Interview: Danny Baker

The DJ talks wigs, cancer and Desert Island Discs

You can come as you are for an appearance on Desert Island Discs – it’s a radio show after all – but it’s a certainty that Danny Baker, the indefatigably irreverent DJ, is the first castaway to wash up in Kirsty Young’s studio wearing a pirate’s bandana with integral hair.

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“I’ve got a wig I now wear, it’s an absurd pirate bandana with hair on top, an all-in-one thing. It’s magnificent. I bought it in the Florida Keys. The best $1.99 I ever spent. I think Kirsty took it in her stride rather well. She said, ‘Do you want to mention this?’ And I said no. That’s the fun, broadcasting in a wig when no one can see you.”

He used to prefer a Captain Jack Sparrow hat, bought at Disneyland, that he wore when entertaining his fiercely loyal listeners, whether riffing between records on his BBC London show or on a Saturday morning on Radio 5 Live, talking nonsense and football. Somehow it suited his buccaneering approach and, even at the age of 54, his self-confessed boyish bumptiousness. Does a change of head gear signal a change of mood?

“This is brand new – the bandana. But as I say it’s a pirate bandana. Some might suggest I’ve needed a wig for the last ten years, but it’s purely and simply worn for the obtuseness of wearing fancy dress on the radio and not mentioning it. That’s the beauty of it. Since I had cancer, people think, ‘Ohhh, is he wearing that for a reason?’ But it makes you feel terrific when you’re broadcasting.”

As he rattles out his words at 78rpm, it’s hard to believe that Baker’s lightly mentioned brush with neck cancer was diagnosed less than 12 months ago. It scared the living daylights out of his listeners and friends, although apparently not him.

“It didn’t occur to me for a second that I was not going to be all right. I’m not saying I’m too good for that, or bulletproof, but it just didn’t occur to me that I could die. Although January, February, March I don’t remember.”

Those dark winter days spent receiving radiation treatment passed and in May, as he prepared to take his first steps back into the studio, he was hailed by his peers when he won a Sony Radio Personality of the Year Award.

And now he’s receiving Radio 4’s own accolade, under a pirate wig in Kirsty’s studio. So how does a record obsessive winnow down his collection to eight discs? Especially when, despite having had a hand in some of the biggest broadcasting successes of the past two decades – creating 6-0-6, the BBC’s original football phone-in, writing Chris Evans’ Channel 4 hit TFI Friday and material for Jonathan Ross for his BBC1 chat show – Baker honed his style as a music journalist on the NME.

“Initially it’s like naming children or surgery, especially for someone like me who had their very first job in a record shop when I was 14. I mean, I’ve bought and sold upwards of 100,000 records over the years and I’ve got to try to find some sort of narrative? It can be like an X-ray for your vanity – the temptation is to say, ‘Well, that was Mozart and now we move onto the Ramones.’ Until you realise it’s not an affadavit, it’s a radio show and then suddenly the tight shoes come off and you find an angle. Rather than try to encompass everything from Ivor Novello to King Crimson, which is absurd and not entertaining, I decided to pick eight that are all of a piece.”

He won’t reveal his list, but a little digging unearths a clue. “I’m one of those people who think the Beatles haven’t been lauded enough. It will take 100 years before people go, ‘Whoah, that was an extraordinary step forward for not just music but world culture.’ But that’s a given, that’s like taking the Bible for me. Incredibly there’s no Beatles in it. If I was really put on a desert island I’d choose all of the Beatles, and Sinatra, too.”

What of his interview? Reliving his rise from docker’s son in south-east London to his current status, not to mention surroundings (“a 17-room house in beautiful Blackheath”) must have prompted a sigh if not a tear?

“A very good friend of mine, who’s also in this series, called me and said he cried throughout it. But it just didn’t occur to me to do that. The thing about my life is there’s none of the angst usually involved. I was an extremely popular kid, great at school, had loads of friends, was captain of the football team.

“Sorry if that makes people curl their lips, but those are the facts and maybe there’s a hint to my rather bumptious personality later in life. I think Kirsty thought I was too reckless by far when I turned up, but by the time I left we were lacing daisies into each other’s hair.”

He didn’t even stumble over the cancer. He hates to discuss it.

“I had neck cancer and it’s gone. It was a disgusting, horrible time, but it hasn’t had the slightest effect on me, either ennobling or enriching. It was like being in prison. I’m out now, done my time, thank you very much. It’s expunged from the record. It doesn’t interest me, talking about bleeding cancer. As Homer Simpson says, ‘Marge, I haven’t learnt a damn thing.’ How can you sit around and ponder your mortality? What a waste of time. In the eight minutes you spend thinking about your mortality you could have been watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It’s just not my way. I’m happy and thankful to be skimming along the surface. I have no depths at all.”

He’s currently writing his biography, Going to Sea in a Sieve (a nod to one of his heroes, Edward Lear). By the sound of things it will be resolutely upbeat.

“What people want is lots of angst, lots of misery to balance the later celebrity and wealth. But mine doesn’t have that. I watched Nigel Slater’s Toast and in the background there was a lot of lonely, sad cello music. That’s not going to work with me.”

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What, I wonder, would be the soundtrack to his life? For a second the torrent of words slows, then stops. The next day he tells me on the phone. “March of the Mods by the Joe Loss Orchestra. Di-di-di dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dumdum dum-dum dum-dum dum-di-der-der-dum. I played that not long afterwards and thought, what an absurd song. That’ll do.”