It was John Peel’s BBC producer, John Walters who said that, one day, when people looked back, they would realise that the John Peel show was the only important thing that BBC Radio One ever did.
I can’t remember exactly when I first listened to John on the radio. It would be nice to be able to claim that I heard that first Top Gear in 1967, and I’m just about old enough to get away with it, but it’s only a faint possibility. I know I bought my first records in 1970 (not ones John would have approved of, I think) so I probably wasn’t listening to the radio much before then. I was 13.
But somewhere over the next year or so, John’s broadcasting became important to me. I have records by the usual suspects starting from 1971 – Family comes to mind, and I even have one on his Dandelion label from John Kongos. I clearly remember his references to “William, a baby” in his Sounds column, which would therefore have been in the mid-seventies. By that time, I was hooked on music, and keen to read the words of someone whose opinions I respected.
I have a theory that there are some of us in the world for whom music is not just a luxury or a pleasant accompaniment to life – it is an essential part of life. I know John was like that, and that was probably why I felt such an affinity for him: the music mattered. I also found that he struck the right balance between chat and music: something no other DJ has achieved. They do like the sound of their own voices, don’t they?
Listening to John’s programmes certainly broadened my musical tastes, although I never did become a huge Fall fan. And after all these years, I still can’t say I’m at all that keen on “normal” reggae, although I can certainly be tempted by something a bit more raucus, ragamuffin stylie. There was one record he played though, in about 1977 –- several times –- that I never could bear. I actually had to turn off the radio and wait for it to finish. I can’t remember anything now about how it sounded or what distressed me so much about it, but I do remember that the group was “The Silver”. I had notions in later years of writing to John and asking him to dig it out and play it again. I’m sure he could have found it, given the legendary record filing system.
I did write, a few times, about various things, and always felt that even if there was nothing said on the programme, I was still writing to a real person, and not some dead mail box in Broadcasting House. Imagine my surprise though, when in 2000 I e-mailed during a programme and not only did John respond on-air, he played another track from the album I’d asked about to help me decide whether I should buy it!
I never thought of myself as a “John Peel fan”, although I’d sometimes say that for brevity. It was more a kind of feeling that John was a friend, a mate sharing my interest in music. As I got older, and my friends’ and contemporaries’ musical tastes fossilised into Sting and Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen, the Peel programmes were like a lifeline for me. Although I had no-one I could discuss “proper” music with (even my partner, ironically a Home Truths fan, which I wasn’t), I could at least hear John’s take on what was happening. I also knew that there was an army out there of people just like me.
I heard about John’s death as I waited for the Belfast leg of my journey home from a holiday in France. Suddenly, all the television screens in the pub in the departure lounge at Stansted were showing his picture, and I knew it wasn’t good news. I was shocked and upset, walking around in a zombie-like numbness for several days. I’d never been so affected by anyone’s death before. I didn’t listen to the radio again for about eight or nine months. That wasn’t some bogus gesture of grief: I just didn’t see the point any more. I’ve since tried listening to BBC Radio 1 and Radio 6 “Music” , but haven’t found anything to keep me there.
What I have done, and I think John would have approved (in fact, he would probably have been envious), is to return to playing in bands. I’d played bass in the seventies in a pre-punk band called Scruff. When I left (musical differences) the other two went on to form Stiff Little Fingers. So after a gap of more than twenty years, I began again. Nothing that would have earned any asterisks, I suspect. But I am proud to say that I played at one of the gigs on the first John Peel Day, organised by Brian from SLF. Also in attendance was Terry Hooley, who had recorded ‘Teenage Kicks’ “in a garage behind the Belfast co-op” in 1978. None of the bands at that gig dared to try to play a version of it though, so it was left to Terry to put on the actual record at the end of the night. Of course, a lot of us cried.