Thursday, October 28, 2004

final word from me on john peel

Okay, I'll try and make this my last words on John Peel, because this is all getting a bit mawkish and self-indulgent, and there's plenty else out there on the good man you can read. But I wanted to try and say something about how he helped broaden my tastes and fire up my enthusiasm for music. Firstly, I feel kind of sad that it's a long time since I really listened to his radio 1 show - apart from the odd fifteen minutes here and there I guess I've not listened to his show since the mid 1990s. My first show would have been in 1992, and I can remember the year because there were certain songs which you associated so strongly with Peel and that association, that enthusiasm seemed to bleed outwards and infect you. I was 14 and had spent the last few years listening to The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays and Ride.

1991, though, had been the year I heard 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and I had hesitantly embraced Nirvana, at first cautiously because I couldn't truthfully see the difference between what they were doing and heavy metal at first, then enthusiastically when 'Nevermind' just seemed to make sense. But I'd started on another trajectory, too, which meant that Nirvana were good but a bit commercial. Me and my friend Dan started travelling in to Covent Garden to buy 7" singles from Rough Trade, but we didn't know what to buy so we ended up with pink vinyl copies of Nirvana's 'Sliver', which we obsessed over. It was still Nirvana, but early Nirvana, and somehow much cooler.

Emboldened, we began looking for more of the same, belatedly discovering Mudhoney's 'Touch Me I'm Sick', Dinosaur Jr's still amazing 'Freak Scene', and Sonic Youth. I kept my Wedding Present albums (Steve Albini produced them, and I was picking up names) but I put away my Inspiral Carpets records. Round about this time, one or the other of us said to the other, casually, 'Oh, did you hear Peel last night?'. I can't remember if Dan said it or I did, but whichever one it wasn't immediately replied 'yeah, of course', thinking 'Who's John Peel??'. Well, we soon found out.

Over the next year or so I felt like my world was absolutely suffused with colour, and it was. 'Sheela Na Gig' by PJ Harvey was the first single I bought on the back of the Peel show, and it was swiftly followed by Pavement's 'Slanted and Enchanted', the best record I had ever heard (and will ever hear). Over the next few months there was 'Free Range' by the Fall, 'Swim' by Madder Rose, and then - gloriously - a never ending series of amazing singles. Huggy Bear, Cornershop, Sebadoh, 'You Suck' by the New Bad Things, 'PUNK Girl' by Heavenly. I went into Rough Trade with my head held high, like a king, because I knew what I was talking about by then.

More importantly, I started taping his show, sitting by my stereo with the lights out waiting for the tape to run out so I could stuff another one in before he had the chance to play the new Buffalo Tom single. By day I was glued to my walkman, walking round in a daze listening to the show. I carried a little marker pen in my pocket and when he played something which took my fancy I'd pop out the cassette and put a little dot on the plastic to mark the place. Then I'd hook up my two tape players and make compilation after compilation, wearing out the player by rewinding over and over while I tried to work out what he said the last song was. 'Green Love' by Bang Bang Maker?

Looking back, I think what I probably did was furrow my brow and wait for the next indie rock song to start. But I felt unbelievably broad-minded. My tapes from this period are pretty one dimensional, but the odd piece of oddness would occasionally creep in; I remember trying terribly hard to like Capt. Beefheart, without much success at the time. But stuff that I would previously have skipped over, like dub reggae, jungle and hip hop began to seep through. The first time I ever went to Brighton I bought Gunshot's 'Patriot Games'. I don't remember Peel playing it, but where else would I have heard it, and it began an obsession with British hip hop that never left me. Similarly, his patronage of bands like Fun-da-mental meant I began to appreciate hearing non-western sounds for the first time. I even stayed up listening to Andy Kershaw after a while.

In truth, I can't remember what he played, most of the time, but it was astounding to me then, absolutely revolutionary. Best of all, I felt like I was John Peel's confidant, and so lucky that he was sharing this stuff with me. I started developing a bit of a swagger, a bullishness about my own tastes which had been dormant 'til then.

Then, all of a sudden, it more or less stopped. I'd picked up XFM a few times, too, when it was just starting off, and one day I'd heard them playing 'The Drowners' by Suede. Alongside Blur's 'Modern Life is Rubbish', I had a record to obsess over which was doing the opposite to Peel's bands - stepping out of the underground, sounding clean and ambitious. My adoration of Rough Trade kept this side in check a little, but by 94 Blur had recorded Parklife and it was no longer necessary to listen to Peel; Elastica, Pulp, Suede, Blur and others were everywhere, and all of a sudden I was too. On nights when I would previously have been listening to Peel in my bedroom I found myself in pubs and clubs in London, watching spiky, tuneful pop groups who had no interest in the wilfully obscure discordance of the bands which Peel was championing.

Two years later it had all gone horribly wrong and the likes of Oasis, Cast and a revitalised Paul Weller had taken over. Me and my friend Sophy went to see him at Brixton Academy and walked out in horror after twenty minutes of dreadul, painful pub rock. I didn't start listening to Peel again, I don't know why. In fact, I started listening to synth-pop, buying records from car boot sales. Hmmm. John Peel or Thomas Dolby? Hmmm.

I can't imagine what I'd be listening to if it hadn't been for the Peel years. OK, I'd turned my back on it all and gone britpop, but it informed me in more ways than I knew. Oasis aside, who I hated with every fibre of my being (blur fan), I found it hard dismissing music in the way I had before. I couldn't hate reggae or techno anymore. Suddenly, it all sounded good. Vainly, I think that John Peel taught me something very important, and made me somehow better. That's an odd thing to say, but that's how it made me feel. At that point I had visions of being a writer, and began to develop a similar relationship with books to the one I had with records. But it would be a downright lie to suggest that anything mattered as much to me as music, obscure or otherwise, and nothing else made me feel so free and so complete. And Peel was at the root of so much of it - he became entwined with it all. He may be dead, but that feeling isn't, and I owe it to him.

I forget which blog I saw this link on, so apologies, but the radio plus site contains hundreds of MP3s of some of Peel's favourite tracks from recent years. If Peel's show was a treasure chest of delights, at least that box has stayed open.


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