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INTERVIEW: Marc Riley On The Parallel Universe Relaunch
Patrick Clarke , May 25th, 2023 10:30

As Marc Riley relaunches his The Parallel Universe radio segment as a new standalone show, he speaks to Patrick Clarke about the history of the fan-favourite feature, the joy of delving into music papers past, and whether he'll be joining post-The Fall supergroup House Of All

Photo by Beth Riley

The best feature Marc Riley has ever come up with during his three decades as a broadcaster, he tells tQ, is The Parallel Universe. A fixture of his show since he moved to BBC Radio 6 Music from Radio 1 in 2004, it sees Riley and his friend Rob Hughes delve through a music magazine from yesteryear and explore everything from its gig listings – now-stadium sized names booked for community centres and pubs – its letters pages and reviews packed with hot takes that may well have aged terribly, its long-forgotten news stories, its features, interviews, and even its adverts.

Next month, however, sees the beginning of changes in the schedule at 6 Music, one of which will see Riley move from his 7-9pm slot to a new joint show with Gideon Coe from 10-12pm from Mondays to Thursdays. Riley will handle the show solo on Mondays and Coe on Thursdays, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays shared. As a result, the pair will be leaving the features of their previous shows behind them in favour of entirely new programming.

Riley, however, wasn't quite prepared to let The Parallel Universe go. With Hughes as well as behind the scenes collaborators Howard Nock and Jason Read – with whom Riley also worked on his podcast The A To Z Of David Bowie – The Parallel Universe is to be relaunched as a new show available via Patreon. Riley and Hughes plan to release at least a one-hour show every week. Launching in early June, with the exact date to be confirmed, you can sign up with your email address here to be notified when the newly independent The Parallel Universe goes live.

To find out more about the project, tQ caught up with Riley to talk all things The Parallel Universe, the changing face of the British music press and his thoughts on his former The Fall bandmates' new project House Of All.

Can you take us through the story so far with The Parallel Universe?

Marc Riley: Around 20 years ago, I went to a record fair and saw a really pristine copy of Record Mirror from 1969 for a tenner, with John Peel on the cover. I just thought, 'Wow, that's a beautiful thing, I'll take it home and read it, maybe put it in a frame.' As I was leafing through it, it dawned on me how many different elements there were to it. It featured all sort of small gigs, people playing in pubs and shopping centres who went on to be David Bowie or Genesis, and reviews tearing them apart. Journalists were being given so much access to these big pop stars, too, they were going out to The Beatles' houses, you know? And just saw, this was worth going back to and revisiting; the benefit of hindsight is a great thing!

It didn't take very long for particularly NME to become really cynical and dark. By 1972, you've got people like Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray, and the relationship these people had with the pop stars was incredible. That was when I started buying NME and got interested in David Bowie, making little scrapbooks and stuff so every paper I got was in tatters. By the late '70s and '80s, you've got the journalists like Seething Wells and Stuart Maconie making stories up – there's that famous apocryphal story of Bob Holness playing saxophone on 'Baker Street' that Stuart made up. The dynamic of the journalist and the reader changed so much over those years. I'd look at great reviews for bad albums, or bad reviews for great albums, and just saw how all of this was worth going back to and revisiting.

How did Rob Hughes get involved?

MR: About six months before we started, we had a competition on the Radio 1 show to win a signed David Bowie at The Beeb picture, a beautiful thing. We did the Cheesily Cheerful Chart Challenge, which was just a stupid chart rundown really, but it got turned into a club. So we would get the same names turning up every day, one of which was Timperley Bob, and when we did the Bowie competition we pulled his name out of the hat. I didn't know anything about Timperley Bob, but I thought, 'Well, we live about a mile away from each other, I'm not going to send this beautiful framed thing in the post.' I got in touch and said you might as well just meet me in a pub round the corner and you can take it away with you. It transpired that we got along really well.

[The idea for The Parallel Universe] came about a month before I was starting on 6 Music. At that point in time I didn't know if I could work solo; I'd worked with Mark Radcliffe for so long. A couple of people sprung to mind, but I also thought, 'Are they going to be able to do this regularly every week?' He'd never done broadcasting before, so we did a pilot and, in all honesty, It didn't work. It took one little chat about what I wanted from it, and he came back and nailed it. It was exactly the same format then as it was until three weeks ago. I think it's the best idea I've ever had, not only on 6 Music, but Radio 1 and Radio 5 before that. The listeners loved it and once we announced that we weren't going to continue broadcasting from seven 'til nine, and we weren't going to be keeping the same features, I just thought, 'Right. We need to take it elsewhere.' So that's what we've done.

Why do you think the feature's resonated so much?

MR: We don't aim for any audience, we get a crazy age range up to people who are in their seventies, so a lot of them will remember the papers that we're talking about, or they will have been to gigs, or have bought the albums. That's the kind of email we get. 'I was at that gig,' or 'My mate went to that tour and said it was the worst thing he's ever seen.' It's this massive wealth of material that nobody else is revisiting, and it's not wallpaper radio, it's something people sit and listen to.

Moving to Patreon is also going to give you a lot of newfound space to expand the feature, too.

MR: We only had 27 minutes after the news to take us up to nine o'clock, it was that regimented, and there was only so much you could get in. We did start off with the thought of playing five records, and we quickly realised that was a non-starter. It went to four, and of late we've been doing three. We don't have those confines any more, so there will be more music and there will be more of Rob and myself.

Howard and Jason are coming along with you on the project. How important are they to the process?

MR: We were the crew behind The A To Z Of David Bowie podcasts. There were 70 episodes of it, coming in at between half-an-hour and 40 minutes, and they did 10,000 downloads each. We ended up being a great team. Howard was introduced to me by a mate who worked with him on various different projects within the BBC. He's got a studio round the corner which is better than the one I use at work, to be frank. He's a brilliant editor. And Jason, there's nothing that he can't do. He'll be running not only the Patreon side of things, but he's also a film editor so he'll edit trails and do the marketing side. It's a great little team. The thought of working together again with Patreon excited me because we're all really firm friends. And also, of course, if I didn't do The Parallel Universe with Rob, I might not work with Rob again, and I didn't like the idea of that.

It sounds like you're keeping pretty busy. You won't be joining House Of All any time soon, then?

MR: Well I always say I gave up due to public demand. Martin [Bramah, The Fall and House Of All founding member] did ask me, but I've got a job, albeit a part time job. Working three nights a week, there's no way I could really fit in with them. But what a great band! If you hear Paul and Steve [Hanley] playing in any band, you'd know it was them. Martin's such an amazing songwriter. I don't think they're worried about any kind of baggage, they're wearing the badge of The Fall quite proudly. Martin's not trying to sound like Mark [E. Smith], but that kind of steamroller effect of the band is still evident. They did a track for me, which isn't on the album, called 'Murmuration' which is even better than anything on the album. It's so brilliant to see them all coming together, it just seems really right. It's a joy to see them out there again.

To be notified when the first episode of The Parallel Universe goes live, join the waiting list here