The first time I ever spoke to John Peel was when I phoned up his office at Radio 1 in the autumn of 1984. I'd sent him a tape of a gig I did with Billy Bragg reciting some frankly appalling poetry and was chancing my arm on getting a Peel session. The fact that he answered the phone was stunning. He was very polite and apologised for not having heard it, but explained that he was a little behind in his mail, and thought it might be in the Volvo. It was all I needed to hear. When I hung up the phone, I had spoken to John Peel and that was the only reason I'd sent the thing in the first place.
Thankfully John was sent an ocean of material a lot better than mine, all of which was given a listen and much of which was given airtime that no other broadcaster would countenance. To listen to The John Peel Show was to be directly plugged in to the mind of a man who truly and deeply loved music. What separated him from his peers was the manner in which he did this.
Radio 1 in the Seventies and Eighties had become a kind of perverse ego-factory where music played second fiddle to the on-air "talent". The Top 20 rotation would be interrupted by such gems as Our Tune, The Bit In The Middle, Snooker On The Radio, Gervaise The Hairdresser and Noel Edmonds. It was lowest-common-denominator stuff, and, depressingly, was very popular.
Thankfully John existed in a bubble where the chart held no sway and, by doing absolutely nothing, he revealed himself to have the most engaging personality on Radio 1. With the slickness, artifice and gloss of daytime abandoned, what the listener got was a bloke playing records that nobody else could be bothered to play. It was truly magical stuff. The charming and bumbling Peel would play white-label demos at the wrong speed, announce that he had no details about a track and invite the artists to enlighten him. He'd occasionally chat about Liverpool FC or his kids or his beloved Pig. Like all of the best broadcasters, he made it all feel absolutely effortless.
In the days before the internet, Peel was MySpace. He, and his extraordinary producer John Walters, provided the one place that musicians could send their work and know that it would get a fair hearing. Shows would be bootlegged, sent round the world, and listened to again and again. I used to have a cassette of the second Fall session that I listened to for years that also had a song by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on it, and a session-track by a band called Bethnal, whom I have never heard of since. What I loved to hear, though, was Peel's voice. The warmth and genuine enthusiasm for the records he was playing was truly wonderful.
This album contains 38 artists who owe much of their success to the patronage of John Peel. Between 1977 and 1987 no serious music lover could ignore his programme. New artists were emerging on a weekly basis and the place to hear them first in the UK was on The John Peel Show. Before major record labels even woke up to what was happening in popular culture, Peel was broadcasting it to the nation. Buzzcocks were Peel regulars right from The Spiral Scratch EP, as were Stiff Little Fingers, whose "Alternative Ulster" I remember from the first time John played it.
Many of the artists in this collection were Peel perennials, true favourites of John, who never really crossed over in to mass acceptance. "Mankind" by Misty In Roots is a track taken from Live At the Counter Eurovision 1979, a record that, on more than one occasion, John said was his favourite album of all time. Another Peel favourite was the late Ivor Cutler, a quiet if hilarious Scottish poet, whose hushed pronouncements on Caledonian family life were real high points in the show, - "Life In A Scotch Sitting Room" is included.
One of the most pleasing things about Peel was the way that there was always the edge of the perverse about his listening habits. I'd always delight in evenings when he'd come off the back of someone like The Mekons with some Roy Orbison, an artist John absolutely adored. Also the furious "no disco" edict of the punk movement held no sway on Peely's show, as he'd often play Johnny Guitar Watson and, surprisingly, was one of the first DJs in the country to play "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. That was one thing you could always count on The John Peel Show for: complete unpredictability.
The power of Peel's word at the time carried enormous sway. I remember him writing an article for The Observer about the importance of the rising Merseyside pop kings Half Man Half Biscuit, who had yet to venture south of Leicester Forest East services. The following week saw their debut London gig at the tiny Bull And Gate pub in Kentish Town. To say that the event was oversubscribed would be an understatement. Like hundreds of others I went to the show on Peel's say-so and, you quite simply, could not move. It took an hour to get a drink, and then we watched, immobile, through a doorway at the back as Nigel and the boys expressed their feelings on Nerys Hughes... it was quite simply fantastic!
Often Peel would break an artist who would subsequently buck expectations and get to the top of the charts, such was the case with the New York avant-garde performer Laurie Anderson, who actually managed to get all the way to No2 with "O Superman".
This album is a diverse showcase of some of the artists who got their first exposure through John and rose to be global stars, and of some who got their only exposure on John's show, and I think that's how he liked it. His playlist went from Paul Weller to Ivor Cutler, from Nick Cave to Biggie Tembo, from Public Enemy to The Fall. There will never be another.
'John Peel - Right Time Wrong Speed: 1977-1987' is out on 9 October on WMTVReuse content