John Peel – A Frankly Monstrous FM Legacy

John Peel rarely surfaced from his subterranean program on BBC radio, where he played unheard, unpolished music to the British public for an astonishing 37 years. Very likely he was the only DJ to cue Knifehandchop’s “Dance Floor Seizure” after Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear” and blithely announce that
“If Elvis were alive today, I think he’d understand happy hardcore” without talking codswallop. Peel just never kicked his juvenile habit for the new and objectionable music. He died suddenly last October at 65, four times older than most of his audience. Now The Undertones sing on his gravestone—
”Teenage dreams, so hard to beat.”

Peel is not widely known in Canada. A national facsimile might be a Patti Schmidt/Peter Gzowski cross with a Liverpudlian speed, however, as Peel frequently did. Nor would Peel, even at 65, need to remind Iggy Pop not to call him “sir,” as did our Mr. Canada when he interviewed the young punk in 1977.

But Peel is a legend in Britain. Even Tony Blair made time to call him “a genuine one-off.” Over 300 live gigs rang in the first John Peel Day on October 13th, the anniversary of his final broadcast. In the recent crush of accolades, admirers tend to list the most successful bands Peel championed.

So. Early on, Peel played Captain Beefheart to enthusiastic excess, even drove a van for him and his Magic Band in ‘68. Peel dragged T-Rex to many of his early gigs, “often with disastrous results.” Brian Eno first heard The Velvet Underground on Peel’s program, and it’s where The Ramones and other punks won their first British air time.

In the 1980’s, Peel introduced Britain to reggae, played Pulp before Britpop, and Nirvana before grunge. Guitarist playing “Peel sessions”—sets of four tracks recorded in three to four hours with an in-house engineer at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio. “This Charming Man” was written for such a session, and many of the recordings on The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow were taken from the show. When Joy Division first played for Peel it was the only cash they had made for months. More recently, Peel broke in electronic acts like Vitalic and Alter Ego, covered the Groningen music festival, and shepherded The White Stripes into Europe.

The word “immeasurable” also tends to peep up when critics harp on Peel’s legacy. So far as I know, only gods and blue quarks are truly immeasurable, and I doubt the somewhat stocky Peel ever bent his particle traces into 7-tuple space. NME did give him an award for God-Like Genius, however.

Well, if Peel was a god, why did he leave? Is the end indeed nigh? More alarming, with no accurate caliber of Peel’s program, will radio ever sound so good again?

A few numbers may help. At his thatched cottage home north of London, Peel reinforced the walls to hold 26 789 LPs. A shed in the backyard held his 45s, another one his 7”s. Bids for the collection have reached £1 million, and the British Library is interested. Since the BBC hired him away from London Pirate
Radio, Peel logged 15 000 hours of air time and recorded 4 000 sessions. In his last years at BBC, by which time the internet had greatly expanded his audience, Peel received roughly 180 to 220 demos a week. He spent six to eight hours a day listening to records.

His influence is tricky to track because Peel eschewed mainstream promoters, rotations, and bought his own records. Swamped with more demos than he could possibly hear, the record companies gave up sending him promos. He was as much a champion of free form radio as he was of unsigned bands, unafraid to play a whole album or the same track twice if he liked it enough. He was an unabashed fan, recording 28 sessions for his favourite band, The Fall. “Apparently there are some people out there who don’t love The Fall,” he said once, “I spurn them with my toe.”

If you never heard John Peel, you could join the shadowy groups who trade radio tapes and tracklistings online—the most diligent recorder was a night janitor in Musselborough. Better yet, there are the Peel sessions. The Culture, The Slits, and The White Stripes sessions are a few of the choicest. Peel was halfway through his autobiography when he died, but his wife Sheila Ravenscroft (affectionately known as The Pig) has just completed the project, called Margrave of the Marshes.

To me, Peel meant listening to Shitmat, The Fall, Jawbone, old 78s, and unpronounceable death metal from Belgrade. To radio history, Peel meant a good deal more than one hapless admirer can possibly list on a page.