Watch out - there's a maverick about

He's got the boys from Blur, he's got Extreme Noise terror, he's even got Fluff. Who else could assemble such a cast? By Anthony Clavane meets the man behind Meltdown.
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The Independent Culture
A three-hour Japanese noise marathon, Punjabi hip-hop, Jamaican reggae, Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, English poet Nigel Blackwell, comedian Jeremy Hardy - "who ought to be running the country" - Laurel and Hardy film music, live screenings of World Cup games, off-beat indie collaborations and a Berlin band "who are completely unknown, even in Berlin". All this and Alan Freeman too.

It looks like John Peel's Christmases have come at once. Suddenly, there's a minor panic. Where's Fluff? The tattered New Musical Express being closely scrutinised on the pine kitchen table of his thatched Suffolk cottage (his main source of information about the event, despite being its curator) has unaccountably left the poptastic legend off the line-up for Meltdown 98. "Does that mean the Freeman B-movie season's not going ahead?" ponders Peel, stroking his greying beard. Of all the knock-backs he has received - Polly Harvey pulling out, Jarvis Cocker not returning his calls, Paul Whitehouse being unavailable, Arab Strap being unwilling - this would be the hardest to bear.

If the Freeman B-movie season seems an incongruous choice for an experimental arts-fest - well, that's the point. Approaching 60, although by his own admission "mentally still approaching puberty", Peel appears to have gone in for a bit of mischief-making, cocking a snook at the pretensions of high art, refashioning Meltdown in his own eclectic image.

It tickles him to think that earnest South Bank types might accidentally stumble upon a 23-piece Dutch ensemble's tribute to Hollywood's greatest comedy duo, or find themselves stranded at an "undanceable and unlistenable" indie-thrash gig. "I hope one or two of the arts set walk in by mistake," he chuckles. "To have some blue-haired lads from Ipswich jumping up and down and bellowing at them is good for them, don't you think? There's a therapy aspect to all this, you know."

One intriguing double-bill has the sublime Cutler, a devotee of the Noise Abatement Society, paired with blue-haired Ipswich combo Extreme Noise Terror. Of all the directors of this annual, off-the-wall festival, Elvis Costello and Laurie Anderson included, the Radio 1 veteran seems the most suited. Despite failing to bag Pulp and Polly, it's the closest he'll get to a Peelite Manifesto - a kind of "performance arts" version of the legendary Sessions.

"When the Peel Sessions started on Radio 1 I wanted them to be more experimental," he says. "I wanted Cream to come on and do four Shadows numbers. But British bands are more gang-like than American bands, they're much less flexible. I'm always faintly disappointed when people come in to do a session and just do four tracks from their new LP. I like them to come in and say: `I've worked out Tubular Bells for the ukulele', anything that's different from what they'd normally do. Some Spice Girls songs even. It was great, for instance, when Chumbawamba did `The Birdy Song'."

Just as ladies of a certain age were supposed to dream about the Queen coming round for tea, I have always fantasised about the man asking me to do a Peel Session. This flight of fancy almost took off last month when I discovered an exciting Post-It message stuck to my desk revealing "John Peel rang - twice". At last, the call! Despite lacking a demo tape, a band, or even an appropriate musical instrument, I was determined to grab this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "Actually, I wanted to talk about Keith Skues," he apologises, when I zoom round to Peel Acres. "Did you hear him last night?"

Now, old "Cardboard Shoes" Skues is a legend in his own night-time radio slot, his East Anglian show enjoying a cult following among 80-something women with names like Doreen of Long Crendon and Joan of Wivenhoe. John of Stowmarket - who tunes in religiously for a nightly fix of Sedate Seventy Eights, Keyboard Cavalcade and Partridgesque chat - read an article I wrote on "the voice of Norwich". But when I confess to being only an occasional listener he mutters "that's a shocking admission," and suddenly the prospect of a Peel-approved recording contract recedes into the distance. His enthusiasm for mainstream misfits like Skues and Freeman is genuine. These characters have become alternatives to the "alternative scene", middle-of-the-road mavericks challenging the trendy orthodoxies of pop culture. "Just so unlike anything else that you can hear. It's a tremendous relief to get something completely different to the Chris Evans clones with their fourth- form, locker-room humour."

Although hardly qualifying as either avant-garde or cool, the Fluff season (a phone call to the Meltdown office confirms it's still on) will hopefully restore the reputation of one our most underrated film stars. Of course, the line between genuine affection and tongue-in-cheek parody is often blurred, which could also be said of Half Man Half Biscuit. "Nigel Blackwell, their songwriter, is a poet," is another Peel declaration which will confound the earnest South Bank types who fail to see the literary merit of songs about Trumpton, Subbuteo and Dickie Davies' Eyes. The Half-Biscuits (or should that be Half-Men?) may well be witty, wacky and wonderfully oblique but they are hardly angst-ridden chroniclers of the modern condition.

The group are supporting Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon from Blur, proving you don't have to be an obscure, off-the-wall act to qualify as a Peel Favourite. "I have come to love Blur. And the great thing about Damon and Graham is they have never hesitated when we've approached them".

Who would hesitate to perform at a festival directed by the single most important figure in popular music over the last 30 years?

"Yes, well," he mumbles, avoiding eye contact, as always never quite sure how to respond to praise. "One or two big names turned me down. It's the function of management at that kind of showbiz level to ensure their artists don't work. The arrogance of these people is breathtaking - their lack of manners and so forth. Whenever you've got to confront the kind of egomania that rampages through the music industry, you just think: `A plague on all your houses'. That's why I keep as far away from showbiz as I can."

Such diffidence does not wash with Downing Street, however, and last week Peel found himself the recipient of an OBE. "It's a bit strange being on the same honours list as Sir John Birt," he said, not without some bite in his tone of voice.

He had called his children to ask them whether he should accept it. "Why on earth wouldn't you want to accept it?" they told him. So he did. "It's not as if I'm going to be Lord Peel, some kind of political appointment," he says. "But I really accepted it for my mum and dad - who, if they were still alive, would be proud of me."

Meltdown 98 begins with Warp Records Showcase at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 20 June and ends with Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, The Silver Apples and Half Man Half Biscuit at the Royal Festival Hall on 5 July. (0171 921 0632)

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