Steve Barker, a pioneering British alternative music DJ and active BBC regional radio broadcaster, usually spends his days rocking out Beijing. But tonight, he’s gracing Shanghai with his presence by helping host a dub and reggae music festival at the Shelter.
Shanghaiist got the opportunity to talk to Barker about his life, his influences and what you can look forward to seeing at the Shelter in just a few hours.
Uprooted Sunshine present: Shanghai Vibrations – A mini dub-reggae festival.
Tonight at The Shelter, 5 Yongfu Lu near Fuxing Xi Lu, 10pm till late
Entrance: 50 RMB
Photo by The Beijinger
Steve Barker, veteran presenter of BBC Lancashire’s On the Wire, comes from a region of the world with a strong musical culture – Northern England. Phenomenons such as Northern Soul nights, to the “Madchester” scene of the early 90s based around the world famous Hacienda Club, showed that despite the region having a reputation for being Grim Up North as the Jamms once claimed, the music scene was anything but.
Steve started his career as a journalism student in London in 1967 where he got the chance to interview Jimi Hendrix.
“It was the day before he went to voice ‘Purple Haze’ at Olymppia Studios, he played me the ‘dub version’! I interviewed him again in November 1967 when he was a superstar. When I walked in the door he was alone in the room and said “Hello Steve, how ya doin’?!” I met Yoko One around the same time at Indica Gallery in London, at her exhibition, she was alone there and we chatted. It was the same place where Lennon met her. I interviewed her a year later.”
After rubbing shoulders with the stars, he later found himself in the less glamorous surroundings of Radio Blackburn in 1978. He worked on several programs before his current show On The Wire emerged in 1984. It’s now the longest running alternative music show on UK radio, and introduced listeners to pioneering house and techno artists in the late 80s.
Steve was the first UK DJ to play a Guy called Gerald’s seminal debut track “Voodoo Ray“, and 808 state’s top-40 hit “Pacific State” on the radio. Both of these tracks may not be widely known outside of electronic music circles, but both were huge club anthems in the UK and hugely influential. He feels that although he broke new ground back in the day, much of the electronic sound has since stagnated.
“I suppose we were first off the block, or amongst the first to play house, and electro before it – basically because I have always been interested in new developments in black music, but more of the left field variety, he said, adding, “But just like in the wake of Hendrix there was a load of bad guitar music, now it seems that twenty years on house and its many sub-genres are the equivalent of modern music’s Death Star.”
Nowadays Steve has established a reputation of being a purveyor of quality dub and reggae via his long-running BBC Lancashire show and feels the influence of the music he plays can be felt in the mainstream.
“On the Wire is best known for dub and reggae, although we feature all sorts of “outsider music” and musical mavericks and tunes we just damn well like! The mainstream has always fed on the underground and this continues today, sometimes credit is given but mostly not.”
With his roots in Northern England, Steve remains a keen supporter of Burnley FC (nicknamed “The Clarets”- a football team in England’s second tier league, one below the EPL. Burnley are probably best known for its infamous celebrity fan – Tony Blair’s former press officer Alistair Campbell, who played a Joseph Goebbels-type role in creating the propaganda that paved the way for the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Steve says his love for Burney FC has never waned. “Once a Clarets supporter always a Clarets supporter – the first result I look for every week. And as far as I know, being a Clarets fan may be Alisdair Campbell’s only redeeming feature, as he probably doesn’t listen to On the Wire.”
Steve may be a veteran DJ now, but he doesn’t feel old or that he should be listening to more conservative music. “As an eighty year old J-P Sartre once said “I’m still 19 in my head”, but there again I was never aware of any cut-off point where I had to stop liking new music.” His latest chapter in his career has seen him living in China for the last three years, and modern technology allows Steve to broadcast his On The Wire show from afar, “I work for British Council on Projects. What I get from the BBC could not keep me in a supply of new reggae pre-release 7 inchers! Now I do half from my apartment – as I am not really welcome at the BBC Bureau in Beijing and Jim Ingham and Michael Fenton do the other half from Blackburn in the UK .”
He also does his bit to help local musicians. “I try to help promote some of the music on the Beijing scene, sourcing some reviews and contacts, whether it be for the new guitar bands like CarSickCars, Ourself Beside Me etc that come out of the D22 Club, or my friend Yan Jun’s more leftfield activities in sound. I have curated a couple of contemporary nights at the forthcoming Beyond the Wall Chinese Fesitval at the Barbican in April and May. And I have co-produced the second album up and coming from Arrows Made of Desire out on Tag Team Records in May – its going to be a smash hit amongst the more discerning musics fans and has loads of tunes!”
For someone with such vast experience in the music industry, and time spent living in China it put him in a very unique position to commentate on the Chinese music scene, and took time to articulate his thoughts on modern Chinese music, in particular, alternative genres such as dub and electronic music.
“Apart from the noise and sound scene, which is a law unto itself, there is relatively little happening in my view electronically with the grand exception of Sun Dawei (Sulumi) in Beijing and some of the artists he collborates with like Me:mo. When Chinese journalists and musicians talk about electronic music they are usually referring to house and techno style which are mostly old fashioned, rather than old school. The other real genius of Chinese music for me is Sichuanese Huan Qing, now living in Yunnan, who does a lot of field recordings in the South.”
Looking forward to tonight’s gig, he had a special message which hinted at a new clothing range to be released by Shanghai’s Uprooted Sunshine crew, “I have always been treated very well in Shanghai. I used to do gigs here with my old mate Daddy Vegas. Uprooted Sunshine boys and girls seem to have a real vision, want ot take some risks to bring quality acts to China. Good luck to them, remember CHINA NEEDS BASS! You’ll be able to get the t-shirts soon!”