THE OLDEST SWINGER

ALL CHANGE AT RADIO 1
It was sinister. The frequency was right, but surely this wasn't Radio1? Just the sound of a storm, and an American man speaking, softly and precisely: "When it's really blowin' and it's really windy out, and the porch is slammin', it's neat," he was saying. "The water lets the wind make faces."

People all over the country had switched on their radios to help them get through homework or the dishes; to wind down, or couple up. It was the late evening, a time when R1 used to broadcast comedy, or live gigs by famous people, or important documentaries. Now there was just an odd man, whispering to himself in the rain.

It could only mean one thing: John Peel, veteran champion of the strange and new, back in a prime slot. As dark electronic music carried the track to a conclusion, he told us that we had been listening to "For the Glory of the Wind and the Water" by the Boxhead Ensemble, whoever they may be, from the soundtrack of a film about Alaska. As always, his voice was familiar and natural, but heavy with irony. Like carpet slippers with steel toe-caps.

Peel was with R1 when it launched 30 years ago, and is the only one of the original DJs still with the station. Some, like Terry Wogan, passed on to television heaven, while others re-enact their youth over and again in the nostalgic limbo of Gold radio. Some really are dead. But Peel remains, still playing the records that nobody else will.

Until recently, he was exiled to the weekend, asked to broadcast when most of his audience was likely to be out. That was fine - there were other shows to record, for radio and TV, on family life, trains, Liverpool FC and sundry passions. But Mark Radcliffe's breakfast call inspired R1 to give Peel back the weekday-evening show that had influenced several generations.

"I had a letter last year which was typical," he said as we sat together in the music room at his secluded house in Suffolk. "A girl wrote to say she had been listening in bed, and her mum had come up and said, `You ought to be asleep. What are you listening to?' She replied, `John Peel.' And her mum said, `Oh, I used to listen to that show.' I quite like that.

John Walters, his producer and friend, once said the John Peel show would be in serious trouble if its presenter ever reached adolescence. Peel's beard is whitening, but his childlike delight at new music is unlikely to fade now, at the age of 57. Most of us face a moment of truth, the night we sit down in front of Top of the Pops and think, "Call that music?" He never got snagged in time like that, this man who was best friends with Marc Bolan; who played punk first; who gave sessions to Bowie, the Smiths, The Fall, and others too numerous to mention; who championed rap and ambient and jungle and whatever else seemed interesting.

"In the same way that I'm becoming more lefty as I get older, I feel challenged by the things I don't understand," he said. "If you write this down it's going to look unbelievably pretentious, but I'd sooner hear stuff that I'm not sure is any good or not - like those bizarre Japanese noise bands."

His hope is that someone, somewhere will hear a record on the show and experience an epiphany, just as young John Ravenscroft did when he first heard Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel". It was 1956, and the teenager was listening to Family Favourites at home in the Wirral. "That was extraordinary. Nothing that you'd ever heard had prepared you for that. It was like wanting to know about sex and having a naked woman rush into the room."

After National Service he was sent to America by his father, a cotton broker. Beatlemania swept the States, and he rode the wave: taking advantage of the fashion for young Liverpudlians, he changed his name and wangled a radio show. "I just talked about Liverpool, and hysterical girls would phone in and ask me what colour Paul McCartney's eyes were. It was terrifically exciting. An enormous number of rather attractive young women were prepared to have some kind of rather clumsy and depressing sexual experience with me."

He married one of them, who turned out to be 15. Peel left the country, worked on a pirate radio ship and was hired by the new R1. Soon after, he met Sheila, nicknamed Pig because of her snorting laugh. They bought a 300-year-old thatched house and have lived in it for 26 years. It is a family home, busy with animals and whichever of their four grown-up children happen to be around. There is a tennis court, paid for with the proceeds of a voice-over advertising toilet tissue. He spends hours in a room stacked to the ceiling with LPs, preparing detailed playlists for his shows.

This domestic haven can be hard to leave, even when there is an audience waiting that thinks he is a Godlike Genius (a title conferred on him by the readers of the NME). "On Monday night, I was supposed to go the Brat awards [a waspish rival to the Brits]," he said. "But then I thought, `Liverpool St station, 11.30 at night, a two-hour ride through fog-shrouded East Anglia, the train will probably break down three miles outside Manningtree with no light, no heating and no explanation.'

"There was a Schubert piano recital in Bury St Edmonds so we went to that, and went for a meal afterwards with some friends. I shouldn't be telling you this - talk about loss of credibility."

Not that he needs to worry about that. He's credible enough to have been asked to play out at the Tribal Gathering this year, spinning records to thousands of ravers young enough to be his grandchildren. He's looking forward to it - as are his offspring, who want free tickets. "It's very flattering. I thought they were taking the piss when they first asked, to be honest."

John Peel: Tues-Thurs, 8.30-10.30pm, R1 FM.

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