Robert Sandall: Music writer and broadcaster whose work was suffused with his knowledge and passion

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:16

The writer, rock journalist, broadcaster and wine expert, Robert Sandall, died on Tuesday morning, 20 July, aged 58, after a long battle with cancer. For many years he was the rock critic at The Sunday Times, and then wrote more generally for the Culture section, where he flourished until the very end of his life. Only a month ago, despite being in severe pain and aware of the limited time he had left, he turned in a polished and imaginative review of a film about the Doors full of the wit and observation for which he was known. He also wrote for Q magazine, Mojo, Rolling Stone and The Word.

His fluent, relaxed and easy writing style was backed by a sharp intellect and he shared generously and unselfconsciously his deep knowledge of the music business – and indeed of the business of music. He would write of the financial mechanics of a Madonna tour with as much gusto as he would approach a review of the latest Rolling Stones record. Fond of an elegant turn of phrase and an oblique joke, he never patronised his audience.

Crucial Cuts, his personal collection of classic album recommendations printed each week in The Sunday Times, was a master class – both in the choice of the records and in the erudition he crammed into the hundred or so words encapsulating the content and the context of the material. It reinforced what we already knew in a way that supposed and supported our own good taste: "So that's why I liked that album so much." In his profiles and interviews Robert rarely mentioned himself – quite unusual in a day when journalists have taken to putting themselves centre stage, obscuring the subject as they do so. Instead he had the gift of bringing the reader into the room with him, presenting the person before him and whose portrait he painted, seeking to elucidate and to clarify.

His first interview with Peter Gabriel took place in 1994 in Amsterdam. When Robert arrived at the hotel at the appointed hour Peter had left on his bicycle leaving a typically enigmatic note – "If you can find us you can have us." Robert and the PR hired two rickety bikes and in full detective mode set out on a mad race around the canals to find him. Amazingly they did, sitting outside a café, where Gabriel's attempted Dutch had resulted in his ordering the full dessert menu by mistake. The puddings were eaten, Robert duly got his interview and the afternoon that followed was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Gabriel that turned into a valued friendship.

Robert's seminal music programme for Radio 3, Mixing It, was a significant contribution to the exploration of musical crossover. Trawling their eclectic archives, Robert and his co-presenter Mark Russell cooked up an esoteric stockpot that might include shamanistic wailings from Tuva, the latest from a Japanese hip-hop band, or, famously, 10 minutes of pure humpback whale song. When the show was callously axed after 17 years, the public reaction indicated the strength of feeling among the loyal fan base that had gathered around this unusual and challenging programme.

Robert also wrote a wine column for GQ magazine and the collecting, drinking and discussing of wine was a major part of his life. Much of his last few months was involved in making sure that his impressive cellar was distributed among godchildren, friends and colleagues. "This one could last another 10 years – unlike its owner, of course," he said with customary dryness.

Born in the London suburb of Pinner on 9 June 1952, his father an industrial chemist and his mother a music teacher, Robert Sandall was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's school, Elstree, and read English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford and at Cornell University in the United States. Like many students of that post-hippy generation, he did not rush from university into full-time employment, but instead developed many of the interests that supported him, and his work, in later life. Skiing in the Alps, playing in rock groups in London and Edinburgh, studying wine and playing tennis were interspersed with casual employment in the practical world of building renovation – a kind of work to which he was particularly ill-suited. But when he was working on the renovation of a former synagogue in Spitalfields, East London in the mid-1980s, a chance encounter led to the opportunity to write rock reviews for the Daily Telegraph – and with it came the discovery of his true metier.

He graduated to The Sunday Times, becoming its rock critic in 1987, his career coinciding with the developing acceptance by the mainstream media of the importance of rock music in modern culture – and his Oxbridge education and literary interests gave his writing and its subject a timely gravitas. His own early enthusiasms had been for mainstream English bands of the Who and Small Faces type, but he soon developed a broad and catholic taste, his writing ranging across the spectrum of modern music, striving always to situate the music within a wider cultural, social and historical context.

In 1996 he accepted the unusual invitation from Virgin Records to work as their director of communications, engaged now within the industry he had previously chronicled from a distance. While there he worked closely with the Spice Girls, as well as the Chemical Brothers, the Verve, Green from Scritti Politti and Peter Gabriel – and acquired an understanding of the business and mechanics of developing bands and making records. He learnt a lot that informed his later writing, and he did so while rejoicing in taking a regular afternoon nap and maintaining a well-stocked wine cabinet – as well as a wry detachment from the politicking and money-making that surrounded him.

When he left Virgin and returned to freelance writing in 2002, his work ranged more broadly, including the use of the experience of his now-diagnosed prostate cancer to produce some memorable pieces, particularly two extensive explorations of the subject for The Sunday Times. He continued to cut a stylish, witty and shrewd figure within the world of the arts and of journalism. He became recognised as a cultural commentator on the radio and television, and appeared frequently on Mark Lawson's Front Row and Tom Sutcliffe's Saturday Review. For Radio 3 he presented Mixing It and, often, Late Junction.

A handsome and energetic companion, he had great personal charm, moving in conversation easily, and with an undercurrent of humour, between the erudite and the populist. Although full of opinions on most subjects and fluent in company, he retained underneath his urbane exterior a natural modesty and self-doubt, inherited perhaps from his father's Methodist background – and would have been astonished and delighted at the warmth of respect and feeling expressed by his colleagues and readers on the internet and in print in the few days since his death, although not delighted, perhaps, by the frequent use of the word "veteran"!

Always engaged in life, he rarely let reticence or lack of natural ability overcome aspiration – a rather hapless and erratic driver of his aging Porsche, he insisted on trying to learn to fly a helicopter and was only dissuaded by the birth of his daughter; a lover of football but fond of the sort of insights best kept to himself, particularly on the terraces; a hopeless but willing poker player, always destined to lose.

As the development of his illness began to restrict his range, he would continually refocus and discover new possibilities ever closer to home – the scramble up a mountain was replaced by the painful progress to the pub – but his natural and persistent curiosity remained undimmed. He kept his suffering to himself to the very end. A concerned question about his health – "How are you, Robert?" – would be answered with a wry smile, "Now there's a question".

He leaves behind his wife, Anita, and daughter, Grace – in whose company he died on Tuesday after a sudden deterioration – and many friends and colleagues by whom he will be much missed.

Charles Gledhill

Patrick Woodroffe

Robert Sandall, writer, rock journalist, broadcaster and wine writer: born London 9 June 1952; married Anita Mackie (one daughter); died 20 July 2010.

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