Richard Witts by Caroline Fontes
Born in the east coast seaside resort of Cleethorpes, Richard trained as a timpanist and percussionist, playing as a schoolboy in local and regional youth orchestras, brass bands, the Grimsby & District Symphony Orchestra, the Grimsby Light Orchestra, the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society, for pantomimes, and as a drummer for various social clubs (although he was legally under-age).
While at Manchester University and the Royal Northern College of Music he played very many times with the Hallé Orchestra, including concert and studio recordings (he can be heard on the Barbirolli version of Mahlers 3rd Symphony, for example), as well as playing with other professional orchestras across the country. At this time he started to specialise in modern music, playing for Dreamtiger, Option Band and other ensembles in Britain and around Europe, giving premieres of works by living composers. He also joined a couple of Early Music groups, playing tenor viol and percussion to an endless schedule of municipal and village concert societies.
In Manchester he used his earnings from the Hallé to run a series of new music concerts and projects, culminating in the New Music Exchange series at the Royal Exchange Theatre. He invited composers such as Luciano Berio, Jean-Yves Bosseur, Mauricio Kagel, Henri Pousseur and Christian Wolff to visit the city and work with local musicians.
When punk started up, he became interested in the way musicians in Manchester managed to find a way to play as though from nothing. He helped composer Trevor Wishart to establish the Manchester Musicians Collective, forming it as a resource for the growth of post-punk bands in the city, such as The Fall, with which Richard became associated for a time. When Tony Friel, co-founder of The Fall, left to form his own band, Richard joined him as drummer (later vocals and synths). The Passage gained a recording contract with Virgin, and later with Cherry Red (most of the recordings, including several John Peel BBC sessions can currently be obtained from LTM, or on a couple of Cherry Red compilations, including the famous Pillows & Prayers).
With Andy Wilson (guitars) and Joe McKechnie (drums) or with Paul Mahoney when Joe went to college the trio toured Britain, mainland Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada. It was in Danceteria at New York City that they first watched people dancing to their records, and at First Avenue in Minneapolis that they saw people dancing to them live; they then realised that they could do it. Back in Britain, the shoe-staring crowds continued to think differently. Some of the Passage tracks have since been sampled by artists such as Moby.
Arts & Media
Yet around this time Richard managed to combine two or three lifestyles simultaneously. From 1979 he became Music and Dance Officer for Merseyside Arts Association, one of the regional arts associations in the national scheme of cultural subsidy agencies. He considers that he had three achievements. Firstly, he managed to get the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with composers John Cage and David Tudor, to come to Liverpools Everyman Theatre (they did so as a homage to the recently-murdered John Lennon, who had sponsored them in America). Secondly, he persuaded the Merseyside Youth Orchestra to commission composer Howard Skempton (who was born in the region) to write a beautiful piece for them, which remains in the repertory. Thirdly, he and his fellow regional dance officers forced the Arts Council and the Royal Ballet to confront the dismal racism at the Royal Ballet School and in the company.
At the same time Tony Wilson at Granada TV encouraged him to join Margi Clark (then called Margox) as his replacements on Granadas weekly magazine show, Whats On. Richards weekly regional television appearances were spotted by the producer of the network BBC TV youth magazine The Oxford Road Show (later ORS, BBCs Friday evening competition to ITVs The Tube), who invited him to do a weekly arts spot in between the likes of Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo. In doing so, he replaced Paula Yates (who had transferred to The Tube), and worked alongside fellow newcomer Ben Elton. Eventually, as ORS moved towards a younger market, Richard was replaced by Timmy Mallett. Something of his lifestyle at that time is captured in Carol Morleys film The Alcohol Years (her alcohol years, not Richards).
His other media interest at this time was finding a place for music coverage within alternative journalism. One of the initial crew of Manchesters first alternative paper New Manchester Review (leaving aside from the anarchist newssheets of Mike Don), Richard became the music editor of City Life.
Richard then moved to London when he became arts officer for the London Borough of Camden, specialising in music and dance. Working with some brilliant colleagues, he ran the annual Camden Festival. Margaret Thatcher had the Festival closed down in 1989 as part of her cull of the progressive activities of metropolitan authorities (the modern jazz section of the Camden Festival survives as the London Jazz Festival). Yet during his association with it he is proud that it presented the British premiere of three operas by Kurt Weill, as well as Robert Ashleys Atalanta (which nearly cost me my job), Messiaens final appearance in London; concerts by Ornette Coleman, Tshala Muana, Sweet Honey In The Rock and Kassav (organised by Chris Huxley).
He was lucky, as dance officer, that John Ashford joined Camdens small-sized theatre The Place around the same time to turn into a leading international hotspot for new choreography. At this time Richard helped to form Women in Music, bringing over composer Pauline Oliveros from the USA to launch the equality pressure group.
With Thatchers closing down of the Camden Festival, Richard became Director of South Hill Park, the large arts centre in a stately home in Berkshire. The WOMAD Festival visited here before SHP helped to find it a larger space at Reading. But SHP already ran its own jazz and folk festivals in the summer months. Among visits during Richards directorship, he best remembers composer Philip Glass, playwright Alan Ayckbourn, comedian Lenny Henry (who lived nearby would do try-outs of new material) and Michael Manley, Prime Minister of Jamaica, who looked around the theatre with the thought of building one along its lines in Kingston.
Books & Radio
However, Richard eventually became disillusioned with the constant bickering between the central Arts Council and the regional arts associations which affected the funding of SHP and many others. he he left South Hill Park to write a study, commissioned by Little Brown, of the history of the Arts Council. His published account, Artist Unknown, ultimately led to the disbandment of the old structure and the creation of the federal system for arts funding currently in operation.
This was not his first book. He had met the former Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, who lived nearby him in Brixton, and she asked him to write her biography. Although she died before he could complete it, the eventual publication of it by Virgin Books in 1993 put on record for the first time her extraordinary life, full of lies, which led to a film version of the book as Nico/Icon. From the middle 1980s Richard had contributed to BBC Radio 4s daily arts programme Kaleidoscope, and now at this time he was asked to present the BBC World Service equivalent. He presented a number of network radio programmes and documentaries at this times, He particularly enjoyed the Alan Hall-produced 1968 in America for Radio 3 (1993), where he interviewed the likes of Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, LaMonte Young, John Cale of The Velvet Underground, and other artists.
Concerned to retain an interest in the new music he most liked, he became a trustee of the London Musicians Collective, and then assisted the post-minimal ensemble Icebreaker to reassert its position as one of the worlds premium ensembles of contemporary music. Among major appearances and projects, this has led to the creation of Radio Icebreaker on internet radio (see www.totallyradio.com). In 2000 musicologist Keith Potter, of Goldsmiths College, University of London, invited Richard to lecture there on Stravinsky. Having enjoyed the experience, Richard agreed to develop this activity, and he now lectures at three universities (in sociology and music), and as a guest elsewhere, while pursuing his research in order to write a history of British music (of all kinds) 1940 2000.
He lives in Brighton where he enjoys being pushed around by his daughter Rosa.
© Caroline Fontes 2006