John Peel 1939-2004
Photograph © 2004 BBC
When it comes to DJs, few reach iconic status, or become a voice the nation recognises. John Peel is one. From breaking bands with his legendary Peel Sessions to his TV narration work, he has helped define the BBC. John also has a monster sized record collection, of which most radio stations and music libraries would (or should) be envious.
John recently was able to spare me half an hour at the BBC studios in Central London inbetween preparing for another radio show. We sat in an empty studio, where he struggled to switch off CNN from the TV screen and put on a printed screen showing football scores. Being from Liverpool, heís an ardent Liverpool fan, and shows his displeasure at seeing Manchester United score against Wolves. His wife is apparently an Ipswich fan, so no conflict there.
As a DJ, John got his first break in Dallas, Texas, working for a radio station called WRR with a show called Katís Karavan. Playing RíníB and a lot of 40s material on French label 10" LPs that were unavailable in the US, there was interest and potential for success. So why did it finish so soon?
"I made the mistake of asking to be paid". A drawback with any job, but the station saw it differently. His next stint (in Oklahoma) lasted longer, closer to 18 months, before spending six months on the pirate Radio London.
The big break came in 1967 with the launch of BBCís Radio 1. John applied, was offered a six week contract, and heís still there over 35 years later. No mean feat!
Back then John was into the likes of Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, and buying the odd chart single, but canít name a specific style; "There were no subdivisions back then. People categorise now, and I often donít know what they mean."
Many a young band started off with radio sessions, but how did it all come about?
"When Radio One started, there were restrictions on needle time, the amount of time you can spend playing records; live musicians got round that. Or tape a record and pay them as if it was live. Producer Bernie Andrews saw the opportunity for bands not otherwise on the radio, or who hadnít really recorded."
"You donít have to worry if theyíre going to be commercial or successful. I see myself as a patron of the arts but I donít have to invest any of my own money."
Most of the sessions would be memorable in their own right, and John couldnít remember any unmemorable ones. But the Sex Pistols refused to do it because they didnít want to compromise their position. At the other end of the spectrum, fellow punks the Clash got as far as recording the backing tracks and pulled out because "the BBC equipment wasnít up to it". Now thatís attitude for you.
But which bands did John ever feel would go on to bigger and better things?
"I was never commercially minded like that, but I wish I was. Everything I put on the radio I think ĎSomebodyís going to like thisí. Itís easy to forget that itís not all done for audience numbers or commercial gain."
Of the few downsides (thereís been too many sessions for any to really stand out), there was one session that was unbroadcastable it was so bad; tactfully, John says it would be unkind to mention who it was. Also, Morrissey (the former Smiths frontman) pulled one of his own sessions because he was unhappy with the way it turned out, and it would have been unfair to go against his wishes.
They always wanted to get Captain Beefheart back, but had to book them as entertainers rather than musicians because "In the early days we couldnít get American musicians in, because the Musicians Union was very powerful and negotiated an exchange deal, but thereís no national radio station in the US. We could get solo artists, but not bands." Anyone, like Beefheart, who was iconic in Peelís mind was always welcome back though.
The sheer number of sessions over the years meant that John was equally difficult to tie down about his top five or favourite sessions, although the Fall did loads (I gather by his tone they were a particular favourite); "I wish we could have more reggae, but many Jamaican artists had a habit of not turning up. Sugar Minot failed to show three times." John not only finds this disappointing, but with all the staff and equipment involved it can get costly. However, "Culture did a few, the Slits were epic, and Ivor Cutler was quite memorable."
John was also responsible for setting up the Dandelion label, home to acts like Bridget St John and Stackwaddy. When asked how it came about; "I wanted the BBC to release the sessions, thinking of the EP format as bands generally recorded 4 tracks, but the BBC, classic misnomer, werenít interested. I approached Richard Branson, who wasnít interested either." Eventually John formed it with agent Clive Selwood. It had to be not for profit to avoid a conflict of interests with the BBC, but "few of the artists made any money anyway."
Johnís own record collection, which has been built up gradually over the years as a DJ, now numbers 26,000 LPs (methodically catalogued), and somewhere in the region of 30-40,000 7" singles. Initially he has no idea how many CDs, but reckons itís also in the 30-40,000 area. These are kept in sheds in the garden. All with special made shelves, but isnít a complete fanatic with the storage; "Iím happy if the musicís accessible, but I donít board up the windows to keep the sunlight out."
John doesnít consider himself a hoarder, he just keeps what heís been sent.
The amount that John gets sent has become a problem, especially with the ease that demos and independent pressings can be laid down on CD. He no longer gets anything from the majors (so he still has to go out and buy the new Neil Young album or anything else he particularly wants), but he does get far too much to actually listen to (four times what is humanly possible). "I do feel guilty that Iím not able to listen to it all, but after a year or two what can you do?" The big black bag does come to the rescue of some things eventually. The previous Monday John had had to decline a family lunchtime trip to the pub because "24 hours a day, seven days a week, I couldnít deal with it all."
But with four kids, surely the family must take an interest?
"Theyíve been grateful over the years for free records, but now some assert their independence by buying rather than asking."
And when asked about particular gems, or dislikes; "Thereís no room for hatred in music, I think theyíre all gems, the ones Iíve kept. I do read Record Collector occasionally, so I realise some have some value, but that doesnít mean Iíd go that route."
I knew John wouldnít have time to revisit much older material, but I had to ask.
"Generally (I listen to) stuff I put in the programmes, Iím genuinely interested in new stuff, but sometimes I do go and have, like a Roy Orbison moment."
Consequently, thereís nothing John collects in the traditional sense of the word, but does understand why people do it. "Iím wary of buying on the internet, I bought something 10 weeks ago with an 8 week delivery time so I must see if Iíve actually paid for it."
John is unsure if heíd ever sell his collection, and sees as it as an extensive library; "I would like it to be kept as a collection, but worry about what my family would do with it after I go, but I would like to continue to use it in my lifetime."
As for musical styles; "I donít think I like those terms, Iím not sectarian. I only think in terms of good or bad."
Johnís voice is now well known across BBC1 too as narration jobs frequently come by (like a Colin Towns soundtrack - he pops up everywhere). After the interview I made it home to catch "Life of Grime".
Interview © 2004