One of the most familiar faces and voices in Irish broadcasting, Dave Fanning has interviewed just about every rock and movie star worth knowing. But here Olaf Tyaransen goes behind the public image to unearth some of his more secret history: working with the disgraced “Captain” Cooke; nude interviewing with U2; getting ripped off by the nanny; and much more.
Olaf Tyaransen, 02 Apr 2003
As you’ll soon read, midway through my interview with Dave Fanning the RTE star briefly got annoyed with me, thinking that I was being a smartarse and criticising his interviewing technique. As it happens, I genuinely wasn’t – to me and most Irish people of my generation, Fanning is as seminal and respected a musical figure as John Peel – but his uncharacteristic testiness was forgivable anyway. Although still pasted in make-up from a prior TV interview on Open House to promote his new movie review show (the bizarrely titled What?!Movie), the 48-year-old broadcaster looked completely wrecked.
With a new television series starting and his acclaimed radio programme moving to a much higher profile drivetime slot, these are busy days indeed for David Fanning – not to mention sleepless nights. Six days earlier his wife Ursula had given birth to a baby daughter (“We haven’t fully decided on a name yet, but it’s looking like Ruby at the moment”), a new sister for his two sons, aged seven and nine. He told me he hadn’t slept properly in over a week.
However, his infant daughter isn’t the only new Fanning baby requiring constant attention and stressing him out. His own production company Rumble Films is making the new movie show and, in true Hollywood fashion, his mobile must have rung literally 20 times in the two hours I spent with him (he apologised for not turning it off, but an important call from Pierce Brosnan’s people was due and he couldn’t afford to miss it).
“What the fuck did we do before these things were invented?” he sighs at one point, having just hung up for the umpteenth time. “I can’t even remember what life was like before mobile phones. I presume they just wouldn’t have been able to get me so half these things simply wouldn’t be problems.”
Twenty seconds later, it rang again (surprisingly – or perhaps not – he doesn’t have a musical ringtone). Still, despite numerous telephonic interruptions – not to mention his regular passionate but off-the-point rants about various musicians and albums – we managed to cover quite a lot of ground over a couple of pints of Guinness and innumerable cigarettes…
OLAF TYARANSEN: Congratulations on your new movie show – but what’s with its title?
DAVE FANNING: Ha, ha! (laughs). You don’t like it? What?!Movie. It’s a word – maybe it’s a bit ‘now’ or magazine-ey, but I like it. I think it works. OK, I have a thing called Rumble Films – it’s me and one other guy, Mike Smith. We started it up a few years ago. I used to do Planet Rock Profiles, but I wasn’t too happy with the way that was going or the people I was working with, so I decided to make my own one. And my own one was called Music Express, and we did about fifty of those, selling it to 42 countries – including China, believe it or not. And then we did a programme which was previews of Witnness, and then a music magazine show called The Last Broadcast – and now we’re doing What?!Movie. It’s basically just the two of us – and we’ve got a good sponsor in Maltesers. So it’s going out at 9 o’clock every Wednesday night, starting tonight.
OT: Why did RTE scrap The Movie Show?
DF: Good question, you ask them – I don’t know. I would have a theory that in ’99 times were getting very hard in RTE. And things just got thrown overboard. Like the iceberg is there and we’re on the Titanic – and some things shouldn’t have been thrown overboard. But that’s just the way it happened.
OT: And now your radio show is soon moving to a drivetime slot.
DF: Yeah. Well, to be honest, we always wanted to do more talk on the show. And if you don’t change what you’re doing every now and then… I mean, do you think U2 would be as big as they are now if they hadn’t literally gone and dreamed it all up again for Achtung Baby? Not that I’m comparing myself to U2 (laughs). I joined pirates in ’77 so I’ve been 25 years playing music – which I still love doing.
OT: Will the new time slot mean that you’ll be tackling more serious issues?
DF: To a certain extent. The current slot – 7-8pm – is good. It’s an hour so you leave people wanting more. The new one is 6 to 7.30pm – it’s 90 minutes. And it’ll be a little like what the show has been for the last year frankly. Talking about things, top ten lists, silly things, you know. People ringing in, texting and all that. Some interviews some nights.
OT: So you’re not really going up against Matt Cooper?
DF: Well if you think about what Matt Cooper is doing 5-7, and what Rachel English is doing 5-7, there’s a possibility that people might have had enough of Israel and Palestine by five to six. And they might want something a bit lighter later. And if I have big movie stars on for ten minute interviews – which I’ll be doing – it might be something that they wanna hear.
OT: Do you see yourself as a ‘light’ guy? I mean, you’re not publicly known for having strongly held opinions on things like Israel and Palestine.
DF: I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself as a light guy, but I wouldn’t consider myself as a heavy guy either. And I don’t necessarily know as much about certain issues as people might think I should know – but then again, when I’m getting into conversations in the pub, I feel I do. I am as informed as the next person – which, by the way, is pretty fucking misinformed. We’re not that informed at all. But I do Gerry Ryan’s programme for five or six weeks every year and serious human interest issues – to the point of being really serious – come up. Things can get very delicate.
OT: Going back to your radio roots, didn’t you used to work for Eamon Cooke [founder of ’70s pirate station Big D, recently sentenced to 10 years for child abuse]?
DF: Yeah, I started with Eamon Cooke. I was doing that Scene magazine thing after Niall [Stokes] left, and we gave Cooke a free ad for his radio station and he put me on the air – when there was nobody listening to it and it didn’t really mean anything. But then within a few months we got raided and suddenly there was loads of pirates all over the place. But Eamon was the most eccentric guy I’d ever met. But not only would I not have known what paedophilia or child-messing-with was then, I certainly never saw anything like that. I was up in his house doing the radio programme many nights. He was just a bit mad – there were wires and things all over his house, and broken radio sets. He drove a weird car and he was bonkers but… (shrugs).
OT: Will you visit him in prison?
DF: Well, I haven’t seen him since 1978. And there was never any love lost between us. Like, I never got paid – obviously. And he always wanted me to stick in Boney M or something – because Boney M were big at the time – and he didn’t know what I was doing. And I quit doing pirate radio in 1978, you know. I went to 2FM which was a different ball game entirely. So I haven’t seen him in 25 years.
OT: Does it bother you that you’re no longer the main alternative DJ, now that there’s the likes of Tom Dunne, John Kelly and Donal Dineen?
DF: No, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because I think I needed a spur to go on and do something else anyway. And it wasn’t those people. When I was doing everything on the radio the only place you could get certain stuff – as you know from growing up yourself maybe – was Dave Fanning. Unless you listened to Peel obviously, but I’m just talking about Irish radio. Nowadays everything is everywhere. You can’t go into a supermarket without four screens showing MTV type stuff – or Q or Kerrang or whatever those stations are now. There’s a million TV stations. It’s no wonder music on something like RTE has gone down, like all music programmes, by maybe 10%. Because it’s just so gettable now.
OT: Are you wealthy now?
DF: No (puts head in hands). Well, I could say that… If I have a regret it’s that I didn’t make great money – and I could have, I suppose, being what I was.
OT: But now that you own your own TV production company…
DF: Olaf, do you know anything about production companies? Come on! You’re hanging by your fingernails! The amount of money to produce something like What?!Movie is huge. It pays to make some programmes but it doesn’t actually give you wages. You kind of hope that in a year or two that it will.
OT: Did you ever go through a rock & roll phase of doing loads of booze and drugs?
DF: No, never. Never like that at all. Booze, yeah. I mean, every single person should question their drink intake. I can’t be in a pub at twenty past eleven at night and have just that much drink (gestures towards half-empty/full pint glass). I always order another pint. I don’t drink because I like the taste of it. I drink to get a buzz (laughs).
OT: Do you ever do anything else to get a buzz?
DF: No. Oh, do you mean smoking dope and all of that? Ah, yeah! Years ago. It was a studenty vibe, you grow out of it. But some concerts I used to go to, you’d have to have a smoke almost, you know? (laughs)
OT: How about cocaine?
DF: No. Well, I’ve seen it, yeah.
OT: Have you ever done it?
DF: I’ve done it, yeah, but not in any major way. It’s terrible to say what a scrounger I am (laughs), but I don’t think I ever actually bought it. I never even saw the other thing [smack]. And this kind of stuff (simulates injecting into his arm) just freaks the life out of me. But it depends on the crowd you’re with. And the crowd I’m with just wasn’t into anything like that at all. We never went into anything like that.
OT: Still, you’ve been around it, surely?
DF: Yeah. I remember being at a gig in London, not so long ago. I used to do the stage announcing for the Fleadh for Vince Power for about five years, and Shane MacGowan was on every one of them. And later that night we all went back to, em, not Filthy MacNasty’s but one of those posey kind of pubs. And there was just a very uneasy feeling about it. You could scrape the really heavy drugs off the air – you could just feel it.
And at least five or six people have died somewhere in the company of Shane’s entourage. Some roadie died not so long ago, so maybe it’s seven. It’s a very bad vibe. And Terry O’Neill’s son died. There was a guy called Ginger – he used to hang around, looked like Rod Stewart – and they all died around that scene. Sometimes because maybe ambulances weren’t called on time. But that drug is such a bad drug. You’d think of killing somebody to take the money off them to buy some quicker than you’d think of killing yourself. It’s actually further than suicide. It’s just wrong. And I never got into that and I’m very glad that I didn’t.
OT: Speaking of heroin, one of my all-time favourite Fanning radio moments – though I’m sure it’s not yours – was that time you asked Nick Cave about his stint in drug rehab and he got really thick with you.
DF: That was in ’88 or something. The really funny thing was that his manager was outside the studio that time. And I met his manager at the Fleadh years later, oddly enough. He came up to me and said, ‘Are you Dave Fanning?’ and I said yeah, and he went, ‘Do you remember that time about four or five years ago when you interviewed Nick Cave and he kind of leaned over and attacked you?’ I was like, ‘How could I forget?’ And he just said, ‘Why didn’t you hit the fucker?’ It was brilliant. And in fairness, it was on his press release! He’d had about 14 overdoses or something.
But, you see, the thing about Nick Cave is that he’s probably one of my favourite artists of the last 20 years. I absolutely love him. The Birthday Party was a band that I played and kind of liked, but they never meant that much to me. But the minute he started his solo career – he’s on his twelfth solo album now with Nocturama – I just loved Nick Cave.
OT: Given your CV, it’s probably easier to ask who you haven’t interviewed than who you have?
DF: The funny thing is, it is. Because you know why? I really genuinely have met just about everybody. But I can’t believe the amount of times I probably should have but never did – and would like to – interview Paul Weller. But think of everybody else in punk and post-punk or whatever, I think I have interviewed them all, at least once, somewhere along the way. But never Weller for some reason.
OT: You’ve probably still got some catching up to do with movie stars…
DF: There was a thing in Empire magazine – ‘The 50 Most Powerful Actors In Hollywood’ – and I’d interviewed 41 of them. Which is actually pretty damn good.
OT: Tell me about interviewing Bob Dylan in Rome last year.
DF: Ah, Bob is just the coolest, you know (laughs).
OT: Did you get to hang out with him at all?
DF: No. He did an interview for about 45 minutes, took a break for 15 minutes, and then came back for another 40 minutes. That’s the way he did it in the hotel. It was a pity because I was with three other guys, and it just doesn’t work so well. You know, it was Mr. Holland going ‘What’s your favourite colour?’
OT: Was that for radio?
DF: No. It was just for print. I did it for the Irish Times. But he was really good. He was evasive now and again. I asked him about Bono – you know, did you do this, that or the other with Bono? – and he said ‘Well, if you tell me I did, I suppose I did.’ And I went on about the motorbike crash a little bit, which he didn’t want to talk about. He did avoid certain questions. But he was well able to talk.
OT: What’s been your biggest screw-up in an interview?
DF: It’s remarkable how well they’ve gone, to be honest. A lot of them aren’t normal ones, like this. They’re with a camera or whatever and you’ve only got one shot at it. Em… nobody ever walked out. Nobody ever left. Natasha Richardson once said, ‘Are you falling asleep?’ And I kind of was drifting a bit alright, because I wasn’t really that interested in what she was saying. And I remember the first time Depeche Mode were in the studio, I called Martin Gore something else – about three times. Eventually he just got really annoyed and snapped, ‘My name is Martin!! OK?’
OT: You do have a rep as a fairly, em, scattered interviewer. You know, a bit all over the place. Kind of ‘I’ve just woken up! I’ve just arrived. What the hell am I doing?’
DF: (Winces in sudden annoyance) I like the ‘just arrived’ thing. If I was doing The Late Late Show, the researcher would spend an hour with the person beforehand, and I’d be filled in by the researcher. And often you meet the person beforehand yourself. I never like that. I wanna turn on the microphone and ‘let’s do it now’. And let me be… whatever, you know. And the longer you get for an interview, the better it is obviously. You can really get into it. And I much prefer that. And if that’s a reputation that you’re saying is not a good thing, I don’t care!
OT: I didn’t say it was a bad thing…
DF: (Seriously annoyed, glaring) Yeah, right! I dunno. I kind of like that myself. And I know, I know – I ask questions that are far too long and I get too… UUUUGGGHHHHH!!! (makes crazy hand gestures). But I don’t mind that.
OT: Actually, I’ve always seen that as part of the unique Fanning charm!
DF: Good! I’m glad! Because that’s how I see it myself, frankly. That’s fine by me. That’s cool, Olaf! (grins and raises pint glass).
OT: Do you listen to much music at home, or is it too much like work?
DF: There’s music on all the time, everywhere – in the car and all the rest of it. And at the moment, I’m listening to an awful lot of things that I haven’t listened to for a long time, especially by my favourite group of all time – which is the Beatles. And the reason I’m doing that is a very strange thing. My kids are into two things – movies and football. They’re not really all that much into music and they certainly don’t know about the charts. I mean, at their age, I could name off the whole Top Thirty. But who would want to do that nowadays anyway? It’s just people who’ve been placed there by marketing men. Like the Brits Awards last week. Why Gareth Gates was getting an award is beyond me! Why not the marketing manager behind him?
OT: What do you think of the likes of Boyzone and Westlife?
DF: To be honest, as the years went on, I don’t have a thing against Boyzone. I’ve talked to them and Keith I really like a lot, and Ronan I really like. They were doing a pop thing and that’s what they did, and that’s how they got into it, and some of it’s actually quite pure in its own way. I know it’s probably a sacrilegious thing to say. I didn’t like their music, but I admired their their work ethic and the fact that they went to so many hospitals – stuff that nobody got to hear about – and made little kids with cancer feel so good.
And you can say, OK, shut the fuck up, that’s a charity thing, what about the music? All that stuff just means nothing. It means nothing! And seeing Six on stage at the Meteor Awards last week doing ‘After The Goldrush’ by Neil Young was an eerie Salvador Dali moment that I do not ever want to revisit again.
OT: Did you lament the arrival of dance and DJ culture in the ’90s?
DF: There’s stuff advertised for the weekend that’s kind of ‘FEATURING TALL PAUL!!’ or whoever. If I’m 15, I don’t want to put a poster up on my wall of a guy who spins records. I want to put up a band or whatever. When it came in in ’88, the summer of love or the summer of smiley and all that kind of thing, and then by 1990, when it moved into baggy, Manchester and the Stone Roses, it was just absolutely brilliant. The actual pure dance thing doesn’t do much for me at all. The actual pure dance thing of making stars out of these guys really doesn’t do it for me.
OT: Really I meant did it bother you because, prior to that, you and other 2FM jocks were making quite a bit of money DJ-ing in clubs around the country?
DF: (Laughs) Me? Nah! I did some DJ things around the country but it was always a bit of a laugh. It wasn’t for money. You’d go down with a friend or two and whatever money you’d get would be gone by the time you got back to Dublin. Going down the country was always a great laugh. Like when I did the Heineken Rollercoaster Tour, my main job is just to hang around and talk to people about demos and about bands and music or whatever.
OT: Have you collected any interesting rock & roll memorabilia over the years?
DF: I’ve got a signed copy of The White Album – which is brilliant. Also I’ve got this signed chart from an old NME that I showed McCartney and he signed that as well. This might make people go ‘Whoa!’ but we’ve been getting the NME in our house since 1959.
My brother threw them all out, but he did a really weird thing – he cut out all the charts and kept them in a box. And one of them was from 1962 or whatever and ‘Love Me Do’ by the Beatles was No. 17. And I had this thing perfectly kept. And the back of all this stuff are headlines like ‘HANK TO QUIT SHADOWS – CLIFF SHOCKED’(laughs). Because it was the news page, you know. Or ‘HELEN SHAPIRO NOT TO TOUR’. So I got McCartney to sign that too. He was just going ‘WOW!’
OT: Anything bigger than autographs?
DF: Hmmm… major memorabilia. I’ve a bit of U2 stuff. I remember being in Bono’s house once with Ursula. He’d just bought the house and he was showing us around. Actually, Jesus, I’m just remembering this. Bono’s showing us around and he said, ‘Do you see that thing down there, Dave?’ And at the bottom of the garden was a gazebo – one of these places where you change into your costume before going down the beach. And Bono said, ‘I’m painting down there.’ And I said, ‘Really? What colour?’ And he said, ‘No, painting’. (laughs) Anyway, he took this photo of me and Ursula – he was into this Polaroid thing at the time. He took a fantastic photo and then he wrote a lovely thing all around it. Is that memorabilia? I don’t have anything major from the past.
OT: Are there any musicians you’d consider enemies?
DF: No. God, no! Definitely not. I mean there’d be music I wouldn’t like that much, but I’ve never fallen out with anyone over it. Maybe that’s a roundabout way of saying I haven’t been hard-hitting enough to get at them, but I was never trying to be a Sunday Times investigative journalist type thing, riling people up.
OT: You’ve been involved with U2 from the very beginning. How friendly are you with them?
DF: During their major heyday in the ’80s and all that kinda thing, I’d get about 20 letters a week to give in to U2 because people thought I was their personal friend or whatever. But I’m not. I don’t hang out with them all the time and I don’t go drinking with them. I’ve been around the world with them and I’ve been in their houses and all that kind of thing. But, you know… (shrugs)
OT: You still get the first play of all their new releases don’t you?
DF: I’m the first person to play everything that they do. It’s kind of a good luck charm thing that McGuinness has, as much as the band. It’s just a laugh really, it doesn’t mean anything. By the way, I think ‘Electrical Storm’ is one of the best things they’ve ever done.
OT: Tell me about the famous nude interview?
DF: We were all nude except for underpants. I think only Adam was completely naked. The head of radio came in – because at that time they were quite big – and he looked in and he was stunned. There in his own radio station are five people drinking live on air – naked. It was a bit of a sight for him, I can tell you (laughs).
OT: As a public figure, do you get any hassle when you’re out and about?
DF: No, because I’ve never done anything massively contentious. I’m not Dunphy saying ‘Kill the Irish soccer team!’ or anything like that. I’m not doing heavy stuff. So all I get is people nodding at me – ‘Good man, Dave’, ‘How’s it goin’, Dave?’ You know, I’m the movie guy or the music guy. So people stop me all the time and they wanna talk about movies, they wanna talk about music – and that’s fine by me.
OT: You’re not generally tabloid fodder, but I seem to remember seeing you on the front page of The Star a couple of years back. Some woman had stolen a lot of money from you or something…
DF: Yeah. That is true and I must say it was… (shakes head wearily). We had a nanny and I’m uuuuuseless with money. And you can say that anyone who can afford to lose a few thousand pounds deserves to lose it. But that’s not the way it is. I just recoil at anything to do with money, I can’t do it. So if money was missing I’d think I must have spent it or put it in a different pocket or something. Like I don’t even have one of those cards for drink-link. I tend to get loans of money from people and then go to the bank and pay everybody back. It’s fucking pathetic. I know. So anyway this woman was stealing money from us. And she seemed to be great at looking after the kids. But it was really bad form. She stole a lot of money from us. And we were so nice to her and so good.
OT: Did you get any of it back?
DF: No – and we never will. But my point is it really shattered my faith in human nature. It really just threw me. It was a lot of money. It was pathetic, it really was. Something you just do not need. Somebody living in your house, looking after your kids.
OT: Did you press charges?
DF: No, God no. I wasn’t going to start into all of that. I did report it to the cops because I had to, but there was nothing serious. It was just ‘go away!’
OT: Are many of your friends famous?
You’d be surprised. I don’t hang out with stars as much as you’d think. But not one of my friends is famous. The two best friends I had in school, I still have. Actually, the one person that I would’ve hung with a lot and I’d say I’m a friend of, and I like an awful lot, is Joe Elliot. And I’ve been up in his house enough times – for the good times and the bad. England being knocked out of the World Cup wasn’t worth watching Joe crying, almost. So those kind of things. And I’d see Joe for a drink, but not that much. I went to see them recently in the Ambassador and they were brilliant. Not my music, but they were great.
OT: Finally, what’s your all-time favourite song?
DF: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Yeah, it would have to be.
No more disco
Axing of music show a “cruel decision” says Fanning
“I’ll be very sorry to see it go but then, having worked in the field of music programmes for years, I guess I’m not surprised. I was watching it the other night actually and it was great – they’d done Leagues as a cartoon and it was really funny. I suppose it’s been there for ten years – between Donal, Uaneen and Leagues. Actually, I was instrumental behind the scenes in getting Uaneen on there. But I thought it was a great show – on a miniscule budget. The sad thing is it probably won’t be hugely missed. You know, there’ll probably be no wake for it because there’s so much music TV out there. The whole world is wired for music and it’s everywhere – it’s in every shoe shop and supermarket. What No Disco offered was an Irish slant, but maybe the powers that be in RTE have decided to put whatever money was available into that other show – Other Voices. Is that the right decision? I don’t think so. It’s a cruel decision, but then I’ve suffered from enough cruel decisions at RTE to last me several lifetimes.”