Now, I’m not claiming to be his best friend or that I had anything but minimal impact on his life; but there is little doubt that John Peel had a major impact on mine, twenty-odd years ago. This is a claim that many have made, and, I imagine, many with good reason too: but I am not talking about a cultural impact, as a result of the new music that he brought to my attention I am talking about a somehow more concrete impact (although I appreciate that the cultural impact has a significance all of its own).
The solid concrete impact that I am referring to is his championing of my tiny and, truth be told, insignificant, record label Ron Johnson Records and the fact, that without his support, those six or so years of indie industriousness would never have been the same, or, possibly/probably, even possible.
I met John many times and he seemed to be always prepared to share his heavily oversubscribed time with me: I don’t know why. We discovered on one of our first meetings that we shared the same birthday (same day, different year), and that our interests were broadly similar. We tended not to talk about Ron Johnson stuff, but to chat about this and that. I used to speak with him when he was in the BBC offices about sessions and whatnot and sometimes when he was on air, doing a live show, we’d chat while the tunes were playing. He used to tell me what he thought was worth checking out in the dub scene, which we were both into.
The only Ron Johnson band who never had a JP session (apart from the Sewer Zombies, who never really fitted the Ron Johnson “mould” if you could describe such bands as Big Flame, A Witness, Jackdaw With Crowbar and The Shrubs as coming from anything as mass-produced as a mould) was my own band, Splat! Peely played our records a few times and said he liked them, but I never quite had the brass neck to ask him for a session outright: and it never happened. But once I’d signed Big Flame who were real favourites of his, along with A Witness the relationship was cemented. When we ran a small national tour of Ron Johnson bands, John agreed to do a DJ slot at a couple of the shows.
Nominally his fee was a grand, as far as I remember. The details have faded a little with time (we’re talking 86/87 here), but what I do remember clearly was that he worked out in his own mind that the 500 or so punters paying £2.50 a time (or whatever it was) was barely covering his fee: so when we dutifully handed over a wodge of dog-eared notes he handed them straight back and both parties tried not too be too embarrassed.
Over the years we spent time together in various situations: I visited Germany with him when he drove down to Cologne to do his German radio show and meet up with his good friend Lothar; we hung around some wine bar near Broadcasting House whenever I was in town “promoting” new releases and he had the time; and I went up to his house in Cambridgeshire a couple of times to Nan True’s Hole (which I believe is a song by Matching Mole). Although there has probably never been, before or since, such a single influential figure in the UK music scene as John Peel, I never felt over-awed or uncomfortable in his presence certainly there were times when he was less chatty than others, and he didn’t like everyone who wanted him to like them: but at the end of the day he was just a normal bloke who was, pretty much, an (obsessive) fan of music, who loved what he was doing and also viewed it as a personal responsibility – so those black sacks full of demo tapes that he’d listen to whilst driving to Germany and wherever were always nagging at him to be heard just in case in there somewhere was the next Marc Bolan, the next Teenage Kicks or the next Gangsters by The Special AKA or even, the next Big Flame.
The cynical among us might say that John’s very catholic tastes gave license to too many hopeful bands and flooded the market with thousands of releases that were never going to be sustainable, and that, eventually the indie scene of the 80s/90s imploded because there were too many small labels teetering on the brink of survival or destruction: but that’s business talk and I don’t think John was interested in business, he was interested in sound.