Radio Review

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The Independent Culture
We all make mistakes. What's important is how we try to make amends. John Peel was a hippy once, long ago, running radio programmes with names like The Perfumed Garden and playing whimsical, pixieish tunes involving the premeditated use of mandolins. But he saw the error of his ways, and started to play music with thrashing guitars and drums and people shouting - proper music. There's no particular reason for talking about him now, except that on Saturday I listened to his show for the first time in ages and enjoyed it hugely; and that we should never let slip an opportunity to praise great men.

A lot is made of Peel's ability to keep abreast of new trends in music - he does a fair amount of this trancey stuff that young people seem to like these days; but the most attractive thing about him is how little things change. He still has the air of being slightly surprised by the delightful things that appear on his turntable, and by the accidental harmonies he stumbles upon - so a record by the Blue Hawaiians leads to a meditation on the films of Elvis Presley, and an air of baffled gratification at the discovery that the next record is by Sweden's answer to Elvis (it's a rhythmically and tonally skew-whiff version of "Long Tall Sally" so far removed from the original that, Peel observes, the singer could probably claim it as an original composition). He catches himself in the middle of sentences, as if - well, as if he was slightly embarrassed but still sort of pleased by the direction they'd taken, really.

There's contrivance behind this supposed serendipity, but it doesn't keep you from enjoying it, any more than the knowledge that the lady hasn't really been sawn in half stops you enjoying the trick. The knowledge that you've been tricked is half the point of it, in fact.

He is not without his faults. After all these years, and well beyond the time when he ought to be finding that Jimmy Young isn't quite as objectionable as he remembered, he hangs on to a weakness for music that goes beyond thrashing into the unlistenable - this week represented by a group called Underclass, a name that gives you all the clues you need to construct a pretty accurate idea of their sound. If nothing else, though, this penchant has kept Mark E Smith from hanging around bus shelters and frightening little old ladies for a couple of decades. So John Peel, on this not especially significant occasion, we salute you.

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