23 November 2005

Margrave of the Marshes.

I've got no particular reason to write about John Peel at this time other than perhaps that his partial autobiography is in the shops at the moment and I am currently reading it.

Lots of words have been written about all the artists he helped make famous and also lots of interesting stuff about the millions of late night 'under the cover' teenage listeners to his programmes that span generations. All very good, but along with the touching, fawning tributes on radio 1, which have become tiresome, all of those stories are old hat.

What I want to say about him, which I don't think any of the tributes have really mentioned is that, what made John important, was all the artists he played that never made it.

That for me was the fun of the show. No band more fittingly sums this up than the Fall. I know they have been quite successful in their own niche market, but such a band were unlikely ever to become truly mainstream, and that is where Peel fitted in. Playing all the music that no other DJ would ever play. In this respect his unique power base was changing and Peel's show was beginning to become irrelevant, as digital stations and the internet increasingly replaced Peel's importance of being the lone true alternative voice within mainstream radio. However what these elements didn't replace was his humourous style of show and the sheer randomness in the order of and diversity of the music he played which had that BBC Reithian educational value of opening minds to new musical genres.

Thinking of the range of music Peel covered, the difference in musical style between Elvis's early more radical tracks and Stump (an eighties indie band), George Formby and David Gedge, was never really that great anyway. This is why in a way, even when he was playing Extreme Noise Terror, Kanda Bongo Man or Calvin Party, Peel was being consistent in his musical taste.

Another point I want to make about Peel is that his true genious is that, contrary to the mass of opinion, that he would actually have been fairly easy to replace as a DJ. There are millions of his fans out there, that could do his job. Because all you had to do, was play all the stuff no other DJ is touching. Ignore record labels and musical styles and search through demos to find stuff you genuinely think is original and you like the sound of, that was the simplicity of his formula.

Peel himself once said something like; 'all DJs are parasitic clowns living off the back of the music they play'. This is absolutely spot on, because when it comes down to it, Peel was fairly talentless. The only talent he had was his honesty and open mindedness and maybe his dry self deprecating humour. Maybe these are the qualities that make him difficult to replace, not the actual DJing itself.


  1. because when it comes down to it, Peel was fairly talentless

    Neil (aka the "John Peel of politics"), I have nothing but admiration for making a comment that will possibly decimate the goodwill you recently built up with the volte face on ID cards. I can't be bothered to list the bands which were hugely successful after Peel supported them (not just by playing the odd demo).

    The range of music he played was small, all he had to do was play the music no other DJ would touch and any of his fans could do his job? I can only assume you rarely listened to his show, and your knowledge of his earlier career in particular is pretty poor.

    Nevertheless - nothing but admiration.

  2. I didn't mean the article to suggest that the range of music he played was small, just that there was a thread and logic to what he played and I can see similarities in the type of music he liked in the 1950s and later stuff.

    I think in essence, the music Peel played could have been played by anybody. That is what I meant when I said he didn't have any specific talent.

    If he did have a talent it was in playing the stuff that nobody else would play and of course his humour and style.

    I think its irrelevant to list the bands that became popular that were first played by Peel. As Peel pointed out himself, probably 95% of the stuff he championed never made it. By pure chance he was bound to 'find' some bands.

    Where Peel was important was where he brought bands to the attention of the mainstream music industry, only then could they cross over into popularity.

    Like many people, I used to listen to Peel religiously from about 1983-1991 and then sporadically thereafter but started listening more intently again from 2001. My knowledge of what he played before 1983 comes from reading books about him and from the records he played from his archives on the show.

    I don't mean to downplay the importance of Peel in introducing me to all types of music, his open-mindedness was his biggest talent. I wasn't trying to knock the bloke by this post, just pointing out we shouldn't go over the top, by saying he was irreplaceable as a DJ. That is utter bollocks and in his self deprecating way Peel might just agree with me, I think. Peel would love it, to think there were people out there saying how talentless he actually was. In a way it was he talentless that made him so special. He changed my life.

  3. Hmm Interesting - I reckon you might be right about the lack of what people traditionally look for and term "talent" - but it was Peely himself and not just the music that attracted me to the programme (and later to his radio 4 programmes).

    In fact I often hated the music, but he made up for it - in the end it's a question of semantics whether that was talent or simply that I found both the style and content of his programmes attractive.

    I'm reading the book too, very much enjoying it, and trying to imagine the sound of his voice reading it out loud.

    I still think your claim to be the John Peel of politics is a bit tasteless, but maybe I'm just being too precious about it.

    By the way, Stump are chronicled on a website done by one of the founder members who also writes a blog


  4. I think you might be right that Peel would've liked your comment. It's partly why I picked it out. I also guessed you would've actually been a regular listener...

    I agree the hype around him is over the top - not because he wasn't a great DJ, but becasue I can't imagine anything more un-Peel than a "John Peel Day", a "John Peel Tribute Album" and single. The joy of listening to him was when he introduced an old classic it was pretty certain that you'd never heard it before. Unlike pretty much every other DJ he never got nostalgic, never lived off past glories.

    Unfortunately - and this is the most despicable thing relating to him at the moment - the BBC didn't share the same view. During his life they did their utmost to persuade him to leave (no doubt to make way for more Chris Moyles types) without ever explicitly asking him to, because, of course, they felt they couldn't be seen to be getting rid of part of their nostalgic heritage.

    To the BBC, Peel was a dilapidated old listed building sitting in the way of putting up a brand spanking new retail park.

    Now he's gone they claim him as their own - a sign of what's great about the Beeb - in a creepy, sentimental schmaltz-fest. I can barely think of a lesser tribute to him.

  5. Paul: I think you are being a bit hard on Radio 1 and the BBC. While they definitely messed him about, there were times when they gave him unprecedented access to the airwaves.

    Remember Johnny Beerling putting him on at lunchtime for a few weeks in the early nineties. Ratings plummeted but what an experience to see my local chip shop assistant scrambling for the dial to change channels while Boltthrower, Sonic Youth or some mbira music from Zimbabwe were screaming out of his radio at 1pm. Very brave of Radio 1.

    Then remember he had his 10-midnight spot for well on 15 years and also 8.30-10pm slot four nights a week for a few years until Peel asked for a change himself and they put him back to 10-midnight. It was only in the last few years they shoved him to the 11-1am slot.

    We also have to remember that no other radio station would have ever given a DJ the kind of leeway that Peel was getting.

    It's a shame they haven't even tried to replace Peel, (I could have had a go). I must admit I've rarely listened to the 3 DJs/One World programmes they have replaced him with. Although I did catch a bit of a Monday night the other week that seemed to be playing some cool indie stuff.

    I've moved on to listening to Tom Robinson on BBC6 now, but I only listen sporadically to music radio, Radios 4/5 are my thing now. A definite sign of my age, I think.

    Urko: "I still think your claim to be the John Peel of politics is a bit tasteless, but maybe I'm just being too precious about it."

    Well I didn't mean it to be. I'm sure if I ever got behind the radio mike, I'd realise just how good Peel was. I suppose his humour and style were talent, I just keep remembering him playing stuff at the wrong speed or not at all, which added to the humour, but I don't think he did it intentially.

    As I've said before, blogs are all about total freedom of speech, and I think this freedom has led to a lot of John Peel style blogs. This is down to the sheer number. John Peel had to fight hard to remain independent while in the mainstream, blogs don't have this problem or the legal problems of pirate radio.

    There are loads of blogs that are just parasitic and piggyback stories off the mainstream media, I do that a lot myself, difficult not to.

    But what I try to aim for is finding a subject that is getting little or no coverage or is totally misrepresented and give it an airing. Hence the JP analogy. perhaps in hindsight you are right, it was a little tasteless, I'm not sure.

    Cheers for the Stump link.

  6. so peel would have objected to a tribute album.?

    He didnt object to the strange fruit releases of the classic sessions of his shows in the 1980's which gave him equal billing with the artists !!!that said he was still the most important and influential dj of his generation

  7. The re-release of the session albums would hopefully introduce new people to that particular music. I don't think a tribute album containing David Bowie, Blur, Pulp etc. would do quite the same job, particularly bearing in mind its target audience.

    Anyway, I didn't say John Peel would actually object to a tribute album. I don't know whether he would have or not.

    Neil, there's more to how he was treated at the BBC than simply the time slots of his shows...

  8. paul: "there's more to how he was treated at the BBC than simply the time slots of his shows"

    Like what?

    He could play what he liked and they gave him 6 hours a week continuously for 38 years.

    Peel himself said the only time they tried to interfere with his playlist was by suggesting that he played a track that blended in with the music pre-changeover from previous DJ, he resisted and that was the end of it.

    What other radio station would have given him that much leeway?

  9. Neil, you seem to have opened up another contentious topic.What people fail to mention in the hagiographic rush to praise peel was that he was reasonably well remunerated for doing something we have to pay for ie play music of our choice !!
    as an aside I heard that his collection was scheduled to be either donated to the national archive or sold to an American radio station as at least part was presumably sent to him in his capacity as a public service broadcaster would not this be bbc property ??
    as one of the most important archives around surely this should remain a national resource ?

  10. Anon, I think Peel bought a lot of his records. I know a lot were sent to him as well. I suppose you could argue this makes them partly BBC property, I see your point. I hope his record collection will be kept together and donated to the British Library, that would be the best thing to do I think.