13 November 2004

John Peel

I feel like a musical orphan. My musical godfather has died. John Peel was my teacher and my guide. He made me understand music. He gave this callow indie kid an understanding and love, for example, of reggae and soul. More than this, he taught me that it isn’t genres that matter; it’s whatever makes a good noise, whatever gets you going, and it doesn’t matter what it is or where it comes from. He took me on an adventure, opening my ears to things that were amazing. He made me feel that an obsession with music wasn’t a waste of time, but rather a positive, affirming and even central and indispensable part of life. He showed us by example that a love of music isn’t something that has to stop once you leave your teens. I owe a huge chunk of my record collection to John Peel. All my favourite bands come from John Peel.

I feel now, with his shocking, sudden death, abandoned on this journey without my guide. I feel for his family and those who knew him, of course. His death has come far, far too early. This crazy ride was not supposed to end so soon. He should have still been playing records for years to come. I took for granted that there would be many more times when I’d be able to turn on the radio and be confronted by something surprising, something brilliant, sometimes something unbelievably irritating. Then part of me thinks that at least he went out while his talents and influence were undiminished. He was loved by many, achieved an impression that will not fade, and went quickly. It’s not a bad life, all told. Ideally, he should have died one night after playing one final record, naturally a track from the latest Fall LP, at one in the morning. But at least we won’t have the years of struggle to avoid marginalisation by a radio station that increasingly seems to have lost its enthusiasm for music before the inevitable semi-retirement to Radio 2 or some digital ghetto.

I’m surprised at how I reacted to this news. Stranded on a work trip to Singapore, from out of the blue came a text message from a music-loving friend. I’ve spent days since crying, struggling on and them washed by waves of sadness, listening to records I owe to Peel, reading the coverage, restless, unable to concentrate, lacking in appetite for anything much. I have all the symptoms of bereavement, as though John Peel was a member of my family. No death of any public figure has ever affected me this way. I’ve always been suspicious of shows of public mourning for famous figures. But dammit, I do feel like I knew Peel. For 20 years he’s been coming into my room, wherever those rooms have been – my bedroom in my parent’s house, various student rooms and latterly the living room of my 30-something mortgaged, married existence. John Peel’s been an enduring presence. I’ve followed him around the schedules, as different regimes have seen his presence ebb and flow, occasionally drifting off during one of those weird times when I fall out of love with music, always coming back when the latest thing ensnares me. So this sense of loss is a powerful one. I simply can’t believe that I’m going to turn the radio on at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday night and John Peel isn’t going to be there to send me in another unexpected direction. I have tapes – and can you imagine there will ever be another music show that you feel you will have to tape and listen to again? – but it’s hard to think there’s going to be no more.

My reaction is, partly, selfish. What on earth are we going to do without him? Who, now, will dedicate themselves to the task of unearthing those things we really ought to hear but which no one else is playing? How are we going to discover the new and unexpected now? There are other radio shows, but who else has the utter disregard for fashion and the breadth and range of John Peel? And who else can make the trick of talking between the records all part of the pleasure and not a maddening interruption?

Many of the tributes were nostalgic. Many were the mentions of listening to transistor radios under the bed clothes and discovering punk rock. I found myself feeling sceptical about whether many of the celebrities who chipped in have listened to the show since making it big. For me, John Peel wasn’t some teen memory. He was the person I was expecting to listen to next week. And many of the tributes focussed on the bands, often giving examples of really quite uninteresting ones, who made it big after being picked up by Peel. This missed the point. It was never about trying to discover bands who would become superstars and elevate them to fame. It was just about trying to find and play good records that deserved to be heard. The measure of Peel’s success isn’t in the fact that the Smiths or the Strokes ending up selling loads of records, but in all the obscure tunes by bands you never heard of again that found a place in someone’s heart.

I am very nervous about the future of music now. I can’t help but think that all my favourite bands of the moment I heard of through Peel. I wonder now how bands like the Broken Family Band and Herman Dune, Ballboy and Bearsuit, are going to get their records heard. Are bands like these, are even bands like the Fall, going to disappear from our radios? At least for these bands, I know of them, so if I see their records in a shop I’ll buy them, and if I see they’re playing live, I can go. But what about the next generation of bands? How are we going to find out about them? Who’s going to play that demo tape, or pick up that first single? If you’re starting a band now, things have just got that much harder. This is much, much worse than the death of a musician. If the singer in your favourite band dies, there are lots of other bands to follow, and doubtless a steady, posthumous flow from the archives to keep you going. John Peel cannot be replaced, and I doubt anyone will even attempt to fill the hole he has left.

I do think it’s daft to talk about statues, or releasing old records in tribute. Sure, Radio 1 should commit to playing a wide range of new music in that gap left in the schedules. And of course Peel’s extraordinary record collection should be kept intact and in this country – surely that’s why you have a National Lottery. But John Peel’s legacy should be that we continue to take a passionate interest in music, that we commit to seek out new sounds, and that we promise to keep listening to music in a spirit of eclecticism and curiosity. That would be a true tribute to a great man.

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