|'Can that possibly be right?'|
At the end of his novel How soon is never?, rock critic Mark Spitz thanks
the Smiths and New York radio station WLIR for saving his life. His
fictional counterpart, rock critic Joe Greene, spends a fair number of
pages on the idea of radio station as friend and guide. In Britain in the
'80s (or the '70s, or the '60s; perhaps even the '90s) it was simpler.
Outside of London, there was really only one DJ who could save your life,
or at least enhance it, or help send it in a direction you might not
otherwise have travelled.
Until I was sixteen I shared a bedroom with my brother, which meant that if I wanted to listen to John Peel - and once I'd heard his programme for the first time, searching like Mark Spitz with WLIR to hear the sound of the Smiths, I tried not to miss another - I had to listen through headphones in the dark. I even taped sessions in the dark. The clicks and whirring didn't seem to disturb my brother; a Madonna fan, the music Peel played almost certainly would have but I never inflicted it on him; a rare instance of brotherly understanding.
In the dark I heard the latest Smiths single for the first time, but also the records of Billy Bragg, the Red Guitars, the Room, the Farmer's Boys, the Cocteau Twins, Yeah Yeah Noh, the Three Johns, the Men They Couldn't Hang, 10000 Maniacs, the Pastels, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jasmine Minks, and Big Flame. I went to Norwich and bought them in Backs, or from mail order concerns like Small Wonder or Rhythm. I grew to love, enjoy or admire Peel mainstays too, like the Fall, Culture, FSK, and the Bhundu Boys. Then there was the stuff I would never buy but was in its way intriguing - the Very Things, Bogshed, Napalm Death, and a host of groups whose names I've now forgotten. Peel's show was at that time and for many years either side the only place to hear such idiosyncratically chosen eclecticism. It was an all-round education in musical forms ignored by the rest of the wavebands. A haven for the raw and unpolished, the oblique and the inventive. The angry and the psychotic. The marginalised and the militant. The strangely gifted and the exciting. Peel offered you not just one choice, but choices. He inadvertently challenged you to pick your way through genres and sub-genres like they were Greek islands, and gave you the means to hop from one you liked to another. No other broadcaster has ever come close to this depth and breadth of enthusiasm, nor his ability to play a record at the wrong speed.
In addition to the music that but for him I doubt I would have heard came the cultural lean-tos which were hastily constructed alongside. Fanzines, which opened up other musical possibilities, many of which you would then realise Peelie was playing too, and a burgeoning sense that politcal choices were intertwined with musical ones. We moved house and I finally had what every teenager needs - a bedroom to myself. Soon it was filling with LPs and 7"s, books and fanzines. It was the printed matter that made me realise that yours was a say that mattered. So now I wanted to have mine, after a fashion. I wrote to John to ask him how I might get in touch with Sudden Sway, whose predominantly spoken word session was unusual even by Peel standards, and with poet John Hegley's band, the Popticians, whose comic ditties about spectacle wearing were a tonic to a boy only recently out of the bully-fodder that were National Health glasses. I wanted to interview them. I'm not sure I knew what I wanted to ask them. John, who lived nearby, typed his reply beneath a photocopied picture of an old tractor cab:
'Sorry it has taken so long to get around to answering your letter. I was imagining that I might find myself cycling through downtown Langham at some stage and could pop in with the (lack of) information. A combination of indolence, weather and work (pause to allow gales of laughter to subside) prevented me.'
I can't imagine how I'd have coped if John had appeared at our (very rural) door. I expect he'd have conversed more with my mother than me.
By 1987 I had achieved my aim and had published the second issue of my fanzine. With it came a co-financed flexidisc featuring the McTells. Peelie made a habit of giving out fanzine addresses and playing flexis, so I sent 'Too Much Hanky Pantry' to him, hoping that the local connection would work in my favour (while recognising the nepotistic nature of that hope). It took John a while to get round to playing the flexi, but play it he did, ever a soft touch for product which emanated from East Anglia or Merseyside. Literally while it span he opened (and subsequently read out on air) a second missive I'd sent him, essentially berating him for not having played the flexi yet. I almost rendered him speechless - no mean feat! I was mortified to hear my letter's hectoring presumption read back to me. Despite it, John read out my address and lots of people bought the fanzine and flexidisc. Through that act of simple generosity, of enfranchisement on a national level, I made friends I have to this day, and learnt good lessons: that the world didn't owe me a living, and not to take the good guys for granted.
Once I'd recovered from the shock of hearing the news of his death, there was only one thing to do: go record shopping. I am the only customer in Groovy Records of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. While I am searching the racks, the proprietor, who looks like a youngish Brian Sewell, plays 'Teenage Kicks'. Twice.
John Peel was the very best of the good guys and it breaks my heart that I'll never again be able to turn on the radio either on a Saturday morning and smile at his self-mocking flights of fancy, or late one weekday evening to hear him tell me in that inimitably unaffected tone the title of a song and the name of an artist that but for him I would surely never have heard.
© 2004 Daniel Williams