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Baker's Dozen

One Vision: John Robins' Favourite Albums
Simon Price , June 12th, 2019 08:30

John Robins, Edinburgh Award-winning comic and co-host of 5 Live's new Friday afternoon show, gives Simon Price perhaps the first Baker's Dozen to include both Chris De Burgh and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Who does John Robins think he is? It's a reasonable question, and one which is likely to leap into the mind of anyone coming cold to his work. A certain manic arrogance is, after all, key to the Robins onstage and on-air persona, and can be off-putting at first, if one fails to detect the saving sliver of self-mockery, and the sprinkling of self-loathing, that constantly undercuts the cockiness.

The factual answer is fairly straightforward. John Robins is a 37-year-old comedian and radio presenter from Thornbury, Gloucestershire who became a stand-up in 2005 after graduating from St Anne's College, Oxford with an English degree. Initially based in Bristol, where rising stars Jon Richardson and Russell Howard were his flatmates, Robins' early years on the circuit involved doing the well-trodden rounds of 20-minute slots at comedy clubs and unrepresentative cameos on TV panel programmes. Meanwhile, however, he was steadily building a cult following via his full-length one-man shows, launched every year at the Edinburgh Fringe, and gaining a reputation on the comedy scene as one of the most outrageously gifted performers of his generation. It was at Edinburgh, in 2017, that wider acclaim finally came his way.

For three years, Robins had been in a relationship with fellow comedian Sara Pascoe. When that ended over Christmas 2016, rather than paint a brave face over the pain, Robins unflinchingly documented the grim psychological places that the break-up had taken him in a show, The Darkness Of Robins. The show won that year's Edinburgh Award (formerly the Perrier), shared with Hannah Gadsby's even bleaker Nanette. It was a show that wasn't afraid to hold its nerve and talk openly about depression and alienation, without constantly reaching for the laughter button. For anyone who saw it, the simple phrase 'grief apples' (referring to a bag of Granny Smiths that the newly-single Robins couldn't bear to throw away, as they were bought during his final supermarket trip with Pascoe) is vivid shorthand for everything that was simultaneously harrowing and hilarious about Robins' exquisite monologue.

Since the Edinburgh win, Robins' personal and professional lives have both taken an upward turn. He's in a new relationship (and is now engaged), and his higher profile has led to hosting roles on Dave's Beat The Internet and YouTube series Bad Golf, and a regular column for Metro. His new live show, Hot Shame, is booked into the country's bigger theatres this Autumn (Hammersmith Apollo is becoming a second home).

Hot Shame is a play on the Queen albumHot Space, whose sleeve its tour poster mimics. This is a recurring theme: his previous poster depicted Robins in a yellow Freddie jacket. 'The four cornerstones of rock', as he refers to Mercury, May, Taylor and Deacon, are John's overriding obsession. He's become known as Britain's foremost Queen fan (which once led to a gig as their warm-up act on New Year's Eve), and the band were his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind.

Music in general is more than a mere background noise in John Robins' life. Hot Shame isn't an outlier: his shows are more often than not named after a record by a favourite musical artist (his Americana, post rock and indie-skewed tastes reflected by titles including Skinny Love, Nomadic Revery, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, Where Is My Mind? and This Tornado Loves You). Even more than most Baker's Dozen subjects, he's at pains to state that the thirteen albums he's chosen for tQ are only a shifting snapshot of his favourites at that particular moment, and might be completely different on any other day.

Given Robins' cultured tastes and non-geezerish personality it's perhaps ironic that the most significant and enduring project of his career occurred in 2014 when, with Welsh comedian Elis James, he landed himself a show on Radio X (Xfm at the time), blokey home to bantersaurus Chris Moyles and purveyor of wall-to-wall Noel Gallagher, Kasabian and Courteeners. (It wasn't long, however, before Elis & John began subverting the station's regimented Lad Rock playlist by tacking their own, often super-obscure musical tips onto the end of each podcast, under the banner 'Keep It Session' Sessions.)

The 264 episodes of the show, still available on the Radio X website, Podbay, iTunes and all the usual platforms, stand forever as a supremely entertaining and addictive body of work. Like any long-running podcast, Elis James & John Robins has developed its own lexicon of catchphrases and callbacks. “Are you on email?”, for example, is the Shibboleth by which PCDs – podcast devotees – identify each other, the Elis & John equivalent of “Hello to Jason Isaacs”. The show's legion of obsessive followers have developed a thriving, thousands-strong online community which functions as a mutual support group, often tackling difficult subjects such as mental health. This mirrors Elis & John's on-air willingness to talk about such matters, and all profits from the beer they launched in collaboration with Dark Star, Holy Vible (named for the show's successful spin-off book) went to male suicide charity CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably.

At the end of March, Elis & John briefly broke listeners' hearts by announcing that their Radio X show was to end. It was, in fact, only going on hiatus before relaunching at its new home of BBC 5 Live where, from 1pm on Fridays (the old Kermode & Mayo slot), a whole new listenership – oblivious to this complex backstory – are loudly asking that question at the top of the page. The same question I asked when I first gave the E&J podcast a chance three years back, only intending to hear what my compatriot Elis James had to say about Wales at Euro 2016, and instead found myself listening to this initially annoying, but eventually hugely likeable raging egomaniac instead.

Elis James & John Robins can be heard on Friday afternoons on BBC Radio 5 Live. Visit John Robins' site for Hot Shame tour dates. To begin looking at John's Baker's Dozen choices click the image below.

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