Johnnie Walker - interviewed by Johnnie Black

In 1976, I had a row with the then controller of BBC Radio 1, Derek Chinnery, he told me, he said, ‘You know, the trouble with you, Johnny, is you’re too into the music, man.’ He said it in this really sarcastic tone, as if he thought I was stupid. He was absolutely serious.


And then when I went to Los Angeles in 76 I found the same thing. The deejays were playing records off a playlist, and they were totally controlled by the station bosses. I had thought it would be more free over there.


There had been a guy called Tom Donahue who started KSAN in San Francisco, which had as big an impact in America as the pirates had in the UK. What they were doing was playing album tracks, all the music that you couldn’t hear on AM Top 40 radio.


There had been all these deejays in suits, cracking jokes and just playing whatever they told to play. The days of Alan Freed, the days of the passionate deejay had gone, until Donahue came along and said, people want to hear The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, all that stuff, and he turned radio around.


It was still free form, like that, when I arrived in the autumn of 1976 but by a year later, the whole system changed again, a format came in, a very slick radio station, they called it the Camel, KMEL, and it took a lot of advertising on tv, and there was this really hip giant camel with headphones on, and this slogan. ‘The camel rocks the bay!’ And they had a tight format, very slick. For the first few months they had no commercials, so it attracted the audience because there was loads of music, but once they had the audience, the ads started to come in. KSAN was severely dented by KMEL. Bonnie Simmons, the programme director, went and joined a record company in L.A. The station boss put his secretary in as programme director and she didn’t even know who Chuck Berry was, and she brought in this slick format and that was the end of free form radio in San Francisco.


Wasn’t your move to San Francisco in the wake of announcing that the Bay City Rollers were rubbish?

Yes, and I was quite amazed by the Beeb’s reaction to that. There was a bit of a fuss in the newspapers the day after I said it, and it was just frustration, it had been building up. I was told so many times that I must learn the art of compromise. It wasn’t like I was trying to force my musical taste onto people. I wanted big ratings, I wanted lots of listeners, but instead of there being this complete polarization between daytime radio which was all Top 40, and then John Peel and Pete Drummond – all that music in the evening, I wanted to bring some of that into my show, because I personally listen to a broad range of music, so I wanted to play a bit of Lou Reed, Steve Harley, Rod Stewart, Elton John, in the daytime, even if that music was on an album.


It culminated in the Bay City Rollers Bye Bye Baby being at No1 for the sixth successive week and I was supposed to announce it and be very excited about it. But when I did it, I just sounded pissed off.  About ten minutes later my producer walks in and says, ‘The switchboard has been flooded with angry Bay City Rollers fans. I think you’d better say something.’


He meant, of course, that I should apologise. I said, ‘No fucking way am I going to apologise.’ So the producer disappeared, went off to the pub to avoid the flak. I just opened up the microphone and said, ‘Apparently a lot of Bay City Rollers fans are complaining about the way I introduced Bye Bye Baby. What do you want me to do? I played the record. You cannot force me to like it, because I don’t like it. To be honest, I think they produce total musical garbage.”


Well, that was it. The shit really did hit the fan. It was front page news in the newspapers. Surprising, Derek Chinnery said, ‘Well, that was his individual opinion, and we think he shouldn’t have said it, but he’s entitled to his opinion.”


So at least I felt I had a bit of support, but it definitely was in my file in bold type. So when it came time to renegotiate my contract, that’s when Derek Chinnery told me I was too into the music. He said, ‘You cannot play album tracks on your lunchtime show. It’s got to be like the preceding one and the following one. Be like Tony Blackburn and David Hamilton.”


Well, I suppose he was in charge of the radio station and he had a point, he wanted it to sound the same all day. It wouldn’t have been a problem if the chart had been made up of better music than it was, but this was a time when bands, famously, did not want to release singles, because there was so much rubbish, so much bubblegum crap. Status Quo went off to the countryside and didn’t make any new music for over a year so they could come back as an albums band. They re-invented themselves.


The cool music in the 70s was on albums. I said, ‘Well, why don’t you give me a show at the weekend?’ I was quite willing to come off daytime for a couple of years, do the weekend, have more musical freedom. He said, ‘That is completely ridiculous.’ To him, you see, the weekend was second division. In those days it was second division deejays that did the weekend. Now it’s the other way round. You get big names at the weekend, Michael Parkinson, Jonathan Ross …


So he said, ‘No, it’s gotta be the lunchtime show for two years, or nothing.’ He caught me at the wrong moment. I couldn’t face the idea of two years of playing the Bay City Rollers and the like, so I said, ‘Well, it had better be nothing, then.’ And I walked out.


I did a few more weeks of shows, and they were putting it out that I was going to go to America, but the truth was that I didn’t have a job, didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. My wife was about to give birth to our second child, our firstborn was only about a year old, I had a mortgage. It was absolutely the wrong time to rock the boat from any kind of personal perspective.


I had made a visit to New York and LA with a guy called John Stanley, who was looking after things for me, and we went round some key radio stations, and as luck would have it, KSAN’s breakfast show guy was coming to Europe on holiday, so they thought it might be neat to have a British guy do the breakfast show in his absence.


So I went over in the autumn of 76 and all I had lined up was three weeks of breakfast shows, after which I would stick around and produce some documentaries on the British music scene, including a lot about punk.


Then the day before I was due to leave, the programme director Bonnie Simmons called me in and said, ‘We really like what you’ve done. You’ve created good reaction.” So they offered me a job but my daughter was now a couple of weeks old and I hadn’t really seen her. Now, if I’d been confident that my wife had the support to be able to do it, I’d have said, rent the house out, pack enough stuff and come over here, but she was nursing a newborn girl and trying to look after the older boy, so I had to come back to London.


Then, when I got back, it took me another six months before I got back to America and I had lost a lot of momentum.


I was persuaded by a guy from Beserkely Records to hire an immigration lawyer, and do an investment petition, to guarantee a green card. You have to bring a bunch of money in but, at that time, because of the labour government, you couldn’t take a lot of money out of the country.


So I figured out a way of paying for a big American motor home in London, then pick it up in New York, and I was going to drive it across America and look for jobs along the way, and if there weren’t any I’d end up in San Francisco and see what I could do there.


It sounds like a movie…

Well, yes, this is my big trouble in life, my romantic vision. I saw it like a modern day wagon train. I was leaving, going to the new world, creating a new life with more freedom, and I definitely did feel freer in America. It was a combination, I think, of less government interference in individual lives, and I was English so they expected me to be a bit different. So I felt more free to be myself over there than I did here.


Seven years at the BBC and you get institutionalized and molded, it’s a very subtle process. Then here I was suddenly with these long-haired dope-smoking freaks on headphones in these American radio stations, and I loved all that. One of my favourite records is Steve Miller, the Joker. “I’m a smoker, I’m a joker, I’m a midnight toker.’


Unfortunately when I got to San Francisco I still didn’t have a green card so they wouldn’t give me a legit paid job. Then the format came in … so I really got involved in the West Coast punk scene. There was a club, it was a Filipino restaurant during the day, and a punk club at night, called Mabuhay Gardens, it was run by a guy called Dirk Dirksen, and he pretty much had it all wrapped up.


He wasn’t the most pleasant of guys. The bands really didn’t like him, but they had to play for him. I had a mate who was teaching film at San Francisco State, but he was well into the punk thing like me, and we were eating a burrito on Fulsom Street in the Mission and he saw a sign and he ran off, and came back an hour later, and he said ‘I’ve got a hall for us to rent. You can play records and I’ll hire the bands and we can put on shows.”


It was called The Deaf Club. It was kind of like a social club for a group of deaf people, they would meet there, but they got no help from the city, they were perpetually broke, so they put a For Rent sign out.


We transformed the place, had it packed full of punks going crazy, bands coming up from Los Angeles, stage diving into the audience, the floor was bouncing up and down, so you had mayhem at one end of the club, and all these deaf people at the other drinking beer and signing to each other, grinning all over their faces, because they absolutely adored it. They had all the atmosphere, but they didn’t have to hear the music.


We did an album there, Live At The Deaf Club, with the Dead Kennedys and The Mutants, and I was in my little corner with my mobile disco rig, which was something they’d never seen out there.


Then I started playing records at Geary Temple where bigger bands, like The Clash and Elvis Costello and the Gang Of Four, and then I rented a warehouse to live in and I started doing a monthly hour-long radio show, Damage On The Air.  I had discovered that there was an organization in Washington DC called the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and if they thought your programme was good enough they’d put it in their brochure and send it out to public service radio stations, and student stations, so I was doing a combination of West Coast punk bands, interviews, new records, and interviews with visiting British punk acts.


We built up to a network of sixty radio stations all over the States taking Damage On The Air. It won an award as the best independently-produced programme of the year. I did it in conjunction with a guy called Brad who ran a magazine called Damage, and he had this idea to do the magazine as a radio show.


At the same time I was also taping shows for Radio Luxembourg until I famously put a record on at the wrong speed – I had a bunch of friends in the studio and we were partying it up – and I said, ‘Oh fuck, I’ll have to edit that later.’ But I forgot to edit it, so it went out like that on Luxembourg, and that was my last show for them.


I’ve always had a thing, and maybe it’s selfish, but when something gets boring, I just want to change and go on to something else.