David Hepworth on how the Yorkshire of his youth influenced his love of music
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 February 2019
David Hepworth, the rock journalist and broadcaster, talks to Tony Greenway about The Beatles and Live Aid
Despite all he’s achieved, Yorkshire-born rock journalist and broadcaster David Hepworth is probably best known for something that didn’t actually happen.
On July 13th, 1985, he was on the BBC presenting Live Aid, the world’s biggest ever rock event. At one point, Hepworth was given the job of interviewing the concert’s organiser, a grumpy and tired Bob Geldof, in front of – ooh – around a squillion viewers. The trouble was, Live Aid had been created to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia but the cash wasn’t coming in fast enough; so, as we all know, an agitated Geldof looked straight down the camera lens and screamed: ‘Give me your ****ing money NOW!’ while banging the table with his fist. Hepworth twitched nervously by the side of him as the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree.
Except, of course, Geldof did no such thing. It’s all an urban myth, a magnificently misunderstood TV moment. Yes, he DID drop the F-bomb on live telly, but only as an aside when Hepworth suggested reading out the postal address (Geldof wanted to read out the credit card donation phone numbers instead, and told him so in no uncertain terms). If you revisit the clip on YouTube, Hepworth seems amused by Geldof’s effing and jeffing; although he’s since admitted: ‘What was going on in my head was howling terror. All I could think was: ‘Ooh. I do hope my mum’s not watching.’’
The Hepworth/Geldof interaction (minus the F-word) was even recreated in Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent movie about Freddie Mercury and Queen. ‘So I understand,’ groans Hepworth. ‘I haven’t seen it but apparently the man playing me looks like Timmy Mallett.’ Which is interesting casting, to say the least.
Being remembered for one infamously sweary TV moment in the 1980s rather undersells Hepworth’s career, because he’s spent the last 40 years at the sharp end of music journalism. He’s written for the New Musical Express, edited iconic pop magazine Smash Hits and launched massive magazine titles such as Q, Mojo, Empire, Heat and The Word. Along the way, he also broke into radio and TV broadcasting, presenting legendary BBC rock show Whistle Test with his Smash Hits friend and colleague, Mark Ellen – which is how Hepworth ended up on Live Aid in front of the largest audience in TV history. (He and Ellen still work together on a music podcast called A Word in Your Ear).
If truth be told, Hepworth, who was born in Dewsbury in 1950, doesn’t come up to Yorkshire often these days. He doesn’t have much family in the county since his sister, who lived in Emley, passed away. ‘I did get back quite a bit until two years ago,’ he says. ‘By coincidence, I always seemed to be visiting on Yorkshire Day. I’d send out a Tweet saying: ‘On Yorkshire Day, it’s law that we all have to come back to Yorkshire to be counted.’ Like it was the census of Caesar Augustus, or something. I’m sure there were people in London who believed me.’
It was Yorkshire that shaped his lifelong fascination with music. It certainly didn’t come from his parents, who had a wind-up gramophone, a stack of 78s and not much musical interest. ‘They would invest very occasionally in cover version records – the type you used to get on Woolworth’s Embassy Records label,’ he says. ‘Sometimes at Christmas they’d proudly produce some clanky cover versions of Elvis Presley songs and wonder why I wasn’t thrilled. So there was always a musical gulf between us. I was the first person in the family to be bothered about recorded music.’ He remembers a record shop/kiosk in Wakefield, called The Record Bar, at the top of Westgate. ‘A tiny little place run by a couple called Ken and Betty, who were patrons of Bill Nelson (of Be-Bop Deluxe). That would have been 1967/1968.’
Live music was difficult to access, although Hepworth did go to watch bands playing at a church hall in Sandal, Wakefield. ‘But they were groups formed by school friends and so forth. The first proper live show I went to see was in 1964 at the Bradford Gaumont: Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, The Animals and The Nashville Teens.’ It was a formative moment.
He also went to gigs at the ABC cinema in Wakefield. ‘I saw Manfred Mann there and Steve Winwood with the Spencer Davis Group. And I saw The Graham Bond Organisation. When I think about it, they probably had Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce in the line-up, just before they formed Cream (with Eric Clapton). Remarkable.’
Perhaps best of all though, was the night Hepworth saw Louis Armstrong at the – wait for it – Batley Variety Club in 1967. Batley Varieties, run by local entrepreneur Jimmy Corrigan, had a reputation for bringing in improbably big names: everyone from Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison and Johnny Matthis to Tom Jones, The Bee Gees and Neil Sedaka. ‘It was national news that Batley Varieties could bring over big American talent like Louis Armstrong when no-one else did,’ says Hepworth. ‘It was an extraordinary place but a really unprepossessing building.’ He laughs. ‘I suppose it was the nearest thing that Europe had to Vegas.’ Armstrong was older and not at his best, but Hepworth remains delighted to have seen him. ‘I’m still thrilled that I got to go. I think Batley Variety Club was a source of Yorkshire pride.’
Hepworth recently started writing books about rock music, although for someone with his experience it’s strange he’d never done it before. Why leave it until now? ‘I was never asked,’ he says simply. ‘It only happened because I was approached by someone who wanted to know if I’d like to write a book about Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album. I said ‘no’, because I couldn’t think of anything to add to what had already been written about it.’
Instead, Hepworth – who’s never been shy to voice his opinions – suggested he write a book titled 1971: Never a Dull Moment, explaining why 1971 (in his estimation) was the best year for rock and pop music. It was published in 2016 and ‘did all right’, so he followed it up in 2017 with an investigation into rock stars called Uncommon People. In fact, both books made The Sunday Times bestseller list.
His latest book, called Nothing is Real, is a series of music essays. It’s subtitled ‘The Beatles Were Underrated – and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop’, which is classic Hepworth: dripping with characteristic, tongue-in-cheek, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ certainty. In it, he expounds an unexpected theory about the Fab Four, which is: the mop-topped early vintage Beatles don’t get as much love as they should from the public – unlike the roundly eulogised Beatles from the trippy, psychedelic Sergeant Pepper era.
‘This is a long-standing obsession of mine,’ he explains. ‘The version of The Beatles we’re comfortable with now is the one we could imagine playing Glastonbury: the Britpop Beatles, if you like. Whereas because I’m the age I am, I remember The Beatles when they actually became The Beatles. I remember their earlier and mid-period stuff with enormous affection. They were a genuine group that made glorious singles. She Loves You is every bit as great as A Day in the Life or Strawberry Fields Forever. Sometimes we lose sight of that.’ He picks A Hard Day’s Night as one of his favourite albums of all time. ‘It still dazzles me. It was made under enormous pressure, right in the thick of Beatlemania.’
Which makes me think: how would he sum up Yorkshire’s contribution to rock and pop? Sheffield seems to do pretty well, because it’s the home of Arctic Monkeys, Joe Cocker, Human League, ABC, Pulp and Def Leppard, among others. But who’s been a musical force to be reckoned with in the rest of the county? Erm... Kaiser Chiefs? The Housemartins? The Beautiful South? Not Shed Seven, surely?
‘There was never any – I don’t know what the appropriate word is – ‘local patriotism’ about music in Yorkshire when I was growing up,’ Hepworth replies. ‘I was never aware of any, at any rate, whereas there was a chippiness about it in Manchester and Liverpool. But then Yorkshire people don’t think they have to prove anything to anyone.’
He’s not come up with a name, I notice. And if he can’t name an artist – or a band – that screams ‘Yorkshire’, who could?
Hepworth thinks for a bit and ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’. ‘Def Leppard? Gah. I wouldn’t go around boasting about thast,’ he says. ‘Although in terms of success they’ve done all right. Hmm. Well, John Barry (the film theme composer) came from York. But... er... I’m not sure I can think of a glib answer to that question.’
Good gracious, as Bob Geldof almost certainly wouldn’t say. For once, David Hepworth appears to be absolutely speechless.
‘Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop’ is out now.