Saturday 31 October 2015, Waterstones, Walthamstow, London
Please don’t hate me, but the truth is I didn’t listen to the John Peel Show.
In fear of retribution I present my defence. His entire Radio 1 career spans my life on earth so far. When I was born in 1978, John had already broadcast 11 years of his Top Gear programme and was 3 years into the John Peel Show. I have no idea what I was doing in my teenage years either, probably piddling about on Capital Radio, and I’m disappointed my all-consuming love for music and the fact I chomped through Smash Hits on a regular basis didn’t naturally fling me in his direction.
I am, though, old enough and curious enough to know exactly who John Peel is. To recognise his warm and distinctive tones in the rare moments they are revived, to remember him presenting the occasional Top of the Pops and to resolutely understand why he was, and remains, so fundamentally important to music.
My husband, a Senior Designer at Faber & Faber, gave me the heads up about David Cavanagh’s book Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life. I immediately added it to my Social Media Diet booklist, where it currently waits in the wings. My interest in John had already been piqued a few months back on holiday where I devoured Caitlin Moran’s smashing How to Build a Girl in one greedy sitting. The protagonist, inquisitive music-head and coming-of-age heroine Johanna Morrigan, reads about the legendary John Peel and his illustrious sessions on Radio 1 at her local library. The description of Johanna plugging in her Dad’s huge headphones in the radio when the rest of the house is asleep, using the Radio Times tuning information to find Radio 1 and finally, at 97.2 FM, finding a Liverpudlian drawl is so delightful it made me want to weep and laugh in equal amounts. 'This is it' Johanna says 'I’m in the door! This is Uncle Peel, of whom they all speak! I am, finally, going to hear the counter-culture of 1990 for the first time! This is where it all hangs out!’.
So when I stumbled across Walthamstow Rock'n'Roll Book Club's event on Twitter that would feature David Cavanagh’s book, and realised the author would be present (and red wine would be served), well, it was a no-brainer. The creation of Mark Hart, fellow Stow resident and self-proclaimed music-head, Saturday’s rollicking book club took place at Waterstones, on the toasty upper level that contrasted beautifully with a misty and crisp Halloween evening outside.
Being in a bookshop at night, after-hours, for me is the equivalent of being a kid in a sweet shop. I listened keenly at the front as Mark introduced David with a fitting preface before the author read the first of four extracts from the book.
He effortlessly whooshed us back through time. To 1969, where John Peel was playing the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Bowie, Elton John and Marc Bolan. While Radio 1 concentrated on playing chart hits, John was playing album tracks on a Sunday afternoon like a renegade. Onto 1979 and Neil Young has released his album On the Beach. Labelled by Rolling Stone Magazine as “one of the most despairing albums of the decade.” John heard re-birth, not despair and, using what David affectionately described as a ‘Peelian term’, appraised it as ‘a handsome work’.
To 1987 where John’s show has been shamefully reduced from five days a week to three. Rough Trade Records has announced that Johnny Marr has left The Smiths today and, in John’s world, this is a huge crisis (he did bring The Smiths to Radio 1 after all). He said ‘…how this is going to work out frankly I can’t imagine, I’d prefer not to try and imagine it, I must confess but it seems to have been determined and that’s the way things are going to be and we just have to sit back and see what happens’. For him, it wasn't simply the departure of a key band member, it was a bereavement.
Lastly to 1993, where a poll reveals the country is dissatisfied with a John Major-led Tory government, and it is the heyday of dance music. A young and enterprising Pete Tong has first dibs of all the new tracks, like the latest New Order, before Peel, and wears the sharpest suits. John stubbornly wears t-shirts of indie bands who had split in 1991 and plays Radiohead, Pulp, Cornershop and Therapy.
I found David's session instructive as well as compelling. I learnt new stuff, and stuff I thought I knew and then had validated. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of John Peel (I guess that’s what close listening to circa 600 shows does for you; 260 were selected to feature in the book) and could proudly recite Peelian morsels off the top of his head with a warm and assured delivery, and cracking sense of humour to boot.
This is what I learnt. John was an independent thinker which did not always coincide with the thoughts and opinions of the music press. He would play Billy Bragg in direct support of the miner’s strike. He loved all genres of music and brought punk, post-punk and indie as well as African, Hip Hop and Dancehall to the masses. He had no favourite ‘era’ and wanted to avoid appearing anachronistic. He believed music belonged to women as much as it did to men. He was the first to play Grandmaster Flash’s The Message on UK radio in 1981. He liked rap. For the students, the school kids who wanted to make sense of the world he would treat them with intelligence and give them the chance to hear what was underground. His approach to the microphone was warm, discursive, self-deprecating and his delivery created a unique relationship with the audience. His rueful digressions were as entertaining as some of the records he played, like when he apologised for leaving his glasses on the train. The Fall were his favourite band of all time.
John Peel died 11 years ago, in 2004, at the age of 65. ‘The day the music died’ was how his untimely death was described by the Evening Standard that afternoon. The artists he had played, one by one, came forward which signified just how important he was.
When pressed by Mark why he had written the book, David said the question wasn’t necessarily why, but why it had taken him so long. A friend, in the hazy Olympian Summer of 2012, had sent him an email with a link to a John Peel show in 1980. He found it not just nostalgic, but significant. It was a two hour piece of radio history. He talked about sentences forming in his head without him helping it and rather than writing a short piece for a newspaper, he wanted to write tens of thousands of words. He noted that when viewing the song list for the Olympic's Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle and Underworld had gone not for obvious Brian May, or George Michael, but instead Pink Floyd and Tubular Bells. It was in effect a John Peel show. It was for the mavericks.
David thanked the audience for listening and Mark invited them to share their Peel moments. An eclectic bunch and clearly music-heads themselves, there were mixed experiences and fond memories. One guy had been jabbed with a pen by John at a record fair while another remembers fondly voting in The Festive Fifty. One man’s mother listened to John Peel’s Home Truths religiously, one lady wrote John’s obituary and Mark himself had a gem - he was in a band and had the honour of having their record played on the John Peel Show, but sadly John was sick so his stand in, Steve Lamacq, did the honours instead. Crushing.
Despite the tantalising suggestion of a lock-in, sadly Waterstones had to shut and the night was over; the spell was broken. I considered what I’d heard on the walk home. John Peel was clearly a key post-war British cultural figure and his contribution was immeasurable. He came from a mythical era where DJs wielded the power, had the influence to change young kids' lives and set a band on the right trajectory before their music crossed over to the national mainstream. When it was vital for a song to be played on the radio, rather than becoming pervasive on social media in a matter of seconds.
I may not have been there in the glory days, I may not have really understood the relevance of The Festive Fifty until that night, but I have a greater appreciation of John Peel’s influence and an appetite to learn more. His show went beyond the music played - it reflected how the nation felt at the time, was a chronicle of social history and demonstrated how his tastes and thinking changed over the years to keep him at the cutting edge.
Quite simply, John Peel helped to shape modern life.