Profile, John Peel: Queen Mother of rock

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The Independent Culture
Life Story

Born: 30 August, 1939 as John Robert Parker Ravenscroft.

Family: Father "Captain Bob" Ravenscroft served in the Royal Artillery and ran a cotton business in Cheshire. Two younger brothers, Francis and Alan.

Marriages: First to an underage Texan, Shirley, in 1966; Second to Sheila Mary Gilhooly in 1974.

Children: William, Alexandra, Thomas and Florence (`Flossie')

Education: Miss Jones' Kindergarten, Neston 1943-46; Woodlands School, Deganwy, North Wales 1946-51 and Shrewsbury School 1952-56. Four O levels.

Military career: National Service as Gunner Ravenscroft, J, No. 23668538, spent two years with the Army Trials Establishment, (Guided Weapons), Royal Artillery, Anglesey.

Broadcasting career: KLIF, Dallas 1963-64; KOMA, Oklahoma City, 1964- 65; KMEN, San Bernando, California 1965-67; pirate radio, 1967; BBC Radio since 1967.

Hobbies: Making plans to go and live in France; staring out of the window.

Club: Liverpool FC supporters

He says: "My parents weren't big on touch"; "I'm not one of these people who can smile to order".

They say: "The most important individual in British rock music history," says his producer, John Walters; "He's just one of the really good guys," David "Kid" Jensen; "He's never been afraid to swim against the tide of popular cliches," Tony Blair.

Why do people always have a go at Belgium?" These are the first words uttered by John Peel on the night of Tuesday 24 August, 1999, when his show is being broadcast live from his home near Stowmarket, Suffolk. "This," he adds, "is the programme that quite `likes' Belgium." With that we're straight into a fierce blast of female punk rock - the archetypal John Peel record, if such a thing is possible. It's business as usual; business, that is, as it has been several nights a week since 1967, when Peel first joined the fledgling Radio 1 "pop" team as one of the presenters of the groovily-named Top Gear show.

Peel's dry, cosily blokeish tones have barely changed in the 25-odd years since I used religiously to listen to him, ear wedged against the transistor radio under the bed clothes, virtually every week-night. His voice is still the comforting mumble of a kind of alternative dad or underground uncle - an endlessly affable, lovably self-deprecating drone, complete with gaffes, hesitations, and baffled mispronunciations.

The rest of the show is like, well, every other John Peel show of recent vintage. There's a dreary session by the Pastels, veterans of the "anorak" sound championed by Peel in the mid-Eighties. There's the obligatory drum 'n' bass record, by Lincoln duo Stomp & Weaver; the obligatory death metal record, by cheery Norwegians Hate Eternal; some reggae, by Errol Thompson and Freddie MacGregor; and a song from a 1982 Cocteau Twins session that takes me back to my first exposure (on Peel's show, naturally) to the genius of Elizabeth Fraser. As with most of the broadcasts from "Peel Acres" - the nickname for the farmhouse he bought in 1971 - there's also a cameo appearance by Peel's beloved wife Sheila, whom Peel for many years referred to as "the Pig". (I only found out later that this was because of the way she snorted when she laughed.) Tonight Peel makes reference to a rather alarming fit his missus suffered in the past week. Three years ago Sheila had a brain haemorrahage, and many are the friends who worry about how Peel would cope should anything happen to her now.

I can still remember how jealous I felt when I realised that Peel and the Pig received birthday cards from listeners other than myself. Lying in bed listening to the latest Roy Harper or Robert Wyatt (or Kevin Coyne or Ivor Cutler) session on that precious little radio, I think I honestly believed in some way he speaking solely to me. For we were all of us John's children, each sure we were a favourite son or daughter. For all of us, Peel was the gatekeeper who opened the door to everything in rock that was different, everything that was outside/beyond the crass pop mainstream.

Just as important was the geniality and modesty of the man, the sense that he wasn't doing this - as 98 per cent of the world's disc jockeys transparently were and are - because he loved the sound of his own voice.

In what some have seen as one of the less probable re-inventions in the annals of British broadcasting, Peel has recently become more avuncular than ever - or perhaps simply made explicit that aspect of his radio persona.

With the Saturday morning Radio 4 show Home Truths, he has turned himself into the domestic conscience of the nation, processing the problems of "ordinary folk" as they contend with disaster, tragedy, or plain old inconvenience. (On this weekend's show: close brushes with death, the business of making wills and vicious children's games). Home Truths has also brought Peel's own home life further into the foreground than ever before, sprinkled as it is with references to Sheila and the state of his children's bedrooms. (The thought occurs that there may one day be scandalous revelations of the "Peelie Dearest" variety from his overexposed off-spring: "He told us if we went to the press he'd play Extreme Noise Terror all night ...". But it seems unlikely.)

For some fans, and even old colleagues of Peel's, the hugely popular Home Truths hits too close to Peel Acres for comfort. Andy Kershaw has called it "cloying, sentimental and indulgent", and even John Walters, the producer of Peel's Radio 1 shows for many years, has been faintly appalled. "I do feel it's a bit like looking at other people's holiday snaps," he says. "I think it was Barry Norman who called it a naff-fest for people who wear sandals and live near Bigglesworth."

Sacred cows like Peel inevitably come in for the occasional biffing. If anything irritates about him, it probably comes down to this central paradox: that the man who for more than three decades has waged a war in the name of all that is cutting-edge against what he calls "shite pop" has nonetheless managed to outlast everybody at Radio 1 and cruise into a comfortable dotage. Whenever I see one of those awful old BBC publicity pictures - the ones with Tony Blackburn and "Diddy" David Hamilton grinning inanely for the in-house shutterbug and Peel skulking at the back with an expression that says "I'm not really here" - I just wonder how he's managed to last at the Beeb so long. Has he all along been "subverting from within", as that tired cliche would have it, or has he really just been thinking about his pension?

It's not that thinking about your pension is such a reprehensible thing to do, especially when you've sired four children. It's just that Peel could be said to have had it too cosy for too long, with Home Truths as the ultimate evidence that any edge he had is now hopelessly dulled. Yet Peel has never pretended he was doing anything very demanding. "It's playing and listening to records that I like," he states matter-of-factly. And he'd probably be the last person to endorse John Walters's assessment of him as "the most important individual in British rock music history". Indeed, in an era of crazed megalomaniacs like Chris Evans, Peel's gentle, humdrum sanity is something to hold fast to. (As his footballing idol Kenny Dalglish, formerly of Peel's beloved Liverpool, puts it, "for such an unassuming man he's lasted a long time in a business that doesn't usually attract such people". Nicely understated, Mr D.)

Ironically, the droll, deadpan chumminess of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, to give him his full and proper name, may be rooted in the lovelessness of a typical upper-middle-class English wartime childhood. By the sound of things, Peel may even be, in Nineties parlance, the Adult Child of an Alcoholic. (His mother, he has said, "could be very unpleasant when she was drunk".) Peel has never maintained he was anything other than the eldest son of a wealthy cotton merchant from the Wirral in Cheshire, just as he's never attempted to cover up the fact that he went to Shrewsbury public school along with half the founders of Private Eye.

What Peel has managed to do is achieve a uniquely honorary classlessness, both through his physical appearance ("I look like a cab driver") and through his accent, which, over the decades, has evolved from minor aristocracy (on the air in Dallas, Texas, early 1960s) via ersatz Scouse (wake-of- Beatlemania, mid-1960s) and muttering hippiespeak (pirate radio in England, late 1960s) to the matey mishmash of London, Liverpool and John Walters's Midlands that is his Everyman speaking voice today.

(Walters's favourite Peel story concerns a television appearance the avuncular one made some years ago on a Tyne Tees arts show. When the train ticket arrived for the trip to Newcastle, Walters recalls, Peel inspected it with a look of mild horror. "It's first class," he said. "So?" asked Walters gruffly. Slight pause. "Am I allowed to travel second class?" Walters says the question sums up Peel's life.) "My theory is that it's all been about a desire, a search for belonging," says Andy Kershaw, a Peel/Walters protege in the Eighties. "It's almost been an attempt to find a kind of working-class identity." If Kershaw is right, it might explain many things: Peel's long-standing romanticisation of the Kop at Anfield; his cronying in the Seventies with the Faces, those Godfathers of boozy Laddism; his instant embrace of every new proletarian music form from punk to jungle. But it might also explain why Peel, having found the identity in question, has never used it to agitate or provoke.

Indeed, the reason he's survived so long at Broadcasting House - through the inane era of Gary Davies and Bruno Brookes, and through the internecine strife of the recent Chris Evans debacles - may simply be because he's always kept his head down. "Peel never pokes his head over the parapet," says Kershaw. "He likes to take a rebel stand, but he's not really a rebel. I'm the one who spends all my time fighting with Radio 1 management over whatever damn-fool policy it might be."

In this context, making the jump from playing The Fall and Napalm Death to discussing gardening gripes and marrying cousins on Home Truths is less a self-reinvention than an extension of what Peel's always done, which is to reach out across the airwaves and make people feel part of something bigger than themselves. A large part of the fun of listening to him play records has always been the disjunction between the often- unlistenable nature of the music and the mug-of-tea homeliness of the voice that tells you about it.

"My suspicion is, and always has been, that quite a substantial number of Peel listeners tune in not for the records at all but for the bits in between," says Kershaw. "The number of times I stand at the kitchen sink at night washing up and saying, `What is he playing now?' But you see, it doesn't matter. Over the years he's championed some terrible old shite, but that isn't why you listen."

"It's the Queen Mother syndrome," says Walters. "There's no point in knocking him and having a go. He toddles along and people throw their hats in the air and say, `Gawd bless yer, marm!' Even my neighbours know who he is now. People grab me in the supermarket and say, `How's yer old mate John Peel?'''

Since both Kershaw and Walters will be scanning this to make sure I didn't just cherry-pick their more derogatory quotes, let me make it clear that when Walters says Peel has been more important to pop's development than even John Lennon he is being 100 per cent sincere. And let Kershaw emphasise that without Peel - the man he calls "the greatest broadcaster on the BBC" - "not only would I not have the range of tastes I do but I wouldn't be working in radio at all".

"His love of records is pathological," concludes Walters. "If he went down the Amazon he'd get the guy to pull the canoe over to see if there was a record store somewhere in the rain forest. When he and I went on a joint honeymoon with our wives to Egypt, I was a bit jumpy about going outside the hotel gates, but Peel took his missus and took a cab to the centre of Cairo to find a record shop. To this day he has no idea what those records he bought were. But he can't stop himself."

For services to all manner of daft, shambling, surreal, marginal, and Egyptian music - and plenty of terrible old shite - let us join together in celebration of the man's 60th birthday. Gawd Bless Yer Peelie!