Seven years ago today I received a text from my friend Kerrie telling me John Peel had passed away. I didn’t believe her at first – It was literally unthinkable to me that such a thing could have happened, but then TV, the radio, and the newspapers confirmed it. John was no more.
I was inconsolable for weeks - and gradually I discovered I was far from the only one, which came as something of a surprise, due to Peel’s perceived outsider status. I only knew one other person obsessed with his show as I was, after all – But then it started to make sense – Peel had been around since the birth of pop radio, after all, since the days of psychedelic pirate radio, he had reached into teenage bedrooms and transformed lives for years, not counting his radio 4 appearances, which had endeared him to a whole other kind of audience.
Anyway, let’s flashback a few years.
1993, and my 14 year old self had been devouring the stranger aspects of the top 40 (in the days when independent releases peppered the hit parade like buckshot from the underground), I had started buying music magazines with my then-heroes on the cover – Bjork, De La Soul, The Orb, Suede, etc. In amongst the pages of these magazines I started reading about bands and artists I’d never heard on Bruno Brookes’ chart countdown, but who sounded utterly fascinating – The Aphex Twin and King Tubby – names which sounded exotic, descriptions of music that defied everything I had heard thus far. It would be very hard to describe to those who grew up in an internet age how distant and mysterious that music you heard never actually heard could be – But there you go. Imagine it if you can.
Then one day I remember well, I was at an antique/collector’s fair in mid-Wales, helping out my parents on their stall, and the hippy couple who I had an affinity with had the radio on – This was Sunday afternoon if I remember rightly. Suddenly I heard this echoing, massive bassline – It sounded like the skinhead reggae I had grown up with listening to (my brother-in-law had been a DJ in Bristol in the late seventies) , only broken to bits and reconstructed in the most psychedelic way imaginable. I was transfixed! Then a deep voice came on and announced I had just been listening to the late, great King Tubby! So THIS was what King Tubby sounded like! And on the RADIO? Well...Soon afterwards I learnt that this was John Peel’s show, and, although most of the rest of the show puzzled me beyond belief, I was hooked.
A few weeks later was my 15th birthday, and me and a friend had stayed up late playing Atari ST games in the front room, when I decided to put the radio on – more crazy music, this time Aphex Twin, John Peel again!
In time I listened to every show, utilising blank tapes and the pause button to it’s best effect – At the start I would maybe collect 4 or 5 tunes from each show onto tape – mostly dub reggae and the then-emergent sound of jungle, but eventually I would be getting a side of tape per show, as my tastes gradually widened to include obscure American punk tunes, old country and African music – the show was a real goldmine.
A few years later I had the fortune to meet Peel’s Radio One colleague Steve Lamacq when he played a show in Aberystwyth. I had a really nice long chat with him and he told me lots of anecdotes about Peel, which made me feel even closer to the man himself.
A few years after that I was living in London, and I met Gaz, a fellow Peel obsessive. With the advent of e-mail and text messaging we were able to actually contact John during his shows, and ‘Fuzz’ and ‘Gazcloud’ became regular names read out – One particular time I remember answering a query from another listener regarding a metal record that used songs from the Wizard Of Oz (‘Oz on 45’ by The Squirrels) that Peel had played in the 80’s. I remember stated that I wasn’t sure if he had played it in the 80’s but he had certainly played it in 1995. “how the hell did you remember that, Fuzz?”, John asked on air. A rhetorical question, I imagine – I did, of course, have it on one of the hundreds of off-air recordings that I would listen to when Peel’s show wasn’t on...
During that period I was fortunate enough to attend several of the live Peel sessions at Maida Vale - I remember Herman Dune, Melt Banana and Dreadzone as particular favourites (Dreadzone especially as the band were very friendly and I got to shake the hand of reggae legend Earl 16). During the Herman Dune session I got to meet the man himself for the first time...
I cannot tell you how nervous I was! I was never the most confident of people in my early twenties, and this was John Peel! The man who had unknowingly soundtracked my years of teenage heartbreak and struggle, who had brought me so much joy and so many tunes to weep along with, who had widened my horizons far beyond the biggest selling records, who had changed me for life. The walk into the sound-proofed DJ booth (around 6 feet), seemed like the longest walk of my life – heightened by the fact that the corridor in was pitch black, and the booth beyond was bathed in a brilliant white glow. And in the middle of the glow was John, alone. The people I was with had come bearing gifts for him, which was a great way to hang back, let them do the talking – I had no idea what I was going to say. Anyway, for some reason the conversation had gotten on to bands with rude names – and I got my opportunity – “I remember the first time you said ‘f*ck’ on the radio actually” (this was in relation to the band with the same name, who Peel had previously referred to either as ‘The band with a name like ‘duck’’, or, latterly ‘Feck’). “I know”, John replied, beaming, “I actually kept looking around expecting the ground to swallow me up”.
There were other times too – later were his Fabric appearances (I didn’t miss any of those), where he would play everything from African hi-life to hardcore nosebleed techno, where the crowd kept chanting 'John Peel' for some ten mins into the next DJ's set, and were some of the most fun nights of my life (especially when Louise the producer sat down and had beer with us prior), but I’ll still remember John oddly dwarfed by the womb-like studio, unprepossessing, shuffling about a little shy and nervous, but coming to life when playing and discussing the music he passionately loved.
I still miss you most days now John, and I really can’t thank you enough.