Every Day is John Peel Day
(Copied and pasted from the old iJamming!, written immediately after the great man’s demise, October 25 2004.)
As my generation hit its mid-teens, the only phrase more common at school than, When are you going to get a girlfriend? was Did you hear Peelie last night? The two were not entirely compatible. It was troublesome enough going to gigs with the knowledge that we were sacrificing two hours’ worth of brilliant new music on the Peel show. The prospect of spending an evening fruitlessly trying to get your hand inside some girl’s blouse in front of her TV set, or out at some crap movie, when you could be listening to John Peel playing new music was, for some of us, more than we could bear.
Part of our love for this man who was, remember, old enough to be our father, was because of his Peel sessions. At John’s request, artists went into the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios and recorded up to four songs in just eight hours; these recordings served not only to introduce many a fine new act to the general public, but were beloved of bigger bands too as opportunity to try out new songs in something of public demo form. Over the last fifteen years, many of the finest Peel sessions have been released on CD and vinyl, but at the time, to miss a great session was equivalent to missing your football team on Match of The Day. And those who stayed home and taped Peel’s shows on the finest quality cassette recorders found themselves in great demand. I remember spending far too much of my pocket money sending off blank tapes, Stamped Addressed Envelopes, or crisp pound notes to various addresses scattered round the United Kingdom, to complete my Joy Division or Fall or Scritti Politti Peel session collection.
Everyone remembers a specific record that John Peel turned him or her onto. Mine is probably the most obvious, and excuse me some rose-tinted sentimentality if it makes me believe I had the fortune to be a Peel loyalist during his truly golden days – the period right after punk. There was so much wonderful music aired on his show, every single night, but The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ seemed to soar above everything else. It was a brilliant record regardless of Peel’s obsession, but it was even better because of it, this 40-year old who could empathise with the teenage experience without patronizing those who were immersed in it. Peel probably played ‘Teenage Kicks’ every night for six months, from when it was released on Good Vibrations until it charted on Sire. But I particularly remember one night when he played it, let out a sigh of joy, and then said, in those dulcet tones of his, “That record is so good I have to hear it again,” picked up the needle and put it back on the start of the groove. These were the days when Abba and Boney M still ruled the play lists and charts, a period when not even The Clash, The Jam and The Buzzcocks were heard on Britain’s only pop music station during day time hours; to hear a DJ play a record twice in a row purely because he loved it… well, it gave us hope. Really.
A list of all the bands Peel turned me onto would be overly long and inevitably incomplete. In those years immediately following the punk rock boom, when independent labels sprung up by the hundred and everyone seemed to be putting out records, every night’s show offered some new minor classic or another. There were usually a few dogs as well; no Peel show was complete without at least once wondering if you could get through the next three minutes without switching him off. (Likewise, few Peel shows were complete without him playing a record at the wrong speed – and how we loved him for it.) But that was part of Peel’s persona. He played the role of University Professor for us teens, widening our Universe at a time when prejudices and street cults dictated we keep it confined. There was no one else who played dub reggae alongside new wave, ska alongside hardcore American punk, and old-fashioned folk alongside Kraut rock. (As the years went by, Peel expanded his oeuvre to include techno, drum and bass, hardcore punk and God knows what else. It’s important to note that Orbital chose to play their last ever live show, just a few months back, from the Maida Vale studios for a Peel show.)
John Peel, then, taught us that good music is good music. He also taught us that snobbery is a crime. Peel was, remember, a devoted fan of both The Undertones and The Fall, two groups who had almost nothing else in common apart from their lead singer’s terrible taste in trousers. And while he filled his post-punk years with all manner of obscure DIY bands from up and down the country, I have a crystal clear memory of the night he decided to play the new Stranglers album from start to finish, simply because he believed they didn’t deserve their current backlash.
I was fortunate enough to meet John Peel on several occasions. The first was in late 1978, after he was interviewed for Jamming! 5 by Ray Hoyle, an older kid at our secondary school Tenison’s. After cornering him for the interview – an exercise in simplistic questioning – Hoyle somehow convinced Peel to let us come up to Broadcasting House one night and sit quietly in the background while he presented his show. I can only assume we had to leave halfway through for the last bus home, and likewise I can only assume we didn’t piss him off too much, because I remember going back a second time, being equally reverent and equally quiet as he went about his nightly business. I felt a little embarrassed to be there; his show carried greater resonance delivered through the airwaves to your front room, rather than sitting in on it with him. What I do remember, though, was being invited into his office and seeing all the session tapes piled up in the corner like so many out-of-date newspapers. Peel assured us that it was actually for protection: if he didn’t hoard the tapes, he insisted, the BBC bureaucrats would just throw them out, and though that may have been overstating the case, it was typical of Peelie that he would take it upon himself to keep so many priceless recording sessions safe from harm – and close at hand.
John Peel traded on self-deprecation, the notion that for all his influence (something he would never admit to anyway), his life was actually quite boring. And to be honest, for a while there it was. If Peel’s hours – broadcasting from 10pm to midnight, Monday to Friday – put his listeners in a quandary when they wanted to go out to a gig, imagine what it did for the DJ. For years, he almost never got to see the bands he so loved perform live. And he didn’t meet them in the studio either: the Maida Vale sessions took place miles away from Broadcasting House, during the day. For the most part during those peak years, Peel would drive down from his home in East Anglia, shuffle into the studio, prepare his show, pick up a bite to eat on his own, broadcast for two hours and drive home again.
It was during that period that Paul and I started Jamming! Records. Our first signing, Rudi, were already Peel favourites: their ‘Big Time’ had been the first record on Belfast label Good Vibrations. (‘Teenage Kicks’ was the fourth.) Peel played Rudi’s ‘When I Was Dead’ as many times as we had hoped, and brought the group in for a couple more sessions. But with Rudi’s follow-up, ‘Crimson,’ he seemed to cool in his enthusiasm.
Jamming! Records used The Jam’s radio plugger, Nigel Sweeney. He was great at his job, and a nice person too. But Peel distrusted pluggers for all the obvious, right reasons, and when I asked Nigel how to keep Peel on our side, he said that he certainly couldn’t intervene. He suggested, instead, I take Peel out for dinner.
I was 18 at the time. Maybe. I’d only had my first Indian meal a few months before. I didn’t know how to order food, let alone wine. But Sweeney insisted. You’ve heard Peel complain how he never meets anyone, he told me. Give John a call, offer to take him out for a curry. Bet you a tenner he says yes.
I had nothing to lose. (Except a tenner.) I got Peel on the phone – it wasn’t hard in those days, I’d done it a few times before – and asked if he fancied sharing a curry some weeknight before his show. I cringed as I made the offer. But John was immediate in his response.
“How very kind of you,” he said. “I’d love to.” A few days later, we met up in the early evening at Broadcasting House, had a quick pint round the corner, and then Peel took me to his favorite local curry house and I picked up the tab.
What did we talk about? Damned if I remember. Hopefully, just about music – and maybe a little bit about his life out in the country, with the mysterious “pig,” as his long-suffering wife Sheila was referred to for so many years. I only remember being perfectly nervous, and John being perfectly charming. He may possibly have found me as much of a pain as when we blagged our way into his studio all those years earlier, but if that was the case, he was far too nice to say so. And looking back on it, I’m sure he enjoyed himself. Not because of my company, but because he always took pleasure in talking about music with anyone who loved it even half as much as himself, and because he would have been happy to share his enthusiasm and encouragement for anyone willing to make a career of that love. You may have heard people say over these last few days that John Peel was one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Guess what? It was true.
Our meal out didn’t make the slightest bit of difference to his on-air support for our records. Nor should it have done. Peel only ever played what he liked. But it was the fact that he liked so damn much of it – with a passion – that makes us so sad to lose him.