The boy done good

Irreverent Marc Riley runs a music show that's the best in Britain

<strong>Marc Riley's Brain Surg

DJs have been saving my life every night since 1988 or thereabouts, when I first tuned in to John Peel's Radio 1 slot. One of the many things for which Peel is remembered is the way he couldn't play a record by the quixotic Salfordian band the Fall without inserting the word "mighty" into their two-word name.

Marc Riley played bass with "the Mighty Fall" as a teenager - as has half the population of Manchester, he notes in his website biography - and now presents a thrice-weekly show on 6 Music, the BBC's digital music station. 6 Music is meant broadly to cater for those who like "alternative" music (guitar bands, those singer-songwriters who might befuddle the older section of Radio 2's listenership, and so on), but really, it's a station for anyone with what Nick Hornby might call "a half-decent record collection".

Riley's show, cannily named Brain Surgery (his previous show at the station was called Rocket Science), represents 6 Music at its best. It's on three nights a week, though I wish it were seven. It sounds - as music radio should do but hardly ever does - thoroughly unforced, varied, friendly, funny and occasionally startling enough to make you dive for the nearest pen and used bus ticket in order to write down the name of the track that's just been played.

His show on Thursday 7 June sent me flying over the sofa for precisely that reason. It opened with a live session by a group called the Twilight Sad, from Glasgow, whose music was morose and intense but whose members, responding to Riley's manifest niceness, sounded personable and responsible: not qualities generally required of pop stars, but ones which, oddly, make you more likely to remember them.

Riley's gift is to generate a great surplus of goodwill in his "Manky" (a trademark Riley play on words) broom-cupboard studio, and then send that surplus billowing out to his listeners, who, like his guests, respond in kind. He's self-effacing to a fault, always going on about how he should shut up now and play a record. On the same show, Riley was forced to intercept a particularly long track by the US band Built to Spill, but couldn't do it without the caveat: "It all goes a little bit noodly doodly, and then a little bit Spinal Tap, when all the dwarves come out and start dancing round Stonehenge. Don't get me wrong, I love it to bits, but it's still goin' on and there's still a minute and a half to go!"

It's an echo of his old role as Mark Radcliffe's foil, "the Boy Lard", on their decade of shows for Radio 1. Their best programme together was doing the 10pm to midnight shift, when they'd ditch the playlist and intersperse their own favourite records with live spoken-word slots by, among others, Simon Armitage.

On Brain Surgery, Riley is back to playing what he likes, which encompasses fifty years of pop, rock and reggae, with a heavy emphasis on the David Bowie-Lou Reed school of high-concept glam rock and their various antecedents. That means you get Jacques Brel, Nico and Françoise Hardy on the same show as the Hot Puppies (what a name) and Johnny Boy.

He is also a champion of the undeservedly underrated, such as the humanist singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, whose flinty, novelistic records seem to pass most people by. And yet that's what the BBC is for: bringing it all out, letting everyone see or hear the full breadth of culture. It's left to Riley to kick out the playlist (have you listened to Radio 1 recently? I would, if I could stand it for more than five minutes) and let us know what's really out there.

Such as the song "Liquid Lives" by the new act Hadouken!, who, mentioned Riley when he played the tune this past week, formed at Leeds University. The first thought that came into my head was: "Zygmunt Bauman!" It seemed obvious to me that the record's title was an explicit reference to the work of the famed Polish-born, Leeds University-based social theorist. I thought of texting the show to tell Riley of this thrilling connection made between the arts and the sciences, but I suspect he'd use it as an opportunity to put himself down on air (not, significantly, as a chance to enquire whether I'd eaten an encyclopaedia for tea). But that's Riley: generous, inclusive, daft, and currently the provider of the best public service in Britain.

Andrew Billen is away

Pick of the week

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette
19 June, 10.30pm, Radio 2
Mariella Frostrup on the dirty habit.

US Comics Confidential
21 June, 11.30am, Radio 4
Jonathan Winters kicks off three-part series on American stand-ups.

Angry, Sexy and Working Class
Starts 22 June, 7pm, Radio 2
Christopher Eccleston looks at 1950s and 1960s British cinema.

Don't miss... Meltdown

Jarvis Cocker promises that the music festival he has curated will "rouse you from your slumber, and you're going to love it". In keeping with the former Pulp singer's eclectic tastes, the veteran rockers Motörhead play the opening night, and the 1960s singer-songwriter Melanie will perform her first UK gig in 30 years. The line-up includes Iggy and the Stooges (right), the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Hal Willner's Forest of No Return, a dark reworking of songs from the Disney films.

Runs from 16 June, Southbank Centre, London SE1.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits