Peely, twenty years on

This autumn it'll be the twentieth anniversary of John Peel's death.

Peely, twenty years on

This autumn it'll be the twentieth anniversary of John Peel's death. I thought about that when Steve Albini died this month, thinking it would have a similar effect on me, but of course it didn't because they were different people. Albini made great music, but Peel spoke to me late at night. But still, fucking Albini, taken too soon, fucking Peely, taken too soon.

I don't think many of the younger people know who John Peel was or why he was important. And I actually think that's OK. Peel was not building a personal legacy (like Albini did, whether he liked it or not). Peel's job, his importance, was transient. He was in your headphones, playing you music and telling you about it, and then he was gone. Sure, you can download recordings on those shows, but they miss the point. John Peel could only matter when I was listening to him live on the radio. Once he was no longer doing that it was over. I take comfort in this, because it shows it really really matters.

My prodigious blogging from those glorious pre-Twitter years has fallen victim to site revamps, corrupt backups and general incompetence, but the Internet Archive saved most of it (there wasn't as much internet back then so they have plenty of room for dumb blogs) and I found myself looking up what I wrote at the tender age of 32 when John Peel left us. I think it stands up.


October 26 2004

I'm loading a pallet onto the shrink-wrapping machine and the radio news catches my ear. I turn to the guy in the booth. You what? "Some people are going to be pretty upset about this" he says. Yeah, me being one of them. As Teenage Kicks starts it's unexpected stint as most playlisted song of the day I find myself slightly stunned, unable to compute this information. He'll never broadcast again. I'll never hear his show live again. Kids discovering music now and in the future will not have his guiding voice. It's over and it's too early, far too early.

I continued my work in a daze, making little mistakes and bumping my pallet truck into things, as it sunk in. I sent a couple of text messages to people I guessed hadn't heard and got bemused replies. Is this a wind up? A little later some guy is singing raucously along to Teenage Kicks obviously oblivious to why it's being played. That phrase, "some people are going to be pretty upset about this" is flowing through my mind. I'm probably the only person in this warehouse who's affected by the news.

I can't remember when I first heard his show. It was probably around 1989. I was 17, had just discovered The Pixies and was making up for some seriously lost time music-wise. Up until then my music taste had been pretty terrible, growing up in Croydon and listening to Capital Radio. As I moved to Winchester Radio One moved to FM and became my chosen station. At the time he was playing music in trios. A guitar track, a dance track, a world track, a guitar track and so on. I loved the guitar stuff, hated the dance stuff and was bemused by the world stuff, but I stuck with it. Soon I came to tolerate and eventually love the whole show, which is kind of the point.

Throughout the 90s I tended to be the only person in my immediate group of friends that listened to him. As time has progressed this has changed as when that identification is made one tends to have made a friend for life and this evening nearly every weblog I read has a post like this on it. I don't think he has fans as such or followers. Rather he made a certain frame of mind acceptable and this, I think, is his real legacy.

In fact I'll go out on a limb and say it's not really about the music. The music is a conduit for something else, something quite intangible which I think comes down to that fucked up sense of juxtaposition he imposed on us. He made having an open mind cool, which is saying something when you think about it. Once you'd accepted that you could listen to every form of every form of music and appreciate it on its own merits then you could apply this to everything else in life. Any form of creative endeavour is worthwhile. The fact that someone, anyone, is doing something different and interesting becomes vital.

On the whole fans (for want of a better word) of him tend to be sensitive folk who just want things to be nice, who feel beaten down by the relentless enforcement of mediocrity. He not only provided a place on the radio for us to retreat to, his spirit encouraged others to do the same. Every small club, fanzine, website, setup of any description that implicitly encourages people to just do stuff owes him a debt, and they know it. The generation, generations really, that grew up with him learned something important and it stuck with them. We're the ones who smile when we see enthusiasm, who know that there is so much more to life. We're the ones who get it.

John Peel, thank you.