Saturday 06 September 1997
It has been 30 years to the month since he first graced the Radio 1 airwaves, which makes him the best qualified of all the contributors to a forthcoming BBC2 documentary, The Story of Radio 1. Despite his long service, Peel has never toed the line - he remains a glorious eccentric. His sessions have been the soundtrack for several generations of disaffected youth. Every would-be rebellious teenager worth their salt has argued the toss over his annual Festive 50 and debated the merits of, say, Captain Beefheart or The Undertones. Peel is, quite simply, a national institution.
Not that he for a moment accepts the description. "I tend to reject it," he observes. "Most national institutions are hundreds of years old, covered in ivy and need re-pointing."
Treasurable status certainly did not look a possibility when he started on Radio 1 after a spell on the pirate station, Radio London. "I thought that at best I'd last a couple of years," Peel recalls. "I was on a six- week contract to begin with. Six of us were competing for the same job on air."
He started as he meant to go on - as an odd man out. "I didn't fit into what Radio 1 wanted from their DJs," he recounts. "We were all seen as mega-showbiz figures, people of some worth. Unfortunately, one or two believed it. We were all supposed to aspire to the condition Noel Edmonds achieved - famous for being famous. What does Noel Edmonds actually do?
"At the time, pop was just beginning to - is the word bifurcate? It'll do - and I was digging around trying to find fringe acts," Peel carries on. "The official assumption was that reason would soon re-impose itself. We'd been told the same thing when rock'n'roll came along, and people said, `It's just a flash in the pan, we'll soon be back to big-voiced ballads'."
In the 1970s, Peel felt no more part of the establishment. "I was regarded at the BBC as the Baader-Meinhof Gang of British broadcasting, but my Molotov cocktails were made of rubber," he says with that familiar dry wit. "I'd love to be a revolutionary, but I don't look like one. I look like a mini-cab driver. You have to look like you've had a couple of years in the jungle with nothing to eat but berries.
"I don't deliberately think, `I must get as weird as I can'," he adds. "My programmes are a supplement rather than an alternative to the rest. I say, `It's fine to listen to the Spice Girls, but, hey, what about this?'"
The musical margins are still where Peel prefers to dwell. "Even though the underground is now mainstream, I'm not. I still fidget around on the extremes of all that. The record companies never bother to send me records by their major acts," he says with evident satisfaction. Ninety per cent of his show consists of material completely new to radio.
Nor has Peel sought an endless round of film premieres and supermarket openings. "I live a life fairly close to those of my listeners," he reflects. "Mine is not a showbiz existence. You can't live in a cottage near Stowmarket with four kids and be very showbiz. There are times when you imagine it would be exciting to fly with Mick and the guys to a recording studio in the West Indies. Then you think, `Actually there's football on the telly and I'd prefer to stay here'. I have no desire for those brightly coloured experiences."
Any more than he yearns to be a TV star. "When I've been on television, I've been crap," he sighs. "I'm very self-conscious and tend to blink a lot, which is OK as a novelty act, but not as a career move. When I used to do Top of the Pops, I felt uncomfortable being recognised. A key moment came when I went to the stock-car racing with my children. Some man who was slightly pissed came up and asked, `Aren't you that bloke off the TV?' I said, `No, I'm their dad.' I didn't want to find myself in that position where people don't know what you think, they just know you as that bloke off the telly."
Despite all his run-ins with the powers-that-be, Peel remains evangelical about the role of the BBC. "Even if you hate it, you'd have to concede that British pop has had a disproportionate influence around the world - largely due to the BBC. Because of its public service remit, we are in the position to nurture people and draw attention to them. We're like a youth team at a football club. They go into the first team and then by and large turn their backs on us. That's part of my role. I don't seek out rejection, but it does amuse me. I was once refused admission to one of my own gigs. I quite enjoyed that."
For a man who was 58 last Saturday, Peel retains a child-like enthusiasm for his job. John Walters, his former producer, has declared that: "If John Peel ever achieves puberty, we've had it. He still wants the kids to amaze him with different sounds."
Peel sees no reason why he should "grow out" of his love of indie bands. In his eyes, you're never too old to rock'n'roll. "I'm in the vanguard of people whose lives were transformed by hearing Elvis," he avers. "If I was into Boyzone, that would be rum. But there are still areas of pop music that cheer me up and make me laugh.
"However knackered I feel or however worried I am about the children, once I get on air, I genuinely feel, `Wow, here we go'. I liken it to surfing. I'm in the strong position of being someone who has never surfed, but it's similiar - you're rushing along and it's heady stuff."
John Peel, Tue-Thur 8.40pm on Radio 1
1939: Born John Ravenscroft in Cheshire to a well-off family. `He even had a nanny,' sneers his former producer, John Walters
Early 1960s: After Shrewsbury School and National Service, he was sent by his father to work as a clerk at the Republican National Life Insurance Company in Dallas. With the records he had collected while serving in Germany, he became an amateur blues expert on the Dallas station, WRR. When Beatlemania kicked in, he changed his name to John Peel and metamorphosed into a hip moptop on KLIF. After stints at stations in Oklahoma City and San Bernadino, he returned to the pirate ship of Radio London
1967: Peel became one of the 22 DJs who launched BBC Radio 1. He is the only one still working there. Walters has commented that, from the outset: `It was obvious that John Peel had more records and a different attitude to other Radio 1 DJs. He didn't want to host a TV game show - he actually liked music ... While he's not the Beatles, John Peel is the most important individual person in the development of British rock music. He's been there through all the changes, using radio as a power in itself and not merely being a tool of the record companies'
1980s and 90s: He lives with his wife Sheila and four children in a thatched cottage in Suffolk. He has eight acres and keeps chickens and dogs. He remains the broadest of broadcasting churches - the only thing he won't play is anything already successful. In 1993, he was named National Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Radio Awards
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