Sub-titled ‘How 35 years of John Peel helped to shape modern life’, this book was published in 2015. I read it at the time and corresponded briefly with the author, having felt moved to tell him how much I appreciated – as someone who has written research-heavy books myself – the sheer amount of work involved (which may not be apparent to many readers, so light was his touch as a writer) in it, and the subtle qualities of the end product.
What David did was cherry-pick / randomly sample (there was an element of both, I think) over 250 radio shows fronted by Peel spanning 1967 (the last days of ‘The Perfumed Garden’ on pirate radio) to 2003 (the last days of Peel). His sources included tapes of broadcasts (with comments by Peel on the state of the world, his health, his views on this or that artist peppering the text), ‘Programme as Broadcast’ files kept on microfiche at BBC Written Records (showing exactly what was played and when), period interviews with Peel and a few of the artists he championed at various times (all used sparingly) and extracts from general news stories of the day to give the reader context. Occasionally, these news stories impact or are reflected in the content of the show that day.
David’s skill was as a curator of all this information. Often, having given a summary of artists played and a paragraph of news, he will take one act or style of music featured on that show and use this as a point from which to look at a ‘narrative arc’ spanning a few weeks or months – Peel’s engagement with this or that artist / type of music, his standing at Radio 1 at the time, the career path of that artist (from Peel session(s) to stardom, and whether they bothered to keep in touch) and suchlike. There is a still greater narrative arc, of sorts, throughout the whole book – although with Peel, there was no goal as such, no end point. He was a very curious man (in both senses) who just kept looking for music that pressed some sort of button for him – it was irrelevant if that annoyed his listeners, his employers, his colleagues…
In the early days of Radio 1, he was a hep cat whose tastes happened to more or less (Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart etc aside) with ‘the underground’ or counterculture.
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Subtitled ‘How 35 years of John Peel helped to shape modern life’, this book was published in 2015. I read it at the time and corresponded briefly with the author, having felt moved to tell him how much I appreciated – as someone who has written research-heavy books myself – the sheer amount of work involved (which may not be apparent to many readers, so light was his touch as a writer) in it, and the subtle qualities of the end product. Having re-read it, I felt moved – for different reasons – to write about it here, to remind people it’s there.
What David did was cherry-pick / randomly sample (there was an element of both, I think) over 250 radio shows fronted by Peel spanning 1967 (the last days of ‘The Perfumed Garden’ on pirate radio) to 2003 (the last days of Peel). (A draft of the book had many more shows sampled, but he whittled this down to what was still a 600+ page tome.) His sources included tapes of broadcasts (with comments by Peel on the state of the world, his health, his views on this or that artist peppering the text), ‘Programme as Broadcast’ files kept on microfiche at BBC Written Records in Caversham (showing exactly what was played and when), period interviews with Peel and a few of the artists he championed at various times (all used deftly) and extracts from general news stories of the day to give the reader context. There are, wisely in my view, no fresh interviews with artists or associates telling us what a great guy/visionary he was; this is purely ‘as it happened’.
Occasionally, these general news stories impacted on or are reflected in the content of the show that day and on Peel’s expressed views. Peel was fairly reserved in expressing his opinions on wider world matters – a wry remark here or there – but sometimes, just occasionally, he used his platform. On one occasion he calls out the sexist content of a record/session track and bans it from further plays, but then, as David points out, some months later he plays something far worse in this respect and makes no comment.
David’s skill is as a curator of all the information he corralled and as a spotter of themes and contradictions (on Peel’s part) across many years. Often, having given a summary of artists played and a paragraph of news, he will take one act or style of music featured on that show and use this as a point from which to look at a ‘narrative arc’ spanning a few weeks or months – Peel’s engagement with this or that artist / type of music, his standing at Radio 1 at the time, the career path of that artist (from Peel session(s) to stardom, and whether they bothered to keep in touch and how that played out) and suchlike.
There is a still greater narrative arc, of sorts, throughout the whole book – although with Peel, there was no goal as such, no end point. It was a journey with no destination – and loads of wrong turns. He was a very curious man (in both senses) who just kept looking for music that pressed some sort of button for him – and David has a theory on what that was (I’ll let you read the book) – it was irrelevant if that annoyed his listeners, his employers, his colleagues…
In the early days of Radio 1, Peel was a hep cat with a Dylan the Rabbit vibe whose tastes happened to more or less (Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart etc. aside) cohere with ‘the underground’ or counterculture of that time. He shared this cultural space with several other, mostly forgotten, DJs at Radio 1 at this time – Alan Black, Mike Harding (no, not that one), Bob Harris, Tommy Vance, David Symonds – although within four or five years he had outlasted them all. (Vance and Harris would of course come back to the station in later years and carve out their own niches; the others drifted into obscurity – because, beyond Luxembourg, there was nowhere else to go at that time.)
In the mid-70s, he was a slightly bored man playing flabby yacht rock, as we might call it now, albeit peppering his shows with sessions by occasional folk singers and reggae artists. In the punk era, his interest in music was rejuvenated – though Cavanagh’s research underlines that the idea that John ditched his old listeners overnight and went straight to punk is a complete myth (one peddled by Peel himself in retrospective interviews). It took two years at least, and he never cared for the Pistols or the Clash – while still always caring for those folk singers and reggae bands.
Cavanagh’s coverage of the years subsequent to punk show that John Peel’s tastes and those of his listeners would never align completely. Even though he championed the wet and wibbly ‘C86’ acts, he was exasperated when his listeners filled his ‘Festive 50’ with such people. Did they not care for all that other stuff he played too? No, seemingly not. This was a pattern that would continue.
Somehow, John Peel survived at Radio 1, though at times he was clearly viewed as an awkward uncle at a school disco or, worse, a contrary embarrassment at odds with the wacky, upbeat, vacuous sheen of the rest of the station. Having kept his head down during the purge of the flatulent, flabby, entitled old dinosaurs in David Essex 1978 Tour bomber jackets (DLT, Simon Bates, Adrian Bloody Juste et al.) he was dangerously exposed in the early 90s when, inexplicably, he was asked to cover holiday leave for ‘Jakki’ Brambles at lunchtime for a week. Cavanagh covers this in excruciating depth – a cruelty to both Peel, Brambles’ listeners and all concerned. Peel was out of his depth in the sunlight and just didn’t have the sense or understanding to try and be fit for the purpose he was being asked to fulfil, while Gary Davies was boorish and frosty on the handovers.
While this was a case of square peg/round hole, it allows us to appreciate that Peel was not only that mad uncle locked in the turret at midnight but also in some respects a spoilt child, who had got used to playing whatever he wanted in an environment of his own value systems and judgements against the world. He comes across as a man who simply didn’t understand why people didn’t like the increasingly extreme, unmusical stuff he was playing – as David explains, not even dance connoisseurs (and none of those people were listening to his shows anyway, he states) cared for the yobbish 500bpm ‘happy hardcore’ he kept playing let alone Extreme Noise Terror et al.
One thing that comes across from David’s presentation of facts, observations and transcriptions is that Peel almost never promoted himself, his ‘brand’. David points out at one stage that he was earning in a year what Mike Read was making in half a dozen personal appearances. Move that comparison on into the era of the star dance DJ (where people who spin records at raves earn ludicrous sums), and one can’t help thinking that John – with such a diffident personality, shyness or whatever it was – was missing a trick. One feels that he could somehow have ‘monetised’ his brand much more, had he been that sort of person. But he wasn’t.
In his last few years at Radio 1 / on the planet, in which he was also presenting his avuncular non-musical ‘Home Truths’ show on Radio 4 – to the great chagrin of his former producer John Walters – there is at last a feeling that the station has understood that he is a ‘national treasure’ – the sort of totem figure that money can’t buy, even if he clashes with the current decor. It makes special arrangements for him to broadcast from home instead of obliging him to stay in crappy hotels (that he has had to pay for himself) overnight between his two weekend shows, as his health can’t deal with the late-night two-hour car journey home.
Amazingly, even in later years, Peel was still buying many of the records he played on air – David gives one example of the worm turning, on air, at one point when a listener writes to ask why he hasn’t played anything from the new Nirvana album, having promoted them early on. Simple – their record label hasn’t sent it to him. John (in a rare moment of righteous anger) ranted on air about this and refused to buy it. Good for him.
This behaviour by labels – along with them denying access for a new session to artists he had championed (the labels wanting only sessions on Steve Lamacq’s show or nothing) – was, amazingly, a common pattern in the 90s. ‘Early plays on Peel? Great – now forget him, he’s small fry.’ Even the White Stripes’ label at a certain point permits him to play only two tracks from a new album ahead of release. ‘But there are 14 tracks here,’ says Peel, simply not able to understand this – somehow unable to grasp that if he plays everything at this point in time, it will be taped and all over the internet. In that instance, Peel huffed and didn’t play two tracks from it – he played an old White Stripes B-side instead. We’re not sure how Jack White would have felt in that instance. As a friend and admirer of John’s – amazed to meet a man who knew Son House (persuading Peel to rebroadcast his 1970 Son House session) – he might have sympathised and felt embarrassed at his label’s attitude. But he might also have understood that simply giving away an album’s worth of music weeks ahead of its release in the internet era was a bridge too far.
Ironically, for a man obsessed seemingly with the music of today (or at least that bit of it that excited him), he was in some ways stuck in the past – the past where a man on the radio could play whole albums (and he always preferred vinyl to CD) if that’s what he felt like doing, and had done in the mid-70s several times, from Fripp & Eno’s ‘No Pussyfooting’ onwards – albeit, backwards in that case.
In terms of his musical taste and broadcasting style, he sometimes scorched-earth his own past – deciding that he didn’t like most of what he played in this or that era any more, and was appalled by his own broadcasting style and hippy-dippy attitudes. I’ve always found this problematic. Yes, we all have tastes and, to an extent, personalities that evolve. But to chuck out colossal amounts of the musical past, a past that you have wholeheartedly championed, feels phoney and shallow to me. Yes, he stayed loyal to a few artists of yore – Martin Carthy, June Tabor, Captain Beefheart, Kevin Coyne… – but this tendency to rave about something and then pretend it never happened a few years later (including his own accent and presentational style, which changed three or more times, from sleepy Dylan the Rabbit spreading love and whimsy to sardonic Liverpool yobbo with a hint of Birmingham) is unattractive. Why should we trust him now? He’ll only tell us it was a pile of crap next year.
There are undoubtedly PhD theses in all this – not least because the singular interest in John Peel, of all British radio presenters, has ensured that a vast number of his shows, from 1967 onward, survive. That in itself is a PhD question: why have significant amounts of John Peel broadcasts spanning 35 years survived, recorded off-air by successive generations of fans, when almost nothing by his peers has? You will search for those David ‘Diddy’ Hamilton shows in vain. (Peel himself had little active interest in the survival of even sessions for his shows beyond their initial repeats, though he did collaborate with his old pal Clive Selwood in the release of many sessions from the mid-80s onward via Strange Fruit. I recall phoning him at the BBC in the early 90s about Pentangle sessions – you could do that in those days; he was friendly but revealed, ‘I’ve no idea where the tapes are kept…’ He seemed faintly surprised at my interest.) Add that to the PasB files at Caversham, the various music mag columns he wrote, the ongoing fan cult, the demonstrable influence he had on the music business/popular taste (with several massive ‘bullseyes’ in this regard, in among the vast slews of nonentities, weirdos, ‘period pieces’ and decent ‘minority interest’ acts that made up the bulk of his shows)…
At the very end of the book, David Cavanagh names 15 acts that John Peel championed – not played once or twice, but really got behind in a significant way very early in their careers and sometimes for a few years into them – and tells us that their record sales equal 1.5 billion.
He was a man of contradictions, and if you were a listener, he was never a reliable champion of whatever you liked – whatever that was, he would soon move on. Although ticking many of the ‘good bloke’ boxes, there are one or two awkward questions about aspects of his life and values here and there. He was a star-maker – no question, several acts whose careers might arguably have stiffed early on were midwifed into the public consciousness via his shows – but he still managed to seem, to the music industry well into the 90s, to be an insignificant, eccentric man playing records around midnight to nobody listening. Yet even though he explicitly hoped his latest faves would become hugely popular (without ever saying or thinking ‘This is my remit – to make tomorrow’s stars’, which was almost certainly the whole ethos behind Steve Lamacq’s show) – and couldn’t understand why, at that moment, they weren’t – it was very often the case that once they became popular, he lost interest.
Just as John Peel, to a great extent, simply played the music and let it speak for itself, bar the odd wry one-liner before or after, David Cavanagh lays out his findings and observations without a ‘thesis’ – occasionally he asks rhetorical questions in the light of something from a given show, occasionally he’ll advance a theory, but generally he lets the evidence speak for itself. We can come to our own conclusions – about the man, the music, specific musicians, the station, the record industry…
David Cavanagh stepped in front of a train on 27 December 2018 – having reportedly opted not to disrupt anyone’s Christmas by doing so on 23 December, when his mind was made up. He was an acclaimed writer, but had money worries. There isn’t much money in writing – trust me. Maybe he could see that at 54, with music magazines a busted flush and a 5 to 8 grand advance at best for two years’ work on your next book, it was all over.
Some people aren’t great at doings things other than the thing they love, and win awards at. The same might be said of John Peel. What would he have done had he been ‘let go’ circa 1972, with the clear-out of Alan Black, Mike Harding, David Symonds & co.? Or pushed out with the Smashy & Nicey crowd in the 80s? No commercial radio station would have let him go to the extremes he did in the 90s at Radio 1 – he would have been obliged to fit into genre constraints: a reggae show, a folk show, an indie show, a world music show, a metal show – but not all of it thrown together. He wouldn’t have understood that. Maybe like Bob Harris, he would have crept back to Radio 2 a few years later and been grateful for an hour on one night a week, like a gnarlier version of David Jacobs in his later years – a legend from decades past allowed to do his thing (or a version of it) for nostalgists once a week. Who knows?
All we have now are the shows – hundreds of them, in full or in part, shared online – and the sessions, still crawling from under floorboards into the sunlight of digital restoration and boxed sets to this day, often 50+ years after the event. As an example, I’ve recently completed work on a 6CD upgrade of ‘The Pretty Things at the BBC’ (originally a 4CD set on Repertoire in 2015). Even in the last five years, around 40 ‘new’ session tracks, many from Peel shows, have come to light. Whether Peel, were he around today, would have played a track or two had the set landed on his desk is a moot point. Maybe, maybe not. If he did, he would – as he did in towards the end when he deigned to rebroadcast an old Captain Beefheart session that fans had saved – have surely trimmed out his whimsical spoken intros. But those intros, I can assure you, are retained in such box sets wherever possible – a magical reminder of a time that’s gone. Peel would have been appalled at the very idea.
One thing you’ve learned
That a DJ’s lot is often not a happy one.