'BBC Radio 1 bosses said openly there were to be no women DJs'
Ahead of her appearance at Belfast's Oh Yeah Centre next month, veteran DJ Annie Nightingale tells Chris Jones how she fought against sexism in radio and dance clubs and offers advice for women wanting to star on the decks
It says something about the fiercely independent spirit of radio presenter Annie Nightingale, who visits Belfast in March to speak and DJ at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, that when you ask her about her favourite people and memories of Belfast, she ignores the biggest names - Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, even local punk bands like Stiff Little Fingers, whom she knew and interviewed in the late Seventies - and instead focuses on the heroes of acid house, the dance music revolution that came along when she was almost 50 years old.
Now 75, she uses her weekly late-night show on BBC Radio 1 to fly the flag for cutting-edge electronic music such as breaks, dubstep and the hip-hop subgenres grime and trap. Or "the biggest bass bangers", as she calls them on air. When she isn't on the radio, she's still often found behind the decks in clubs and at festivals.
Music, particularly electronic music, is her passion, and she reminisces about DJing alongside one of her heroes, the Primal Scream producer and DJ Andrew Weatherall, at Belfast techno club Shine some years ago - "I was so petrified at being on the same bill" - and about hanging out with Belfast DJ, producer, composer and noted raconteur David Holmes, a pioneer of acid house who now scores Hollywood films.
"He's my great hero from Belfast," she smiles. "I remember I would go and play somewhere and then sit in the bar with him all night. He'd tell you amazing stories. When I think about Belfast and DJing, I think about Andrew and David. That's what inspired me to get involved in acid house - they were very much involved in that."
She enthuses, too, about her young Radio 1 colleague Phil Taggart, who hails from Omagh, and speaks warmly about his recent TV show for Channel 4, Best Before. Coincidentally, Taggart had a cameo in the movie Good Vibrations as a member of The Undertones, and if that period of Northern Irish music did have a lasting effect on her, it's mainly through their song Teenage Kicks, which is forever associated with her great friend and colleague John Peel, who died in 2004. "I still can't listen to Teenage Kicks without missing John so much," she says sadly. "It's his song and I still find it so hard to hear."
More recently, and in common with music fans all over the world, Nightingale has been saddened by the loss of David Bowie, of whom she has been a fan since the beginning. "I still can't listen to any of his music," she says, clearly still upset by the loss. "He was so much a part of everybody's lives, and to make your death into a work of art [as he did], I am absolutely astounded.
"I met him very early on. I can't exactly put a year on it but he was living in Beckenham [in London] and I went to see him. I remember him wearing a white shirt and jeans, sat on this wooden stool with an acoustic guitar and playing Space Oddity. I took him to the pub across the road afterwards and I said, 'You are the future'. I was absolutely convinced that he was.
"The Beatles were coming to the end of being The Beatles, and everybody thought that there was going to be another band who was going to take over but I went, 'No, it isn't a band, it's David Bowie'. And it was. It's incredible how he stayed ahead of the game, decade after decade. There will never be anybody like that again."
On March 4, Nightingale will return to Belfast to speak and DJ as part of the Women's Work Festival, which aims to celebrate female talent in music and the creative sector.
As a feminist icon and a trailblazer for women in the media, she is better placed than most to discuss the issues. She joined BBC Radio 1 in 1970 as their first-ever female presenter, having worked as a newspaper reporter in Brighton and as a TV presenter. But on her first enquiry about working there as a presenter, she was knocked back straight away. "They actually said very openly that there were to be no women," she says with an incredulous laugh.
At the time, Radio 1 had been going for less than three years and all the presenters were men, mostly picked up from the pirate radio stations that had just been outlawed. And of course the station bosses were middle-aged men who thought they knew a woman's place. "They were obviously looking for excuses, and one of them was that the DJs were 'husband substitutes'," she explains.
"I laugh when I tell people now but they said it in all seriousness. They obviously thought that there were these girls who get married quite young and stay at home and have the radio on [while they] wait for their hubbies to come home - rather than us being young career women who didn't think like that.
"So I said, 'Look, you might not believe this but girls have friends who are of the same gender. If you think I'm going to alienate them all, it's up to me to prove that I won't'."
Thus began a stellar career at the BBC, which has included stints on the Old Grey Whistle Test, the Sunday Request Show and The Chill Out Zone, the precursor for her current slot. But it took some time for others to follow her through the door. "Once they gave me a show to do, I thought, 'Ah. Now then. There will be lots of girls coming through'. And there was not one other one for 12 years afterwards, which was Janice Long who's on Radio 2 now."
Annie says that before she joined Radio 1, she hadn't experienced sexism. But through the Seventies, she constantly had to fight to be taken seriously. "It was pretty awful," she recalls.
"You'd go round these clubs and they'd give you a microphone. I'd brought my records but they'd go, 'It's alright love, we'll do that'. It was the era of Miss Wet T-shirt - and it wasn't my thing to do that. It was bewildering in those days. But when acid house came along the whole role of the DJ changed miraculously. That's something I'm eternally grateful for."
However, she makes a point of emphasising that the Women's Work Festival - and International Women's Day, which it is centred on - exists to focus on the positives rather than the negatives.
"It's not necessarily a protest or a pressure group, it's a celebration," she says.
"There are as many women in the world as men, so we are not a minority and we celebrate that fact. There should be complete equality. I certainly am a feminist and proud of it."
While Annie acknowledges that there is still work to do, the industry has moved on from the sexism of the early Seventies. "It's changed a lot," she says. "Radio 1 has been very, very good at reducing that imbalance. When they take on a new female DJ, and there are more and more, it's not news any more, and that's how it should be." However, she warns, "at other radio stations it's not the same at all".
Meanwhile, she has some crucial advice for girls and young women looking to follow in her footsteps on the radio. "You've got to be on top of it, technologically," she says, arguing that there's more to being a radio presenter than speaking into a microphone. "You can't go, 'Oh well, I'll let the boys do that'. That's also why it's still very difficult for women in the world of club DJing. They start wanting women to be decorative and the moment that happens you have to go, 'No, sorry, that's not what I do'. You've got to be judged on your ability as a DJ, not as a gimmick that you're female."
Last year, Annie marked 50 years in broadcasting by putting together a three-CD compilation album for Ministry Of Sound's Masterpiece series. She took the opportunity to chronicle her life in music, from early friends and peers Paul McCartney, The Who and The Rolling Stones to contemporary favourites Flux Pavilion, Tinie Tempah and Shamir. But she says she has no real truck with milestones, or looking back over her shoulder.
"You're always working ahead, [so] you don't actually notice how quickly the time goes," she says. "I couldn't tell you what day it is today. Before you know it, you're in 2017. With that [album] last year, everyone loves an anniversary - the media, record companies - so if you want to do something like that, you tend to build it around one."
As far as longevity is concerned, Annie is in a very select band of broadcasters. As for continued musical relevance, she's out on her own, carrying on the legacy she always shared with John Peel. But I have to ask, why does she continue to work at the coalface of new music, working all week to, as she puts it, "to find you the best thing I can" - when her peers from the Sixties and Seventies have either retired or long since stopped caring about new music?
"I ask myself this all the time," she laughs. "Because trying to find something I've never heard before is what interests me. I think that's what the job is - trying to find that stuff and helping people through.
"Music has become very democratised now, sure you can make a tune on your iPhone and put it on YouTube - but there's so much music out there that to get it heard, recognised and on its way is probably much more difficult.
"So I cherish this job and try to find things where I think, 'This is really good, let's see how it goes'. And you play it and say [to the audience], 'What do you think?', just like I did in the early days. Then I might get something back [in response] and I think, 'Great'. It's really that simple.
"You're trying to maintain that standard. The deal is, for me and the listener, I will spend all my week trying to find you the best thing I can. I won't put any rubbish in the show. I've only got my own judgment to go on, but someone has to make the decisions, and I listen to as much as I can because I don't want to miss anything."
Annie Nightingale - In Conversation followed by a DJ set at the Oh Yeah Centre, Belfast, as part of the Women's Work events. Doors open 7.30pm until late. Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/annie-nightingale-in-conversation-followed-by-dance-floor-rave-tickets-20742750124 for tickets which cost £10