John Peel: The god of adolescence

Rockin' John Peel is 65. But after all these years, what do we know about him? That he loves his music, his family, his football. Above all we know that voice. But what else is there to this beloved 'cultural impresario'? DJ Taylor is granted access to the manicured lawns and gazebos of Peel Acres to uncover an uncomfortable truth
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The Independent Culture

It is 10pm on a weekday evening in late 1981 or early 1982 and I am sitting in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room in the corner of an Oxford college quadrangle. Before me on the desk lies a packet of Marlboro Lights and the fragments of an optional thesis for the Oxford History School entitled "The Early Church in East Anglia 500-870ad". From the transistor radio at my elbow, above the thump and crackle of a lugubrious blues instrumental, an equally lugubrious Liverpudlian voice is glumly intoning the following words: "Tonight, all you pop-kids, we have a new session from The Fall - Mark E Smith in fine venomous form, you'll be charmed to know - plus some new tracks from Bicycles from Space, Smegma and The Chutney Butler. I'll be playing Corpseprober's new single, and dusted down from the vaults there's the very first Dancing Spiders session going all the way back to 1969..."

It is 10pm on a weekday evening in late 1981 or early 1982 and I am sitting in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room in the corner of an Oxford college quadrangle. Before me on the desk lies a packet of Marlboro Lights and the fragments of an optional thesis for the Oxford History School entitled "The Early Church in East Anglia 500-870ad". From the transistor radio at my elbow, above the thump and crackle of a lugubrious blues instrumental, an equally lugubrious Liverpudlian voice is glumly intoning the following words: "Tonight, all you pop-kids, we have a new session from The Fall - Mark E Smith in fine venomous form, you'll be charmed to know - plus some new tracks from Bicycles from Space, Smegma and The Chutney Butler. I'll be playing Corpseprober's new single, and dusted down from the vaults there's the very first Dancing Spiders session going all the way back to 1969..."

Two or three years pass. The Oxford quadrangle yields to a room in Pimlico beneath which the passing traffic from Victoria Coach Station whines long into the night. The optional thesis gives way to the unpublished novel, but the scenario - the radio-bound stake-out, the lugubrious voice, the curious noises - is endlessly repeated. At a conservative estimate, five or six hundred times.

Fast-forward half a lifetime and here I am outside Stowmarket station on a bright summer morning, waiting for John Peel. Glimpsed through the window of his baby Alfa Romeo, chubbily be-shorted, sparse hair in terminal retreat, he looks oddly gnome-like: Mime, say, summoned unexpectedly from his forge in the third part of The Ring and grateful for a chance to sniff the fresh East Anglian air. The car's interior is full of blues CDs. Bowling unhindered through the Suffolk verdure, Peel offers a courteous monologue on the local environment. "When we came here 30 years ago, this was real redneck country. I mean," - a pause as he narrowly avoids being forced into the ditch by an oncoming vehicle - "in those days people wouldn't just stop to let you pass, they'd want to have a chat as well." He shakes his head at the thought of these bygone decencies now fallen into desuetude. The road winds on.

Peel Acres - long-standing, on-air joke name for the Peel domicile - reached a mile or two later, seems the most agreeable of country residences: remote ("If Sheila [his wife] sees a car she doesn't know going up the lane she takes an interest"), tennis court to hand, general atmosphere of bucolic calm threatened only by the presence of some outsize hornets, whose despatch this afternoon by "the hornet man" Peel anxiously awaits. Here, in a low-ceilinged kitchen, with occasional visits from a telephone-bound Sheila, a brace of dogs and Peel's 10-month old grandson, Archie, we race over the well-trodden course of Peel's formative years: the departure of the 20 year-old John Ravenscroft, as he then was, from Merseyside to an office-boy's job at the Republic National Life Insurance Company of Dallas, Texas and the curious chain of circumstance by which our man would emerge, seven years later, as a kind of audio-secretary to the board of late-Sixties pop.

Provenance, in particular that glum Scouse accent, was all. America, having previously shown no interest in English music, woke up to the Beatles in the early months of 1964. Geographical outlines were hazy. "They'd got this idea that if you lived in the UK there were probably only a couple of hundred people and they were all bound to know each other." Having contacted one Russ Knight, a DJ on the local Dallas station, known - entirely plausibly for the time - as The Weird Beard, to correct some inaccuracies in a feature on the Fabs, Peel found himself invited on air. Three years followed on south-western US frequencies, first as the resident Beatles expert on a station in Oklahoma City, subsequently on Radio KMEN broadcasting out of San Bernardino, California, the latter providing a convenient eyrie from which to monitor the burgeoning West Coast music scene.

Coming back to England in early 1967 he found the national broadcasting network in a state of promising flux. Pirate radio was about to be superannuated by the BBC shake-up that would give rise to Radio One. Employment prospects were good. Without the trouble of an audition, Peel finessed his way into a job on Radio London, still precariously transmitting from a boat moored off Felixstowe. Here, on a late-night show called The Perfumed Garden, he began his first assault on the nation's counter-cultural consciousness, getting away with playing records by such luminaries of the scene as Captain Beefheart and the Soft Machine, he suggests, merely because the lateness of the hour meant that no station overseer could be bothered to listen in.

Curiously enough, another gnarled veteran from the pirate days turns out to be operating no more than a couple of miles down the road from where I live. This is Keith Skues, now an ornament of the local station, BBC Radio Norfolk. "Peelie," Skues fondly reminisces, "he had this interesting accent - Liverpool mixed with American. I was fascinated by the delivery. It has to be said that a lot of people gave him a pretty wide berth." Peel eagerly returns the compliments. "Keith? A legendary figure. Mad as a hatter, of course. He was the only one who was in any way helpful or kind when I was on Radio London. I was very glad when he got his MBE this year. It would have meant more to him than almost any man alive."

The days of bringing up one's breakfast over the turntable in the middle of a heavy swell while keeping a weather eye out for the coastguard were numbered, though. In a classic example of that eternal law whereby chartered accountants' tax departments invariably do their recruiting at the Inland Revenue, the newly formed Radio One opted to fill most of its slots with ex-buccaneers from the North Sea. Peel and Skues departed to Broadcasting House and the company of such fellow station founders as Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Savile and Chris Denning (who was fired, Peel recalls for remarking on air that he awoke that morning in such an access of high spirits that he felt like a 15 year-old boy, but that sadly there were no 15 year-old boys available at four o'clock in the morning). Thirty-seven years later Peel, alone among that cast of froth merchants, self-publicists and national treasures, remains.

Whereupon the air turns horribly self- deprecating: "You can either see it as selfless dedication to the cause of public service broadcasting, or as a shocking lack of ambition." Peel's body language as he delivers these remarks is all of a piece with their tone (and despite a quarter-century's monitoring I still have no idea whether the slightly peevish air of humility is (a) genuine, (b) feigned or (c) so intimately bound up with the Peel persona that the distinction simply can't be drawn). Head down over the stack of records and circulars furnished by this morning's post, ironic nods following the trail of the voice, he is at once hugely affable and yet faintly sulky, the dogged, world-weary NCO in some ancient sitcom, say, wearily humouring the la-di-da adjutant in the knowledge that everything will soon go badly wrong. As for the shocking lack of ambition, even a self-confessed slacker in late middle-age quietly getting on with the business of playing what he likes can still have a significant impact on that peculiar and susceptible abstract known as the public taste.

A certain kind of alternative native pop has no greater impresario. There were boys I knew at college, I venture, who spent each evening compiling lists of likely purchases from the Peel play-list, just as, back in the early Seventies student union, social secretaries were quoted to the effect that "we'll book anyone John Peel plays." Like it or not, if not exactly a Svengali to a near 40-year-old cavalcade of aspiring musicians, Peel has figured as a benign and encouraging presence on the margin of English pop for practically as long as English pop has existed. How does he feel about this?

Naturally, our man is cheered by the fact that he inspires the loyalties of such a rabid fan-base, especially as the advent of superior technologies means that the correspondence now comes in not just from Salford but from Colorado Springs. Despite going out at 11pm, the show attracts the highest proportion of station listeners under the age of 15. I draw Peel's attention to a bizarre mid-Eighties period in which the programme was suddenly ablaze with thunderous excerpts from the work of "grindcore" death-metal bands with names like Bolt Thrower and Carcass. "I never set out to be wilfully obscure," Peel chides amiably. "If I'd wanted to be obscure, I could have been a lot more obscure than that. Basically, I've always just played the things I liked listening to."

"As God-like I strode the forecourt, a small voice hailed from a vehicle which lay mute and lifeless beneath the harsh lights. Drawing my noble sword, Renshaw, I was across the concrete in a trice to find that my friends, T Rex, were becalmed. Chuckling, I scooped them up in the palm of my hand and laid them gently on top of a soft pile of Green Stamps and bore them so to London town. As we sped straight and true to that fair city they told me of their concert tour and of the new record 'Ride A White Swan' on Fly Records. Doubtless you'll own it before long - if you don't by Christmas, my flock of highly trained hedgehogs will fan out through the land and retribution will be swift and terrible - indeed it will..." John Peel's column - Disc magazine, 1970

One of the most interesting things about impresarios of a particular cultural form is the relationships they develop with the artists themselves: editors of literary magazines and their contributors; publishers and their writers; producers and their bands. In Peel's case, unusually enough, these rapt comminglings of spirit scarcely exist. This is a man who has been in a certain sense responsible for the early trajectories of, in no particular order, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart and the Faces, David Bowie, The Fall, The Undertones and a great many more. One expects to find the walls of Peel Acres groaning beneath the weight of signed photos of the great and good, each marking their debt to the sharp-eyed pundit who, however many years back, first pulled that cheaply recorded demo tape from the teetering pile. Queerly, although Peel did once receive a letter from the mother of the Damned's drummer, Rat Scabies, thanking him for "helping Christopher with his career", this kind of reciprocity is largely absent.

Tapping my friend Howard Devoto (former front-man of Manchester's Buzzcocks and influential art-punks Magazine) for his Peel stories, I confidently anticipate a strew of fond memories of late-night carousings in the Broadcasting House canteen, only to find that Devoto met him only once, and that was back in 1970. Then, as a Leeds schoolboy, he and the members of his "joke band", having sent Peel a tape, were startled to get a reply and even more startled when Peel allowed "this bunch of northern herberts" to call at his London flat to retrieve it. As a fully-fledged pop musician, Devoto got the impression that Peel was "shy" of the talents he supported. Peel confirms that he doesn't "want to hang out with bands particularly". A Danish camera crew recently arrived to interrogate him about Bowie, but Peel has little to say on such occasions. "Most of the people I didn't know at all as human beings."

There were, however, certain prominent exceptions to this rule. "The Faces, I have to say, came to our wedding, and in all the cine-footage Rod Stewart is talking to my aunt Ailsa. What in God's name they could be saying to each other we've never known." Another was Marc Bolan, to whom Peel (see above excerpt) was very close for some years, the relationship only waning on the release of T Rex's mega-selling "Hot Love" single. "It was just that I didn't like it. If it hadn't have been by Marc I wouldn't have played it, so I didn't, and he never really forgave me." It is not, Peel carefully explains, that he expects upwardly mobile bands to satisfy "some obscure artistic requirement of mine", merely that the arrival of a certain celebrity seems to destroy their ability to make the kinds of records he wants to play.

And then, of course, there is Captain Beefheart, whose gravelly baritone and avant-jazz/blues racket, most notoriously deployed on 1969's Trout Mask Replica, Peel first encountered in his San Bernardino days. Invited by the record company to attend a Beefheart gig at the Whiskey a Go Go, Peel found his world transformed. "It was like hearing Elvis for the first time. I reeled out into the Hollywood night just knowing that nothing would ever be the same again."

Back in England, discovering that Beefheart and his Magic Band were booked for a provincial tour, Peel contrived to chauffeur them around the Midlands concert circuit. "One of the gigs was in Kidderminster at a venue called Frank Freeman's Dancing School. This was in the days when groups were called things like Creedence Clearwater Revival or New Riders of the Purple Sage, and one of the band said to me: 'Hey, that's a really groovy name.' 'Not really,' I told him. 'It's a dancing school run by a man named Frank Freeman'."

Backstage, Mr and Mrs Freeman regaled the Captain, Zoot Horn Rollo, Winged Eel Fingerling and the rest of Peel's entourage with tea and cucumber sandwiches. On the way back to London, Beefheart, who was already known for his eccentric behaviour ("It's always irritated me that people label him as weird - it was a kind of super-reality"), announced: "Stop the car, John. I want to hug a tree." Unsure whether this was Californian rhyming slang for "have a pee", yet anxious to conciliate his hero, Peel stopped. "I thought: he's a far greater man than I, so I'll do whatever he wants me to."

Throughout this entertaining exchange (this is a particular late-adolescent hero of mine and I am enjoying myself no end) the interviewer is struck by two things. On the one hand there is the subject's reluctance (understandable in the circumstances) to stray much beyond the confines of music. On the other there is his reluctance to theorise over the art form which has dominated the waking hours of most of his adult life. Seeking to prod at the first, I pull out a reference from the somewhat mandarin Journals of Anthony Powell dated 21 May 1990, in which one of Powell's acquaintances reports that he has "heard the disc jockey John Peel say he would take Dance to his island in Desert Island Discs. Appropriately enough, Peel's fondness for the world of Widmerpool, X Trapnel and Nick Jenkins turns out to be a Question of Upbringing. "My mother had read the books as they came out. They'd played a major part in her life and she made a lot of references to them." Peel's own take on the 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time emphasises its uncanny resemblance to real life: chance encounters echoing back over the years, the unlooked-for significance of tiny events and symbols. Sadly, what looks like promising intellectual territory runs slap into a five-barred gate when Peel declares that his only other literary hero is Captain WE Johns, who created Biggles.

Wanting to trespass into the second off-limits area, I enquire if Peel has read the late Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties. He hasn't. "I never read books about music." Guilelessly, I try to summarise the MacDonald thesis (essentially a musical version of the Tory view of history) which is that the beast known as "pop music" reached its highest point of expression between 1965 and 1967 when the Beatles were simultaneously in the vanguard of sophisticated taste and commercially popular, a phenomenon never repeated over the next three and a half decades. Peel is unimpressed. The pop form is so fragmented, he maintains, that comparisons can't be made between then and now. "You're not comparing like with like," he says. But other art forms, I suggest, may be thought to have declined in this way after hitting some early apogee. What about the English Novel, for instance? Peel is yet more unimpressed. "You're over-educated," he pronounces, genially.

Oh well. With the pension book only a few days away and the four Peel progeny now in their twenties ("Whatever you feel about them, the rest of the time is as nothing compared with the frustrations of watching them looking for jobs and being exploited and abused"), our man's life is not quite the thronged musicological and familial pageant that once it was. Additional media opportunities abound, notably the Saturday morning ruminations of Home Truths, not - it must be said - greeted with wholehearted acclaim by the Radio Four faithful. There are fewer excursions to gigs these days ("At the age one has reached, if people don't recognise you they think you're just some pervert wanting to touch young people's bottoms") and a more august project is in view, the writing of a much-delayed autobiography. Slow progress has recently been further retarded: Peel, having only the day before the interview finished a particularly sweet 5,000-word tranche to his satisfaction, promptly flicked the delete key by mistake.

He retains his habitual distrust of the gauleiters at Broadcasting House and dislikes - as ever - the inanities of the Biz while still applauding the integrity of some of its products, cheered that "you can put innocence into a brutal and corrupt system and it still emerges as innocence."

The last question left on the list, as he kindly offers to ferry me back to Stowmarket station, is somewhat difficult to articulate. For all the allure of the public persona, there is talk here and there of petulant Peels, aggrieved and complaining Peels. How else does one decently put this, but: "Are you are as nice as you look"? "I like to think that what you see is what you get," Peel straightaway deposes, before allowing that his diabetes makes him tired and grumpy in the afternoons, a failing he tries assiduously to combat.

A feature of this morning's exchange has been the high degree of Christian charity extended to practically every one who strays into the compass of the Peel radar: old radio colleagues, music-biz sharks - all have been judged and given the benefit of the doubt. Former Radio One side-kick and "rhythm pal" Kid Jensen? "I wish he was still there. I wish he lived next door." There is some mild disparagement of Jimmy Savile, Peel's co-host on his first Top of the Pops. ("He was a great one for stitching up people he thought represented a threat. But obviously I represented no kind of threat to the nightmare world Jimmy Savile inhabited.") But even Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson ("I always found him terribly patronising") is pronounced to have done good work in his day.

And then, out of nowhere, on the road back to Stowmarket, Peel remarks, in the tone of one who has emerged from long years of meditation to find wisdom dangling within his grasp: "Rupert Murdoch has destroyed most of what was good about this country." There is a pause. "I was at the Labour Party bash on the night of the 1997 General Election, but, you know, it's been betrayal from Day One." Punctually delivered to the dusty forecourt of Stowmarket station, I realise that our glorious leader has just acquired another unlooked-for distinction: he is apparently the only person in the country who makes John Peel angry.

The Alfa Romeo chugs off out of sight, no doubt with the George Thorogood CD cranked to the max. Charmed and beguiled by a couple of hours spent in the company of this molten god from my late-adolescence, I realise that, curiously, he has left no impression. "What was he like?" my wife wonders an hour or so later. The only half-way accurate answer is "like John Peel". Queerly enough, I seem to have become over-familiar with the man before even meeting him. No disrespect to this 65-year-old titan of the airwaves, but talking to John Peel is like talking to my uncle.

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