John Peel, dead? At sixty five from a heart attack, if you really must know…Hell.
What appalling news. I found myself running out and telling everyone I knew in Leiden, almost immediately after I'd heard. That's when I was able to leave my house, on account if being delayed by phone call after phone call from friends who were similarly
shocked and saddened. I mean, John Peel, dead? At sixty five from a heart attack, if you really must know...Hell.
John Peel... the name conjures up nights of lying awake listening to the radio, waiting till that bluesy track that always introduced the show faded, past the avuncular introduction (usually consisting of a wry aside or bad pun), waiting for the shock of hearing music that you didn't believe could exist anywhere. This shock could hit you full square, it could have your head spinning, it certainly had you realising that this guy nightly commandeered an audience of thousands like you; a mini army of people who loved different, challenging music. You weren't the weirdo who didn't like Duran Duran, but liked the Fall, (a Peel band if ever there was one); no, that was an argument played out at school.
In some ways you felt you were a different weirdo; in that you weren't weird enough, certainly not grown up enough to shrug off your pre-conceptions about the new music John Peel would champion. For in listening to the show, you were very much aware that being cool about music was just not enough, just to say you'd bought the first single by the Loft wouldn't pass muster; no, you'd have to go further. You'd have to give everything a chance. Even stuff like Napalm Death, (anyone remember that infatuation he had? The speed metal one deep in 1987?).
Or the first house records. I remember my young/old eighteen year old self being indignant that Peely kept playing A Guy Called Gerald when he could be playing the then flavour of the month, The House of Love. How I sneered. But, six months later, I'm in a deserted warehouse on the Lancashire moors, attempting to look like I fitted in with all the other 'ravers', dancing to, you guessed it, A Guy Called Gerald...No, John Peel was not bothered about trends, per se, rather it was more important to him that music was new, exciting and challenging. That made him, in the true sense of the word, a pioneer, almost a seer. How we all fade in his shade by comparison, but how we all benefited from having our precocious, gad-fly like minds broadened.
The other great thing about John Peel was that you never realized till years later just how much he had done to champion new bands, and new musical ideas. He never blew his own trumpet, and plenty of lesser people would have done so vociferously, had they accomplished half of what he did. At the time, (mid eighties) I thought he was the guy who played the weirdest music on Radio 1. But then it dawned on me (especially after he started to bring out the Strange Fruit series of Peel Sessions) just how much of a Merlin figure he was. The man who found and encouraged T-Rex, an original member of the psychedelic underground in the 1960s (someone had better document all the survivors before they fade away, 1914 style), the man who championed the nascent Reggae, Krautrock, Punk, New Wave, Acid House movements, etc, etc, etc...
Just think; some of those musical zephyrs might have just fizzled out without him. In a way he became a medium for change. And as usual he just remained a supremely ordinary bloke. The only dj to ever transcend being a dj; yet someone who stood out as a normal human being in a musical world of fly by nights, someone who, you felt, kept a reassuring perspective on things whilst being genuinely enthused by and not afraid of the new and the questioning. It's impossible to replace him.
Words : Richard Foster