John Peel talks to Smash Hits
John peel was born John Ravenscroft on Merseyside forty years ago. Skipping over his childhood and adolescence for decency’s sake, we find our man, strange to relate, in Texas.
It’s the middle of the sixties and our hero has persuaded the powers that be at a small Texan radio station that they ought to unleash him on the great Texan Public with nothing but a microphone, a pair of turntables and a Liverpool accent you could cut with a knife, slice into small portions and sell to Beatle-stuck young Texans.
During this period Englishmen in The States were highly prized commodities, and Englishmen who could prove that they actually came from the home of Merseybeat were just too good to miss.
He stuck this out as long as any sane person possibly could before returning to Britain with a head full of ideas and a sack full of records by some of the American bands starting to break through over there.
He found employment in the blossoming pirate radio scene with Radio London, operating on the fringes of the law from the Thames Estuary, who gave him the late night spot.
This was 1967 and his understated, dry, radio manner and astute choice of exotic, adventurous rock made his show, ‘The Perfumed Garden’, essential listening for anyone in the South of England who pretended to take rock music seriously.
When the government finally put the pirates out of business, he was offered work with the then new Radio One. Twelve years or so later he’s still there. Still dry, still understated, still knocking it out every night. Almost, whisper it, an institution.
I’ve lost count, and I’m sure he has too, of the number of bands and great records that have received their first, and sometimes their only, airing on his evening show.
In the early days, John Peel was the definition of hip. He refers to this period nowadays as his ‘King Of The Hippies’ phase. And even with the growth of commercial radio, it’s only Peel who takes risks, goes out on a limb for some sound that would have most radio people running miles in the opposite direction.
I’d been bored for three years
When punk came along, he took an enormous risk in programming bands like The Sex Pistols when his audience were probably quite happy with endless Genesis and Led Zeppelin. He traces the change back to the first Ramones album in 1976.
“I hadn’t realised that I’d been bored for three or four years but I had. It’s like banging your head against a wall – you don’t know how good it feels until you stop.”
After an initial dicey period, during which he received his share of abusive mail, the change of direction has been proven right, with listening figures up threefold this year and the average age of listeners dropping from the pre-punk level of 26 to the current 17. In ten years or so just about every British band worth the name has recorded for the show.
“You can’t afford to be so obscure that you lose your audience if there’s nothing in there that they like. We occasionally play a track from a new Yes album.” he grins, “more as a dreadful warning than anything else.”
He still gets the odd outraged letter from people who think he’s let down the cause of ‘serious’ rock music, the cause he seemed to once support so doggedly.
“People buy those records because they know they’re going to sound like the last one and there doesn’t seem to me to be much point in playing them on the radio.”
New Wave seems to be something like his element and he’s genuinely overcome by the number of interesting new bands who sprout up weekly.
“The only thing I do worry about it that there’s an ‘artiness’ creeping back in, which I don’t like because that leads to audiences sitting down on the ground and listening to the music. And I speak as a bloke who at one time encouraged that kind of thing.”
I remember him playing sitar instrumentals that meandered on for half an hour, and ‘Tubular Bells’ was premiered on the Peel show.
These days, however, his tastes couldn’t be further from that kind of thing. He names The Undertones as his ideal band, and was instrumental in bringing them to the attention of public and record company alike.
Like everybody else who had anything to do with Feargal and co, he’s grown to like them immensely as people.
“I spoke to one of their Dads once and he said (adopts Ulster brogue), Mr Peel, it’s fantastic to speak to you – I watch your programme every night.” He said it with such sincerity that I thought, ‘I bet he does!’
They just represent everything that I would like a band to be. They are just genuinely nice lads. You wouldn’t think they were in a band at all. There’s some of the punk stars who are just as tiresome in their way as some of the established rock stars living in Hollywood, except they don’t live in Hollywood . . . yet.
The Undertones make me cry
“In a strange way, The Undertones make me cry. They make such ridiculously good records that sometimes when I play them on the radio I get quite choked about them, because I think how tremendous it is for somebody at my terrible enormous age to be so knocked out with records, to be a fan. If you’re going to do my job, you’ve got to be a fan.”
Even though much of his inspiration, and most of his show, comes these days from young, new bands, there are a certain number of artists in whom he has never lost faith through long drawn out periods of self-indulgence.
“There are people who can still get it right. Like Neil Young . . . Kevin Coyne . . . Captain Beefheart, he’s a man who may make mistakes, but I don’t trust people who don’t make mistakes. The Eagles don’t make mistakes, Genesis don’t make mistakes and I don’t want to listen to either of them again.”
There have been periods, like the early storm of controversy that greeted punk, when his relationship with the powers at the BBC have been a little shakey, but most of the time they’ve been impressed by his personal standing with his audience and have been reluctant to interfere.
“They leave you to get on with it. I’m paid money by the BBC not to go off and work for a commercial radio station but, to be quite honest with you, no commercial radio station has ever offered me a job. Nor would they and I wouldn’t want to go to one anyway, because they wouldn’t let me do what the BBC let me do.”
“Obviously, there are areas that I think Radio One should cover more. I think the daytime programming should be rather less conservative than it is. A lot of the time they seem to be duplicating the function of Radio Two. I think there should be more time given to the harder disco stuff. More time should be given to reggae and more time to bands like Rush, because there are people who want to hear all that.”
John Peel has lived for many years now in the countryside of East Anglia with his wife (affectionately referred to as “The Pig”) and family, commuting into town four days a week. (one show a week is pre-recorded). When he goes to gigs, he tends to get out of London in order to keep more closely in touch with national tastes, rather than get caught up in the deceptive centre of the London scene.
He has few friends in the music business except his large, eloquent producer John Walters (a former member of The Alan Price Set). When he does his live gigs, he finds himself treated as a minor celebrity, being asked for autographs and locks of hair. This worries him a little.
“I don’t want to be a minor celebrity. I do this job because I like getting the records. When I was a kid I used to collect records and I used to think how great it would be to get a job on the radio playing them and I did.
“I don’t like signing autographs. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not what I do it for.”
Smash Hits, October 1979