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The Man who Span the Platters that Mattered
A tribute by Edward Picot
I've just heard that John Peel died of a heart attack yesterday, Monday 25th October, on holiday with his wife Shiela. It's a really sad piece of news, and I feel as if I ought to write something to commemorate him.
It may seem incongruous that a site devoted to new-media should publish a tribute to a man who spent his life promoting alternative music, but as a matter of fact this site shares many of the values which motivated Peel and gave shape to his long-running and tremendously influential radio show.
John Peel started working as a DJ in America, then moved on to "Pirate" radio via Radio London. "Pirate" radio, for any readers who weren't around at the time, circumvented the broadcasting laws which were then in operation across the United Kingdom, by broadcasting either from the continent of Europe or offshore: a tactic which allowed British audiences to hear lots of new music of a kind which the BBC radio stations of the day were resolutely ignoring. Eventually, the demand for this kind of music turned out to be so huge that the BBC gave in, signed up a lot of the pirate radio DJs (including John Peel) and launched Radio One. This was in the late 1960s, and in my house, after a brief tussle for supremacy between my big sister and my mother, Radio One took the place of Radio Two (formerly The Light Programme) as our everyday household listening. I don't remember very much about Peel from that time, however, except that my big sister didn't like him because he was balding, longhaired and bearded - a revolting combination, as far as she was concerned. He was also famed for having an extremely boring voice. I seem to recall that his programme was the first place I heard King Crimson's wonderful "Cat Food", but perhaps this is a retrospective invention.
Just before I left secondary school, punk music came along: and with it, Peel moved to the front and centre of my mental landscape, as he did for many of my contemporaries. He was famously "converted" to punk in its early days, after hearing "New Rose" by The Damned: in fact he was the only establishment DJ in Britain to champion punk music on his programme, while many of the others were either ignoring it or condemning it outright. And this was no flash in the pan, either: Peel had a long and irreproachable history of airing alternative music, including both the work of a lot of artists who would later go on to become massively successful, and many who he continued to like despite their unrelenting obscurity: The Pink Floyd; Viv Stanshall; Marc Bolan and T Rex (or Tyrannosaurus Rex, as they were known when Peel first started to play them); Roy Harper; Rod Stewart and the Faces; Captain Beefheart; Roxy Music; The Nightingales; The Smiths; and so on and so forth. And in the late 1970s, Punk wasn't the only new music to take his fancy. Reggae was always a feature of his shows. Later, he moved on to African music, hip-hop and rap.
What made him particularly indispensable during the early days of punk, at a time when most Radio One shows were dominated by a "playlist" of commercial tunes which would be pumped out over and over again in the course of a week, was the fact that he was prepared to play anything and everything that happened to take his fancy, regardless of whether it came from one of the big record labels - regardless, in fact, of whether it came from a record label at all. Unsigned bands used to send him cassettes of their work, to which he would listen on the cassette-player in his car, and if he liked them he'd play them. There was a band called The Plugs who came from the town where I lived, and I can remember how euphoric they were when Peel not only played their first single said how much he enjoyed it. No major record label signed them up, and they never became famous, but at least Peel was prepared to listen to their material and grant them access to the airwaves - which meant, at a time when Radio One completely dominated the youth of the nation's listening habits, granting them a moment's attention from the record-buying public.
The punk movement was always characterised by a rough-and-ready do-it-yourself ethos. The idea was that anybody could play punk music, and the fact that anybody could play it made it less boring and more energetic than the middle-of-the-road, disco and heavy metal which dominated the airwaves and the record-shops before punk came along. Some punk bands - most famously The Fall, of whose work Peel was always a great admirer - were actively and aggressively opposed to the idea of becoming expert at playing their instruments. Technical expertise was suspect because it might lead to boring and pretentious music: guitar solos, drum solos, concept albums and the like. And the punk movement as a whole throve on the idea that no particular songwriters or bands should be regarded as infallible or heroic. You were only as good as your latest song. Longevity and commercial success, if anything, were more likely to make you "sell out" than improve your artistic output. The establishment was boring by nature. The most interesting bands were the newest.
Peel wasn't a man who would lose interest in bands or individual artists just because they had achieved a measure of success. He continued to play Pink Floyd albums, for example, long after they had become unfashionable with the music press. But he certainly sympathised with the democratisation of the music business which punk seemed to promise. Instead of being dominated by an oligarchy of established acts - or worse still, by an oligarchy of big record companies and their money-men - the charts and the airwaves ought to be thrown open to the groundswell of raw talent which was coming from all over the country. The whole style of his programme was in keeping with this philosophy. Unlike other DJs - Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis, Noel Edmonds and the like - his presentation was determinedly downbeat, laconic and self-deprecating. Ironically, over the years his refusal to draw attention to himself had the effect of making him more popular than most of his self-promoting contemporaries. He was fond of characterising himself as a fat bumbler who couldn't dance, sing, or even cue up the records properly. Occasionally he would launch into a sendup of DJ-speak: "John Peel here, spinning the platters that matter." He also liked to dwell on his own physical shortcomings and oddities. I remember listening to one programme in which he put forward the alarming theory that his voice was getting squeakier as he grew older; and another in which he announced that he was amusing himself, whilst on air, by fondling a piece of dead skin he had just picked off his foot. This talent for dry comedy and downbeat delivery made him immensely popular as a columnist, a talking head and a voiceover artist in his later years. But in his radio shows it served another purpose: it built up, in his audience's mind, the idea that he wasn't in the DJ business for the sake of being famous: he didn't think of himself as a celebrity: he fronted a radio show because he loved the music. And this idea was reinforced by the fact that he refused to talk over the lead-ins and fade-outs of the tracks in his show, preferring to play songs in their entirety. Again this habit marked him out from his contemporaries, and it also made his programme the ideal target for those of us who liked to augment our music collections (and take the pressure off our student grants) by taping from the radio. When I was at university I used to tape from the Peel show every night, then play what I'd taped to my friends the next day. The tapes were known as "Bad Editing", and in the end they ran to more than fifty volumes - about seventy-five hours of music.
As a commentator on the pop scene, Peel's strengths, limitations and distinctive voice were all rooted in his aversion to glamour. For many years he seemed to be swimming against the tide in this respect. For better or worse, fashion and image have been important parts of the music industry ever since the 1960s. Success in the popular music business has never been just about making a great sound; it's also been about making the right sound at the right time, looking good and striking the right attitude. This was true even in the days of Elvis and the Beatles, and it didn't become any less true with the arrival of MTV and music videos. But image didn't matter to Peel. He was interested in the music as music. From this point of view, a radio show was the perfect vehicle for him, because it automatically trimmed away those aspects of the music business which left him unmoved, and focussed attention on what he would have regarded as the essentials. The great irony of his death is that we are now entering an era where, thanks to the downloading of MP3s from the Web, the emphasis of popular music culture is being shifted away from presentation, back to the songs themselves. Peel always pretended to be nonplussed by new technology, but he was also unfailingly enthusiastic about any new development which made it easier for fresh talent to be heard. From the Radio Caroline days to the day of his death he stuck to his ideals, which were all about encouraging experimentation, embracing the new, fighting against the stifling clutch of commercialism. The Web offers hope that some of those ideals may at last be realised: that the music business (and other arts businesses) may finally be rebuilt in a new and more adventurous form, with more emphasis on the artists and their work, less on selling and presentation. It would have been nice if Peel could have stuck around for a few more years, to see how things worked out.
His death was a genuine shock and one of those end-of-an-era moments, like the death of John Lennon. We will miss him.
© Edward Picot, October 2004
© The Hyperliterature Exchange