Tuesday, October 26

John Peel 1939 - 2004

John Peel, who has just died, meant something different to every one of his listeners, but I must try to record something of what he meant to me, clumsy as it will be. This is because as well as coming across as a warm and likeable man, a friend or uncle almost, John Peel was a constant reference point in my life of listening to music.

I first remember hearing his programme coming on after Janice Long’s show, probably around 1984, when I would have been 14. It began at ten in the evening, as far as I can remember, and I would only hear little snatches of it, particularly at the start when he’d read out the list of exotic bands he’d be playing later, such as Skeletal Family. I also remember being mesmerised by the spacious, echoing sound of reggae that was stranger and more fascinating than any I’d heard elsewhere. But John Peel was on too late for me to listen to and anyway, I had decided I preferred Iron Maiden to the Smiths.

By my late teens, I listened to almost nothing but the most comically extreme death or black metal. It had seemed that this music was only played on the radio by the hard rock DJ Tommy Vance, who I recorded every week, but I discovered that a few such tracks also made their way into each John Peel programme.

I started taping Peel, in order to make compilation tapes of this provocatively noisy music, and since I had to listen to the whole programme in order to get at the stuff I wanted, I was exposed to music I grew to love just as much, and then prefer, like rap and indie rock.

I became the classic Peel obsessive, recording every programme, hanging on his every word and nuance, dashing to the record shop every Monday morning to find anything he’d played, scorning anything he hadn’t, and buying as many Peel-approved records as my budget allowed.

Since Peel invariably scattered a few older tunes into every show, whether blues or rock ’n’ roll, these also went on my shopping list. If the master was in favour of it, I was eager to learn, and it rarely stopped me from buying anything even if I didn’t immediately like it myself.

I was the DJ’s pupil. The music press and other DJs, and even my own taste, were obstacles in the way of the urge to know what he knew. Yet while this relationship might sound silly now, I regret none of it. I know that as a result I experienced something of a Grand Tour, taking in 50 years of rock music, its roots and its derivatives. I still own a huge pile of vinyl records, mainly cataloguing the first half of the ‘90s, but also reaching right back into pop music history; and I still have very strong, confident opinions about any new rock music I hear.

My infatuation didn’t last forever. I grew tired of listening to six or eight hours of Peel’s music every week. Some of the music no longer challenged me and some of it sounded too much the same. Diverse and challenging though Peel’s musical world was, it began to limit me and I looked elsewhere.

I rebelled against the apparently rebellious music of rock. Peel was a reference point I used to reorient myself and sometimes argue against in my own mind. I began to think the basis of much of his music not what it had seemed. Peel always ridiculed pretension in rock music, and many of its other faults, but being a reactionary socialist himself, of the sort that fancies itself an old softie, there were faults in rock music he would always have been blind to.

John Peel built a crossroads where many wayward listeners and musicians made unlikely meetings, with rich consequences for popular music. He did as much for his music as any one man could have. Specifically, because rock belongs to thousands of musicians rather than to a small number of geniuses, although he could not play a note, Peel has likely done more for rock than any musician.

Because of the part he played, many listeners and musicians feared losing John Peel. I feared it myself. Now the fear has come true and time will reveal the consequences.

Wednesday, October 13

Triumph der schlechten Laune

While I rarely listen to the Fall these days, I like to keep an eye on their progress. A rejuvenated band is currently touring Germany and one review, from the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, has been translated here, as Triumph of the bad mood (Triumph der schlechten Laune):

The Fall gave the audience what it wanted: Moroseness and rock´n roll (“rock”). A good reliever against bad mood is to inspect people with worse mood - Marks E. Smith is always the correct address for this.

Monday, October 4

Angels in marble

A former member of the Downing Street Policy Unit under Margaret Thatcher writes in Prospect about days gone by for the Conservative party:

The Thatcher approach was to preach a message and then try to put it into effect. No less important, the Thatcher assumption was that the preaching would be persuasive because somewhere in the depths of the British national psyche it would strike a chord. Just as Disraeli saw working-class Tories as "angels in marble" - that is, natural conservatives awaiting only the inspired touch of the sculptor to emerge as Conservative voters - so Thatcher and her closest colleagues believed in a natural conservative majority.

How different things were back then.