80s - Steve Blacknell (80s VJ /MTV Host)
Last Night a VJ Saved My Life: The Story of Steve Blacknell
Steve Blacknell started his showbiz career as a record plugger /A&R man - working for the likes of ABC, Decca and Chrysalis promoting acts such as The Moody Blues, Leo Sayer, Jethro Tull and Don Williams.
He freely admits to signing A Flock Of Seagulls to Jive in 81, and was also instrumental in the success of bands such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
In 82 he made the heady leap into TV- hosting the BBCs pop/fashion flagship show Riverside, became a regular on the BBC Breakfast Time sofa with Frank and Selina - and was Europes inaugural Video Jockey!
In 1984 - as host/co-creator - he won a coveted Ace Award in the USA for best music show with his MTV USA show London Calling and a year later took a pivotal role in Live Aid, interviewing Phil Collins on his historic transatlantic Concorde flight between London and Philadelphia.
As a writer, Steves credits include The Story Of Top Of The Pops, and as a showbiz columnist for TV Quick Magazine. He was a regular at Radio One hosting In Concert, and he achieved further cult status as host of Pirate Radio 4 and ITVs action packed Saturday morning show Knock Your Block Off.
In 1988 Hollywood beckoned, and he spent two years there as BSKYBs Entertainment Anchor. With the channels eventual demise he went on to make five movies as an actor, front over twenty national commercials and host a variety of chat shows including MTMs award winning Men In Suits Talking.
Upon returning to the UK in 1993, he founded two of Londons most successful media networking ventures The Network Experience, and the now legendary Waffle Club that still meets every month in Londons Soho.
He is now a media trainer, personal manager and is now firmly back in the music business - consulting on label management and his beloved PR. Having conquered Anorexia Bulimia in the early 90s he often works alongside B-eat, the eating disorder organization, in
an attempt to raise public awareness to the plight of the many male
sufferers up and down the country.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steve Blacknell about life back then, life today, and ... Kate Bush!
Taking it from the top, and you started your showbiz career as a record plugger/A&R man, working for ABC, Decca and Chrysalis promoting acts such as The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and even lil Leo Sayer. What were your job requirements at that time and how long did it last for? I was a toilet cleaner in a mental hospital in Bexley, Kent - and in love with my first love - Kate Bush. She was yet to make it, but we were planning our careers. We knew we would do something out of the ordinary.
Out of nowhere I landed a job at Decca Records in the marketing department. Quite a quantum leap. I had been a good toilet cleaner - after 6 months they had given me a brush! - BUT this was my dream. The record business. Cool. Brilliant.
It was in the marketing department ... nothing that glam ... but after a year I landed the next dream - the promotion department! They called the promotion department The Fairy Grotto as most everyone there was or had been gay. I looked gay alright. But was not. Well, most of the men I slept with said I was not!
Still most people thought I was. I was often unwittingly sent to several leading DJs houses with a promo album of the new Camel/John Miles/Blue Jays album, etc. - only to find the set up in place. I often had [to use] groveling apologies, saying they had been misinformed. And [they] would sometimes play my stuff as they felt so bad about things!
Gary Crowley, who went on to be a Radio One DJ and Siobhan from Bananarama were there too. Quite a breeding ground of, erm ... talent!
My job was to entertain the media. Drinking and eating. No drugs, booze and meals. Within 9 months I was bulimic. Had to keep thin ... this was the record biz. From Decca to Anchor/ABC [and] looking after Steely Dan, plugging Haitian Divorce, etc. And other US bands.
Both there and at Chrysalis (that followed) I would often maybe fly to Belfast or go to Plymouth on a plugging mission - drink for 3 days with the jocks, get back home and suddenly remember I had not played them any music while I was there! I would very often get a radio Record Of The Week by whistling it down the phone from my bedroom in London. Leo Sayers Thunder In My Heart was one such.
I once lay in bed for a week getting merrily out of it and told my record boss at Chrysalis I was out on the road. I got 4 records of the week. Our expenses were higher than our wages! Great days.
Please tell us more about your relationship with the lovely Kate Bush Well for one reason or another I really have not talked about it through the years. Of course I have the stories, but Kate was, and is a private person and I respect that. All I will say is that she was my first true love. A beautiful beautiful lady. Her music? Incredible. Well, I did turn her on to The Incredible String Band who she would later meet. I am privileged to have spent time with her. Wonderful times. I am reliably told [that] The Man With The Child In His Eyes is me!
You admit to being the man that signed A Flock of Seagulls to Jive Records in 1981. Please tell us more about that moment! Clive Calder and Ralph Simon started Jive Records. I was at the first meeting where Clive mapped out the path of Jive. Pure genius. I was hired as the Jive PR - A&R man (ish).
Despite being very ill with the bulimia I was in tip top form. Saw AFOS one night supporting Betty Bright And The Illuminations at The Venue in London. The boys were wearing brightly colored jumpsuits - yellow, I think! I was mesmerized. This was so different. That GUITAR. Like a shrill ... seagull! Then I heard that song - I Ran. So, next morning I ran into Clives office and told him I had heard a song that would be a huge top ten American hit. We beat out several others to sign them.
It did rather well in the US (#3, I think) and topped the charts in Oz, etc. Won a Grammy with DNA from the debut. I [also] toured the US as their MC. We sold out Radio City in NYC. I walked on stage [and said], Ullo ... now, I am from London and the whole place stood up and applauded. Rite then, [I continued], here are four more lads from Liverpool ... A FLOCKA SEAGULLS. The place went mental!
I later fell for Mikes girlfriend who would later become a huge love of mine. It was while I was a Jive that I was part of a BBC audition process to find a new TV presenters for their new Riverside Show. I left Jive for a crack at the big-time.
It is also claimed you had a hand in the success of Frankie Goes to Hollywood! Man, you were busy. So, how did this come about, and did they, at any point, ask you to relax?! I was living in North London ... now on Radio One ... BBC TV ... on the way up. People would pester ME (the ex-plugger) to get on the telly, etc. Dave Stewart lived nearby and nagged me about this great new voice, Annie Lennox. I did not get it at all. I do not think he ever forgave me.
My other infamous blimp was lunching with Neil and Tim Finn and Neil telling me that Split Enz (I was their plugger) were splitting up. Tim going solo and Neil forming a band called, wait for it ... Crowded House! Bloody stupid name. He gave me a cassette of some new songs that I think you would know. Crowded House? How ridiculous. What a name! I thought AFOS was bad enough! Did not like the songs and never saw him again.
One day, a mate of mine, Bob Johnson came round with a video of this amazing new band he was looking after. I watched the video. WHAT???? Girls in cages suspended from the ceiling? Two gay guys ... erm ... BUT ... RELAX!!!!!! Geezus. I tried to get them on our Riverside show, but they were deemed too rude. The Tube took em instead. I turned on my pal Richard Skinner at Radio One to them and one day met Holly and Paul at a cafe in London and we went to Radio One for their first ever radio interview with RS.
There are lots of stories about the early FGTH times, but all I can say is that I waved their flag HIGH . I LOVED them. Interviewed them whenever I could. So, The Flock, Frankie, and the third 80s fave was The Fixx. Still my fave rock band. The 3 Fs!
And no ... Holly and Paul were real gents. I never found myself in weird situations. They were pure joy. Still in touch.
In 1982 you made the leap into TV, hosting the BBC show Riverside. You even became a regular on the BBC Breakfast Time sofa with Frank Chocolate Tones Bough and Selina Easy On The Eye Scott! What were those days like, swanning around set to set, being asked all those important music business questions? Riverside led to lots of telly. I was at the time still ill - so throwing up before I went onto camera to feel thin was a regular occurrence. But I was earning lots and loving every minute.
I got well in 82 and joined the Breakfast Time team [in] 83 ish. Mike Smith, the regular guy had fortunately been taken ill so I stepped in and stayed. I was also Peter Stringfellows PR man at the time so I was often up all night at the club and go straight to the BBC studios - for 6.15 AM! Into make-up - where they would take most of my mascara and foundation OFF so I could go in front of the cameras! Great days.
A certain website that will remain anonymous (TVcream.co.uk) stated that it was a bad personnel decision that you became BBC Breakfast Times full-time entertainment correspondent. In reflection, did you have a bad vibe at the time, or was everything running smoothly - until the end, of course?! On a Friday a few of the presenters and producers would go to a nearby wine bar at 9.15 am and get plastered rigid. Then ... to LUNCH! Frank Bough was a God. He taught me TV. Teleprompt. How to BE on TV. Frank was caught out being a bit naughty here and there and fell from grace but he remains one of the great icons of Brit TV. Privileged to have met and worked with him.
I came out live on TV about my bulimia on Breakfast Time one morning. My Mum rang me later to say that they had always known!
You then went on to become Europes inaugural Video Jockey (VJ)! Hosting your MTV USA show, London Calling, suddenly you were transatlantically famous! Financially secure, I am sure, how was it sitting inside of you though, at that time? I was often the point of ridicule. Melody Maker once proclaimed me Prat Of The Decade! I was delighted. They spelled my name right! I still have the clipping. No. Brekky was a delight and joy.
Was there ever music you had to promote that you (personally) hated? "I hated Prince. The record company boss told me there were only 5 of these amazing promo jackets in the world. He said I could have one if I wore it on TV next day. I did. I said, PRINCE! What a great jacket ... it is a shame the albums crap! He never spoke to me again. We had the power back then. We could break em alright. I did not care. Plugger turned influential chappie. Perfect.
Tell us more about your inaugural USA VJ show, London Calling Did the inaugural Europe VJ show with Alan Parsons (as in Project) directing. My partner and I from EMI then sold London Calling to MTV USA. Alan again directed the pilot. We did 18 one hour shows. Won the Ace Award etc. I auditioned to be the 6th VJ in the US for MTV, [but] did not quite make it.
I got a piece in Rolling Stone about how I failed to get the job! I sometimes think I should have capitalized a bit more on the show which was pretty big news over there. BUT ... I was earning a fortune and did not care. We gave the US first glimpses of countless bands. A lot of it was due to my partner/boss Alasonne Lewis who smelled talent a mile off. I was more a front man, but that was my gig anyhow. Reunited with Mark, Nina, Martha, etc. at Live Aid in Philly. We all sat in an enclosure by the side of the stage. Just like old times.
You were also the man who interviewed Phil Collins on his historic transatlantic Concorde flight between London and Philadelphia re: Live Aid. Please tell us more about that moment in the sky with Phil As I had a US profile it was me who landed the transatlantic gig with Mr. Collins. Called my Mum up the day before. So what are you doing tomorrow again, dear? she said. I told her, Concorde ... helicopter to Philly, etc. How are you off for underwear? she enquired. Talk about being bought down to earth!
The last time I threw up was on Concorde going over Wales. All that food on board and what were we doing there - starving people! Erm, I was confused. The interview was cut short mid-air due to to tech probs and when I got there to Philly our cameras were down. So I sat with me VJ chums. Then when Springsteen came on got a cab back to the hotel . Only one thing worse than Prince. Bruce Springsteen ... eeeuch! Overrated pub act!
If Prince and Springsteen were put in the same room and told to fight to the death, who would win ... and how?! I would shoot them both! Quick and easy. Bruce Springsteen is as much good to rock and roll as a chocolate fireguard, and Prince as much good as a one-legged man at a butt kicking contest!
Having ruptured your windpipe from years of retching at age just 29, I am supposing a diet of black coffee and other stimulants back then did not help your situation either? "I will [quote] you that bit from my book:
I was now starving myself for three to four days on the trot - usually staying alone in my North London flat from Friday through to Monday so I could look jolly nice and thin for everyone the following week. I was existing on a bizarre and barren diet of black coffee, speed, ladies menstrual pills (that made you pee like a garden hose), inordinate amounts of red wine and bourbon, and barrel loads of diet coke. My mind was totally f**ked. My addictive juices were over-flowing and substance abuse was spiraling into free-fall.
Tell us more about this book that you are writing - your autobiography,
I am guessing? How long has it taken to write these two chapters - and how
much are you selling them online for - and where online? It is called Fully Qualified Survivor - which is true really. I did huge amounts of coke, nearly killed myself with bulimia, cooked meat pies in my sleep, and managed to go from millionaire plus with a chauffeur to being broke with f**k all to showfer.
It is (I am told) funny and tells of my 8 years in Hollywood and mixing with people I had only ever heard of. Having tea with Tiny Tim, getting though the L.A. riots, kissing Jamie Lee Curtis, Henry Winkler playing with my glove puppet, and spending a whole day with my hands down Leslie Nielsons underpants! And, having a million dollar set built for me in Hollywood complete with waterfalls and a beach. The project died when the potential sponsor died in a surfing accident.
It is all about earning stacks of money and blowing it in the UK then getting a second chance of fame ... in Hollywood ... and screwing that up too. I was near, very, very near tho.
After MTV USA came a regular hosting gig at Radio One for their In Concert series, a Saturday morning TV show called Block Off, and in 1988 Hollywood beckoned and you became BSKYBs Entertainment Anchor. But were there any job offers you turned down along the way that, in hindsight, you wished now you had taken? No, not really. I just took everything really. EXCEPT things where animals were made to look stupid. I had a thing about that.
The Hollywood gig was amazing. Met some amazing people. Steve Blacknell from Kent interviewing Bob Hope? WOT????? Within three months of arriving [I] was in a wheelchair! Blown up on a boat! Took me 9 months to learn to walk again and got addicted to Vicodin. Great times!
Er, three months after arriving in Hollywood you were blown up on a boat and suddenly in a wheelchair! What?!??! I was on a boat at Marina Del Ray with my manager and mate. BOOM! An explosion from below. The engine exploded. I got just about 3rd degree burns and was looked after by manager. Addicted to Vicodin. Wheelchair. 9 months later I was walking again. Where WAS my chauffeur????
You have even acted in five films. Please tell us which turned out to be the most fun - and why?! Martians Go Home, with Randy Quaid was a laugh. I only had six lines and could not spit then out. I ran crying into my dressing room. He was very kind to me. Did a Roger Corman film [and] he was lovely to me. Found out I could not really act in the middle of the Chilean Forest on a crap picture called Secret Of The Ice Cave. The director cried this time. I went back to LA and booked my flight back home ... to the UK.
Knowing that you have struggled with Bulimia for 20 years, you once put it down to an addictive personality. Do you still believe that and indeed, do you still suffer from Bulimia today? Yes, the bulimia was a direct result of that quantum leap. No, I am clear [and] have been since LIVE AID. I do media work and the B-eat charity do use me when it is needed. There are many people out there suffering in silence. Men have it harder as it is not really manly to admit that stuff. NO ONE knows how many out of ten are men. The stats given by the media are just rubbish. NO ONE knows.
Fun Five - OK, it is now time to fire up some quick 80s interview memories - so, please give us some behind-the-scenes insight into these five interviews that you did (all to be found on YouTube) @ 1984:
Midge Ure (In his recording studio, surrounded by electronic gadgets and synths galore!) - Cripes, nothing really [I] have to say. Great bloke. Got a raw deal out of LIVE AID. He did SO much work on that he should be a SIR too!
Boy George (At his table, at a Grosvenor House Hotel awards party!) - George had been a regular attendee at Riverside in the audience. Always wanting to be on the show. It was great that night. He had arrived and I was proud of him. Another gent.
Boy George You Tube Interview (1984)
Lemmy (In his, what looks like, holiday caravan!) - Again, it was just that, an interview. But I knew Lemmy ... well, still do. The man with the best rock and roll quotes: We do play ballads. It is just that we play them at a hundred f**king miles an hour! My doctor says I can have 3 drinks a day. I am up to the year 2013 already! I love Lemmy. A born comic, a set of new teeth, and lucky to be alive!
Lemmy You Tube Interview (1984)
David Cassidy (Whilst he was in the tub!) - I think we had had a few drinks. He was so British in his humour!
Adam Ant (In his front room!) - Not much to report. Stuart and I had the same acting coach here in preparation for Hollywood. We were both crap really. I think [he] was better than me though. My cats are better actors than me!
What part do you now play within the industry? The industry? I am part of a record company called Right Track here in London. I manage a band called Rum Honey ( www.myspace.com/rumhoney) and their single [is] out thru Universal this summer - looking for a US deal.
And [I also manage] a magician called Alex Ward ( www.alexwardmagic.com/blog) [He is a] 23 year old Brit - big in L.A. with the celebs.
I [also] teach TV, thanks to Frank Bough, and run Media clubs in London. And MAY be out in the US this year hosting a concert tour (To Be Confirmed). The London Calling fan club grows by the minute - all from an old fan, Doug Dwyer in NYC. I am looking to open a club in NYC next year.
Name one incredible fact about yourself that you are still proud of today! I am still told I was the only person who used to wear make up on national radio! Was always mistaken for Boy George in NYC. I think he wore the full lot before me but re: being a BBC type, I am told I was the only bugger on screen wearing more than the women!
Why did you wear all the make-up back then? Especially on RADIO! And, do you wear it, at any given time, still today?!?? Make-Up was sooooooooooo fab! Loved the look ... the more the merrier! It DID mean that mainstream fame eluded me, but I was me. No one did me like me.
NOW? In work situations it is a must, but I manage without it at home and regularly eat dinner without the aid of teleprompt!
Indeed, your website claims, Mr. 80s is Back! OK, so, if that is true, what five (5) words truly define you as Mr. 80s ... and just where are you back from?! The 80s ...? Was there at the time! Not really back from anywhere. I am 58 this year. I have been an acid taking hippy .. a speed taking twat ... and a coke snorting New Romantic. Nearly died 4 times - not from drugs - including this past Xmas in a car crash!
Car crash? The car spun out of control on [an] icy hill. Went into [a] road sign. Nearly snuffed it. Had disc op 6 weeks ago. Ex-Disc Jockey Loses Disc Shock! It was the lower Lumbar 4th/5th. Am now walking great. And can play the piano. Which is amazing as I could not play it before the accident!
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive Magazine loves Penguins (the flightless bird, not the chocolate bar!) ... do you? Penguins? No thanks ... I have a great bird of my own. Maggie. We get into a flap now and again, but mostly in love. Knew her in 76 ... split up in 77 ... got back and married 8 years ago. Two Maine Coone cats - Rosie and Sid.
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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