FEATURE: The King of the Tastemakers: Remembering John Peel at Eighty



The King of the Tastemakers


IN THIS PHOTO: John Peel/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Remembering John Peel at Eighty


YESTERDAY was the birthday of…


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

the late, great John Peel and, when thinking about him, there are several things I wanted to cover. It is heartbreaking to think he is not with us – Peel died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of sixty-five. I wonder why John Peel was never knighted. Maybe he would have considered it wrong or that it lacked cool but, posthumously, it would have been a suitable and much-deserved honour. I do feel like people overlook the legacy and importance of John Peel. Those of us, like me, who have found countless artists and songs thanks to him owe him a huge debt. There is a new generation that is not quite aware of what Peel was about and why he is the greatest tastemaker ever; one of the finest broadcasters we have ever seen. The world was rocked when Peel died but, in many ways, he lives on. Great broadcasters such as Mary Anne Hobbs – and all those at stations like BBC Radio 6 Music – are carrying on his great work. She is someone always scouring for great new artists and passionate when it comes to bringing the listener the best and most original music. To me, even though there are wonderful broadcasters such as Hobbs, I think Peel was unique. You can listen to John Peel’s Desert Island Discs and hear the man talk about the songs that mean the most to him.

I think, in a time when streaming services are curating playlists and guiding our tastes, we need to remember great men like Peel. Prior to Spotify and YouTube, he was bringing us all these great artists; having them in session and making music come alive. Not only were his Peel Sessions the stuff of legends, but the eclectic nature of Peel’s shows was astounding! I discovered The White Stripes through Peel – a duo I came to lionise and saw in concert back in 2005. One can imagine Peel walking into work and finding a stack of records and demos from artists who were hoping for a spin. I have heard tales of artists dropping stuff off to the BBC and Peel playing them on his show. Of course, the process is a little more business-like these days but there is something romantic about an artist dropping a new single off at reception and it finding its way to someone like Peel. Maybe I am being nostalgic, but I do miss his shows and the gravitas he brought. Warm and funny, plain-speaking and hugely popular, we will never see anyone like him again. Following his death in 2005, a lot of journalists, broadcasters and writers published articles about Peel; how he changed their life and why his legacy will remain forever. This article from broadcaster Adam Walton from 2011 mirrors what so many people think when we remember Peel:

“…But I miss him now more than ever, because I think that an authoritative, knowledgeable, passionate and prominent voice has never been needed more. Every time The X Factor dupes some poor kid into thinking that talent and expression is all about further watering down the bum gruel of a claustrophobically narrow pop market, I wish John was here to show them another way.

I miss most the natural, enthusiastic eclecticism he brought to music. It was all music to John. I don't imagine he thought in terms of genres. I don't know for sure. I'm just extrapolating on the basis of the variety in his shows. It's an inspirational template - well, more accurately, lack of a template - that influences me every day of my working life.

I think of John every single Sunday. I think of him as I do my absolute best to listen to every track that has been sent my way. The stories I have read and heard of him falling asleep at his desk, a carrier bag of demos at his side, as he sought another moment of wonder or surprise for his audience, keeps me going. That appeared to be the common courtesy he extended to any band good enough to send him music. I try to do the same.

But I feel a little uncomfortable writing about me in terms of him. He is my broadcasting god, of that there is no doubt. However I know I'm not fit to lick his boots. It won't stop me trying.

Of course, John's legacy spreads much further and wider than the dark corner of Radio Wales that I love to inhabit. There are stages at festivals named after him. His name is invoked whenever someone wants to bring attention to new music. I'm not sure what a man who adored the complex opaqueness of The Fall or Captain Beefheart would have made of the easy listening, haircut indie that is positioned in the glow of his kudos. Yes, very rich from a man who is, in essence, doing the same in print form. This is, after all, one long missive screaming: think of ME in the same terms as the late, great John Peel.

 IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes were championed by John Peel; he helped make their name in the U.K./PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

That isn't my motivation.

He was my motivation.

I think the finest evocation of his legacy is 6 Music. Okay, it's more sanitised and 'branded' than Peel ever was. Don't get me wrong: I love 6 Music. I'd eat one of my own limbs in a moment for a gig on that station (right leg, if you were wondering). I also love Huw Stephens' Radio 1 show. And I love Rob Da Bank. But I'm rarely surprised listening to music radio now, in the way that I was at least once in every Peel show. Happy hardcore bouncing into Bolt Thrower into gypsy folk into, of course, The Fall (or Datblygu, Melys, Yr Anhrefn et al). You cannot program that random excellence”.

Of course, John Peel has a stage named after him at Glastonbury - and it provides a crucial platform for rising artists to perform to one of the most passionate group of music lovers in the country. Peel’s radio career spanned decades, so we all have different memories and reasons to thank Peel. From championed artists such as David Bowie and The White Stripes to playing the hottest underground tunes of the day, John Peel is a titan. I am going to wrap things up soon but, before I do, I want to bring in another article.

In 2015, David Cavanagh wrote a wonderfully personal, illuminating and deep article about Peel and how he touched his life…and that of so many others:

Oldfield. Led Zep. John Lydon. High Contrast. All four had been championed early in their careers by John Peel. Drum’n’bass DJ High Contrast, who assembled the soundtrack to the athletes’ parade, had appeared on The John Peel Show with his very first single, released on a small south London label in 2001. As for Oldfield, his multimillion-selling Tubular Bells franchise might have died at birth, had it not been for Peel’s enthusiastic support in 1973. He called it the best album he’d heard since Sgt Pepper and the ball started rolling.

The list continued. Happy Mondays. The Specials. Pink Floyd. New Order. The common factor was Peel. Pink Floyd were virtually the house band on his progressive rock show, Top Gear, in the late 1960s. New Order, emerging hesitantly from the ashes of Joy Division, have admitted they owe their existence to Peel. David Bowie. Frankie Goes to HollywoodOrchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. All brought to Radio 1 – and to public attention – by Peel. For Bowie, this meant valuable airplay on Top Gear in 1967–68 at a time when all he had to show for his efforts was a flop single about gnomes. For Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it meant an invitation to perform onstage – in their bondage gear and G-strings – when Peel’s travelling DJ roadshow entertained students at North Cheshire College in Warrington on a December night in 1982. “Relax” was still a year away.

Peel’s influence on those generations of listeners – students, workers, dropouts, benefit claimants, even criminals detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure – is incalculable. Talk to them today and they would probably say he represented an alternative to the bland confections dominating the commercial world. He did more than anyone in the British media, I would argue, to get a nation of young minds interested in the idea of mistrusting the mainstream and investigating the unfamiliar. While Radio 1’s daytime DJs focused on around 3% of the annual recorded output – a frothy blend of Top 40 hits and oldies – Peel’s domain was the other 97%. It was a daunting remit, and much of his research was unseen and unpaid”.

There is no way of telling just how many people have been inspired by Peel, but you can hear his spirit and passion right across music today. From journalists like me to D.J.s and label owners; curators and writers around the world, we all have John Peel to thank for bringing scores of artists our way! Yesterday would have been his eightieth birthday and, if he were still with us, I can imagine he’d still be rocking Glastonbury and would still have his own show. Maybe he would not be working with the BBC, but I can picture an elder Peel working from home, still working from vinyl and old-school formats. Although he is departed, his legacy remains and so many people have got into radio because of him. I have been enriched and educated by John Peel and, because of that, I am sending…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A salute his way.