The long goodbye

He loved reggae and Japanese noise bands, but the late John Peel is best-remembered as a champion of English eccentrics, says Michael Bracewell. Hence his interest in Pet Shop Boys, writes Neil Tennant. And even, remembers Simmy Richman, a long forgotten band called The Sensible Jerseys. Finally, D J Taylor recalls his recent visit to Peel Acres to meet the great man at home...
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As flatly English as half-day closing, John Peel's quietly conversational broadcasting style could often seem at odds with the exotically eclectic varieties of music which he championed for nearly half a century. Disinclined to theorise, Peel brought the avant-garde to the bed-sit in a way which endorsed Dave Marsh's observation that pop and rock music should be a conversation which anyone can join in with.

As flatly English as half-day closing, John Peel's quietly conversational broadcasting style could often seem at odds with the exotically eclectic varieties of music which he championed for nearly half a century. Disinclined to theorise, Peel brought the avant-garde to the bed-sit in a way which endorsed Dave Marsh's observation that pop and rock music should be a conversation which anyone can join in with.

For successive generations, it was the undaunted range of John Peel's musical discoveries which made his radio show a kind of magnetic north by which the rest of us took our bearings. All of which contributed to the richly English sense of obsessive amateurism which made Peel's reports from the frontiers of modern music so appealing. From rain-swept campus universities to the fringe estates of provincial cities, there was always the chance that some otherwise isolated soul might be snuggled up with their radio, listening to Peel's unimpeachably honest enthusiasm, for, say, "Midget Submarines'' by Swell Maps.

With a musical taste which included Japanese noise bands, German metal bashers, world music, rap and reggae, John Peel was also one of the great pioneers and ambassadors for a specifically English musical sensibility. From the second half of the 1960s, during the height of the Tolkienesque whimsy of English folk rock, Peel's taste identified a form of musical Englishness which was as colourful and varied as any of the other sub-genres of pop weirdness which he came to pioneer.

It was Peel, for example, who not only proclaimed the greatness of Marc Bolan's gloriously fey duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, but also contributed to their 1968 album, punchily titled My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair But Now They Are Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows.

Dedicated to "Aslan and the Old Narnians'' (a reference to C S Lewis's stories for children) the album featured a story read by Peel, as well as his sleeve note, printed in Gothic script and concluding, "it will be a long and ecstatic summer''.

As Morrissey - also a great fan of T Rex - has pointed out, you would probably have to have something profoundly wrong with you if you could make sense of what Bolan was singing about on those early LPs. But heard now they still deliver the sharp musical brilliance which rehearsed Bolan's subsequent transformation into a glitter-dusted teenage rock god. Also, they communicate the whole aesthetic of English hippydom - Notting Hill troubadours who probably spoke Elvish as a second language.

Just as pop impresarios Larry Parnes and Jack Good had played a vital role in the British Beat Boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, presenting a whole new world of pop, so John Peel would later assemble and lovingly maintain a breadth of that particular wit and weirdness which seems to be a cultural bi-product of traditional English reserve. At times you got the feeling that an ideal Peel discovery would have been some kind of musical collaboration between Edith Sitwell and Robert Wyatt, available only in a wrapping of hand-printed greaseproof paper, in an edition of 50 copies from a small industrial estate in the West Midlands.

And this was nothing to do with boyish nerdism; rather it came across as a genuine delight in the way that some of the best modern music has an edge which courts the absurd. It was Peel who first championed the legendary Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, on his show Top Gear in the late 1960s. As fronted by Vivian Stanshall, this was a group who were as steeped in the humour of Englishness as Ealing comedy, and whose description of suburban neatness, seaside towns or a dance craze called "The Trouser Press'' were a peerless combination of Wodehousian lunacy and absurdist anarchy. It was Peel, again, who wrote the touching sleeve note for the group's final compilation LP, released subsequent to Stanshall's untimely death in 1995.

For my generation, those born towards the end of the 1950s, the required listening was always John Peel's nightly monitoring of the vast diversity of aggressively modern new music which seemed to have been enabled by punk. For just as punk burned out as fast as a flare of magnesium, so the musical landscape had been so empowered that it took a broadcasting genius such as Peel to present the diversity and wealth of new artists.

Between 1977 and 1980, this was a flowering of new British music which was driven by a fusion of audacity and amateurism. If Peel played a record which sounded as though it had been recorded in a wardrobe, then it probably had been - as was the case with "Danger Came Smiling'' by Ludus. And then there were such epoch-defining singles as "Part Time Punks'' by the Television Personalities, whose observational humour - "They pay five pence on the buses, and they never use toothpaste'' - ran alongside the spooky philosophical soundscapes of such other Peel favourites as The Fall, The Nightingales and The Pop Group.

And as the last seconds of "Bingo Masters Break Out'' or "Circus of Death'' receded into the friendly parlour of John Peel's radio show, you knew that the English visionary tradition was alive and well, and making vital new pop records in Lower Broughton or the outskirts of Sheffield.

It all came down to that voice, laconic and dry

One of the worst things about interviewing the famous person shortly before his or her unexpected death is that one is instantly raised to the status of world authority on the deceased's career, habits and foibles. Two hours spent in John Peel's company on a bright morning in late July - the lengthy piece was eventually published in this newspaper on 29 August - seemed a poor qualification for going on Five News to talk about him with Kirsty Young this week. Just as Peel was simply a fan of the music he played, so I was simply a fan of Peel's.

Nevertheless, sitting in the kitchen of Peel Acres, near Stowmarket, as Peel gloomily inspected the morning's post and his wife Sheila flitted back and forth between infant grandson and mobile phone, was a curious experience. So familiar was the voice - laconic, ground-down - that the encounter had no novelty. Ideally, one wants celebrities to caper on stage in garments of spangled other-worldliness while also seeming to be just like everyone else. Peel trod a fine line between these extremes. On the one hand nobody behaved less like a professional disc jockey. On the other, you were aware that Peel had built his career on a wide-scale dismissal of the standard varieties of relentless ego-projection and air-head soliloquising.

Peel's fascination was that the things that were interesting about him were not the things in which he was interested himself. The famously dry, lugubrious, self-deprecating manner, for instance. Was this the result of infinite layers of stylisation, applied over the years, or just the way in which Peel went about his business? There was no real way of knowing this, and you doubt if Peel knew himself. Then there was the marked reluctance to intellectualise the subject to which he had devoted his professional life. The Beatles and The Stones, The Fall and The Undertones, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley: it was all - strong views about the morality of playing in apartheid-era South Africa notwithstanding - just music to Peel. No doubt there were good reasons why Peel stayed committed to fan-dom, possibly related to a third interesting thing about him: the reinvention of the cotton manufacturer's public school-educated son as a Scouse-accented man of the people.

Ultimately, of course, it all came down to the voice. "He knows all about me," Orwell decided, on first reading Henry Miller, "he wrote this for me." Much the same could be said of Peel, as one sat at one's college desk chain-smoking into the night, announcing the latest fab waxing by the Large Pieces of Septic Green Flesh, or whoever. As Anthony Powell - the only modern English novelist for whom this national treasure seemed to have any time - might have remarked, in his way John Peel was rather a great man.


Finally, we got a session

Many bands have memories of John Peel giving them their first taste of radio play just as they were getting started. But for Pet Shop Boys it was quite different.

Peel asked us to record a session at a time when Radio 1 seemed to have stopped playing our records. That seemed to be his spirit, that he would play whatever he felt like. We were headlining one night at the 2002 Sonar Festival in Barcelona and, somewhat to our surprise, his producer came to see us backstage to say that John Peel wondered if we would like to record a session for his show. It felt like an unexpected honour to be asked to do a Peel session and so, later that year, we recorded four songs for his show in the BBC Maida Vale studios. We normally spend days, weeks or even months recording a new song but we enjoyed the challenge of recording and mixing four songs in one day.

When he played them he remarked that any listeners surprised to be hearing the Pet Shop Boys on his show could just pretend they were listening to an obscure German electronic group. I always respected the way he dug out music that would be unheard elsewhere on Radio 1.

In the Eighties, he was also (with David Jensen) the best ever presenter of Top of the Pops!


Our song was pop - but he played it

"Did you hear John Peel died?" I asked my brother. "I met him once," he replied. "It was in the 1960s, and I was on a bus on the way to a Creedence Clearwater Revival gig. He was there and we got talking." While he couldn't remember anything that was actually said, that's hardly the point. His story illustrates that Peel was happy to get on a bus to see a band he admired and even happier to talk to the people around him.

It seems that everyone who loves a particular type of music (you know, the good stuff) met John Peel at some stage. You'd see him at gigs, you'd see him hanging around outside the BBC, and you'd often see him if you were lucky enough to make a record that he liked - which is how I met John Peel.

It was the mid-1980s and I was playing drums in a band called The Sensible Jerseys. Frustrated at playing (literally, once) to one man and his dog at such venues as the King's Head in Fulham, we decided to self-finance a single. About £500 later, we had boxes of the things that we proceeded to send out one by one to anyone who might be in a position to help us.

And one of those people was Peel. Astonishingly - given that it was a harmonic pop song with no white noise or snarly vocals - he played it on his show. He was also kind enough to say (and I have a cassette to prove it): "This record should be played every hour on the hour on daytime Radio 1." We were chuffed. Not only because Peel's word did make several daytime DJs pick up on our record, but also because his seal of approval meant that the same record companies that had turned us down were now beginning to turn up.

Someone in the band decided to phone and thank him. And that phone call led to him asking to take us for lunch. We met him the next day at Broadcasting House in central London. He was on a lunch break (he would spend his days listening to music for inclusion in his evening show) and he suggested a wine bar nearby.

Like my brother, I remember little of that meeting. So I phoned the band's lead singer and asked him what was said. He remembered that the reason Peel loved our record was because he felt it wasn't worried about doing the right thing. He said that the records that grabbed his attention were the ones that took chances, by bands prepared to make mistakes. Like most of us when we are talking about the qualities we admire in others, Peel was, of course, really talking about himself.