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© Ray Burmiston
It’s hard to imagine that Stephen Merchant, having not only mastered but also having dominated multiple entertainment formats (radio, podcasts, stand-up, movies and TV), might have any artistic shortcomings. But the enterprising cultural phenomenon does admit to lacking one talent in his considerable creative skill set.
“I can’t play an instrument,” Merchant says. “I tried to learn much more belatedly but with no real success. By the point where I was interested in learning, in my 20s, I felt that I didn’t have the time and energy to commit to it. Not learning how to play music is one of the biggest regrets in my life, and I’m very jealous of people who can pick up a guitar or sit at the piano and play something.”
Before his fame skyrocketed with hit British sitcoms such as The Office and Extras (both of which he co-created with Ricky Gervais; the long-running US version of The Office was based on the original UK series), along with his recent HBO starring vehicle Hello Ladies, and before he launched a series of successful radio and podcasts shows (both with Gervais and solo), Merchant got his start by hosting his own comedy-and-music campus radio program, The Steve Show, at the University of Warwick. But while he characterizes himself as a “massive, deeply passionate music fan,” Merchant explains that he was somewhat late to the party.
“My parents never really listened to music,” he says. “It wasn’t because they disliked it – it wasn’t like the town in Footloose, where music’s banned or whatever. It just weirdly wasn’t on their radar. There was a record player in the house and a handful of albums – a Glenn Miller record and maybe something by ELO – but that was it. We never listened to music stations on the radio or watched music TV shows. It just wasn’t in the air.”
At the age of 14, Merchant discovered a pair of vinyl record albums at a school book sale his mother was working at (“somebody had left a couple of records along with a bunch of books they’d donated, and I poached them”) – one was The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night, the other was The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come. “I’d heard of these bands in kind of the ether,” he says, “but it wasn’t till I got these records and sat down and listened to them that I really heard their music properly. In both cases, they we quite eye-opening.”
Recently, listeners to James Blake’s BBC Radio 1 show have speculated that an elusive guest who wields the handle DJ Badger may or may not be Merchant. Could be: He’s been at it for years, cutting his mix master teeth as a teenager at weddings and birthdays in his hometown of Bristol. “That’s how I’ve sort of been able to own music, by DJing,” Merchant says, “first at parties, and then later on the radio, hosting various shows. It’s been my way of distributing my musical tastes to people, and it’s a lot of fun.”
For more information on Hello Ladies and a guide to episodes, visit the show's official HBO site. On the following pages, Stephen Merchant runs down the 10 records that changed his life.