Peeling Back The Years or "Forever (Jimmy) Young"
I can't imagine how I missed it.
For the first time since I got on-line in 2001, I didn't send John
Peel an e-mail to wish him a happy birthday. And this year of all
years, when The Oldest Teenager In The World reaches pensionable age!
I suppose the real reason was that last Thursday night's show was
probably the shortest programme ever broadcast. All of four seconds,
before a technical problem somewhere between darkling Suffolk and
London silenced The Sage Of Stowmarket. Had the show gone ahead as
normal, I would have been sitting here at this computer sending him my
customary effusive greetings. But it didn't, so neither did I. Perhaps
the programme did resume at some point later on, but I had long since
gone beddy-byes and missed it if it did.
John Peel at BBC Maida Vale studios, July 2004, on the
occasion of Orbital's final live performance.
Photograph © Wendy Lacey
So, what can be said of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft (son of
noted Liverpool cotton broker Robert (Bob) Ravenscroft) that hasn't
either been said already, or would sound ridiculous if committed to
Well, let's start by saying that he is the only presenter from the
inception of BBC Radio 1 in 1967 who is not only there now, but has
been there throughout (despite various attempts - about two every
decade - to shove him out to the margins). What is the secret? Does he
have a set of incriminating photographs purporting to show strange acts
of perversion involving successive Directors-General of the BBC, a jar
of mayonnaise and what looks suspiciously like a goat? Does he have a
crucial royal connection which comes through for him at critical
moments? Or has he simply made a Robert-Johnsonian pact with The Devil?
No, not these (at least, nothing has got into the papers about it).
And it's not because he hasn't changed. Au contraire, m'dear,
he has. Having played an important part in bringing what became known
(in increasingly perjorative tones) as 'Prog' to wider attention,
Peel's encounter with the first Ramones LP changed the style of his
programmes in short order. Out went interminable meanderings from The
Grateful Dead, in came 110-second punk blasts, and the whole
'demographic' (if you'll excuse the obscenity) of his shows dropped an
Similarly, he was playing Jamaican music when it wasn't remotely
fashionable to do so. This led to the neo-Nazi wankers of the time to
send him turds through the post. John, ever willing to give selflessly
of himself to others, sent them some of his in return, thus ensuring
that they got the better of the transaction.
On into the eighties, and the rise of hip-hop and house. We heard
it on his show first. Then, what became known under the shorthand term 'Indie'
was the backbone of his selections. The Jesus And Mary Chain, The
Wedding Present, The Smiths, all gained their fame as a result of
exposure on the Peel Wing-ding. He recorded Pulp nearly a decade before
the know-nothings of the corporate media had ever heard of them.
(And let's hear it here for the Peel Sessions, an absolute goldmine
of rare performances, often giving fascinating glimpses of artists in
various stages of undress...erm...I mean development).
Then there was 'Grunge'. David 'Kid' Jensen, one-time
colleague and the other half of the famed 'Rhythm Pals' (like a hip
version of the Chuckle Brothers, but nowhere near as scary), tells the
story of the day in the late 80s when he passed Peel's office and heard
an early Nirvana single. When Jensen asked what on earth it was, John
replied airily, "Oh, don't worry, you'll be hearing all about it in
a couple of years time!"
African music (Diblo Dibala has long been a favourite). Dance.
Electronica. Death metal. All has been grist to the mill when it comes
to Peel's Pleasures.
But this has been no opportunist faddism. Backing it all is an
immense love of music. His long-time producer, the greatly-missed John
Walters, said that Peel was always at that stage of excitement we all
went through in our early teens when we began to discover our own
musical tastes, adding cattishly that if he (Peel) ever reached
puberty, we'd all be in trouble.
I don't think there's much danger of that happening. Where else, on
the ever-more demographically-obsessed and computer-programmed radio of
today are you likely to hear a Lightnin' Hopkins reissue followed by a
thumping drum'n'bass 12", or a Rasta lament, or a track from a demo by
a group of 18-year-olds from somewhere like Melton Mowbray? And that's
not forgetting 'The Pig's Big 78', of course.
And this is the point to pay tribute to Sheila ('The Pig'),
the light of John's life and the motor of his enthusiasm for over
thirty years. Also to their four children, William, Alexandra, Thomas
and Florence, and latest addition grandson Archie. These are the true
testimony and tribute to the paterfamilias (and materfamilas
too, of course).
I've never actually met the man, of course (my friends Tez &
Wendy have, hence the photograph above), but I find it difficult to
believe that there are people out there who do not like and respect
John Peel (the singer from The Pooh-Sticks was one such, and where are
The Pooh-Sticks today, huh? I rest my case...). What we hear is what he
is, and who cares that sometimes he has trouble with the technology of
modern life and plays vinyl at the wrong speed? Aren't we all like that
in some aspect or other of our own lives?
I look at my own record collection, and recognise how many items in
it have been garnered as a result of listening to Peely over the last
eighteen years. Where would my musical tastes be now had I never heard
The Orb, Dr. Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations, or the perennial
delight that is Half
Man Half Biscuit? I think by now I would have turned into my
father, specifically in that "Music? You call that bloody row
music?!!" period that we all went through.
I have avoided that and I'm grateful, very very grateful.
So a belated happy 65th birthday, John. To rejig a title of a song
by my favourite singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, You Are Always
Seventeen. Long may you remain so.
With love, gratitude and Fall acetates,