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JOHN PEEL R.I.P

Like everyone from Britain (and beyond) who has ever been involved in music, I was so sorry to hear of the death of John Peel; instantly for me, as for so many other people, memories come flooding back...

 

Music became a big part of my life from about 1963 onwards. At that time, there was no current music programme on mainstream radio. Instead two "pirate" ships anchored out in the North Sea, Radio Caroline and Radio London, broadcast a steady stream of Rolling Stones, Tamla Motown, Beatles, Kinks, Atlantic Soul, The Who etc into Britain. In 1967 they were closed down and Radio One began on the BBC, taking most of the pirate DJs and intending to sound the same. However, from its very beginning, the new station was somehow slightly sanitised and missing some of the rebellious spirit of the time. John Peel was the exception. His evening programmes played music that you didn't hear anywhere else, introduced me to the idea of "The Underground", to the idea that strange people made amazing records made for purely artistic reasons, the truly weird and wonderful. And somehow he managed always to be positive about everything without ever sounding false or judgemental or uncool. I cannot begin to count the number of groups that he introduced me to or the number of records I bought after hearing something on his programme.

 

And then, strangely, came our turn. I don't know if John Peel was the only man to play "Bittersweet" and then a few months later, "Great Expectations". But when he said he preferred the latter (yes, of course we were listening), it came as a bigger shock than that he'd played us at all. It meant someone was actually listening to and comparing our music. Every band needs validation and he gave that to us. Then there were the radio sessions. These were pre-recorded at the BBC's Maida Vale studios. We always seemed to be there on a Sunday when no one was about and it was impossible not to get lost in the labyrinth of corridors. Bands got about six hours to set up, record, overdub and mix four tracks assisted by an array of experienced and harrassed producers. The first radio session we did was for David Jensen but a few months later, we did one for Mr Peel and as he broadcast the songs, I remember him saying that though Jensen had got the first NMA session, he'd got THE session. We were thrilled and encouraged. He was so positive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and he did this simultaneously for hundreds of bands. Joolz was also asked to do a session. This was purely spoken word, dark narrative poetry - hardly commercial listening - but welcome on his programme none the less. I remember driving a cronky old van out of Polzeath in Cornwall to get a decent reception up on the cliffs and there we listened to the programme under the stars.

 

I only met him properly the once when he came to DJ at Bradford University one night, playing, of course, a fabulous selection of non-student-friendly music. By this time, we'd signed to EMI, thereby eliminating ourselves from his immediate interest. But he was still, as we'd all hoped, polite, well-informed and enthusiastic and he wished us well.

 

Even in the last few years, as he'd been marginalised to ever later and rarer slots on Radio One, his programmes were so worth listening to. Because somewhere in that cacophony, there would always be something that you'd never heard before, a sound, a song, a riff or a beat that would set off all kinds of creative ideas. More than that he championed two vital values totally at odds with the modern world. Firstly, that music is music and the cult of celebrity is something totally irrelevant to it (or to anything else). And secondly, that radio is and always will be a more powerful medium than television because it allows the imagination of the listener to flourish.

 

Thank you, John, for all that you gave to me, to NMA and to so many others.

 

Justin Sullivan