Tag Archives: John Peel

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.

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Why I love Pat Nevin

I remember when I fell in love with Pat Nevin. It was in the playground and somebody was passing round a 1985 Panini sticker album. I turned straight to the Chelsea page to see my heroes.

There was Kerry Dixon, bluffly handsome with golden hair, azure eyes and self-confident grin. There was Colin Pates, a brick-wall centre-back with disco dancer hair. There was Doug Rougvie with a nose that looked like it had lost an argument with a spade.

And there was Pat Nevin. Pasty-faced, greasy-haired, nervous, thin and sullen. He looked like a smackhead. Who wouldn’t fall in love?

I only saw Nevin play once for Chelsea, a 3-0 victory at Watford in 1988 about which I remember little, but his legend loomed large over the following years. By the time I started watching Chelsea regularly the next season, the club were in the Second Division and Nevin was at Everton, but my bible, the Chelsea Independent fanzine, spoke of little else.

They drooled over Nevin’s dribble against Newcastle, when he beat eight players in a slalom run that took him from one end of the pitch to the other. They marvelled at his free kick against Sheffield Wednesday, when he chipped the ball over the defensive wall, ran round the other side and lofted a perfect cross on to David Speedie’s goalscoring noggin. They giggled at his famous penalty miss against Manchester City.

The love seemed mutual. When Nevin was injured playing for Tranmere, he attended a Chelsea-Everton game at Goodison Park and paid to go in the Chelsea end. This was important. Chelsea fans, then as now, were despised, but if somebody like Nevin loved us, maybe there was hope, maybe there was redemption,

And Nevin was the sort of player that fans love – an exciting, creative, unpredictable dribbler, but there was more to it than this. Nevin was smart. Nevin was cool. Nevin was different.

He angrily attacked his own supporters for their racist, violent and anti-semitic predilections – to the delight of the left-wing students at the Chelsea Independent. He read French and Russian literature. His favourite bands were Joy Division, Jesus And Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins. He once insisted on being substituted at half-time in a friendly so he could attend a gig. He brought Brechtian principles to the club programme when he interviewed himself – yes, himself – for a player profile. He was friends with John Peel. For the teenager who read Camus and listened to Sonic Youth it was a no-brainer: if you could be a footballer, you’d be Pat Nevin.

NME described Nevin as the first post-punk footballer, although it may have been more accurate to say he was the first art school footballer. He was also the last. 

When at Everton, Nevin gave a lengthy to the Chelsea Independent, and talked at length about football, music and literature, and what it was like drinking in Soho with George Melly. I’d never heard of Melly, but here I was, learning about jazz and the counterculture from a footballer, in a fanzine. Would that happen now? 

When I interviewed Colin Pates – who is not a stupid man, by any means -he still seemed bemused by the fact Nevin would read books on the way to away games rather than play cards. Nevin, though, never seemed to get bullied about his interests. He was clever, but he was also proudly working-class and therefore more acceptable to other footballers and more capable of sticking up for himself than the middle-class Guardian-reading Graeme Le Saux who followed him as Chelsea’s token intellectual.

In the early 1990s, I finally got to see Nevin play at Stamford Bridge. He was wearing an Everton kit, but when he scored the Shed gave him a standing ovation – the only time I have ever seen Chelsea fans applaud an opposition goal. Pat Nevin was a very intelligent footballer and when he was around, fans seemed to use their brains a little bit more as well.