John Peel at 80: raising a glass to a broadcaster like no other


John Peel (Credit: Radio 6 Facebook page)

John Peel would have celebrated his 80th birthday on Friday and Getintothis’ Rick Leach celebrates a broadcaster whose influence remains undimmed.

John Peel would have turned eighty years old on Friday August 30.

It’s quite staggering to think that someone who was born in the 1930’s still has such an influence within popular culture to this day.

In many ways, John Peel is as relevant now as he was twenty, thirty or forty years ago. What he did as a broadcaster still echoes through the airways right up to 2019.

It’s arguable to say that without what Peel did at Radio 1 then we wouldn’t have had had 6 Music.

Certainly those who followed in his wake – Mary Anne Hobbs, Lauren Laverne, Huw Stephens, Tom Robinson, Steve Lamacq to name but a few- owe him a debt of gratitude, and quite rightly they openly acknowledge that.

As listeners though- as we all are- Peel changed it for us as well.

In some ways, this seems obvious. Of course he did. Maybe we should take that as a given.

But when I cast my mind back way back through the years, back to the early 1970’s when I first started listening to music on the radio, what we now take for granted in regard to John Peel, well, it was all very different indeed.

Four national radio stations.

The only time you heard Radio 2 was when you were in the doctor’s waiting room. Or at the dentists. Jimmy Young with the daily recipes. Not happy memories for a 10-year old. Maybe in some subliminal way that’s the reason I still shudder at the thought of Radio 2.

And as for Radio 3 and 4, they may well soundtrack my listening now just as much as Radio 6, but as a 10-year old I had minimal interest in classical music, the happenings in Ambridge or the Today programme.

So I was left with “wonderful” Radio 1.

Even then, even in my innocent tender pre-teen years, I realised it was far from wonderful.

It was a bit shite really.

Dave Lee Travis, Tony Blackburn, Ed Stewart and the rest. Instinctively you knew that for them, the music was irrelevant. A hindrance that just got in the way. They’d look for any reason to fade a record out early, talk over it or generally ruin it.

This was our lot. Listening to music played by people who seemed not to like music that much.

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I can’t really remember when I first stumbled into John Peel.

It would be good to say that there was a sort of Damascene revelation when I was about 11 or 12, something along the lines of turning in the radio at 10 pm, hearing Grinderswitch rattle their way through Peel’s signature tune and things were never the same again.

But there wasn’t. I wish I could point to a specific date. The first time I heard John Peel. All I know (or guess I suppose) that it was a fair bit and a few years later. Must have been 1976 or so. A process of gradual osmosis. I suppose I started tuning to Radio 1 at 10.00 pm just as punk broke.

Like many others, I wasn’t alone. Like many others, this was a sort of education.

This was a chance to hear music that you never got to hear elsewhere. Yes, Peel was one of the first broadcasters to play punk and post-punk; that’s been well-documented.

But there was more to it than that. We could run through a long list of music; drum and bass, house, thrash, soul, noise, techno, folk, reggae, blues, grunge– it’s endless. Peel played all of that and more.

John Peel (Credit: Radio 6 Facebook page)

Music from every corner of the world.

I do recall that he played an early punk (and quite dreadful) punk single from a Polish band whose name he translated as Bastard. This was from Communist Poland it should be noted. Not the sort of thing you could pick up from your local Woolies.

I also remember a rather wonderful track he played by a singer from Greenland (and I wish I knew what it was called as I’d love to hear it again).

It’s a fair bet that every single country in the world had, at one time or another, artists featuring on the Peel show. This was world music before it was (horribly called) World Music.

You can guarantee that John Peel did not have a shelf in his famed record collection marked “World Music.” You knew for him that would be anathema.

Just as importantly, Peel did not merely play esoteric, exotic and obscure music. That would have been too easy. You were just as likely to hear Sheena Easton as a thrash metal band from Mongolia.

This was a big learning curve for all of us who sat, fingers poised over the record button for four nights per week, blank cassette all loaded and ready to go, ready to record the latest Peel session by The Fall or Sonic Youth or The Delgados or The Wedding Present or whoever.

We knew what we were waiting for but we didn’t know what we were going to get in between those session tracks. It could be anything.

What we did know was unlike the vast majority of radio DJ’s, John Peel had that need to communicate with us directly, to share his excitement and enthusiasm for the music he played, whatever it might be.

He had that rare but essential quality which all the best radio broadcasters have- John Arlott, Alistair Cooke, Humphrey Lyttleton and Allan Little – of making it seem as if he was talking to you and you only and because of that there was a level of honesty and credibility that’s still sadly lacking in most mass broadcast media.

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This is where the education kicked in. John Peel did not need to explicitly state it that the music he played was the music he loved and the music he wanted us to hear, irrespective of fashion or trends or perceived hipness.

He wouldn’t always play what his audience wanted to or expected to hear. In fact, it was quite the reverse.

For a long time, he was the only DJ playing reggae on national radio and was castigated roundly yet not only did he stick with it, but it spurred him onto play it more and more.

He dropped the rock behemoths such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in favour of The Ramones and The Clash in 1977 and again, listeners deserted him in droves but that didn’t matter. The search for the new and exciting was the thing for Peel and if it rubbed people up the wrong way, then there must be something good about it.

And when the 1988 Festive 50 showed a noticeable lack of black artists, Peel, dismayed by this fact, implicitly accused his listeners of racism.

There was an inference that if you wanted to keep listening to his shows then you’d better get a grip. It’s hard to imagine any DJ either at the time- or indeed since-being prepared to play so fast and loose with those all-important ratings.

John Peel (Credit: Radio 4 Facebook page)

It’s strange how you become conditioned by time because even now, so long after John Peel’s last broadcast there’s still something about Monday to Thursday 10 pm to midnight. I still half-expect to turn the dial on the radio and hear his voice: “Tonight we have the 37th session from The Fall….”

Sadly that’s not going to happen. But it’s nice to dream.

It’s hard to over-estimate how important John Peel was and it’s hard to explain in this day and age of music being so readily available through Spotify and the like. Music is so easy these days. There’s no filter mechanism and there’s just so much of it around.

And such good music at that. Or maybe we see it as good music. It’s hard to tell.

Back then, we were limited to eight hours or so per week. And we needed someone to guide us through it. Someone who cared about the music. Someone like John Peel.

On a very personal note, I’ve tried to explain to my (grown-up) children, how special Peel was and how he shaped what myself and many, many others saw music and culture in general. I’ve even played them some of the archived Peel shows you can hear on the internet.

To their credit, they nod politely, purely to humour me I reckon, but I don’t think they get it.

For them, music isn’t that important.

It’s just another form of entertainment; something that’s just there, wafting around in the ether and waiting to be picked up (and dropped) at will.

For them. John Peel is someone from a long time ago; someone they know who I greatly admire, but that’s all. Someone who played records on the radio and said a few pithy words every now and then.

And I get the feeling- purely a gut instinct and please tell me if I’m wrong- but even for those who are deeply involved in music, either making it or writing about it, then if you’re under a certain age, then it’s pretty much the same. John Peel was a legend of course, but a voice from the past.

Yet I know he was more than that.

Because we always need someone to guide us through the morass of music that’s out there. Maybe in 2019, we need that even more so. Someone who cares about music and is prepared to play Status Quo and Mrs Mills and Sunn O))) and Sheena Easton and Gene Vincent one after another.

I half-wonder if John Peel would be swamped with the 365 days a year, 24 hours a day intensity of music.
Would he be just another voice on the radio?

Then I smile to myself.

Not a chance.

Happy birthday John.