John Peel didn’t mean shit to me: my radio education

I’ve been thinking a lot about radio recently. It’s partly to do with the launch of Apple’s new radio station but really began when I read London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, and continued when I started Bob Stanley’s excellent history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah, which has some interesting thoughts on the way Radio One has shaped British music tastes and the roles played in this by different controllers and their chosen DJs. As ever, Stanley talks a lot about John Peel, who for many music fans was a lifeline to new, exciting music. For much of the 1980s, this was the only place you could hear music that other DJs might deem difficult or unpopular. Get a bunch of music fans of a certain age together, and they’ll soon talk about the important of Peel in their musical education.

It’s at this point I usually look at my shoes and hope the discussion moves on. Peel was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. That’s because when I was starting to seeking out music – a little later than most, I was in my late-teens before I discovered any music that really spoke to me – Peel was barely to be found on Radio One. He occupied a tea-time shift on Saturday afternoons when I was usually coming back from watching football. I’d listen when I could because the elder guardians of the NME/Melody Maker said I should, and I remember avidly listening to the Festive Fifty at Christmas despite the protestations of my parents. But my heart wasn’t in it no matter how much I adored Strange Fruit’s wonderful budget collection of Peel Sessions LPs.

Instead, I was a devoted listener to Mark Radcliffe, whose show ran from 10pm-midnight four nights a week (and before that, weekly on Radio 5, which I also listened to). Radcliffe was given the sort of freedom that was highly unusual in national radio. He could play pretty much anything he liked, and happily mixed old with new. It was here that I first heard bands like The Leaves, The Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders, and discovered I really liked garage rock. He played a fair amount of indie just as the genre went massive, but gave it some context by playing it alongside records from the 1960s and 1970s, largely guitar-based but not entirely.

This was important, there was no streaming then, no internet at all, and oldies stations like Capital Gold generally stuck to the standards, so the only way to hear this kind of marginal music was by tracking it down in record shops and taking the risk of the purchase, or hearing it on the radio.

But the other thing he did was place the music within a wider cultural context. Guests came in to talk at length about films and books. He even did poetry. And the guests were immaculately selected: Will Self did a weekly slot on cult books, his unsettling drone of a voice perfectly suiting portentous, absorbing discussions of Kafka, Hesse, Burroughs and Huxley. In contrast to the regal Self, Mark Kermode would enthuse about cult films like a woolly teenager. He usually manged to slip in a mention of The Exorcist but, like Self, would cover a range of genres and era, showing how the dots connected. He’d also, I think, point out interesting films being screened at 2am on C4 so you could set the video. Every week, this pair gave me suggestions for something new to get from the library, or at least talk about knowledgeably, as if I’d read or watched them myself.

Simon Armitage and John Hegley would recite poems, which even then I didn’t much like but hell, just think about that for a minute, weird northern poets on national radio talking to teenagers. There were other guests too, comedians, journalists, mates of Radcliffe and his sidekick Riley, who joined in with the daft quizzes and silly set-pieces, but it was the mix of old and new music, spiced with literature and cinema that I was listening for.

You see, I loved music, but it wasn’t the centre of my life, which is how John Peel always seemed to present it, with deathless, off-putting, intensity. Radcliffe in contrast used music as a crucial flavouring in a cultural casserole. It felt mind-expanding, and was a massive influence on my education, on how I perceive music even today.

I don’t know if Radcliffe’s show stands up now, I don’t really want to know, but here’s a link to a fan’s website and some clips from one of the shows.


10 responses to “John Peel didn’t mean shit to me: my radio education

  1. Reblogged this on Floating-voter.

  2. my playlist based on Mark Radcliffe’s show that preceded the 10pm one:

    now I’m gonna check out The Leaves, The Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders

  3. I can only say that, had you been born a bit longer ago, & coincided with Peel’s evening programmes, this’d be a different post! I love everyone else that you’ve mentioned – Radcliffe’s always been a treat at any time of day – but Peel’s one of the only 3 public people whose death has caused me to well up. (Douglas Adams & Terry Pratchett, for reference. Attenborough will leave me in a puddle of uselessness when that hellish day comes.)

    Never forget that without Peel, there would be no interesting DJs. He made it acceptable to play anything, just for the hell of it, in an era when interest and alternative were otherwise playlisted off the air. In an era populated by the banal, he was a glorious flat voice of insanity messing up the evenings. He’s sorely missed.

  4. Yes yes yes yes! I did listen to Peel now and then (usually if there was a band session of interest), but I listened to Mark & Lard every night. Actually I’d never really thought about what an influence they’d been on my listening/cultural habits but now I do remember picking out books and films based on hearing about them on their show. I always considered Gilles Peterson to be my John Peel, though, with a nod to Annie Nightingale back when she did the Sunday evening request show on after the charts; always heard interesting stuff on that — especially given how young I was (i.e young enough to care about the charts)

  5. @ Joe Taylor – you got in ahead of me there; I used to enjoy ‘Out On Blue Six’ too…in fact I’ve got an hour long cassette somewhere of one of them (included UK Subs ‘Stranglehold’ covered by Die Toten Hosen and a delightful Barry Andrews tune called ‘Rossmore Road’)..maybe I’ll upload it somewhere one day. I’ve also got a recording of one of the later shows with guest Mr. John Shuttleworth which was hilarious.

    I stopped following Mark R. after that, but I do remember admiring the way he tolerated Iggy Pop in dickhead mode post-show one year at Glastonbury on the BBC.

    I’m with HHGeek all the way r.e. Peel. though. Maybe it’s just our age difference.. I was listening to Peel (and radio Luxembourg on occasion) under my bedclothes on a small radio as far back as 1977 as an 11-year old and, although I listened a lot less during the ’90s, I’m happy to say I heard a whole show not long before he died, the one where he played his last Fall session. Loved the old bugger ♥

  6. Bruce Banner

    I was a fan of all the aforementioned DJs – Peel (in his weekday evening slot), Mark & Lard on Radio 1’s Out On Blue Six, breakfast show and Radio 5 (which always annoyingly drifted in and out), Annie Nightingale (after-the-charts, after-the-essential mix and Annie On One). They all shaped me to a certain degree and I wouldn’t be who I am now without them. I was also listening to ‘Luxy’ (and the “Oxy-cute ’em” spot cream adverts) on a mono radio in 77′ and the BBC stations closed down at midnight.

    John Peel perhaps opened the doors for a lot of artists but it did take me a while to ‘enjoy’ his shows growing up. His influence is staggering though and it’s a much sadder world without him. Annie Nightingale and Mark Radcliffe have a similar approach to Peel i.e. Good music is good music – fashion means nothing and (I’m happy to say) this philosophy has been continued by BBC Radio 6.

    good article, well-written and I agree.

  7. Forgot to give props to Annie. She was and is great…still lives in Brighton as far as I know 🙂

    I enjoy 6 music these days, but most mainstream radio is still pretty soulless to say the least (although you have some very good local DJs/shows around the UK), so for me the legacy of Peel, Radcliffe and co is that I search for, and discover, some great DJs thanks to internet radio and podcasts (soundcloud/mixcloud/podomatic to name a few places).
    One I’d like to mention is The Shend, who sings for The Cravats, a big fave of Peel’s once upon a time who did sessions for him. Shend has a weekly show and podcast on both mixcloud and podomatic which I think some of you of the more punk persuasion may enjoy. In fact he plays all sorts of stuff…whatever he feels like, basically, a la John Peel 😉

    …and another guy really dedicated to his craft and inspired by Peel is Chris Nash who does a weekly show on 6 Towns Radio.

    also look for The Real Music Club podcasts with Roy Weard and Tim Rundall among others. Cheers !

  8. Karl wallinger

    I started listening to rock in the early 1970s and my friends and I thought Peel had appalling taste in music. The golden age of British music was the period 1967-1975. Peel was an old hippie. He liked Medicine head and Marc Bolan and folk music. Peel did not like heavy metal, prog rock or anything we listened to. It was waste of a time slot because he mostly played crap. Mostly it seemed to be Obscure folk groups. You could not hear Led Zeppelin on daytime Radio One in those days. There was nowhere to listen to the music we liked.

    I did not listen to his shows after I left university in 1978. By that time he had morphed into a fan of punk and reggae. His shows in the early 1970s were whiter than white but suddenly he liked black music. I always thought he was an opportunistic fraud.

    A lot of the people he championed played very simple music, like The undertones. I also blame him for helping to dumb down British music.

  9. “Simple music”? Oh noooooo *does sign of crucifix*..
    There’s room for both ‘three-chords-and-the-truth’ and ‘labyrinthine-in-the-extreme’ in my world, and all points inbetween, thanks to the above-mentioned purveyors. And if Peel began to play more black music as a result of his Punk epiphany then more power to the fella.

    Incidentally, anyone know where I can find whole Mark & Lard shows? I didn’t listen all that much and would be interested to hear more, particularly Will Self’s book slot, compare notes so to speak.

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