Annie Nightingale, who died on January 11, was a champion of what she called “underground music”. At the age of 83, she was BBC Radio 1’s longest serving DJ. She outlasted all the male counterparts from the 1970s and – unlike most of them – she never lost her touch or went out of fashion. She was also renowned for being the last person to leave any party.
The only other DJ comparable to Nightingale was her beloved co-pilot John Peel, whose untimely death in 2004 deeply affected her. Nightingale sought out new music and was committed to the idea that a change of tempo heralded in a new music generation. Her knowledge of pop and underground music was immense, from The Beatles to Bowie, punk to rave through to techno, dubstep and grime. She loved witty, clever lyrics, beats and bass lines.
Annie Nightingale fought sexism to get on to the radio, and ageism to stay on it for over five decades. She was always extremely stylish and was admired and really loved by so many of her colleagues and all the musicians she supported, as well as all her thousands of fans.
Nightingale was born in the west London suburb of Brentford on April 1 1940. She was the only child born into what she described as an unhappy marriage. Her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school at the age of five.
She was a bright and often rebellious student and claimed that she got the idea of becoming a journalist while watching Gregory Peck driving around in sports cars and having an exciting time in the film Roman Holiday.
She absolutely hated being from the boring suburbs and could not wait to get away to the bright lights of the city. She persuaded her exasperated parents to let her study journalism in central London at Regent Street Polytechnic, now the University of Westminster. At the Polytechnic she gravitated towards art school students, whose world she found fascinating and liberating. It was from the art schools that the first British pop music revolution would evolve.
Life as a journalist
She soon found work as a journalist and became ensconced in swinging sixties London. She was already a passionate music fan.
At the age of 19, Nightingale ran away to Brighton with a married man, which was scandalous at the time. The couple eventually married and had two children.
In Brighton, Nightingale started working on the Brighton Argus writing a music column covering the bands that came to play in city. She befriended many of the musicians, most notably The Beatles and she was especially close to Paul McCartney. Her marriage however fared less well and ended in divorce.
When the BBC launched Radio 1 with an all-male line up, Nightingale became obsessed with joining the station – she wrote to them repeatedly asking for a job.
In the end she claimed they only hired her in 1970 because she was a music journalist and the station needed to abide by the strict needle time regulations. Needle time was a restriction negotiated by the musicians’ union with the BBC in an attempt to stop the playing of records replacing “real” musicians performing on radio. With her music journalism credentials, she could supply information about the bands and talk about the music in a way that none of the other DJs who just played records could.
Nightingale was awarded an OBE 2002 and CBE in 2020 for services to radio broadcasting. In 2012 she was made an honorary doctor by the University of Westminster, which was the only occasion I got to speak to her in person. She was wearing such high platform shoes I was astonished she was able to walk – in contrast I was wearing my Dr Martens boots under my gown.
As a specialist DJ, Annie Nightingale created her own style and her own path. She chose to work on the evening sessions because she wanted to play music she liked and to champion new music and new artists. Although daytime presenters know a lot about music, they are not always specialists.
What is remarkable about Annie Nightingale is that she renewed her specialism with each new musical scene. She added constantly to her knowledge of underground music and when that music went overground, she went on her way again. She was extraordinary in that she was never nostalgic and never looked back.
There can never be another Annie Nightingale, she made a path for all of us women working in music to travel on and for that we will be forever grateful.