John Peel: A Tribute
John Peel died a year ago today, October 25, 2004. The following is edited from a tribute I posted at iJamming! on October 29, 2004. We still miss him…
TEENAGE KICKS WITH JOHN PEEL
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 John Peel last night?” But the two were not exactly compatible. And the prospect of spending an evening fruitlessly trying to slip your hand inside some girl’s blouse while she sat stone-faced staring at her TV set, when you could instead be listening to John Peel playing new music was, for some of us, no contest. We chose a man old enough to be our father over girls young enough to be our partners.
One of the reasons for this devotion was the sessions he aired. At John Peel’s request, bands went into the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios and recorded up to four songs in just eight hours; these sessions served not only to introduce many a fine new act to the general public, but were beloved by bigger bands too as an opportunity to air new songs in public. Since the late 1980s, many of these Peel sessions have been released on CD and vinyl, but at the time, you missed the airing of a great session at your peril. Those who stayed home and taped Peel’s shows rather than attend gigs (or spend time with the opposite sex) 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 they were turned on to by John Peel. 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, night after 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, the fact that this 40-year old could empathise with the adolescent experience without patronizing those immersed in it. Peel probably played ‘Teenage Kicks’ every night for six months, from when it was released on Belfast indie 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 declared, in his famously dulcet tones, that the record was so good he had 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 BBC Radio during day time hours; to hear a Radio 1 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 I discovered through John Peel would be hopelessly 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 occasionally wondering if he’d lost the plot. (Likewise, few Peel shows were complete without him playing a record at the wrong speed – and how we loved him for that imperfection.) But this was all was part of Peel’s persona, an amiable, knowledgeable and reassuringly unreliable Professor. He widened 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. No one.
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 in common apart from their lead singer’s terrible taste in sweaters. And while he mostly filled those post-punk years with all manner of obscure DIY bands from up and down the country, I still remember the night he played the new Stranglers album Black and White from start to finish, because he believed they did not warrant 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 and conducting the interview, 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 behind him while he spoke. I do fondly remember being invited into his office and seeing 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 surely 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 (which 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 broadcast hours – 10pm to midnight, Monday to Friday, basic gig-going hours – put his listeners in a quandary, imagine what it did for the DJ. For years, he rarely got to see the bands he so loved perform in concert. And he didn’t meet them in the studio either: the Maida Vale sessions took place miles away from Broadcasting House, during the day. Most of the time during what we perceive as his 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 Weller and I started Jamming! Records. Our first signing, Rudi, were already Peel favourites: their debut ‘Big Time’ had been the first record on Belfast label Good Vibrations. (‘Teenage Kicks’ was the fourth.) Peel duly played our first release, Rudi’s ‘When I Was Dead,’ as frequently as we had hoped, and brought the group in for a couple of sessions, too. But with the release of Rudi’s follow-up, ‘Crimson,’ he cooled.
I asked our radio plugger, Nigel Sweeney, how he could get Peel to warm up again. Sweeney, who worked many mainstream pop acts as well as The Jam, noted that Peel (rightly enough) distrusted pluggers and that there was certainly nothing he could do that would not backfire and further distance Peel from our label. Why don’t you take Peel out for dinner? Sweeney suggested instead.
Do what? I replied.
Take him out for a meal. You’ve heard Peel complain how he never meets anyone. 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.) So 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’s response was immediate. 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 with 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.
Peel did not play Jamming!’s Singles any more often because of our meal out. Nor should he 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.