Monday, July 30, 2007

Respect For The Guv'nor

The end of next month would have seen the sixty eighth birthday of the legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel ... That is, if the groovy auld daddio hadn't been so ruddy inconsiderate as to have died three years ago in Peru. (Even more annoyingly, he died on yer actual Keith Telly Topping's birthday - thanks John, mate, that was class timing.)

'Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don't have any surface noise' John once famously noted. 'I said, "Listen, mate, life has surface noise."' Never a truer word spoken.
This blogger started listening to Peelie's evening shows on Radio 1 in the late 1970s when I would've been around fifteen or so. I, like many people, appreciated his dry, sarcastic Scouse wit and his deeply authoritative style of presentation, of course. But, along with a like-minded generation of teenage über-hooligans I suspect, what I/we most liked about John was the fact that this man played The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Siouxsie & Th Banshees and The Stranglers (and, let us not forget The Sex Pistols) on national radio when no other bugger within the BBC - or pretty much anywhere else for that matter - would touch them with a bargepole.
It was notable that even when such bands were in the charts, and thus play-listed, you could tell by the sheer disdain in, for example, Tony Blackburn's voice that he'd much sooner be playing The Dooleys instead of all this punky-punky nonsense that he was being forced to subject his housewife listeners to.

Remember, most people who bought punk records in 1977 and 1978 weren't nineteen, at art school and living within a few miles of the centre of London so they could pop into town and check out The Clash at The Roxy, The Damned at 100 Club or The Jam at Ronnie Scott's once a week. We weren't The Bromley Contingent. We were instead spotty, ugly fifteen year olds outsiders living on council estates in Newcastle, Birmingham, Cornwall, Glasgow, Manchester or Leeds. Our 'contingent', such as it was, consisted of the three or four other ugly, spotty fifteen year old outsiders in our area who liked vaguely the same sort of music and would hang around at the local youth club disco on a Friday night for two hours on the off-chance that they might play four records we liked and could pogo to. John Peel was our window into a world that Top Of The Pops virtually ignored and Noel Edmonds, Peter Powell and DLT had all elected not to get their hands dirty on. John Peel got his hands dirty. The BBC hated him for it but try as they might, he just wouldn't go away, and people kept on listening to his show. It had been the same a decade earlier when he was playing Tyrannosaurus Rex, Captain Beefhart, Fairport Convention and The Third Ear Band on The Perfumed Garden and Top Gear. They wanted rid of him then. He was given the job of co-presenting Top Of The Pops with Jimmy Savile once and forgot the name of Amen Corner. The producer allegedly told him afterwards 'I'll see you never work in television again.' Fourteen years later, he was back on the show. That was John Peel - he outlasted everyone. His occasional Top Of The Pops double act with his mate Kid Jensen were genuine comedy highlights from an era of television's presentation of pop music that, by and large, is best forgotten.
I followed Peelie's radio show through much of the next twenty five years - with occasional time outs. I'd usually have a few months off during the middle of the year but I'd always come back for The Festive Fifty each Christmas and then hang around through January, February and March to check out what was going down in Groovetown each winter. I got into post-punk, Goth, C-86, shambling, shoegazing, Madchester, Britpop, trance, techno and ragga all directly or indirectly through John Peel. Without him, I may never have heard The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, New Order, The Pixies, Happy Mondays, Pulp or Dreadzone - just as kids of a previous generation were introduced to Led Zeppelin, T-Rex, Lindisfarne, The Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Velvet Underground, Roxy Music and The Faces through him and his show.
He, along with Charlie Shaar Murray and Nick Kent, Tony and Julie, Weller and Strummer and Jerry Dammers taught me what it was to actually care about your music. Richie Manic might've thought he was 4REAL and carved it into his arm in a pointless gesture of self-aggrandisement. John Peel didn't need to do that. This was the man who played 'God Save The Queen' on the radio whilst the rest of the establishment tried to banned it, burn it or bury their own heads in the sand and pretend it didn't even exist. That, on it's own, guarantees Peelie a degree of immortality.

There was some stuff he played that I found a bit odd at first but then grew to really love over the years (particularly his championing of dub reggae). And then there was other stuff that I never really got a handle on (some of the weirder industrial sounds, grunge-core, death-metal, the more extreme rap and techno acts he featured). However, like many other listeners, I really admired the 'thirst for the new' that drove Peelie onwards to seek out weirder and more experimental sounds. And then to sometimes play them at the wrong speed! Who else remembers the night he said he was hungry on-air and - an hour later - Billy Bragg turned up with a mushroom biryani and a copy of his début LP which he insisted Peelie play a song from? There were frequent moments of comedy genius on Peel's show - his wit was truly dazzling; there were also moments of great profundity and emotion - like the Monday night after the Hillsborough disaster when he broke down in tears after playing a highly-charged version of 'You'll Never Walk Alone.'
The search for stranger and more obscure material wasn't, as some people have suggested a case of 'eclecticism for eclecticisms own sake', rather it was genuine need to seek out interesting and (most importantly) different sounds. He once said that he was less interested in how his beloved Liverpool played last week than how they'd play next week and with records, you sensed it was the same. It was simply important that Mister Peel existed. Without him the 1980s, for instance, would have even worse than they actually were.

This blogger consider it a privilege that I once - very briefly - met the man who got to play Half Man Half Biscuit and The Fall to the great unwashed and got paid for it. And he was lovely - I was so relieved that meeting one of my heroes (albeit for all of, like, ninety seconds) didn't diminish my respect and admiration for him one iota. It was at Glastonbury in the mid-1990s - I passed him as he was walking towards the Pyramid stage to see the Prodigy and I was heading for the main stage to watch Oasis. I spotted him as we passed and said 'I don't think Liverpool's playing up there today, John' indicating with a thumb towards the muddy field he was making for and from which I'd just come. That raised a bit of a smile on that so familiar face.
Then, I got all serious and introspective. 'I'm thirty two John, and I'd never have made it without you and your show' I said. That comment seems - from a distance of more than ten years - to be pretentious in the extreme although, at the time, I was perfectly sincere in what I said. Thankfully, he took it in the spirit in which it was given and shook my hand and we chatted for minute or so about when he was going to have HMHB back in for a session (it was, as it turned out, about eight weeks later).

Class act, Mister Peel. Proper class act. We shall not see his like again. His - partial - autobiography, Margrave Of The Marshes, was of course the very first book I ever reviewed on radio. I'll say now what I said then - every home should have one.

The official John Peel website, incidentally, can be found here. Check it out daily, it's a place of joy and many memories.

I recently got quite a large batch of old Peel shows - or parts of shows - on MP3 covering the period from the late 1960s when he was still doing Top Gear right up to his final BBC show in 2004 (they're of hugely variable audio quality, admittedly - some of them are great but many are only just about listenable - but, then again, that's not really the point, is it?). I've still a load of my own recordings from the early and mid-80s on tape that, one day when I work out how to do it properly, I'll try to convert to media files. I spent most of last night listening to the two hour Steve Lamacq tribute show that went out on the night John died and being, genuinely, moved by many of the tributes that listeners sent in about him. Because, in many ways, they were mirroring my own life.
Their story was also my story - about how this strange contradiction of a man (a gentle, hippie soul and well-bred country gentleman who sought out the company of football hooligans and punk rockers; the vegetarian cyclist who loved sports cars; the diffident ingénu with a truly devastatingly acerbic turn of phrase; the fanatical supporter of urban music who lived an idyllic life in a cottage in rural Suffolk with his wife and children) changed my life. He did it by opening my eyes of a wider world than I ever thought possible. I was also delighted to get hold of the entire 1987 Peeling Back The Years radio series that John did with John Walters which I remember with extreme fondness from the first time it was broadcast. It showed the incredible depth and range of influences that shaped the man and his love of music. Danny Baker once said that our generation (and I think he was including me in that) were the first that were cooler than our children. Good guy, Danny, but he's wrong there - John Peel was easily old enough to be my father and he was so much cooler than me.
Anyway, it's been a while since we've had a current playlist on here so, here's one covering the last month or so (it's not without more than a little irony that a hell of a lot of these records I probably first heard on Peelie's show - many of them, I know for certain I did).

Rest easy, big fellah - the music you championed will never go away no matter how much they would like it to.

Current Listening:
Anubian Lights - Soul Herder
The Blow Monkeys - Digging Your Scene
Boards Of Canada- Aquarius
The Brilliant Corners - Brian Rix
Laura Cantrell - Indoor Fireworks
Cocteau Twins - Wax & Wane
Lloyd Cole - Lost Weekend
Julian Cope - Rite Bastard
The Cramps - Faster Pussycat (Kill, Kill)
Cuban Boys - Flossie's Alarming Clock
Curve - Ten Little Girls
Dalek I Love You - Horrorscope
Delerium - Angelicus
The Delgados - Mr Blue Sky
The Dentists - I Had An Excellent Dream
The Dentists - Strawberries Growing In My Garden (And It's Wintertime)
Doves - Willow's Song
Dream Academy - Life In A Northern Town
Echo & the Bunnymen - Over The Wall
The Fall - Fantastic Life
The Fall - Container Drivers
The Fall - Cruiser's Creek
The Fall - Cab It Up!
Fall Out Boy - Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of this Song So we Couldn't Get Sued
Flatmates - I Could Be In Heaven
14 Iced Bears - Come Get Me
The French Impressionists - Castles In The Air
Furniture - Brilliant Mind
Grinderswitch - Pickin' The Blues
Hefner - Gabriel In The Airport
House Of Love - Happy
House Of Love - The Beatles & The Stones
I, Ludicrous - Preposterous Tales
Indeep - Last Night A DJ Saved my Life
The Jam - Pop Art Poems
james - Walking The Ghost
Robert Johnson - Hell Hound On My Tail
Sophie & Peter Johnson - Satellite/Television
Grace Jones - Slave To The Rhythm
Josef K - Sorry for Laughing
Kraftwerk - Autobahn
Laugh - Paul McCartney
The Loft - Up The Hill & Down The Slopes
Mary Lou Lord - Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I'm Straight)
McCarthy - Should The Bible Be Banned?
Misty in Roots - Mankind
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - Genetic Engineering
Northside - Shall We Take A Trip?
P.I.L - first Peel session (December 1979, especially the manic nine minute version Careering)
Pale Saints - Sight Of You
The Passions - I'm In Love With A German Film Star
The Pastels - Truck, Train, Tractor
Pooh Sticks - On Tape
Pooh Sticks - I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well
The Pretenders - Talk Of The Town
R.E.M. - Revolution
R.E.M. - First We Take Manhatten
Serious Drinking - Love On The Terraces
Serious Drinking - 1-2 XU/Bobby Moore Was Innocent (John Peel session version)
Serious Drinking - Spirit of '66
Siouxsie & the Banchees - Melt
The Specials - Gangsters
SPK - Metal Dance (Razormaid Mix)
Stranglers - Always the Sun
Stump - Charlton Heston
Teardrop Explodes - first Peel session (October 1980, especially the beautiful version of Thief Of Baghdad)
That Petrol Emotion - Chemicrazy
Theatre Of Hate - Do You Believe In The Westworld
The Times - I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape
Tindersticks - City Sickness
Turin Brakes - Painkiller
Yello - Oh Yeah
Zion Train - Venceremos
The Zutons - Pressure Point

I am currently - desperately - trying to find the following on CD (my MP3 player is incomplete without 'em!):

The Farmers Boys - I Think I Need Help
Hurrah - Sweet Sanity (and If Love Could Kill)
That Petrol Emotion - Genius Move
Blue Aeroplanes - Sweet Jane
Barmy Army - Glory! Glory! (Sharp as a Needle)
Fatima Mansions - Blues For Ceaucescu.

4 comments:

deborah said...

Thanks for a nice tribute to a great hero . I had visitors staying when I heard the news that he'd died. I don't think they quite understood why their wake up call the next morning was "Teenage Kicks" at full volume on the stereo . A few days later I heard that song again in the Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds when they broadcast his funeral service.

Great bloke, sadly missed

Keith Topping said...

He was the virry guv'nor himsen. Listening to these old shows is quite an emotional experience, actually!

deborah said...

Yep

I miss Home Front too

I loved that show

domestic empire said...

"The official John Peel website, incidentally, can be found at
http://johnpeeleveryday.blogspot.com/
Check it out daily, it's a place of joy and many memories."


Thank you for the promotion in status there Keith, though in the spirit of fair play I must stress that it's just a humble little blog that acts as a gateway to the many great Peel sites out there.

"Listening to these old shows is quite an emotional experience, actually!"

It took me well over a year before I was able to listen again. Such was, and indeed still remains, the great void in one's life.

But we were lucky to have know him at all.