With tomorrow marking ten years since the day John Peel was so cruelly taken from us, Dandelion Radio’s Kevin Robinson gives us this tribute to the man who single handedly has done more for up and coming bands than the rest of the world’s DJs put together.
I DJ in my kitchen these days. Once a month the remnants of an evening meal are pushed aside and an ever increasing pile of new releases are placed precariously on the dining table. Then, usually in the early hours when it’s quietest, I record a programme for Dandelion Radio. Such was his influence, the man responsible for me embarking on this nocturnal pursuit has now been dead for a decade. It was during a lunch break in October 2004 as I was browsing in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street that the instore radio station announced that John Peel had suffered a heart attack and died. I remember losing my grip on a CD, it subsequently crashing to the floor, and then walking back to the office stunned. I worked just down the road from Radio 1 and had seen him, as I often would, just weeks previously on a record shopping expedition in Soho where he was speaking to someone behind the counter with great enthusiasm about one-man band Jawbone.
I’d prefer you to believe I spent the 80’s huddled under a duvet with headphones listening to the first Smiths session by torchlight, battling to decipher the sounds through the intrusive Medium Wave interference. The disappointing reality is that my introduction to Peel was through his role as a slightly sinister-looking, occasional Top Of The Pops presenter who identified himself as “the one who comes on your radio late at night and plays lots of records by sulky Belgians.” In this bizarre environment he would take the piss brilliantly when forced to introduce the banal, working particularly well when paired with his nightime radio cohorts, David Jensen (his “Rhythm Pal” with whom he often appeared in extravagant costume) and Janice Long.
“I’ll have you know that I had him on my bedroom wall,” enthused Long after 70’s heart-throb David Cassidy once performed.
“That’s very athletic of you Janice,” was Peel’s swift retort.
As one particularly gruelling live episode reached its climax with the inexorable Shakin’ Stevens announced as the nation’s best seller, Peel smirked menacingly into the camera.
“Next week’s Top Of The Pops will be presented by a couple of more retards holding their stomachs in.”
The daytime output of Radio 1 in the early 90’s was an insurmountable wall of mediocrity, yet Peel was often integrated into its family-friendly schedule, just as he would participate in the so-called “Fun” Days back when the DJ’s would descend on an unsuspecting town dressed in matching bomber jackets, and the enforced joviality could potentially result in DLT filling someone’s hotel bath with jam. John claimed his favourite of these was the infamous Mallory Park motor racing circuit incident, which resulted in thousands of miniature tartan-clad Bay City Rollers fans wading across a weed-filled lagoon to reach their idols, whilst the sound of screaming, helicopters and car noise filled the air and Tony Blackburn was ferried around on a speed boat piloted by a Womble.
For one glorious week during Easter 1993 though, John Peel was Jakki Brambles. Standing in on her lunchtime show, he was permitted to mix the playlist with his own selections. So, slotted in between the Whitney Houstons and Gloria Estefans, Peel proceeded to culturally enrich the daytime listener with blasts of Underground Resistance, The Fall and Diblo Dibala. Of course, it was exactly how radio should sound, particularly blasting out through the office in which I performed meaningless office administration as part of a civil service job that was gradually destroying my soul. The randomness of this kind of programme was thrilling, except my colleagues didn’t quite agree, and the dial was promptly switched. Given the torrent of hate faxes which flooded in from distressed housewives and factory workers, the nation, it seemed, had done the same.
Throughout the 90’s when, despite the Smashie and Niceys being aggressively banished from the station, Peel’s shows were being shunted precariously around the weekend schedule, it’s fair to say that he not only widened my musical spectrum with his unwavering support for Stereolab, Jacob’s Mouse, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Man Or Astro Man?, Ivor Cutler, Dreadzone and Truman’s Water, but also the way in which I listened to music. From Ranking Trevor to Roy Orbison, The Ragga Twins to Roxanne Shanté, Dick Dale to DJ Rupture, Viv Stanshall to Venetian Snares, he was to provide millions with an education that money couldn’t buy. He’d follow PJ Harvey, who had released the primitive-sounding, blues influenced Rid Of Me, with a track from Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, in much the same way as he’d happily dig out his Gene Vincent and Lonnie Donegan 45’s out whenever The White Stripes would visit. It was a “if you liked that, you might like this” philosophy unavailable elsewhere.
He was compere at the first Reading Festival I attended, and my friends were slightly alarmed to find him halt proceedings on the Saturday afternoon to read out the football results.
“Who’s your favourite then, Kylie or Jason?” he asked over the mic, cueing up their nauseating Christmas single Especially For You in between grunge bands. “Which bastard said Jason?”
However, one of my fondest memories was of seeing him was a family outing to a Babes In Toyland gig in Cambridge. He asked the people at the merchandise stand if he could borrow a stool, upon which was then placed the youngest of his excitable offspring so she could get a better view of the action.
During his final years he resumed gigging, primarily at dance events such as Tribal Gathering, Sónar and Fabric; incorporating into his sets his own interpretation of what constituted dance music, which could potentially include anything from some soukous to Status Quo.
But it was for those radio shows for which he will, quite rightly, be forever revered. That brilliantly insane outpouring of black metal, Drum & Bass, calypso, folk, old 78’s, happy hardcore, grindcore, Melt Banana, Xmal Deutschland, not to mention the bits he ballsed up.
John would never compromise or follow trends. He was happy to sacrifice the hostile and snobbish elements of his listenership when he started playing punk, take flack for playing reggae, and ignore stern warnings from bosses for playing hip-hop (“the music of black criminals”). Indeed, in Margrave Of The Marshes, Sheila recalled “the time when a box of turds arrived for John… from a listener outraged that his ears had been besmirched by black music.” And sure, he loved Pulp and Elastica, but if you tuned in to his shows at the height of Britpop you were more likely to hear Richie Hawtin or Xol Dog 400 than Blur or Oasis.
Never complacent, even at 65, he attracted a higher percentage of young listeners than any other programme on the network. It’s his intimate yet fearless style of broadcasting that is still missed after ten years. Of course, no single broadcaster will ever replace John, and most of us at Dandelion can barely find the time to scratch at the surface, compared to the wealth of material which he uncovered. But as I sit in the kitchen late at night talking into a mic and surrounded with new music, it’s the hope that someone somewhere might be lying awake, listening intently and discovering something extraordinary that makes it all worthwhile.