Soundchecks Music Reviews

John Peel

The Peel Effect
JOHN PEEL

tribute by Alasdair Stuart

The first real piece of music that grabbed me by the lapels and refused to let go was Layla by Cream. That huge, sliding guitar riff that opens it sent shivers down my spine and I happily spent the next few years ploughing my way through my dad's extensive collection of classic blues and rock.

Then, as it always does, puberty hit and I found myself faced with a choice. That choice happened to be between manufactured pop clones, introspective longhaired mumbly rock or repeatedly jamming forks into my eyes until I turned twenty.

There was a third way.

That third way was to throw any conceivable clique out of the window and go with what I liked. If what I liked, if what I thought was good happened to range from Ice T's heavy metal side project through to Leftfield's first album then that was just the way it was. I was helped along in this respect by the legendary duo of Scrawn and Lard, alias: Marks Radcliffe and Riley, two Radio One DJs whose pioneering late night show introduced me to everything from some of my favourite films to the music that still reminds me how terrible my hair was then.

What I didn't know then, but do now is everything, from the musicians I listened to Radcliffe and Riley themselves were influenced by another man, a man who remained at the centre of not only music but how music was perceived for five decades; John Peel.

It's somewhat ironic then that a man who would come to typify the anti-establishment, left of centre viewpoint grew up in a staunchly middle class family and had a resolutely upper class education. John Robert Parker Ravenscroft was sent to the Shrewsbury School in Shropshire where his quiet, self-deprecating ways singled him out as a target for the worst kinds of bully. Peel talks about his time at school in great detail in his autobiography and the casual, offhand way in which he describes the horrific events that took place there is both touching and oddly chilling.

However, there was one positive side to his time there, the friendship he had with his housemaster R.J.H. Brooke. Peel's relationship with Brooke proved to one of the defining moments of his life and he openly described Brooke as "The greatest man I have ever met." When couched in those terms, this quote from one of Peel's school reports takes on a very different, far more affectionate tone:

Perhaps it's possible that John can form some sort of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for un-listenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays.

Escaping school, Peel was one of the last national servicemen and, from there, moved to America. He spent a year working as a cotton sales representative before landing his first radio job with WRRR, a Dallas station that never actually paid him for his work. Ironically, he had gone to America at the exact time that being English, and specifically, Liverpudlian was the height of cool. Beatlemania was in full swing and whilst every station had it's own 'English' DJ, Peel was the genuine article.

It was a trade that would also, purely by chance, place him in the front row of history. Peel was still working in the area in 1963 on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. That night he was able to get himself into the press conference where Lee Harvey Oswald was formally charged with the murder and can clearly be seen in the newsreel shot there. He described himself as looking like a tourist.

However, it was in San Bernadino where Peel's evolution as a DJ really began. Sixty miles east of Los Angeles during the time when The Doors and their compatriots were becoming famous, Peel fond work with KMEN. Here, he began abandoning any pretence of sticking to a commercial play-list, playing whatever he wanted and stamping his identity on the airwaves. This proved highly successful, right up until the point where the local sheriff took exception to the station's DJs and stance. Legend has it that Peel feared imprisonment, booked a ticket back to England using his middle names and returned home.

On returning to England, Peel found himself forced to deal with a law of a very different kind. An agreement between radio stations and the Musician's Union placed strict limitations on how much recorded music could be played during the day. In this way, the theory was that live musicians would never be out of work due to the need to fill the rest of the time.

This 'needle time' law was flouted by several pirate radio stations, operating from ships equipped with transmitters just off the English coast. Radio Caroline was perhaps the most famous of these but it was Radio London that Peel found himself working for. Here, at long last, he dropped the surname Ravenscroft (under advisement that working for a pirate radio station under his own name may not be a good plan) and began broadcasting under the name Peel.

For all Peel's efforts to escape his middle class upbringing there is something inescapably English and inescapably eccentric about his work for Radio London. Not only was he broadcasting as he put it from "the bowels of a rotten ship three miles out at sea" but he was using it as an opportunity to change how people perceived music radio. He revelled in the freedom this afforded him, throwing 'needle time' out of the window, reading articles from magazine such as OZ, poetry and would often play albums in their entirety. This was nothing short of revolutionary at the time and this all-encompassing fascination; this embracing of intelligent popular culture would be the same thing that, decades later would attract me to Radcliffe and Riley. Even his show's title, The Perfumed Garden, was both a two-fingered salute to the establishment and an acknowledgement of his education, referring to a startlingly pornographic book of the time.

The time of pirate radio was, relatively, short lived and in 1967 Peel was approached to become part of the BBC's planned new music station. John Andrews, Peel's producer had to fight long and hard for him to be given a shot as the management of the time regarded him as too much of an element of chaos. However, he was given a show (although his first contract was only for six weeks) with fellow Radio London alumni Pete Drummond called Top Gear. Top Gear would soon become Peel's first solo effort for the network and along with Andrews would be the place he began the legendary Peel Sessions. Even at this early stage, he attracted a staggering calibre of artist including David Bowie, Pink Floyd and the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band.

However Peel being Peel he wasn't content playing within someone else's rules. In 1968 he was asked to front a second show, Night Ride, which would be more in keeping with the style of The Perfumed Garden. To say the least, he didn't disappoint. Opening the first show with the deathless:

This is the first in a series of programmes on which you may hear just about anything.

He proceeded to push the boat out as far as it was possible to go. Standout moments included a cheerfully frank and open discussion of sexually transmitted diseases, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono playing a tape of their unborn child's heartbeat live on air. Handled by anyone else, Night Ride would have been self-indulgence at its worst but with Peel's genial, self-deprecating manner at its centre it succeeded admirably.

1969 saw a change as Bernie Andrews left Peel's show to be replaced by John Walters who would go on to become one of Peel's closest friends. It was also the year where, largely to get a friend recorded, Peel started his own record label. Once again, his eccentricity shone through not only in the choice of title but also in the artists he signed. For its three-year existence, Dandelion (named for his pet hamster) produced 27 albums by artists including Gene Vincent, Bridget St John, and former 'Goodie' Bill Oddie. Financed through CBS, Warner Brothers and Polydor the label's short existence included its only #1 hit, with The Lebanon, a fact Peel remained consistently proud of.

For many though, the definitive Peel years began with punk, and Peel's influence on the genre cannot be overstated, acting as one of the only mainstream DJs to play it on air. From The Ramones to the Sex Pistols, The Clash, to Siouxsie And The Banshees, Peel played the most important bands of the time. However, his one true punk love was Teenage Kicks by The Undertones. Years later, he would be given the original lyric sheet, framed as a birthday present by the lead singer of the band.

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s Peel's play-lists began taking in everything from surf guitar to nascent hip-hop and new romantics. In a decade that became infamous for it's endless legions of mass-produced pop (a lot of which Peel would introduce on his legendary Top Of The Pops appearances), Peel's show became the backbone of everything else. He was continually interested in new music and new ways of making music and in a decade that thrived on assembly line acts, that alone is laudable.

The fact that he clearly had so much fun doing it was merely a bonus. Peel's relaxed style brought out the best in his guests and often led to some surprises. Probably the best example of this took place when Peel happened to mention he was hungry on air. Some time later, a young man turned up at the Maida Vale studios with a curry and a copy of his demo tape.

His name was Billy Bragg. He was given a session on the spot.

However, two far darker events punctuated the 1980s for Peel, a lifelong fan of Liverpool FC. He and wife Sheila were present for the Heysel disaster, which disturbed both of them hugely, and Peel did not attending matches for several years after that. But it was his reaction to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 that had the deepest impact on his listeners. That night Peel opened the show with Aretha Franklin's version of You'll Never Walk Alone and burst into tears on air.

The 1990s opened under much happier circumstances with Peel surviving the decimation of the old guard by new Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister. He quickly became close to several of the new arrivals, most notably Steve Lamacq, Jo Whiley (who would become his partner in crime for several years of Glastonbury TV broadcasts) and Mary Ann Hobbes. His friendship with Hobbes in particular marked his transition to the next stage of his radio career. Against all odds, the loose cannon had become the cornerstone, the veteran that many of his colleagues would turn to for help or advice. This is best demonstrated by Hobbes' birthday present to him in 2004; a neon sign that said simply; 'Dream Dad'.

This elevation also resulted in Peel being approached to curate the Meltdown festival. Staged at the Royal Festival Hall it included a long list of Peel favourites and remains the only festival where a band (Gorky's Zygotic Mynci) had to wait to take the stage because England were in the process of losing their World Cup match with Argentina. It was also this year that Peel received his OBE and the next 10 years would be peppered with awards ranging from 'Broadcaster of the Year' to 'DJ of the Year' and an induction into the Radio Academy's Hall of Fame. With these successes and DJs like Hobbes, Lamacq and Radcliffe carrying on the Peel ethos, his place in musical history was assured.

Which of course, wasn't nearly enough. Peel continued to break new ground, working for the World Service, British Forces Broadcasting Service (where he worked for over 30 years), Radio 3 in the Netherlands, Radio Eins in Germany and BBC Radio 4.

His Radio 4 show, Home Truths was, by Peel's own request, focussed entirely on everyday people instead of celebrities. Over the years it dealt with stories ranging from the numerous different ways to keep beds warm to the deeply moving story of a Manchester street cleaner who returns stolen purses and wallets to their owners, with his own money inside them. This second story actually appeared on an edition broadcast after Peel's death and the show continues to go from strength to strength, embracing his belief that it remain about real people.

On 25th October 2004 Peel died of a heart attack whilst on a working holiday. He had remained a mainstay at Radio 1 but had found the move to 11pm increasingly difficult, a fact that only close friend Andy Kershaw was brave enough to state out loud in the flood of tributes. Regardless of these problems though, Peel had become that rarest of things in the music industry; a legend deserving of the word. His passion for music shone through in everything he did and as I write this, in a sizeable portion of the CD collection sitting across the room.

However, Peel's lasting legacy is surely that DJs like Hobbes, Lamacq, Kershaw, Whiley, Radcliffe and Lowe were and are able to play challenging, good music live on national radio. And as a result, that across the country people can continue to get their teenage kicks.


Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press