Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tears in my red wine

If music means anything, John Peel carried the importance of presidents and kings; his reign lasted 37 years and he never killed anyone.

I'm upset that I didn't recognize the immensity of his influence in my life and in the world of music until I was 19 years old.

Before studying in Portsmouth, I had only heard of The Peel Sessions. I assumed that Peel was a British record label that could somehow get the best out of bands -- the sessions were always touted as some of a band's best work.

Confounded by the non-grid nature of English streets, I risked getting permanently lost on my first day in Pompey to venture out and purchase a stereo. I bought a really good one at Argos for £80, carried it back to Harry Law Hall and listened to the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind The Bollocks" CD I had bought from a bargain bin at HMV earlier in the day. When I got sick of it, I started clicking through the radio stations.

I think the first Radio 1 DJ I heard was Simon Mayo, whom I thought was awful due to that British radio trait of talking all over a song. But the DJs that I actually took notice of that night were Mark and Lard, and then John Peel.

"How funny that they give this old guy a radio show," I thought of John Peel.

I started listening regularly to Peel because I was amused by the eclectic and sometimes confounding nature of the music he played.

A few months later, I was reading a magazine article that, as a sidebar, mentioned the extreme influence of John Peel and I had a sort of epiphanous moment of connecting the fabled Peel Sessions and all Peel's greatness to the old guy on the radio.

Peel and Mark Radcliffe became my vision of the proper way to do radio: honestly; in your own voice; in your own personality; not shouting or creating false enthusiasm (if you want an example of how to do it wrong, listen to Scott Mills or every radio presenter in the United States). I blatantly copied the style when I worked at Pure FM and KMSC. Copying Peel's traditional glass of red wine, I made sure to have a bottle of Budweiser at the start of every show.

It's interesting that Peel was so wistful about his days broadcasting in Dallas; he would have been bumped off the air there years ago. Peel introduced punk, reggae and hip-hop (among other styles) to the British people and the world. I defy you to find reggae or genuine punk or hip-hop on Dallas radio today. There are thousands of Americans, disillusioned by the abysmal corporate state of radio in the United States, who flocked to Peel via the Internet.

He had millions of devoted listeners in every corner of the world, yet it always sounded as if it was just some show put on by some friendly guy in his basement, and only you and a handful of other people were listening. That's the aspect I will miss the most.

What's really making me tear up like a fool today, though, is the thought of this Christmas without Christmas at Peel Acres -- the tradition of getting people together to sing Christmas songs on the radio. This wasn't some sort of polished studio thing, it was genuinely friends and family gathered around a piano singing -- some out of tune, some off rhythm, some forgetting the words, some giggling -- to the whole world.

In December 2000, I was the only person (really) in the office working the week of Christmas. I remember feeling miserable and lonely and far away because my wife and I were living out in San Diego, Calif., and we had no friends staying in town and couldn't make it out to see our families. I was bored to tears with work and suddenly John Peel and his family and Belle & Sebastian were all singing Christmas songs. Their voices were 6,000 miles away, but I sang along and felt warm and happy and, oh, man, I cried like a big goof.

I feel pretty alone right now. I work for a major U.S. news outlet and not one person in the headquarters of my benevolent employer even knows who John Peel was.

I think it was incredibly telling of his influence that Radio 1 filled six hours of airtime Tuesday playing artists that Peel had championed over the years, but any of his regular listeners would be quick to tell you that perhaps only 30 percent of his musical tastes were touched upon. Who now will play me an impossible-to-pronounce screaming-blooping Japanese chick band followed by a sermon from the Rev. C. L. Franklin, some Welsh-language hip-hop and a story about driving through the Netherlands in the middle of the night?

"Micro-techno. What is Micro-techno? Who knows what Micro-techno is? I like the fact it mystifies me and I don’t know what any of it is. And none of us do"
-- John Peel

1 comment:

Jenny said...

It is truly shocking to think that we won't be hearing any more John Peel.

Here is a short John Peel Story:

When I was a young till-monkey working in HMV Oxford Circus, John Peel was a fairly regular customer. He was very polite and spent a long time in the store, working his way methodically from Rock and Pop to 'Specs' to Classical.

Anyway, one day he had waited in the queue at our counter for nigh on twenty minutes. He had a stack of CDs that probably weighed as much as a small child. He waited patiently as my colleague faffed about with his credit card and did some exchanging of a broken CD that he had bought earlier.

When it finally came time for him to turn and leave, a sweaty, greasy lad in his late twenties suddenly flung himself at John Peel, fell to his knees and kissed his hand. This guy was a gibbering wreck and wouldn't let go of his hand as he exclaimed loudly and profusely.

We were mortified and buzzed for security.

John Peel simply said 'Thank you very much!' and left, cool as the proverbial cucumber.