lots of different things are sometimes s***!”
How old were you when you started to like certain types of music?
“I probably didn’t start buying records until about ’76 – ’77 when I was nine or ten years old,” explains Mark. “I haven’t stopped for a day since, and I don’t really see it as one particular moment and then this other thing happened as music has always been there.”
Were you attending various music venues at that time that played a lot of rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll music?
“Yeah, as Swindon had a really good rock ‘n’ roll scene for a town its size,” comments Mark. “There was still a lot of Teds around from the 50s and there was a rock ‘n’ roll club that would put gigs on. So when I was 11 or 12 years old, I went to see Billy Lee Riley in my hometown and those old 50s rockabilly artists were such legends to us. They were myths in fact, as they weren’t even legends because we couldn’t believe that they existed and suddenly one of them was coming to play our town hall and it was extraordinary! So it was such a thrilling thing to be around each week as you’d know ‘At The Hop’ and ‘Charlie Brown’ but then they would play a great Johnny Burnette record. I can’t remember if I knew ‘Charlie Brown’ at the time, but I heard a lot of those obscure records before I heard the big pop hits.”
Did you have people around you at the time who recommended a lot of the new artists to you?
“No, the scene then…” trails off before resuming, “despite how it may appear, I’m not into obscure music for the sake of obscurity. Rock ‘n’ roll was massive in the 70s, people forget how enormous it was and the streets were full of rockabillies and there were great compilation albums coming out, which felt like on a weekly basis of really extraordinary music and these were people who and been collecting it since the 50s and suddenly had an outlet to release all this stuff. So it wasn’t a case of let’s find the obscure as there was a series called the MCA rockabilly albums that were extraordinary, and I heard all that stuff before I heard Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. For people who were listening to 50s rock ‘n’ roll of my generation, you heard all of that long before you heard even Elvis, as I wouldn’t have known even some of his songs. I would’ve had the Sun Sessions but I wouldn’t have heard all of his [Elvis] stuff before I heard amazing records by Johnny Carroll or Jack Cochran for example.”
Do you have any fond memories of particular gigs when you first started getting into music?
“The gigs I remember best was my first ever gig which was Crazy Cavan at Swindon Town Hall,” recollects Mark. “I think it was the first gig the Rock ‘n’ Roll club put on, and it was just an amazing evening. There was a guy called Rex – who was a really legendary rock ‘n’ roll record dealer who was there – and I was just as excited to see Rex as I was to see Crazy Cavan. Just to look through acres of 50s rock ‘n’ roll records was such a great thrill!” he continues with much enthusiasm in his voice. “Certainly, when I started presenting Shake, Rattle and Roll it [rock ‘n’ roll] felt a little bit naff and uncool and nothing to do with me, which was a sign of the times. It kinda seems cool again now for some reason, but I must stress that I’m taking no credit as it was just a matter of the times. Suddenly, with Imelda May and the American singer J.D. McPherson it all seems a bit cool again now, and it has done for the last ten years or so. But there was a long period when I wouldn’t really mention it to anyone as I would hear, ‘You don’t like all that old s*** do you?’ and I couldn’t be bothered to sit and explain to them about Jackie Wilson when they wanted to talk about The Smiths.”
Did you feel that you were often on the fringes when it came to different musical tastes with your friends for example?
“Not so much, but when I was a teenager in Swindon, and because it’s a small town, we had a big rock ‘n’ roll scene but there was a lot of violence in those days as there were a lot of casuals [a term often associated with football hooligans of the late 70s up until the 90s] and everyone had to stick together. So all the punks, mods and all of us outsiders were a community. I have mentioned it before [past interviews] that I had a friend who was desperately into Crass and another who was a big ‘Specials fan and another one who was a mod and he introduced me to all the great mod sounds that I still like. Also, I had some friends who were obsessed with Benny Goodman, and I don’t particularly like Crass or Benny Goodman, but it was kind of interesting to hear that because we all had no choice as we would hang out with these people and that’s what they were listening to. I’m sure that’s a very typical story of small towns all over the country as the people who are obsessed with music will end up finding each other, and they might not even like each other’s music but they kind of appreciate the obsession.”
Talking of obsessions, and we are already on the next round of tea with Link Wray’s ‘Ain’t That Lovin You Baby’ providing a brief respite, FLW is keen to learn of Mark Lamarr’s passion for collecting vinyl and music in general.
“It’s difficult to answer as it’s almost like my DNA,” responds Mark. “As far back as I can remember, I bought every record I could afford and now it’s every record I can find, which isn’t the same thing. You’ve seen the scale of it down there [referring to his record collection] it’s always been like that. I still buy thrilling records for 10p a go at car boot sales, for example, such as old swing 78s and stuff like that, and I think that’s a throwback to when I was a kid because it amazed me I could buy these records for 10p each or whatever as I couldn’t afford all of the new ‘old’ releases as it were that I wanted. As far back as I can remember I’ve never stopped voraciously buying records. Nowadays it’s not just for the music, as I will buy records and then remember that I’ve already got it,” he continues laughing. “Without doubt, I have that obsessive side and there’s no denying that.”
From your vast collection of vinyl, can you remember the first album that was really important to you?
“I think probably the MCA Rockabilly albums,” says Mark. “I had Volume 2 first, for some reason, and I haven’t played it for a while but those tracks are still hardwired in me. A lot of it was the romance in terms of discovering these artists I’d never heard of before. Also, it felt as if nobody had heard of these [artists] because they sold nothing in the 50s, even though they were signed to major labels. I used to think that there was only four of these [records] in existence, and that’s another reason why I collect so much because when I was a kid it was all so mythical. If I saw one of those records, I’d have to have it because to me it was like a fossil or a great parchment, and if I don’t have this it might just end up in a bin. It has to be adored and preserved and all of those sorts of things and I have never gotten over that. Lately, gospel is the thing that I collect most and not many people collect gospel, but I think if I don’t buy this and play it to someone, it might become lost forever. It won’t of course as this is a romantic view, but that’s how I feel about those things.”
In terms of your collection, are there records that you’ve never played before?
“Oh, there are tonnes!” says Mark. “Joe Queenan [comedy writer] wrote a book about books recently because that’s his obsession. He wrote a whole chapter about keeping books that you’ll never read, and there’s a lot of that downstairs [referring to his record collection]. There is a whole filing cabinet of 90s indie (Happy to help out there! FLW) from when I was on the radio at the time, and I was listening to a lot of it, but when you’re on the radio you always get far more than you could possibly ever listen to. So a whole cabinet of records from approximately ’92 that I have never heard [telephone rings again, expletive from Mark and he apologises] but what a lovely position to be in to have more than you can listen to rather than less.”
By having such a large collection of records with many that you have not yet heard, does it ever become a pressure?
“It is, yeah,” agrees Mark. “Certainly, when I was presenting God’s Jukebox it was an incredible pressure, which I put on myself because I would make sure I did a 40 hour listening week as well as getting the shows ready for broadcasting. It was a great five years but exhausting and I don’t think I would necessarily want to do it again. There are crates of records that I’ll never get a chance to listen to before I die, but there are also crates of records that I have listened to that nobody else knows about and that’s before I die as well [laughing]. People often say that to me, ‘Look at what you’re missing out on!’ but I have missed out on less than most people.”
Is there one record in your collection that you consider a tad embarrassing?
“No, I don’t have guilty pleasures and I don’t like the concept at all because it’s kind of a smug thing to say,” comments Mark. “For example, ‘Yeah, I know I shouldn’t like that but I do!’ there’s no such thing as ‘shouldn’t like it’! There are probably a few rubbish records that I’ve ended up buying, but there’s nothing I’d keep filed away and wouldn’t want other people to hear. I don’t expect anyone to like anything I like because that doesn’t matter. So, I really think it’s an ugly concept [guilty pleasures]. There’s too much irony in the world these days; everything’s irony, just f****** like what you like!” finishes laughing.
Do you feel that music collectors sometimes possess a bit of an elitist attitude when it comes to collecting music?
“There a lot of music obsessives who are trying to do the right thing and share it with other people. I don’t understand those who don’t share it with other people as I think it’s a bit of a sin. I really think it’s a sin. For example, if it was the last butterfly alive, don’t kill it and put it in a box. I sort of think of it in the same terms with music.”
Are you saying, therefore, that such music collectors believe certain records are too precious and want to keep it for their own listening pleasures?
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that and a lot of them are dealers,” continues Mark between sips of his tea. “If they find a great record, then they won’t tell anyone until they’ve bought all of the best copies and then sell them for a lot of money. I sort of understand that, but the people who just want it to be ‘this is for me’ well, it’s not just for you as it was made for everyone. If you’re a music fan, it should be your prime motive to say, ‘Listen to this!’ as I was really lucky as I spent a lot of time being able to do that. I’m not snobby about how people get in to music because a person listening to music is thrilling and doesn’t happen as often as it should because it should be everyone. But I don’t know because not everyone is into music as much as us. It should be if you want that choice to listen to something good you should always be given it as I think you’re denied it by radio and the music industry in quite a nasty fashion.”
As a third cup of tea looms on the horizon, FLW has to politely decline due to an imminent train to catch, thoughts turn once more to the empty void that Mark’s absence from the airwaves has caused because apart from a few exceptions, there really hasn’t been any suitable candidates to take the mantle and claim the rock ‘n’ roll crown when it comes to the radio. But there again, there really is no solution to this predicament as the boots left behind are awfully big to fill not only in terms of the musical knowledge imparted during those golden years of Shake, Rattle and Roll but the manner in which the presenter transmitted his weekly programmes that made the listener feel a part of the whole experience. If the absence of Shake, Rattle and Roll and God’s Jukebox does not resonate in the same manner for Mark Lamarr due to the aforementioned fatigue felt on his behalf, then FLW is curious to learn of his other passion – record collecting – if there is one allusive 45rpm that has escaped his clutches all these years?
“No, I really don’t think so,” comes the surprising reply. “Even though I am a collector, I really don’t think in those terms. I’m mostly looking for things I haven’t heard but I don’t really feel like that whereas some people feel that they must have this particular rare record that’s expensive. I do buy expensive records occasionally, but I mainly don’t have that thing in my collection. I have a much bigger thrill being at a car boot sale and unearthing a record that doesn’t cost much. I’d much rather come home with two hundred $1 singles than one $200 single. I have a lot of friends who are into very expensive records and I can see the thrill in that, but it really doesn’t do it for me in particular. There’s no bigger thrill than finding a record by Etta James for a quid; there’s no greater thrill than that, and I do all of the time.”
I would hear, 'You don't like all that old s*** do you?' and I couldn't be bothered to sit and explain to them about Jackie Wilson when they wanted to talk about The Smiths."
FLW - From the Tapes
With so much ground covered over the years trying to unearth many new records to add to his collection, FLW was curious to learn of the record shops Mark Lamarr has visited in order to see which, if any, has provided an altogether different experience.
“All of them!” shouts Mark laughing. “Well, not all of them but generally people who run record stores are kind of odd people. I was in LA a year or two ago, and I was a very heavy smoker as I’ve given up now. I happened to be in this one particular record store when the woman who owned it literally walked next to me with an air freshener the whole time. I would go to an isle and she would come over and spray it! Obviously, I smelt pretty bad whereas now I’m one of those a***hole non-smokers who go on and on about it. They’re a wilful breed record dealers in the sense that this is my kingdom and if I want to stand next to you or insult you all afternoon or say you can’t look at that or buy that, then that’s what I will do. That is almost part of the joy of record collecting, steeling oneself for the peculiar quirks of record store owners. Also, in terms of reggae record stores it took me ages to work out the process of actually buying a record. For example, you don’t just go in and say I’d like that please, as there’s a real process where they put on records and you have to do a little nod to indicate that you want one put aside. There have been occasions when I haven’t been noticed, and if the owner doesn’t notice you, you don’t want to be uncool by shouting, ‘Hey, can I have one of those?’ because everyone would look at you as if you’re an idiot because that’s the deal with reggae record shops.”