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Steve Lamacq: ‘I’m still doing what I was doing when I was 16’

He’s made a career out of telling people what they should be listening to, and still enjoys being argumentative about it

Revered radio DJ Steve Lamacq cut his teeth in the industry amid a flurry of fanzines and John Peel shows.

Building from local news, to the NME, to presenting Top of the Pops, to being a BBC radio mainstay – and plenty more in between – the music aficionado has seen it all.

In a Letter to his Younger Self, the 56-year-old reflected on post-punk, fatherhood and setting himself a challenge which could have seen him walk away from a blooming career more than three decades ago.

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I grew up in a tiny village called Colne Engaine near Colchester. I had a little gang of about five friends but really I had nothing particularly in common with any of them. There was a group of four of us at school who did lessons together because we were considered to be reasonably bright. And when you’re the supposedly bright kids, you often end up being slightly… not ostracised, but outsiders in a way. So it can make you feel awkward and I was already a very awkward, shy teenager. As a result, I ended up creating an interior world outside the real world.

From the moment I finished my homework, I kind of unlocked a door into this other world, which for me was built entirely around music. Reading the music papers obsessively and listening to John Peel in the evening. I started doing little three-line reviews of records John played with my own star-rating system. Three stars meant you actually wanted to buy it. Two meant it was worth taping the next time John played it. One, it wasn’t that good. And if I gave it nothing, it was one of those baffling moments where you just wondered what was going on in the world and had John gone mad. 

Sometimes at the weekend I could get a lift with my dad into Ipswich. He would go and see the football and I would spend the Saturday afternoon in the record shops, looking for records by OMD, post-punk stuff like Adam and the Ants, Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects, and, in my angry metal phase, bands like Discharge.  

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I became a bit of a daydreamer. I felt there was a more exciting life going on out there and I was trapped in this tiny little Essex village being a spectator. I spent my time cycling around the village thinking about what it would be like to be a writer for the music papers or becoming the next John Peel, safe in the knowledge that I would never become a writer or the new John Peel because no one from a tiny little Essex village ever goes on and does that. But it doesn’t stop you dreaming. 

I started a fanzine when I was 17, in sixth form at school. I remember that Christmas being given the Paolo Hewitt book about The Jam [The Jam: A Beat Concerto], and Paul Weller had said in it that if he hadn’t had a record deal by the time he was 21 he would have packed it in. So I set myself the same challenge; if I don’t have a review in the music papers by the time I’m 21 I’ll just pack it in.

Starting the fanzine was my idea of writing an alternative music press, the first manifestation of being the argumentative music fan who thinks they are right and everyone else is not as right. “Why don’t you like this band? I’m going to write about them and tell you why you should like this band.” After that I joined the NME to tell people who bought the NME why they should like a band. And that has been my entire career from then on.

steve lamacq
1994 In the BBC’s studios with fellow presenter of the Evening Session Jo Whiley. Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

I managed to get on Radio 1’s Evening Session discussing music news stories with the presenter Mark Goodier. Then Mark was away for four weeks, so they got four new people to present his show for a week each. They brought me back with Jo Whiley about three months later, in September ’93. We were on this seven-week trial period. We thought we would finish our seven weeks and then we’d have to go back to our former employment.

We were summoned by Matthew Bannister [the-then new controller of BBC Radio 1] into his office, and he said: “Thanks very much for your contribution over the last few weeks.” I don’t know about Jo but my heart was beginning to sink. I thought it was thanks very much and goodbye. But then he said, “You’ve done very well and we’d like you to continue.” We looked at each other and then looked at him. He said, “Welcome to Radio 1.” 

We walked out of his office – and I remember this as clear as anything – we walked out of his office, down the corridor, we waited by the lift, the lift doors opened, we got in the lift, the doors shut, and we started jumping up and down, screaming with jubilation, “Oh my god, we got the job!” 

steve lamacq
2013 with Elbow’s Guy Garvey after receiving a Special Award at the Sony Radio Academy Awards. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

My 16-year-old self would be amazed that I got the job at the NME, and even more amazed that I ever managed to get a job at Radio 1. But on top of that, he’d be even more amazed that I’m still working in music and still able to make a living out of being angry about people not liking my band all these years later on.

I’m roughly around the same age as Damon Albarn, and the last time I saw him he said, “God, we’re still here, we’re still getting away with this.” And I knew exactly what he meant. I grew up in an era when most people over the age of 30 gave up on a music career. If you saw someone over the age of 30 at a gig at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town [in North London], you’d think, what are you doing here grandad? So the teenage me would be very surprised that, as I move towards my 60s, I’m still doing what I was doing when I was 16. 

I have a five-year-old daughter now. I’m really enjoying it. Once you get over the concept that there’s a new little human being living in the house, it’s great. Waving her off to school in the mornings with her mum. I just love her enthusiasm. She’ll probably grow up to be as angry as me about people not liking the music she likes. Currently her ambition is to be a doctor from Monday to Friday and then be a rock star at weekends. 

steve lamacq
2022 at the BBC 6 Music Festival at Tramshed, Cardiff. Photo: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns

If I could have one last time hanging out with anyone, I think I’d choose a boozy lunchtime afternoon in a pub with Alan Lewis [the much-loved former editor of NME who died last year]. He gave me my first job as a sub-editor. It turned out I wasn’t really a very good sub, and at the end of the three-month trial he extended my probation for just another month. And I was really downhearted and really nervous about losing my job. But actually, he coaxed me through it and gave me the job. He was just so encouraging, and he was a great raconteur because he’d been in the music papers for years.

He was what I’d always imagined being a journalist should be, just hanging about swapping stories about music. And he gave me so much leeway when it came to championing new bands. That was what established my identity really, who I was in terms of the music industry – the person that would find the band that would probably go on to do quite well. 

So if I could, I’d meet Alan just outside King’s Reach Tower in South London, where the NME office was then, and we’d go to the old Stamford Arms, as it used to be before they poshed it up; a proper old man’s pub with a threadbare carpet. And I’d tell him what I never really got to tell him: how grateful I am for his kindness and support. And for helping me find my way. 

Steve Lamacq will be part of BBC 6 Music’s all-day coverage of Glastonbury Festival 2022 from June 22-26. His show is from 4-7pm. 

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