Interview – Terry Christian

Terry Christian

In which 17 Seconds gets to speak with a truly cool music geek, and finds out about going to school with the Buzzcocks, being friends with the late (but great) Tony Wilson and a little bit about an infamous 1990s TV show called The Word.

‘I’ve never had a career, just a series of jobs.’ So says Terry Christian when he rings me at home. Now aged 55, but with a youthful outlook that would shame many decades younger, he’s had the sort of life and career that most music geeks can only dream of. And that definitely includes yours truly.

Much of this stems right from his childhood. Originally from Old Trafford in Manchester -‘a fantastic area to grow up in’ – and no doubt a major contributing factor to his being a diehard Manchester United fan, and says that at school there was a divide between soul fans and rock fans. Yet it seems that he bridged the divide of finding out about music himself – and throughout our conversation, I find myself constantly trying to write down more stuff to check out later on. To his eternal credit, he takes down my address and offers to send me stuff.

He fell into music long before punk. ‘I used to go out for a whole day round Manchester on my own on a Saturday and come back with six albums.’ His first job was not, in fact, in a record shop or on the radio, but in fact stewarding at the Old Trafford cricket ground. ‘I went to a Catholic Grammar School and they thought we were honest! he recalls, chuckling at the memory.

While he never knew Morrissey – though he grew up not far away from him in Hulme – one of the first people he knew growing up was John Maher, drummer with the Buzzcocks. ‘It was seen as unbelievable that he left school at sixteen,’ he recalls. Although he shamefaced (well, as shamefaced as you can be over a phoneline from a few hundred miles away) about the fact he no longer has his copy of the Buzzcocks’ seminal EP Spiral Scratch – he pinned it to his wall at university – he’s still immensely proud of the contribution that the Buzzcocks made to Manchester’s music scene. I ask him if he went to the Sex Pistols’ famed gig in Manchester in 1976, as documented in 24 Hour Party People.

‘A lot of the stuff about Manchester is absolute bullshit!’ he tells me matter of factly. He recalls punk in Manchester has being a fairly small scene, and that it was the Pistols later gig that year at the Electric Circus, not the earlier Free Trade Hall gig. This tallies with a conversation I have a day or so later with Billy Duffy of The Cult who tells me that if everyone who claims to have been there at the Free Trade Hall gig, there would have been about 14,000 people there.

Of course one of the people who attended the gig was one Tony Wilson, who was working at Granada TV, and would host one of the first music TV shows of the era So It Goes. Terry recalls it as being ‘fucking brilliant.’ Wilson was a maverick, still fondly remembered by many, including Terry, Even if Wilson’s approach wasn’t always the most straightforward, it was often the groundbreaking one. Terry recalls Wilson telling him ‘when you’re the one who kicks the door in, you get crushed in the rush through.’ Of course, before the end of the 70s, Wilson would have signed Joy Division, featuring them on Granada Reports as early as 1978, and signing them to his label, Factory Records.

Unknown Pleasures‘ was a [Martin] Hannett album,’ Terry reflects, referring to the maverick producer who produced Joy Division’s debut. ‘Live they were like Zep!’

Given the mythologising that has continued to grow around Factory, Wilson and Joy Division, it’s not saurprising that Terry’s somewhat suspicious about the films. He did witness this all at first hand. ‘The true story of 24 Hour Party People no-one would believe!’ he roars. He reckons that Factory partner and Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton ‘was much smarter than Tony. There would never have been 24 Hour Party People or Control [if Gretton had been alive]. The way Tony allowed himself to be presented…he was nothing like that,’ he reflects. ‘The Hacienda was never an indie club, it was never empty,’ he remembers – though he admits that it really was a former yacht showroom.

It’s perhaps telling that Terry – like all of us over 35 – grew up in a pre-internet age. ‘In my day, because we were so hungry for it, we would go out of our way to find the good stuff. Now, it can be found, but no-one knows what they want.’ In his case, of course, he kept digging, exposed to a lot of the music coming out in the UK, and certainly far beyond just what may have been happening in London clubs. He recalls Steel Pulse as being the best British reggae band, and we discuss just how great the Birmingham band’s debut album Handsworth Revolution is. ‘I saw them hold their own against Marley,’ he recalls. ‘They had a definite sound of their own,’ singling out their song ‘Prodigal Son’ as a particular highlight -‘all about the fact that liberation – Africa – is all in their head.’ He also fondly remembers X-O-Dus, a Manchester reggae band, who were signed to Factory.

As a walking music encyclopedia (and I mean that as a compliment), he is often aware of those whose achievements are perhaps under-represented in history, musically speaking. ‘No Smith and Mighty…no Soul II Soul,’ he says of the Bristol based team, who came out of the Dancehall scene, and laid much of the groundwork for two of the 1990s defining sounds, drum’n’bass and trip-hop.

He’s DJed on most radio stations across the north of England, and worked in TV, most famously on Channel 4’s late night music show The Word. He presented the show right the way through. It’s hard to imagine – in what were not only pre-internet but pre-social media and pre-reality TV times too, just how radical The Word was. It might seem daft to talk of a late night music show aimed at ‘Yoof’ as being post-modern – but that’s exactly what it was. There were numerous first appearances from many bands on the show, many of which would cause the chattering classes to choke on their vol-au-vents – though presumably, they must have been watching for the opportunity to do just that, because unless they had set the VHS they wouldn’t have been able to watch highlights on YouTube for a good decade to come.

The Word started at the height of Madchester, the coming together of rave and indie culture as spearheaded by the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. ‘It was the biggest organisc scene in the UK. Punk had a thousand involved, Madchester had tens of thousands – it was a more openly pop scene. I used to get down on my knees and say I wish I was eighteen again.’

Fortunately, if in the name of curation rather than nostalgia, it is possible to see events like L7 getting naked, and probably the infamous moment when Kurt Cobain described Courtney Love live on TV as ‘the best fuck in the world.’ ‘Nirvana was a no-brainer!’ he says of the band’s first UK appearance. Whereas five lads from Manchester ‘I had to argue for six to eight weeks to get Oasis on.’ Jo Whiley, now DJing on Radio 2 – was involved for a spell in booking bands for a while. But by 1995, the programme had run its course. While there was a rumour that the Kamikaze Freak Show had cuased the show to be taken off air, Terry says that the commissioning editor’s departure was far more to blame. But he’s clearly glad to have been involved – and at no point does he criticise any of his fellow presenters.

Into the present, he DJs, writes and still has a contagious enthusiasm for new music. Two weeks after we speak – over the time in which Tony Wilson would have been 66 – we exchange numerous texts about music. Our conversation lasted an hour and a half – if our respective others hadn’t needed to eat, we might well have continued a very geeky conversation. But it’s worth remembering that while people like Tony Wilson may have battered the doors down, it’s people like Terry Christian who keep a passion for music alive in a world of constant saturation.

Terry Christian’s website and blog can be found here.

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