Autobiographies are for psueds, the self-important or airport newsagents. So, why has Danny Baker, free form broadcaster and official loose cannon, written one? As he himself says “Frankly, I’ve always thought people who ‘bare their souls’ or who reveal any kind of intimate details about their homes want locking up. As people used to say quite often ‘It’s none of your fucking business, thanks.’” Thankfully “Going to Sea in A Sieve” reveals nothing that we didn’t know already – which is just fine by us. We weren’t after revealing truths just shits and giggles and quality anecdotes. This we get. Phew.
Like other people’s dreams and other people’s holidays, autobiographies can be tediously dull to any one else not directly involved. Unless of course, you happen to be already so impressed by a human being that you have dispensed with your hard-earned and bought their autobiography. Seriously, there can be no easier readership out there.
Danny Baker’s life is interesting and while Pop Lifer has been impressed by Baker’s finer moments (take his interview with Michael Jackson for the NME, TFI Friday in its pomp or his free-wheeling radio shows), let us make one thing plain. We didn’t buy Baker’s book because we like him, respect him or agree with him. Indeed, on many things, we don’t. We bought and read Going to Sea in a Seive because Baker has occupied a uniquely well placed corner from which he has observed and contributed to pop culture since the mid-70’s but above all because we enjoy him. Which we suspect is all Baker has ever asked of us anyway.
Pop Lifer has an affinity with Baker (even our taste doesn’t always – Paul Weller will forever struggle to find a home on our banner mantelpiece). As we were warned on embarking upon Pop Lifer by blogging’s master of ceremonies, Word Press, you should “choose a specialist subject and not pick a theme too general”. Well, pop is kinda broad. We took advice from Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld (Pop Lifer Official Heroes, both) and their two comedy golden rules: “no hugging, no learning” and applied our own as well – “no sneering, no cheap cynicism.”
Danny Baker, broadcaster, music journalist, recently hired Muppet writer and occasional ace strop thrower for well over 30 years now, has no specialist subject. While he physically resembles a great big bear hug of a man you can be sure as eggs that Baker does not seek nor derive ‘learning’ from his eclectic and scattergun existence. Indeed, like David and Seinfeld, he would appear to run with breakneck fury from any such foibles. This boundless leap is all the while though performed with a grin, a machine gun mouth and only, very occasionally, a sneer. It is never, ever, fuelled by cheap cynicism.
This you could have derived from only a cursory knowledge of Baker’s CV but which has been drawn out in very entertaining and suitably anarchic fashion in the first volume of his autobiography, Going to Sea in A Sieve. Part 1 charts Baker’s Bermondsey childhood and his youthful high jinx as a record shop assistant, NME receptionist and writer, and supplier of pornography on behalf of Peter Cook.
Baker is an exceptionally gifted man who has unapologetically used this talent to populate his life and those around him with fripperies and fun. This has been done with little regard to either bank balance or reputation and for the most part has provided Baker with a life which occasionally detours into foolishness, caddishness, and weasel lies but overall stays one course with vivacity, success, love, friendship and reward.
As the January blues kick in, such a tale might leave most of Baker’s countrymen with a ‘lucky, boasting bastard” aftertaste but only because we’re programmed so deeply with a stifling, ingrained reticence and grudgingness. Baker has thankfully been spared these tiresome and so very English traits. He is no Uriah Heap. His career and this autobiography depend on it.
Top of his class at primary and secondary school, Baker walked away from a grammar school offer and his ‘O levels’ respectively in order to stick with his mates and then start earning his money. An already all-consuming and encyclopaedic love of music coupled with a canny blag landed him a job at the legendary West End record shop One Stop where he befriended Elton John and rubbed shoulders and nabbed shirts from the likes of Marc Bolan and Queen (about whom he does scathe).
It would be wrong to assume that this somehow set in chain a sequence which led Baker to bigger and greater things. For a start, no life works like that and certainly not Baker’s, but it did lay the foundations for a modus operandi that would serve Baker well, illustrated below when he first met Elton John, in his Rocketman pomp of 1973:
The next ten seconds may have been one of the most pivotal of my life. When, as a younger teenager you are lobbed into a position where you are so plainly out of your depth, so underprepared in life to negotiate, and faced with a scenario so far-fetched that it may as well have come from the pen of Arthur C. Clarke, you are left with certain options. You can faint. You can flounder. You can start to cry. Or you can make out that the seismic circumstances under way are so much to your way of doing things that you barely noticed a shimmer in the cosmic canopy. There and then I found that I had a disposition to entertain the last of these.
‘Hello, mate!’ I said, shoving out my hand. ‘You support Watford, don’t you?’
Elton looked entertained my by verve. ‘Yes, tragically’ he beamed back, then as Elton would, he said, ‘I notice he’s got you on his knees already, dear.’
I laughed. He laughed. We all laughed. Elton John: my new mate.
Baker is deferential to talent, to songs, to albums, to comedy, to football, to writing. He is all bluster and affability to songwriters, comedians, footballers and writers. This has led to some great radio – not interviews in the Parkinson sense but conversations in the pub sense – and was also a tremendous help as Baker went on to become a voice of punk and NME journalist alongside the legendary likes of Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and Nick Kent.
There are moments where thoughtfulness cracks the surface and, – with apologies to Baker, Seinfeld and David – some meaning sprouts from the giddy and the heady. One of the most telling episodes of the autobiography concerns punk. Punk had been how Baker had come to the attention of many as a channel to some genuine working boy brio. Albeit, like so much of Baker, much of the anger was a manufactured blag, the affection for many of the bands and the people involved were genuine enough. However, one night in a crowded sweaty, punk venue, Elvis Presley’s death was announced to a cheering, jeering and mocking crowd. Baker was appalled, took to the stage and lambasted the punk philistines before him and their lack of respect. In so doing, he not only incurred a shower of beer bottles but effectively walked away from punk.
It was a typical Baker move. Yes, he had owed punk his entry into the hallowed corridors of the late 70’s NME, but he wasn’t prepared to repay the debt (an attitude he applies to actual finances as well). Over time, Baker worked against the NME grain, carving a niche reviewing Motown and Disco and interviewing end of the pier comics such as Roy Hudd and Bob Monkhouse. He was the only NME writer prepared to fly to Los Angeles to interview a pre Thriller Michael Jackson, an act of folly on behalf of his colleagues, but it provides another moving episode. Bullied by his siblings, communicating only via his kid sister, Janet, Baker’s respect, concern and subsequent horror at Michael’s welfare provides the book with some rare and stark emotion.
The autobiography is a fair reflection of its subject – it has a hybrid dash of a South London David Niven raconteur. Anecdotes of the great, good and infamous from the late 70’s (Lennon, Vicious, Bush) punctuate amusingly amid a blurry haze of spirits and speed and the book fairly rattles along towards a surprisingly moving conclusion. Baker’s passage has been rited and a wife and life ushers you into what you presume and hope will be a second volume.