What the death of John Peel means for music
A week before the death of the Radio One disc jockey John Peel, an interesting exercise in semiotics was broadcast on the news. Fidel Castro, having delivered a speech at a graduation ceremony, stumbled as he left the platform and fell onto the floor. Ignoring any lessons in first aid they may or may not have been given, Castro’s bodyguards rushed to their toppled leader and immediately lifted him back onto his feet. Of course, this revealed nothing we didn’t already know; in other words, that the political stability of Cuba is predicated upon the presence, health and continued charisma of its leader. Not just any leader, but Castro specifically. What is more interesting, however, is that everyone around Castro seemed to know this instinctively – they lifted him to his feet immediately, without having to think twice.
A few years ago, I had a strange, profoundly affecting, experience. Someone had informed me that the playlists for every single radio show John Peel ever played were online and I had therefore found myself searching through lists of records played in the early 1990s. As I sat in my bedroom, a lonely, typically angst-ridden teenager, listening to Huggy Bear playing their first John Peel Session in 1992, how could I have possibly imagined that, ten years later, I would have the magic of that moment returned to me through a technology which (at that point) only a handful of people were aware of? For those of us who remember life before the internet, the web can be turned into a fundamentally Proustian tool. And now that John Peel is dead, I can only imagine that the impending afternoon looking over those playlists for a second time will be filled with a very different type of melancholy.
On a purely selfish, personal level, what makes Peel’s death untimely – and yet also curiously, perversely timely – is that I had only just started listening to his radio show on a regular basis again. I think if Peel had died at an earlier time, a time when I wasn’t listening at all, I would have experienced a process of alienation too traumatic to contemplate. Ten years ago, I was going to listen to John Peel forever. I knew that if I ever started-up a band, it would be a partial success, because at least John Peel would play my records. This is not to claim that John Peel played any old rubbish but, rather, I knew instinctively that his taste would envelope mine. Ultimately, I never started-up a band and therefore never tested this rather bold hypothesis. However, I do know several people – ordinary people, not full-time musicians – who were in a band when they were either on the dole or at university, who can genuinely say that John Peel played their 4-track recorded, limited-edition, 500 vinyl copies, wing-and-a-fucking-prayer, seven inch independent release.
John Peel didn’t discover bands, he just played the best goddamn music you ever heard on the radio and, more importantly, he played the broadest range of music: French reggae, R’n’B, ambient techno, punk, Japanese noisecore and more all jostled for airtime on his dependably eclectic shows. Perhaps this variety was because, despite the assumption that Peel was mostly interested in hearing and playing radically new things, I also remember him saying that he was only interested in two categories of music. “good” and “bad”. As I’m writing this (just a few hours after the announcement of Peel’s death), Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order is being interviewed on television, explaining that what gave him and his bandmates the confidence to get involved with music was the knowledge that at least John Peel would understand their music and play it on the radio. And I don’t care who Radio One gets to replace him, it’s this relationship between aspiring musicians and the one person in the BBC whom they knew they could depend upon which is gone forever.
The most tireless champion of great new music is fallen and, unlike Castro, no one can resurrect him. What this might mean for great new music, God only knows.