Television: Sweet suburbia

John Peel is setting out on the road to find out why small-town Britain gives birth to so much great pop

John Peel has travelled to Bellshill in Lanarkshire to meet Sean Dickson, the former lead singer with the band, The Soup Dragons. With that group, Peel recalls, "Sean experienced the strange sensation of one day being an unemployed youth in a small town, and the next being an unemployed youth on Top of the Pops."

In his new eight-part series for Channel 4, John Peel's Sounds of the Suburbs, the DJ investigates why so much great indie music has grown up away from the big cities, in satellite towns and suburbs. In the process, he is able to chart the social history of these non-metropolitan areas. In the first episode, in which he visits Lanarkshire, Peel reflects on the effect the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks and the loss of 7,000 jobs had on the surrounding area. "Even people in London read about Ravenscraig. Page 19, just below `Runaway vicar in mercy dash to palace'."

The series also offers Peel the chance to do what he likes best: poking around in the out-of-the-way corners that have inspired so much of this self-starting "dole-queue" music. "If there is any thinking behind the series - and there wasn't much - it is to demonstrate that you don't need to be from London or Glasgow or Manchester to get things sorted out."

These "suburban" bands "do a lot more for me than truckloads of Britpop ninnies. It's because they are doing it for themselves that the music has so much energy and originality. It's the fact that it doesn't fit into anything that marketing and promotions thugs can peddle easily that gives the music its strength.

"There's a kind of control element built into much of what goes on in Britpop. I saw, to my horror, on the front of Melody Maker last week that the band Gay Dad are heralding the revival of Britpop. Britpop is a manipulated phenomenon, and I don't enjoy feeling manipulated. To be topical, you could call it genetically modified music."

This all coheres with Peel's consistent championing of the alternative, a philosophy which has remained largely unchanged in more than 30 years of broadcasting. "I get accused of being perverse," he admits, "but when you hear 10 seconds of shrieking Japanese guitars, by any applicable standards you think, `that's fantastic'. I like the idea of people going away thinking `what the hell was that about?' "

Peel has always cultivated the position of the outsider looking in - hence his perpetual popularity with generations of disaffected youth. "It's better never to feel comfortable with anything. Even when I walk the dogs late at night, I'm always thinking, `is there a maniac in the shrubs?'. Wherever you are, there's always a danger of a maniac in the shrubs. Too many celebrities lose sight of the absurdity of what is going on around them."

Peel has no such problems. His down-to-earth approach has made him a national institution - although, of course, he laughs off the tag. "That phrase always reminds me of crumbling brickwork in need of repointing. I just feel like a husband and father under siege from his family. They don't see me as a national institution. I'm just the bloke who carries the dirty cups through to the kitchen and who they're always trying to get off the phone."

What sustains Peel is his unremitting enthusiasm for new music. "People think it's odd that a fellow nearing 60 feels like this," he concedes. "But it couldn't have happened before because only people my age have had their lives transformed by hearing Elvis. If you're interested in films, no one says to you when you reach 60, `you can only watch Carry On films now'. To me, it seems perfectly normal to want to experience new things. Although that doesn't mean I want to go paragliding over the Trossachs - wherever they may be."

`John Peel's Sounds of the Suburbs' starts tonight at 11.50pm on C4

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