Keeping It Peel

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of John Peel, so I thought I’d write a few thoughts on the great man.

The first few times I listened to Peel were towards the end of 1983. I’m not even sure why I started listening – I’d been sticking to Radio Luxembourg for most of the year, perhaps I was tired of the signal interference? So I retuned the radio late at night and heard a few songs. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them all but there were enough interesting pieces of music to intrigue me enough to listen again. In that one section I heard “Sleepless” by Microdisney (in session that night) and “Burning airlines” by Eno – both songs would lead me in new directions, both played in half an hour. The next time I listened was to hear the last few songs in his Festive Fifty – a concept I didn’t understand because he didn t explain it. But hearing “Blue Monday”, the dance mix of “This charming man” and “Song to the siren”… Two of these songs I’d heard in the charts but “Song to the siren” was astonishing, that voice was haunting and rich, the backing minimal and aching.

For some reason I didn’t take that as a hint that I should be listening regularly to Peel. Silly me. I became a dedicated listener from the summer of 84 onwards. It was a golden period, every night headphones on finger poised over the pause button. There’s an orange BASF tape of the fitst few Peels I heard – the Julian Cope session with “Sunspots” and “Me singing”, the first records by Yeah Yeah Noh and Terry and Gerry, “CREEP” by the Fall, the Microdisney session with “Horse overboard” and “464”, all alongside obscurities like “Sahara Elektrik” by Dissidenten and “NCR” by Ike Yard. All ended up on tape. There was one song whose chorus has echoed round my mind even though I don’t know much about it – I’m sure it was called “David in distress” and it sounded angular and had a chorus which had the line “And absence makes the heart grow fonder” before a guitar break.

By the close of ’84 I was listening to Peel every night and my Xmas list of records was heavily slanted to the music he was playing – “Treasure” by Cocteau Twins, “Step forward” by Portion Control, “Hatful of hollow” by the Smiths. The ’84 Festive Fifty made more sense to me as a regular listener and I was pleased to see some of my favourites in there – “Dirty” by Hard Corps, “Upside down” by the Jesus and Mary Chain, “The Saturday boy” by Billy Bragg (bloody hell how much did I identify with that song?). Did I vote? No.

1985 would see more discoveries through Peel – he was the only person to play “Smiling Monarchs” by Abercederians, a huge sounding record which always encourages air drumming from me, then there was “Motor city” by Age of Chance and Husker Du and James and the continuing development of Yeah Yeah Noh from spare post punk to psychedelic funsters. There were odd one offs and session tracks too – Paul Haig doing “Mystery train” springs to mind… The ’85 Festive Fifty was wonderful, I enjoyed almost every song on there. Into ’86, more wonderful sessions – Microdisney going pop with “Town to town”, Yeah Yeah Noh’s final session, a “Super Summer Session” series where Peel broadcast old sessions during the summer – hearing classic sessions from This Heat, Public Image Limited, Teardrop Explodes. But as time passed and ’86 became ’87 I drifted away from Peel’s shows. I didn’t like all the jangling stuff he was playing – I could not abide the Wedding Present at all back then, and when the ’87 Festive Fifty was half Smiths songs and half Wedding Present songs and what was that tuneless screeching called “Birthday” at number one? All this new stuff in the Melody Maker too… Rubbish! God, how wrong was I? Between the ages of 17 and 20 I was an unsufferable music snob, looking down on anyone whose taste disagreed with mine and that included Peel. I’m surprised I wasn’t punched in the face for some of the things I said down the Leadmill.

But I still listened in to Peel, not every night but from time to time. I heard him play “Feed me with your kiss” and I laughed at how distorted it was. I taped parts of the ’88 Festive Fifty and was intrigued enough to investigate My Bloody Valentine and “Take me! I’m yours” was the first Wedding Present song that I actually connected with (“But I still see you the day before I wash my hair” – yep, know that feeling). Back home in ’89 I could listen more often and that year’s Festive Fifty opened my ears to the Field Mice and the Telescopes and Pale Saints and Galaxie 500. So in 1990 I started listening more frequently – listening to the start of shoegazing and all the techno bleepery and one of the highpoints of the Fall’s career (the “Extricate” / “High tension line” / “White lightning” period). And in June I noticed a session by the Field Mice where he played two songs by them consecutively then two later consecutively and I’d not heard him do that before, and that piqued my interest enough to make me want to buy their records. One distinct memory is hearing him play “Dreams burn down” by Ride for the first time, so vivid a memory that I can remember it all – sitting at my computer typing a diary entry, then stopping typing and being utterly in awe of this song – the drums sounding like Valhalla, the peal of guitar notes, the wall of distortion and the words too. Then as it faded I wrote in my diary “Just heard the new Ride single on Peel – it’s immense, like Felt with distortion pedals”. That year’s Festive Fifty was full of classics – the top four… Perfect. Peel continued to play Sarah Records too, and related records – he played “Madly in love with 25 people” by the Bedflowers from the “Mind the gap” cassette. And he’d take the time to read out addresses, twice, or give you warning to get pen and paper. 1991 didn’t have a Festive Fifty – the ‘phantom 50’ it was called – and as time passed I slightly lost interest again, as I had in the late 80s. I would still listen from time to time – the ’94 Festive Fifty was the last one I taped and there were still some great discoveries in there but times were changing for me. I had a job now and a house and a girlfriend at last and you can’t be rude and spend two hours every night sitting next to your tape deck when you’ve got a girlfriend. Or I couldn’t anyway. At some point I had to ‘grow up’. You can’t spend your life listening to music. That’s a dream job.

And that’s the job Peel had. It was everybody’s dream – to play the music you love to other people. That’s what he did, from the sixties right through to his death ten years ago today. He was inclusive – he wasn’t forceful in his enthusiasm for the music, but he wanted you to investigate for yourself, to open your ears and your mind to the world of music. You might not like every song he would play but you never knew what was coming next, the next song could change your life. He was like an older brother who had the best record collection ever, pointing out new directions or old connections – when acid house broke in 1988 he played a track from Ike Yard’s “A fact a second” LP from ’82 making the point that people had been making minimal electronic music for years. Personally I don’t think I listened to many shows after 1996 – the last show I remember had him playing “Abba on the jukebox” by Trembling Blue Stars at 33 rpm until Bob Wratten started singing – but in those ten to twelve years of listening he opened me up to so much music that I would never have encountered otherwise, and I will always consider him to be a huge influence on my musical taste. I suppose I discovered his show at the right time – in my teenage years when I was more open and yet more opinionated about music.

For me the appeal of John Peel was his non-demonstrative yet enthusiastic attitude to playing records. Pretty much every DJ on Radio One at the time wanted to thrust the new Wham or Rick Astley single at you like it was the best thing in the world – and this style of DJ now populates commercial radio like a virus (“We’ve got the latest hot track from David Guetta next, this anthem is going to soundtrack your Saturday night”). Peel was the antithesis of this – he sounded like he was having a great time just playing the music he loved. His TV appearances were great too – on Top of the Pops he would quietly send up artists, on documentaries he would be sick as the 60ft Dolls took him over the Newport transporter bridge. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect and nobody is, but he is fondly remembered for everything he did – the bands he discovered and championed, the way his taste migrated over time like anyone else’s, and the quiet influence he had on so many artists and DJs over time.

John Peel – ten years gone but never forgotten.

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