John Peel: Happily proving more of a nuisance in death than in life

One year after John Peel's death, Andy Kershaw recalls how the DJ shaped his life, musical tastes and skills as a broadcaster
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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow I am invited to a memorial lunch at which a few of John's old buddies will drink too much red and share their Peel stories. I will, most likely, tell the one about the testicular cancer scare, the Harley Street consultant, and the bicycle seat.

Peel - and he would be delighted to know this - is proving more of a nuisance in death than in life. And what the blazes was he doing in Peru? He used to have anxiety attacks before family holidays in France.

John was the single most important figure, if not in Peruvian travel writing, then in British music since the birth of rock 'n' roll. He was the biggest influence on my life. And my experience is typical of the impact John had on the lives of millions. As a schoolboy, my discovery of the Peel programme in the mid-1970s blew my horizons wide open.

Music - and that variety of it - became my obsession. I can still feel the shudder of excitement as John might bring to my bedside radio the Buzzcocks, Sandy Denny, Lightnin' Hopkins, Ivor Cutler, Kitty Wells and Ranking Trevor. Those nightly tutorials laid out the breadth of my musical landscape. And they must have taught me a great deal about how to communicate with listeners as equals and establish an almost one-to one relationship with them.

Once John had pointed to the horizon, there was no stopping me and within a few swift years I arrived at Radio 1 in the summer of 1985. I have always suspected the bosses drafted me in as the upstart from BBC2's Whistle Test because they had a secret agenda to replace Peel with me and push the old boy, Eeyore-like, into the paddock to chew thistles. If so, their plan went horribly wrong.

I was billeted to the now-legendary Room 318 in Egton House, the extremely untidy office of Peel and his long-term producer, the great and much-missed John Walters. They sat facing each other across a mountain of unopened post like an elderly couple in their armchairs. In this absurd ménage à trois, I was allocated an upturned, steel waste-paper basket as a chair. Peel's and Walters's lugubrious exchanges were sometimes enlivened by Walters producing a trumpet and blasting through "Mahogany Hall Stomp" before declaring it was time to go to the pub.

I would hang out at the office even on days when I had no work to do. There were shopping trips to be made, after which we'd take turns to play our purchases.

There were adventures further afield, too, particularly to the Isle of Man for the TT Races. ("Hmm, it doesn't get much better than this, Brother Kershaw, sitting in a field with a lot of fattening food and a bottle or two of robust red, watching midget Irishmen fling themselves around the island for our entertainment....")

If Peel saw my arrival at Radio 1 as a threat, he didn't show it. Aside from token ridicule of my affection for American guitar bands in check shirts, I was welcomed to 318 and given the warm support of Peel and the protection of Walters (who later said that my arrival was "as if someone had walked into the office and let a bluebottle out of a jar").

The ethos of Room 318 was one with which all BBC bosses should be tattooed: "We're not here to give people what they want but what they didn't know they wanted." Even if that could often mean, in John's case, the downright unlistenable, it was vital that someone was trawling the margins on our behalf.

That same ethos brought many of the artists on this compilation to global acclaim. With the Peel programme, listeners never knew what might be next. It was broadcasting, not narrowcasting. That's radio at its most compelling. Thanks, brother.

'John Peel - A Tribute' is released 17 October by Warner Strategic Marketing