The man who listened

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 10 November, 2004 - 9:04

Matt Cooper applauds the legacy of JOHN PEEL

John Peel’s death at 65 on 25 October doesn’t mark an end of an era in at Radio One — Peel always was an outsider at Radio One, and the wonder is that the people in suits who run the BBC allowed such a maverick, motivated by love of music, not love of his own celebrity, to grace the airwaves for so long. To say that with Peel Radio One loses its last shred of credibility ignores Peel’s long time status as its only shred of credibility.

Peel’s first British radio programme, broadcast in 1967 for the pirate station Radio London, was called the “Perfumed Garden”. Despite the hippyish pretension of its name, this title summed up much of what was important about his broadcasting. To listen to his radio shows was to enter an esoteric and special world of someone who lived and breathed the music that he played. He remained all his life a fan of the music; many of the bands that he first gave national exposure were shocked when they discovered he was nervous of meeting them. He was, in has own eyes, merely a bloke on the radio who tried to play records at the right speed.

That is perhaps what was central to the Peel approach. He was above all a man who tirelessly listened, to the thousands of demo tapes that he was sent, to the countless new records. His great fear was that he would miss something new and good. And although his shows also continued to replay much that was old and often half forgotten, it was his compulsive desire for what was new that drove him.

Peel was the antithesis of the music industry. Instead he had a belief that music was something democratic, that there were many talented bands and musicians and an audience who would appreciate them. Briefly, between 1969 and 1972, he ran his own record label,
Dandelion, not as a money maker (which it never was) but as a nursery for bands he believed should have record deals but could not get them.

In many ways this was a template for the do-it-yourself ethos that came with punk in 1976. Almost overnight Peel’s programme was transformed, by the early punk records from the Ramones and the Damned. Punk was not caused by Peel, nor was the welter of bands who believed that they should have as much right (if not more) to express themselves through music as Pink Floyd. But he gave punk music a national radio voice. More importantly, he added to its eclecticism. For a long time, he had been the only national radio DJ to play reggae. The coming of punk did not mean that he stopped playing blues, gospel, folk music or even American country music.

Although the heyday of punk was brief, it transformed Peel’s musical outlook forever. As anyone has heard his “poetic” readings on early T-Rex albums will know, he was capable of some pretension. Punk, as a sensibility, swept that away. He sought out music of honesty and directness, not artifice or illusion. To listen to his shows was an eclectic musical trip of many musical styles, but all were linked by being honest attempts to communicate.

His show was the only place to hear hip hop in the early 80s when it had only just moved beyond being street music; it was the first place where energetic and completely unaffected African pop could be heard before anyone had invented the marketing term “world music”; where in the late eighties wan youth with a bit of technology who produced the first techno records in their bedrooms first found an audience. The list could go on, but of course it no longer will.

The worrying thing is not so much that Peel is irreplaceable, but that he will not be replaced. Radio One clearly already did not know what to do with him, and had started shunting him off deeper into the night. His longstanding 10pm to midnight slot had already been moved back to 11pm to 1am.

Who will play unsuspecting and impressionable youngsters gospel and southern soul now?

Who will seek out the new, whether it fits into a niche or not?

Who will blithely carry on playing good music, whether the music industry are pushing it or not?

I fear the answer is: no-one.

For many years John Peel was the heart of a heartless radio station, the soul of a soulless format. Now Radio One has not even that.

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