Memories of a free spirit

John Peel was a broadcasting legend. But his colleague Trevor Dann remembers him as a friend, a family man and a lifelong Liverpool supporter
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The Independent Culture

It was like meeting the Pope, or at least the Maharishi. There we were, my friend Alan and I, two 15-year-olds queuing up to greet the great man, our hero, our mentor, our spiritual guide. As fervent listeners to the pirate Radio London, we'd learnt everything from John Peel.

It was like meeting the Pope, or at least the Maharishi. There we were, my friend Alan and I, two 15-year-olds queuing up to greet the great man, our hero, our mentor, our spiritual guide. As fervent listeners to the pirate Radio London, we'd learnt everything from John Peel.

We recorded The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album when he played it all the way through without speaking. We'd gazed at the stars when he told us to, and thought good thoughts so we could change the world. He'd introduced us to Captain Beefheart, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors.

And yet here was the apotheosis of counterculture opening a summer garden-party at a girls' school in rural Derbyshire. He was in late Sixties uniform - the tie-dye T-shirt, cotton loons and plimsolls - while the school governors and the parents buzzed around in their suits and twinsets, clucking disapprovingly. Years later, he blinked in that beguiling way he had and told me why he'd gone there. "Well, Trevor, when you're on board a ship with nothing but blokes for company, an invitation to visit a girls' school is, er, quite irresistible."

He signed my copy of the programme for the fête that day - "Love & peace, John Peel". I treasured it, and still do. But he was dismissive when I took it into Radio 1 a decade or so later. By then, I was a new radio producer and he was the venerable BBC institution who'd renounced hippiedom and embraced the energy and attitude of punk. "I used to talk a lot of bollocks in those days," he said.

John and I didn't get off to the best start at Radio 1. In my first week, I went up to the Broadcasting House continuity suite where he presented his late-night show and asked if I could watch. I didn't know that he hated what he called "broadcasting in a zoo". To make amends I got him a coffee and placed it on the desk as he leant to one side to cue up a record. As he straightened up his elbow knocked the coffee all over the faders, necessitating a rapid switch to the next studio.

Minutes later, his wife arrived. Cue another howler. "You must be Shirley," I ventured. They both laughed. I felt very uncomfortable. "No, this is Sheila," Peel said. But why had my simple mistake had such an effect? Some days later, he explained that Shirley was the name of his first wife, an American woman who Peel always claimed had beaten him up and then pursued him to Britain, where he was taking refuge with Sheila.

One of the few consolations of the tragic news from Peru this week was that Sheila was there with him. He was devoted to the Pig, as he always called her, and he wore a silver ring with a pig on it. In fact, I think John defined himself more as parent and husband than a broadcaster. In spite of his acid tongue, he was a sentimental man who'd blub at the drop of a hat, especially at family successes.

It was one of the many contradictions in Peel's life that the man who sought out angry, urban music in some of the seedier inner-city clubs lived an idyllic rural life in an isolated Suffolk cottage. From the splendidly named Nan Trues Hole - truly John's bolt hole - no other building is visible. In recent years, the BBC allowed him to broadcast his show via an ISDN line from home. He began to sound like the religious leader he was to so many of us, letting fall his pearls of wisdom from a musical Eden.

In 1983, I produced "the Peel show", as it was always called, for a few months before leaving for television. I made one change. John Walters and Chris Lycett, my predecessors, had allowed Peel to choose all his own music, but they had retained the right to assemble the tracks into a running order. In some cases, this amounted to no more than finding two songs with the same word in the title and putting them together so John could do a DJ-style link. Which, of course, he never did. So I suggested that he should do the running order in future. He looked at me with the grateful eyes of a kid meeting Santa and thanked me as effusively as if I'd given him a new toy.

I loved the opening to his show in those days. In would come the low dum-da-dum of Grinderswitch's "Picking the Blues", and after the slide guitar figure we'd be treated to the usual litany of awkward and unpronounceable band names. Regular listeners may have noticed that, for pure devilment, John would sometimes trail a band who didn't exist - "... and the Flying Creamshots in session". He'd seen the phrase in a Dutch porno mag.

He loved Holland, and regularly hosted the Pink Pop Festival. He claimed that the Dutch liked him because his name translates as John Prick. Like many of John's anecdotes it may not have been strictly true, but somehow details like that never mattered. It was just a joy to listen to his fund of stories. Life had a knack of happening to John. He always cast himself as the unworldly ingénue at large in a cruel and unforgiving world.

Also in 1983, Radio 1 was staging a week's programming from Liverpool and someone suggested that Peel and I should make an introductory show about his home city. Persuading him to depart from the safety of the studio was a nightmare, but once he'd agreed (with the condition that his daughter and her teenage Goth friend could accompany us), he created a magical programme.

From the passenger seat of our hired car, he guided the two girls and me around the streets of Liverpool, pointing out the key landmarks of his early life. "That's where I saw my first gig. Eddie Cochran wasn't it, oh no, it was the Obernkirchen Children's Choir singing 'Val deri, val dera'!" And: "There's the Royal Insurance where brother Frank works." And: "That's the train that takes the rich people to Heswell."

And thence to Anfield, home of his beloved Liverpool FC. He took me on the Kop - all standing and swaying in those days - and I recorded his thoughts and reactions to an FA Cup tie against unfancied Brighton. Liverpool famously lost that day, so I got nothing at all out of John except a few grunts, and nothing from the Kop characters apart from a wet trouser-leg thanks to the inebriated Scouser behind me who couldn't be bothered to fight his way to the gents.

The following morning we met Kenny Dalglish, Peel's absolute hero, for a pre-arranged interview. Dalglish gave the usual pat footballer's answers to some questions about the game, and Peel * * was still so depressed about the match that he couldn't bring himself to conduct a proper interview. In the end I had to ask the questions, and we dubbed in some commentary later.

He liked to use a football metaphor when talking about his appetite for new music. Of course he was proud of Liverpool FC's championships and European Cups, but "I'm much more interested in what happens on Saturday". He found something life-affirming in the quest for novelty and the refusal to look back.

When I was producing his Radio 1 show, I asked him to play the occasional old record to help to introduce his young audience to some of the acts he had championed in the past. I argued that Smiths fans might be interested in Van Morrison or Tim Buckley if they were introduced to them by John Peel. But he would have none of it. The two hours of airtime he had every day were too precious to devote to anything other than the latest sounds from the streets, pubs and bedrooms, and from teenage Britain.

In the Eighties, I was asked to write a profile of John for a newspaper. He was a reluctant interviewee, but I managed to cobble together what I thought was a reasonable piece. When it appeared, though, he was cross with me for drawing attention to his love of driving. He didn't think it was a big part of his life, even though he spent hours at the wheel and refused to fly until only a few years ago.

I'd spent hours debating with him the fastest way to London from Suffolk. I was an advocate of the A10; he preferred the A505 right round Royston to the A1. For weeks, he would keep me informed of various time trials he'd done using different routes, all proving that he was right in the first place. How silly that we should waste so much time on something so trivial, but that was John; once the bee was in the bonnet, it just kept buzzing.

The Peel/Walters office at Egton House, the old home of Radio 1, was a shambles, hung with Christmas cards from decades earlier and packed to the ceiling with tapes and vinyl. Walters was the untidiest man in the BBC, and would never have survived in the era of open-plan offices. Peel and their faithful secretary Sue (known as Brian, in a spiffing chaps' wheeze kind of way) kept on at him, but nothing changed.

So John had to sit on his record case or the floor because there was no room for a chair. This became even more ludicrous when John had one of his famous early evening naps. The door would closegently, and the greatest living DJ would snore through two hours, wrapped around a desk leg, a bin and a pile of NMEs.

When I arrived back at Radio 1 in 1995 as the head of production, with a brief to overhaul the music policy and the on-air sound of the station, Peel was as comfortable as I'd ever seen him with the BBC management. The pop'n'prattlers were on their way out, and the new controller, Matthew Bannister, had endeared himself to Peel by making all sorts of public statements about his support for new music. I remember Peel and Andy Kershaw talking about Bannister on the radio and saying: "Well, we're safe - one day Radio 1 will sound like our shows all day long."

But John's unease with management resurfaced when the axe started to fall on people he liked. He got quite angry with me about the departure of one producer he was particularly fond of, and he took on the mantle of a stubborn trade-union leader arguing, in effect, that all change at Radio 1 was a bad thing. Underneath that friendly grumpy-old-man exterior lurked a genuine grumpy old man.

When asked about his favourite record in the 1970s, he used to talk about Link Wray's dirty and foreboding guitar solo "Rumble" and T Rex's "Ride a White Swan". He delighted in the story that when Marc Bolan made No 1 for the first time, Peel had been driving in his car and had to pull over on to the hard shoulder as his eyes filled with tears.

But for many years his choice of best record ever was "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones, I think because it reminded him of what music is there for. Once he'd kicked the somnambulism of the acid and dope years and rediscovered beer (he always credited The Faces for re-energising him in the early Seventies), he espoused music that celebrated youth and vigour.

John Peel won hundreds of awards. But he was a genuinely reluctant celebrity; he hated what fame did to people and he had no truck with the insincerity of showbiz hangers-on. In fact, I've no doubt that if he knew that I, or indeed anyone outside a close circle of family and friends, was writing about him, he'd be coming after me with a meat cleaver. I can hear him saying so.

I was in Berlin when I heard the shocking news of John's death. Even the teletext in my hotel room put the news on their front page, which gives some indication of his worldwide reputation. Since Tuesday morning when the news broke (although it had been embargoed until 2pm), I've received dozens of texts and e-mails from friends who've been touched by the great man. One came from an old friend I haven't seen in more than 20 years. "You told me so many funny, warm stories about John," she wrote, "that I felt I knew him a bit, too, and I was thrilled when he gave me a big smile and a good morning in Diss last April." John had that effect on people. He made you feel better.

He became a broadcasting icon because he had no artifice, no style, no shtick. What you got the across the table at an Indian restaurant was what you got on the radio: passion, honesty and an understated facility for language. Younger broadcasters described as the new John Peel have come and gone for 40 years, but the original was always the best.

Trevor Dann was a producer, and later head of production, at Radio 1