When John Peel joined the BBC’s new pop station, Radio 1, in 1967, he was photographed outside Broadcasting House in a line-up of DJs that testified to the establishment’s attempt to tame pop for the national airwaves. Tellingly, Peel was placed at the end of the front row.
Everyone agreed that Peel, who had been a pirate broadcaster, was the least likely of the broadcasting buccaneers to survive on dry land. Yet he outlasted all his contemporaries from that famous photograph and was still working at the BBC 37 years later, when he died, from a heart attack, in Peru on October 25th, 2004. By that time Peel had completed a remarkable odyssey from radio pariah to national treasure, a status barely dented by allegations that he made a 15-year-old girl pregnant in 1969.
Tributes and biographies have chronicled Peel’s life and times, but David Cavanagh’s remarkable overview attempts something far greater. Over 600 pages he offers an assessment of 265 programmes broadcast between 1967 and 2003, each one displaying the presence of an uncompromising tastemaker.
To prepare the book Cavanagh listened to more than 500 Peel shows, a bewildering experience given the DJ’s perverse eclecticism. “The effect was like being whisked around a museum by a caffeine-overdosed tour guide with a train to catch.” What might have proven a dry documentation is constantly enlivened by the author’s wry humour, delightful turn of phrase and smart similes, such as, “Marc Bolan sings like a young sheep and talks like a Beat poet.”
The analysis is equally sharp. News snippets from the time are presented as italic asides. Inevitably, many detail the Troubles. Cavanagh claims that these have been “edited and rewritten in the interests of political balance”, but they retain a British establishment tone and vocabulary – the Six Counties are invariably “the province” and Derry is “Londonderry”.
The saga proper begins in 1967, aboard the Radio London pirate flagship, where Peel celebrated the Summer of Love on the graveyard shift with his programme The Perfumed Garden. While daytime DJs such as Tony Blackburn spun the hits of the day, Peel was the nocturnal misfit playing exactly what he liked. The programme was a template for all that would follow, juxtaposing psychedelia, blues and spoken word with no sense of continuity or incongruity.
Analysing Peel’s early BBC shows, Cavanagh nevertheless detects trends and patterns, systemically breaking them down into seven categories: new country/blues rock; “Good Guys” (Peel people and session favourites); traditional blues/early rock’n’roll; Frank Zappa associates; Elektra record label; and progressive rock. It’s a heady and audacious mix.
Sniping at Yes
By 1972 Peel was sniping at Yes and ELP while looking back to the innocence of 1950s rock’n’roll by playing five Chuck Berry songs in a row. Then again he also promoted Peter Frampton, The Eagles and even REO Speedwagon. Cavanagh agonises over these contradictions: “Which direction does Peel want rock music to go in? How can it be simple and pyrotechnical at the same time?”
The thrust of the book centres on these aesthetic dichotomies and drives the narrative, as when Cavanagh eloquently reconciles Peel's love of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells with his simultaneous championing of pub rock, the "People's Music".
Peel was prone to breathtaking howlers. He famously played Robert Fripp and Brian Eno's No Pussyfooting backwards – and rather enjoyed the cacophonous results. The author finds this amusing, but what does it tell us about Peel's aesthetic? You feel he could record his entire programme backwards and still find merit in its sonic resonance. Not that he was undiscriminating. As Cavanagh suggests, it's just the way Peel's brain was wired.
Much has been made of the DJ's disdain for the mainstream, but even that was far from straightforward. One of the surprises of the book is the number of chart singles Peel discovered. Remarkably, these included at least three No 1 hits: Mungo Jerry's In the Summertime,Rod Stewart's Maggie May and 10cc's I'm Not in Love. The bearded Nostradamus also provided early sessions for the three giants of 1970s British pop: Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Elton John.
Rock heritage curator
“Peel sees music as a clock that can only go forwards,” Cavanagh says. Sometimes, though, it seems that the clock was slow or threatening to stop.
Like some rock-heritage curator, Peel was by 1976 reduced to spinning oldies from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who. Cavanagh qualifies the popular myth that punk was akin to a Damascene moment for the DJ. In 1977 he was still playing Gentle Giant and hosting sessions by Steeleye Span and Ralph McTell while dismissing The Clash as “unbearably pretentious”.
During the 1980s Peel captured the student heartland and NME readership, soundtracking the era with the songs of The Smiths, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Jesus & Mary Chain and The Wedding Present. He still favoured Captain Beefheart, The Fall and Ivor Cutler while ignoring Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, REM and The Stone Roses.
By 1988 Peel voiced frustration to listeners’ cool response to his love of African music, reggae and early hip hop. Their conservatism pushed him ever deeper into black music; during the 1990s he became as famous as a purveyor of dance, techno and happy hardcore as he had been for grunge, postpunk and progressive. Cavanagh speeds up the narrative at this point but never loses sight of his subject’s aesthetic.
Nor does he overlook Peel’s foibles. One of the book’s funniest stories occurs when the veteran DJ deputises for Jakki Brambles on her popular lunchtime show. Listeners tuning in for Top 40 hits were instead subjected to the sounds of The Fall, PJ Harvey, Diblo Dibala, Sonic Youth and Huggy Bear. It was car-crash radio at Peel’s finest.
Chastened but unbowed, Peel returned to the evening slot. Ignoring the emergence of Britpop, he preferred gangsta rap and grindcore. A not untypical evening featured the charms of Extreme Noise Terror, Harry Pussy, Arsedestroyer and Anal Cunt – “music” that “pummels the head and batters the kidneys”.
Defending his programme to the controller of Radio 1, Peel composed a letter that now serves as a valediction: “There remains in me, I suppose, some of the old hippie and something of an evangelical fervour about the work I do. I think that the programmes on which I have worked . . . have contributed to the enduring health of British music and the capacity of that music to reinvent itself.”
Postmillennium, Peel cut a weary figure, subject to high blood pressure and diabetes while grumbling about the likes of The Strokes, who bypassed his show in favour of higher-rated ones. Then he discovered and befriended The White Stripes. In a remarkable turnaround the old rebel ended up a model of Reithian decorum.
As Cavanagh concludes: “He was as BBC as Richard Dimbleby, Robin Day, John Arlott, Michael Parkinson, Dan Maskell and David Coleman.”
Johnny Rogan writes about music and popular culture; his books include biographies of The Byrds, Neil Young, The Smiths and Van Morrison