[29 December 2004]
As a preteen growing up in England during the early 1970s, BBC Radio One provided the omnipresent staple sound around our house. Daytime disc jockeys filled the air with spin-cycled “hit parade” selections, saccharine pop songs designed to unobtrusively pacify listeners—“To keep you in your place all day,” as Joe Strummer once suggested. The DJs’ between-songs banter filled the cavities of time with all the charm of a dentist’s drill. Tony Blackburn and Simon Bates would ramble on inanely through the morning, and my mother would do domestic chores as I gathered things together for school. Harmless irritants, largely ignored, these DJ’s barely existed to our early-morning consciousnesses, and as they yapped on ad infinitum, it appeared that neither did we to them.
By 1975, I was on the cusp of my teenage years and music began to emerge as a significant component of social and personal life. Often the center of peer chatter on the school playground, knowledge and insight into the pop and rock music of the day became central to the Darwinian struggle of our male youth exchanges. At this time, my antennae became increasingly attuned to radio, as I sought the esoteric songs and tidbits of musical insight that would propel me up the playground pecking order. Frustrated, I would invariably have to settle for Radio One, one of the few accessible channels for popular music in the UK. However, with its restricted play lists and short-sighted attitudes, even my unformed ears could register the tepid conservatism of the station’s musical output. When, later, I heard Morrissey singing about these DJs, “The music that they constantly play says nothing to me about my life,” he would succinctly encapsulate the feelings of a generation of British youth starved of relevant radio. There was little to do but seek sanctuary in my older brother’s rock record collection. As I listened to his Deep Purple, Wizard and Black Sabbath records, I could only muse, “Why isn’t music like this being played on the radio?”
Not content with ignoring the musical seekers of Britain’s youth, Radio One and their DJs also had little regard for the paltry selection of sanctioned hits that they did play. Rarely was a song allowed to conclude before the disembodied egotist on the microphone would interrupt over the final bars with the gratuitous self-indulgence of a spoilt brat. More enamored with the sound of his own voice than with the music, he (always a “he”, it seemed) would venture into dull autobiographical anecdotes, or flirt shamelessly with female phone-in listeners in a voice as disingenuously up-beat as a politician’s and as exploitative as a car salesman’s. It is perhaps no co-incidence that the term “jockeying”—besides its radio connotations—also refers to manipulation and hustling for position. For my peers and I, DJs were now much worse than the mere background noise of years prior; now, they were the scourge of youth on the look-out for cultural sustenance.
For those friends fortunate, like me, to have an older sibling with a decent record collection, one was able to keep tabs on some of the latest rock music. As with all youth demographics, though, we wanted our own musical world, one that reflected our distinct tastes, times and feelings. Our detective work in search of this promised land led us (initially) beyond the confines of BBC Radio One. We discovered that with careful tuning and by balancing the radio antennae a certain way, one could pick up pirate stations, such as Radio Caroline, operating illegally from beyond Britain’s coastline. New worlds started to open up as we heard album-oriented rock previously unheard through the mainstream channels of national radio. On the pirate stations heavy rock was king, and the DJs were subservient to the music; this was the inverse of Radio One’s DJ-centered approach. Yet, despite this sneak peak into a different musical culture, my friends and I still ultimately felt that this was the music of our older brothers. We wanted something we could call our own.
1975 and 76 were unusual years for kids growing up in the UK, particularly in the suburbs and small towns. There was a strong sense of national malaise; stagflation, worker unrest, and street violence were the backdrops to our lives. As a kid I never felt directly assaulted by these social breakdowns and, as a suburbanite, I was distanced from the metropolitan epicenters of soccer hooliganism and urban decay. Yet, there was a sense of social reality closing in, perhaps because at 12 and 13 it was entering my consciousness. National Front skinheads began appearing on my town’s streets, football-affiliation fights broke out at school with regularity, and the periodic electricity blackouts signified that all was not running smoothly in the country. For a young teen, such incidents were integrated as adventure more than anxiety, and as I continued to fix my ear to the radio, the disc jockeys further allayed cultural fears by presenting their “brave new world” where everyone was happy singing along to the positive pop of the day. Underneath this ideological smiley face, though, one sensed that there was a disconnect between what was going on in Britain (as covered on the nightly news), and the tone, spirit and content emanating from pop radio. Heavy doses of Abba and Fleetwood Mac seemed incongruous to the picket line worker/police confrontations and the ubiquitous youth violence in the streets and on football terraces across the land.
By the time I had turned 14 in 1977, the punk rock revolution had filtered into my town. I recall an older boy being suspended from school after showing up with his uniform doctored with safety pins. He told us of the London punk scene, its anti-establishment aesthetics, and about a band he had just seen called the Sex Pistols, whose stage show consisted of the band insulting and inciting the audience. Apparently, the singer had been arrested and jailed following the show. Somewhat mystified, we were not sure what to make of this boy’s curious anecdotes, but the stardust of intrigue had been sprinkled into our air.
Over subsequent months, the punk subculture established itself in my town. The High Street harbored pockets of strange figures in its alleyways and outside record stores. Boys and girls sporting hair of many colors and varying trajectories paraded self-consciously through the shopping center, stopping passers-by in their tracks as though aliens had landed east of London. Even at school, despite rigid uniform rules, skinny ties were now worn at half-mast, and band badges re-constituted blazers into quasi-punk jackets. Shoes were jettisoned for blacked-up Doctor Martin boots, and flared trousers were retired for drain-pipes. As I gazed in wonder at these sartorial transgressions happening around me, my curiosity was tweaked: What was going on and why were the cool kids all gravitating to this punk rock thing? Thankfully, my hipper-than-me contemporaries soon started to educate me on this budding phenomenon. I was fed checklists of style accoutrements, given new “must listen” song-lists of bands with harsh names and shocking song titles. Amidst the head-spin of tangible energy I asked where one could hear this stuff. I was told of a late night show, remarkably on BBC Radio One, hosted by some old geezer called John Peel. According to my enlightened mates, he was the only DJ playing the new punk sounds.
That night, intrigued and excited, I got my first introductions to punk rock music and the John Peel show. Little did I know how influential both would be on my subsequent life. The initiation was not plain sailing, though. With a bed-time curfew of 10p.m. on school nights in my house and the Peel show starting at 10.05, I had to be strategic. This involved sacrificing the quality reception of the downstairs hi-fi and sneaking my Dad’s small, portable transistor radio into my bedroom. There, snuggled under the blankets with the lights out, I set the dial to Radio One and adjusted the antennae for maximum reception.
My thirst and curiosity to catch up with my cool comrades had me hanging on to every word and song over the next two hours. The first thing that struck me as Peel picked up the airwaves from the 10 O’clock news was his voice. Accustomed to being bombarded with the insipid phoniness of daytime disc jockeys, here was a voice of calm restraint and deadpan wit. Where was the bluster and arrogant excess of the usual DJ? Why were the songs not being interrupted with mindless talk-over in the intros and outros? Why did it suddenly seem—for the first time in my radio listening life—that the music actually mattered? Even though he sounded like an old bloke, Peel offered up the new (and old) youth music without condescension or critical judgment. Instead, he provided information about the bands: where they were from, where they were playing, how you could buy the record, and what obscure independent label it was released on.
Succinct, but with engaging knowledge and tongue-in-cheek humor, Peel opened up the world of punk rock to me, as well as planets of strange pre-punk material absent from my brother’s rock collection. Juxtaposing Captain Beefheart with Mikey Dread, Syd Barrett with The Damned, I was taken on a wide and winding musical journey. Furthermore, the adventure was not just strictly musical; the songs came with built-in cultural attitudes of dissent that correlated to my burgeoning pre-political urges and frustrations. Here was a guide to the new rock revolution, provided with an enthusiasm that bespoke approval; editorializing was un-necessary. Here was a pied piper of punk, leading his listeners into the dark corners of underground music with assured wisdom and wide-eyed surprise. Peel’s on-air attitude appeared to ask of his audience: “Why wouldn’t you be excited by this?”
Although I fell asleep before the midnight conclusion of the show, I awoke the next day with an awareness of change: in music, in youth consciousness and in myself. My mind was rushing with the memories of the prior night’s show; in Peel I had found a teacher, a fan and a friend; in the music I had made “eureka” discoveries; suddenly that which I had known before seemed old, distant and irrelevant. “What do you know about John Peel?” I asked my brother at breakfast. He told me of a maverick with a long history of bucking the mainstream, how he used to have a cult radio show on the pirate station, Radio London, during the late 1960s, and how he had been responsible for “breaking” many of the significant rock acts of the day. Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, T-Rex, and David Bowie were cited. Then, pausing, my brother added: “He’s been playing a lot of total crap lately, though. I don’t know what’s happened to him.” At that point the sibling strings snapped as I realized I’d found what I’d been blindly looking for: my own music in its own arena.
I spent that day at school gravitating to the emerging clique of Peel-devotees, whilst imploring the uninitiated to get on board. Punk and Peel had brought new energy to the playground; obscure band names were bandied about, song titles and lyrics were exchanged like prized secrets, and Peel’s on-air personality was deconstructed with all the vigor of young scholars in their own school of choice. The magnetism of this new subculture spawned an incipient anticipation that made the everyday of school activities a series of hurdles blocking the way to 10.05p.m. that evening. Soon I was as fanatical about listening to the John Peel show as I was about the punk rock scene that he was the sole advocate of and outlet for.
This love affair persisted through subsequent high school years. The Peel show led me to a host of emerging bands that soon bolstered my sparse record collection. During my 15th and 16th years my parents loosened the bed-time controls and French homework became a nightly ritual fused with the Peel show, though not a great deal of French appears to have been learned. The notes and noodlings in my vocabulary book bear testament more to the hours, weeks and years of musical revelations and discoveries made. These, in turn, led me to shows at the Chancellor Hall in Chelmsford, a punk club 10 miles from home; there, The Buzzcocks, Banshees and Undertones—all bands I had first heard through John Peel—drew me further into the alternative musical world.
Much of John Peel’s distinction and credibility was that he did not pander to the narrow tastes of the bulk of his audience. My somewhat blinkered punk parameters were constantly challenged and expanded as Peel introduced listeners to the latest reggae music released out of inner cities from Kingston to Birmingham; second wave U.S. punk brought the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag to English ears; experimental avant-garde (de)constructions and obscure African music were given an audience unprecedented on British radio. Air-time was also preserved for promising new bands via the in-studio “sessions”, a sanctioned BBC requirement of live music that Peel exploited on behalf of the many unsigned acts bursting out of the woodwork.
Without pontificating or preaching a word of polemic, John Peel provided a soundtrack that simultaneously reflected and inspired a youth demographic that was screaming for their dissent, anger and political angst to be represented. Organizations like Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Sexism were activated and perpetuated by bands whose sole outlet was the John Peel show. In stark contrast to the conformist sterility of other radio shows, the Peel show during the late 70s served as a night school for an alternative youth culture hungry for rebellious sustenance.
As punk’s initial blast of energy waned entering the 1980s, so did my dedication to the John Peel show. I still checked in periodically, but later teen years began to draw me away from the radio and towards more active interests, like forming my own band. By the mid-1980s my connecting cord to the Peel show was irrevocably cut when I ventured west to live in the U.S. In my luggage I packed a few old cassette recordings of the show from the late 70s, as well as a Peel Sampler that showcased a collection of his typical musical fare interspersed with some classic wry interjections and musings from the man himself. Often I have popped one of these tapes in just to hear the distinct familiarity of John’s dry Liverpudlian delivery. These tapes have served to connect me to the time, place and culture that were to form my adult interests and aesthetic tastes.
On October 25th of this year the world learned that John Peel had passed away, suffering a heart attack while on a business vacation in Peru. The world responded with an outpouring of tributes. PopMatters’ own Simon Warner wrote of the loss of a “British Institution” and “the most important figure in UK rock history”. Recently, I perused the wave of personal reflections that poured in to the BBC website immediately after the news of his death was released. Sentiments came from around the world and spanned generations. Fans reflected upon the uniqueness of Peel as a disc jockey, how his authenticity and knowledge distinguished him from others that have populated the profession. Furthermore, seasoned listeners spoke of trust and communication, of a connectedness to a personal friend they had never met. And mostly, they spoke of the worlds of music that Peel, alone, had introduced them to. Fellow disc jockeys, from within and beyond BBC Radio One, also joined the tributes, speaking of Peel’s originality, influence and inspiration. They spoke of him as a personable colleague, an invaluable role model, and a one-of-a-kind irreplaceable DJ.
Significantly, many of the bands that Peel first “broke” on his show were quick to join the sea of tributes. Many of those artists could still be laboring in obscurity, or be “broken up”, but for the patronage and dogged support of Peel. Peter Hook (of Joy Division and New Order) commented, “I’d hate to be in a new band starting without John Peel.” Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) asked, “Who am I going to listen to now?” Jack White (of the White Stripes), despite residing States-side, was also cognizant of Peel’s sphere of influence, proclaiming, “John Peel was the only important DJ left in the world.”
In the weeks since his death, tributes have continued to emerge from far and wide, with many benefit concerts held in his honor. The organizers of Glastonbury, Britain’s largest annual rock festival, have just announced that their “new bands” stage will henceforth be called “The John Peel Stage.” And on November 12th thousands of mourners attended his funeral in Bury St. Edmunds. Not since the death of Princess Diana has Britain rallied so comprehensively in tribute to one of its lost icons. That Peel spent his 40 years of professional life in support of artistic outsiders and underdogs made such a national outpouring all the more poignant.
It is always hard to define that which defines us. How can we ascertain which seeds bore which fruits, and how and by whom they were planted in the first place? Nevertheless, in John Peel I know that I (and many others) found a voice that championed the cultural margins and artistic mavericks; this voice, in turn, fostered a receptive sensibility with which to open-mindedly and open-heartedly appreciate marginal artists. John Peel may have been a child of the 1950s, but history will remember him as a trusted voice of and for the subsequent generations who were fortunate enough to grow up with him.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/ellis041229/