died yesterday. For someone of my generation, in my profession, this news has a certain awesome enormity about it, and leaves a terrible sadness. Peel, to an independent sector music artist like me, was a colossus, a pope, an emperor. He was indiepop's 'minister without portfolio', he seemed to have a job for life, he was supposed always to be there. He seemed so secure and so eternal, so institutional and so protected, that it seemed okay to take shots at him, as Julie Burchill
did in her 1999 piece Rake's Progress
and I did -- rather more affectionately -- in my essay On Gatekeepers
. Peel was so self-deprecating, in such an English way, that you almost felt he wouldn't mind. He seemed so huge, so unassailably part of the mainstream of English life and thought.
Without any obvious commercial concerns -- he called himself 'Reithian', and I really believe he was -- Peel nevertheless made possible, nurtured and presided over a musical ecosystem that was entirely commercial. By ensuring that up to 90% of the records he played were things you wouldn't hear anywhere else on the radio, he created a non-commercial climate in which small independent labels could thrive -- commercially. Like some kind of greenhouse, his nightly programme protected all sorts of delicate plants from the cold winds of commerce, at least until they were big and tough enough to make it on their own. His disregard for money and hype actually redistributed money and hype in more deserving directions.
Peel, in my personal cosmology, is an angel and
a devil, a friend and
an enemy, a favourite uncle and
a resented, oppressive boss. As a consumer and explorer of music, I can only thank him. From my teens to my mid-twenties I received a musical education through his programme that pinned out the four corners of my musical constellation. Peel played an amazingly eclectic selection of music, from Vietnamese folk to Captain Beefheart, from The Passage to Ivor Cutler. But he had blindspots. He wasn't into literate songs in foreign languages, for a start -- Brel, Brassens or Gainsbourg didn't exist, Victor Jara didn't exist, Japanese or Thai pop didn't exist. He didn't do 'literate' very well, he didn't like 'satirical' -- no Tom Lehrer on his show. He didn't do 'glamorous', because that was for chart pop. And although he loved sex, he didn't like it in the records he played -- the one and only time he played a Momus record ('Hotel Marquis de Sade') he apologised (only half in jest) for the appearance of breasts in the lyric. He did, though, do 'eccentric'; I remember Viv Stanshall's fantastic readings of 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson End' being played on his show. And he did, rather surprisingly, do 'conceptual' -- Sudden Sway's 'Let's Evolve' remains my favourite Peel session, perfect for his nocturnal slot because the Open University units it mimics were taking over the airwaves just as Peel was playing his closing music.
My feelings about Peel are Freudian and Oedipal. Freud's 'narcissism of small differences' very much applies. Peel and I both had private educations, were both thoughtful middle class Britons 'slumming it' in pop music, both somewhat shy, both interested in seducing people by wafting calm voices into their ears, both narcissistic enough to believe that we could succeed just by stubbornly being ourselves in public, both libidinous satyrs in search of 'teenage kicks'. But Peel was the very opposite of 'pretentious', and the very opposite of 'an artist'. It's touching to read his account of his friendship with Marc Bolan:
'We were very good pals, but it was like with a lot of one's friends, there's another side to them, because we all have darker sides which we try to suppress. I suppose a way that one measures people as human beings is by their ability to suppress the disagreeable things which might bubble up. I always knew about Marc that he was very ambitious, but then from the moment he became a real star, we were just cut off like that, which was just upsetting really...'
Now, an artist cannot
and must not
suppress his 'dark side', because along with all the 'disagreeable things which might bubble up' also comes the very material of art. Peel's mistrust of showbiz glamour (he tells a very funny anecdote here
about going to a 'terrifically trendy club off Bond Street' and not fitting in at all) was also a mistrust of theatre, artifice, projection... perhaps of art itself. David Bowie, in a video tribute
made for Peel's 60th birthday, also comments wryly on this mistrust of the theatricality, pretension and poseurishness artists tend to go in for: 'You were right, John: nobody in the world likes mime.' Peel really believed that artists and celebrities could and should be cured, 'sorted out':
'I used to believe that if Elvis had come and lived with us for a couple of weeks we'd have got him sorted out. Charles and Diana too. Trouble with people like that is that they're not rooted in any recognisable reality. What they needed is someone like me telling them: 'Right, now we're off to Sainsbury's then we're going to pick up the kids from school. Then we've got to feed the animals'. I really mean that.'
Peel's distaste for showbiz glamour -- in some ways an admirably non-rockist trait, in others the absolute epitome of 'keepin' it real, man' -- is what led to his comically prosaic Radio 4 series, 'Home Truths', in which, far from interviewing self-possessed artists about the source of their creativity (which he'd once done
, quizzing Captain Beefheart, for instance, about his ability to write twenty songs a day and a book every night) he would interview June Bloggins from Woodhampton about her arguments with daughter Nicola over the untidy state of her bedroom. And sound just as interested in her answers as he had in Captain Beefheart's. Which might seem completely admirable, but might also contain -- as his anecdotes about other DJs and pop stars often did -- just a tiny smidgeon of self-righteous self-deprecation, a refusal to compete with anyone slightly too glitzy, someone as charismatic as... well, as Peel himself.
For Peel was a man of rare charisma. His very intimate and interested way of talking to Britain, over a period of many years, was ultimately very seductive. His scripts and newspaper columns were funny (sometimes slightly forced in their wit, it must be said) and well-written. He outlived many of the rock stars who outglitzed him. He was a sentimental old bugger, and that tends to provoke sentiment. He was also very enthusiastic, and that elicits enthusiasm. He was enough of a chameleon to survive in many different cultural eras, and to make sure he embodied the zeitgeist. Put the posh British Invasion Peel of his early 60s Texan broadcasts (which he used to play self-mockingly) next to the whispering hippy sex fiend of The Perfumed Garden, then put that Peel next to the clipped, slightly sarcastic punk Peel of the 70s or the football and domesticity Peel of the 90s... They're all different Peels, and yet all the same Peel. He was as much of a chameleon as David Bowie or Madonna ever was, yet he had the charm to pull it off without looking calculating. Not bad going for a man who seemed
always to be putting himself down.
Peel's fear of indulging 'the dark side' is probably what put him off my records. I made the mistake, in my one conversation with Peel, of talking about sex. It was 1981, and I went with some ex-members of Josef K
to see Peel at Broadcasting House. The K had been a Peel favourite, one of the hundreds of groups he seemed, like some general with an army of BBC broadcasting towers at his command, to have gifted with a career. I'd just spotted Clare Grogan, the singer in saccharine Scottish janglepop outfit Altered Images
, crossing the lobby and thought, since Miss Grogan was at the time Peel's jailbait schoolgirl-voiced crush, that Peel would be delighted to hear of her presence in the building. Well, he wasn't. He looked a bit guilty and nervous. Perhaps he knew she was in the area. Perhaps she'd been visiting him. We handed Peel our record and left. He didn't play it, but he kept playing Altered Images. I was never gifted with a career, and when that army of transmitters was
finally put at my disposal, it was Steve Wright
who playlisted me. Steve Wright in the afternoon, an unbearable comedian, a man without taste or principles!
Why should I grieve for a man who spurned me -- the arbiter of taste, the champion of everything obscure yet worthy, who rejected me? Why should I shed a tear for the 'indie father' who formed then disowned me, whose long cold shoulder is part of the reason that I no longer live in Britain? I don't know, but I do grieve. I'm cut to the quick by this unexpectedly quick disappearance, shocked as only an estranged son can be when he hears the father he hasn't spoken to in twenty years has died. The iron in my soul buckles and the ice in my heart melts. Peel's revenge is that even the people he seemed to block from the glittering prizes of the inner sanctum are weeping for the gatekeeper.
*Paul Morley tribute
.Peel gets the speed wrong... againPeel on The FallJohn Peel Sweet Eating GameJohn Peel speaking to Rhodri MarsdenA blog entry on oddball record companies
, reminding me that the people who really made everything possible for me were mavericks at eccentric record labels like el, almost entirely ignored by everyone but the Japanese.