Exclusive interview: Motorcycle-loving presenter Steve Berry talks to BMF
Since he burst onto our screens and into our speakers, presenter and journalist Steve Berry has been a mouthpiece for the motorcycling world, a champion like few others. Andy Carr spoke to this most animated of characters.
“I love Salford,” says Steve in his irrepressible Manchester accent. It’s a city within a city. Like the Vatican, but more violent. Don’t write that! I live round here!”
Steve Berry is the Real Excess 106.1 Breakfast Show host and former two-wheeled roustabout from the BBC’s Top Gear. But Steve wasn’t always a Top Gear presenter. And, he didn’t always wake up half of Manchester with the less than dulcet tones of the AC/DC back catalogue on his popular drive time rock show.
Also, he isn’t originally from the back streets of Salford.
“I was brought up in Bury. If you live in Bury, it was paper. If you lived in Bolton it was textiles. [Rock band] Elbow is from Bury. They sing about the place. The reason for the town’s existence has disappeared but the people are still there. There are pockets of beautiful spots, but there’s no work. The Elbow track, Asleep In The Back is about my home town.”
Steve barely pauses for breath.
Making radio waves
“I never wanted to be the local radio DJ. Not Tony Blackburn or Noel Edmonds either. No way. That was all naff,” explains Steve, who has been on the radio since 1991. “I met Tony at a do. He said that DJs had to sound that way because of all the broadcasts from the ships [Radio Caroline etc.]. The signal was so weak they had to pronounce every word and really deliver it. That’s why they sound so daft.”
“No disrespect to any of them, but I wanted to be the Fonze, Barry Sheene or the Six Million Dollar man. Barry Sheene was cool, Noel Edmonds was never going to beat that.”
The square peg
Steve’s career has taken him all over the world and he’s met racers, celebrities, Ministers and even Presidents.
“I’ve met all sorts, I’ve been very lucky. Gene Simmons, Pete Townsend... But, the person who stands out the most is person who gave me my first job. He was my first boss and one of the most insightful people I’ve ever met. He taught me a lot.”
Without drawing breath and with typical energy, Steve launches into the story…
“I had to literally get on my bike to look for work. Norman Tebbitt-style. I had a 10-speed Holdsworth racer. I got on it and I knocked on doors, the first of which was a launderette.”
“I went up the street knocking on each door as I went. At the sixth door someone answered.
“’Hello mate, can I have some work?’ I said. ‘Don’t call me mate!’ he says. ‘I’m the gaffer… you’d better come in’.”
“He hand me a cup of tea, and says ‘Don’t get used to this. If you work for me, this is the one and only cup of tea I’m ever going to make for you’.”
“Next thing I know, I’m in the wagon and on my way to Birtle, in Lancashire. They’ve sent us to render a house. So there I am, on my own smoking a ciggie, rendering a house. It was pretty basic work and it felt alright.”
The owner of the house took an interest in Steve. She noticed him reading a lot.
“She was all ‘ticking clock and sturdy shoes’ and, she noticed I was reading the Times so I got talking to her. I could read and write like an adult when I was a kid. I taught myself to read The Times upside down and any way up by the time I was four.”
This lady then asks him if he’d thought about University. It had never crossed his mind until that moment. But the thought stayed with him.
“At the end of the week when they handed me my money, I noticed my work mate’s pay slip too. This guy was forty odd and he was on the same money as me. I thought ‘sod that!’.”
“Next day, they asked me to dig a trench for a sewer pipe. We get there, but it’s so cold the earth is like iron. We try a pick axe but they’re literally bouncing off the ground. Next thing, boss turns up with a brazier - a big barrel like you’d see in the miners’ strike - burning away. We had to drag it over the ground, bit by bit and warm it up, just enough to get the pick axe into it so that we could dig the ground. I was like ‘hang on’ I’ve read about this in school. It was like soviet Russia and I thought ‘sod this!’.”
He wasn’t meant to be there. So, he went to University. Steve instantly took to University and the whole Manchester scene.
“University was brilliant,” he says with ceaseless enthusiasm. “We’d go on protest marches to pick up women. I didn’t know what half the marches were about. You’d just turn up grab a sign and feign outrage, then go home with a girl.”
He wasn’t always into bikes either.
“I was never interested in the Rockers – they weren’t cool. My dad had bought us a couple of crap field bikes for a fiver or something when we were kids. Glass bottle for a fuel tank, but I wasn’t into them. We were all running about on scooters.”
The late 70s and early 80s was also an exciting time for Manchester.
“Joy Division and New Order were playing in Manchester every weekend. No one really knew about it in London, so I started taking pictures. It felt like no one else was doing it. The first photo I took got published in ID magazine, then I had some stuff in the Face and the NME. I got £100 here or there. It was mega.”
“Cool people in Manchester were all on scooters. We were there with A Certain Ratio, The Fall, Joy Division. We were getting in to see all of them for free or for a couple of quid.”
Steve’s pictures got him noticed.
“I took pictures and wrote a bit and I ended up being editor of Scootering Magazine when the scene was really on the up. We used to read Performance Bikes and loved what those guys were doing. Rupert Paul, John Robinson and Mark Forsyth were all running it at the time, and it was amazing. They used to take the piss and do what they wanted. We loved it, so we just copied them.”
His move into big bikes was just as much about the right place as it was the right time.
“I was knocking around with this kid called Jeremy Howlett, 18-19 years old. He was a Richy Rich kid, but he built amazing scooters: custom paint, gold plating, engraving, the lot. We’d hang out round his place watching this massive telly sitting on the box it came in. He loved bikes and he loved music so we got on.”
One day at the house, Jeremy announces that he’s got a new FZR1000 being delivered that afternoon.
“I’d never been on a big bike and this thing was one of the first in the country - it was mad. This lorry turns up and there it was. I’d never been on anything like that. I went up the road and, well, my scooter was amazing, but this thing. It was faster in first! It was like an epiphany.”
And that was that. Steve was hooked. His vigour and vivacity is infectious – you can’t help but get swept along with this pied piper of motorcycles.
“I got a job on a Harley-Davidson magazine by accident. We were in the same office as Back Street Heroes (BSH) and the editor came to me once and said, ‘You like bikes. I’ve got a job for you. We’ve got a Harley title, do you fancy doing that?’.”
“At the time these guys were seven or eight years older than me and, to be honest, I thought it was all long forks and longer hair, all that stuff. But, I just thought ‘why not?’. I’ve never said no to anything.”
This is not hard to believe.
Steve took the job and was sent to London for a test ride.
“Next thing I know, I’m riding round the M25 on a Harley Fatboy, feeling like the bloody Terminator.”
Next, he and others had started to notice something new happening in the custom scene, but this time it wasn’t scooters or Harley-Davidsons, it was Japanese bikes – like the one that his mate Jeremy had given him his first introduction too.
“There were these guys, Dodge in Northwich and Nick Coulton at West Coast Motorcylces. They’d given me some magazines and I’d seen these Japanese bikes with flat bars, and upswept exhausts, they looked great, so I went upstairs to see the editor, told him about these mad bikes and he went with it. That’s how Streetfighter got started.”
“It was the punk rock of bikes. It was amazing. Grey imports. Modified in sheds, it was the exact opposite of the bike industry so of course they didn’t like it.
“We were based in Hale in Cheshire. Weird place for a Streetfighter mag. Very nice, very upper middle class, popular with footballers and Corrie actors, and we were right in the centre.
“Then there was this guy, Dennis [Adams]. He kind of fitted into all the cafes and bistros. He was ‘that guy’, you know, the man who has a nice BMW - sweater over his shoulders - but a lovely bloke.”
The guy in the nice BMW turned out to be a producer on Top Gear. Not that Steve had ever noticed. They just talked about bikes and other stuff mostly.
“He knew I knew about bikes but I didn’t know he was the producer of Top Gear! I had no idea! Then, one day we get talking about it and he asked me if I could start Monday.”
At this point, Steve was 26 years old and editor of a monthly magazine.
“I had a brilliant boss, he’d let me do what I needed to do. But, after a few years (at Streetfighter) we were all bored stiff. We’d done it and the Streetfighter scene wasn’t as exciting to me anymore.”
A decision was made and Steve found himself on the television.
“The first time you’re on telly, the phone rings off the hook. It’s not the newspapers though, it’s your mates... taking the piss.”
As most readers will know, when Steve joined Jeremy Clarkson and the team at Top Gear, it a different beast to the one on screens today.
Steve described being on Top Gear back then as “like being a footballer in the sixties”. It was much lower paid, more staid and none of the presenters had the fame and notoriety they do now.
“They had producer guidelines,” he explains. “We used to agonise over whether or not we could say the word ‘flanks’! They thought it might mean something to do with women. We couldn’t say anything!”
“When I tested the Busa they wouldn’t show the top speed. The item is still on Youtube, and it just fades out when I get to 180 mph. It was all about duty of care.”
The Top Gear we’ve all read about recently is obviously a very different beast, and I can’t resist asking Steve what Top Gear host, Jeremy Clarkson is really like?
“That’s the question people ask me most”, Steve replies as if he was waiting for it to come up.
“Look, the guy said he was going to string a wire across a road to stop bikers, for God’s sake. We never got on. But, he’s a f***ing genius.”
A breed apart
Bikers come in for a bad rap and Steve is pretty clear that bikers will not be loved by everyone and he’s ok with that.
“See, as far as I’m concerned bikers are all decent people… wherever they come from. But, the public just don’t understand us. We do things other people think are super-human, or just plain mad. In my experience, whether they run an outlaw gang or a scooter shop in Italy, they’re just decent people.”
“For example, I was out with my mates recently, having a cuppa talking about our kids in a normal café. It wasn’t normal though. I was sat with Mark Rothwell; ten minutes before he was done for pulling a 198mph wheelie for a kilometre. The other two guys didn’t find that exceptional. It’s not normal and to most regular people it’s completely terrifying.
Steve is clear: we can’t stop people from criticising motorcyclists, but that’s all just part of the game.
“Motorcycling is increasingly looked at as an antisocial activity. Most people, and their agencies would just prefer it if we didn’t ride bikes. But, we have to understand why they don’t want us to do it. What we do is mad. It is something people don’t understand. If they just told us we could do it, we wouldn’t want to. What would there be to rebel against? We need ‘the man’, we just can’t let him win. We have to fight with every atom of strength to stop him from telling us what we can and can’t ride, we can’t give them an inch.”