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Saturday, 18 June 2011

D'ye ken John Peel?

I reckon it needs saying. When are music journalists going to desist with their lazy write-ups of John Peel’s Radio 1 show? It’s usually a travesty. We’re always getting: “He was as likely to play Bogshed B-sides, reggae or Zimbabwean guitar music as happy hardcore or Napalm Death”. Or: “When he wasn’t playing records at the wrong speed, he was talking about his beloved Liverpool”. Or: “Loved the Fall, favourite record Teenage Kicks, blah blah bloody blah….”.
The canonisation and cuddlie-fication of “Peel” (or, gulp, “Peelie”) has been a slowly growing cancer in the mainstream music media ever since he died. Give it a few more years and it will be just “Teenage Kicks … The Fall … wrong speed … legend”. Uncle John Peel. Fab. Great. He was a legendary DJ wasn’t he?
I think the reality was different. Yes, he played a huge variety of music (and the write-ups never convey this properly, it wasn’t wilful “B-side” obscurantism, he was genuinely trying to programme underplayed music), yet it sometimes followed patterns that were limited. So, regarding reggae, I recall he played Lee Perry far more than other artists and regularly reverted to Misty In Roots’ Live At The Counter Eurovision (I never could see why he raved about this record so much). Basically, his reggae picks were meagre/indifferent.
He had some blind spots (to my mind) which sometimes made listening a trial: Wah!/Pete Wylie, Altered Images/Clare Grogan, The Delgardos, Laura Cantrell. Blimey, it could be hard work when he had them in the studio or something. Similarly, if he was retrieving an Elmore James or a Captain Beefheart track, he tended to pick the same one (Dust My Broom, Big Eyed Beans), which was a shame and over-familiar if you were a regular listener.
However, the pluses far, far outweighed the minuses. The “Peel in miniature” description tends to miss out the way that he played stuff like Hefner, Ballboy, Sportique and their ilk. It doesn’t do justice to the way he played electronic music of all kinds for years. Not only techno or drum and bass (which he played pretty consistently), but all kinds of experimental electro sounds: Pan Sonic, Autechre, Richard D James, Atari Teenage Riot, glitch, Ninja Tunes material etc, and, which is the point as well, stuff from artists that have never had a significant profile since.
Another issue is that his famed “avuncular” style was not quite the way it’s now normally portrayed. Terse, unapologetically “intelligent” intros, outros and observational comment was his stock-in-trade, but then he’d occasionally throw in curve balls. He’d gush (rather cringingly) about Liverpool/Kenny Dalgleish (the dire Home Truths JP emerging here), but he’d also stray into political territory every now and then. The 2003 Iraq anti-war march was one such moment and I think the 80s miners’ strike was as well.
He’d also make remarks about the Smashie and Nicey brigade which were clearly not just showbiz joshing but quite heartfelt: I recall Mike Read’s not owning a record player coming in for withering repeat mentions. (Less endearingly, there are now whole message boards around revelling in Peel’s put-downs and mini-feuds with the daytime crowd, all laced with a rather sickening matey praise for the “great man” JP. It’s Smashie and Nicey’s revenge).
Interestingly, I remember him introducing a Band Of Susans song with an account of how he’d been particularly depressed (“low”) one evening before seeing them and how they’d lifted him out of it. This wasn’t a plunge into Simon Bates-style mawkishness and it didn’t seem to be rehearsed showbiz bullshit. It sounded like an uncategorisable moment from someone who was sometimes playing uncategorisable music. 
Instead, what we’re now getting with John Peel is analogous to that self-parodying “John Peel” who would sometimes present Top Of The Pops. In one of his many mis-judgments (those ubiquitous ad voice-overs), this buffoonish version (holding the mic rigidly in front of his mouth, “bopping” ironically as the camera pulled away) was always a slight embarrassment to a regular listener. Yeah, we get the joke John, but why bother?
I haven’t yet read Margrave Of The Marshes (like thousands of others who’ve got this charity shop staple on their shelves, I suspect) and I could stand corrected on what I’m saying here. But I don’t think so.
It’s time to end the caricaturing of John Peel. But how to do it? One way is to check out the blogs about his work (there are many). They’re a hundred times richer than the cardboard cut-out versions we’re being palmed off with.

And the richness and density is the point. The mainstream gets Peel glibly wrong because it tries to sum him up too neatly. It’s not even true that he played lots of records at the wrong speed; it was only a fraction and then half the time because he was putting on stuff like unmarked seven inches that played at 33 and a third, something a daytime jock was hardly confronted with.    
When John Peel died a friend asked: who was I now going to listen to as a replacement? I didn’t know. Then I realised where the new John Peel was. It was the world wide web. The internet, bloggers, YouTube, Google, mp3s. And how do you sum that up …?

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