Perfect Sound Forever

John Peel

A Tribute by John Dougan
(November 2004)

I was deeply saddened when Joe Strummer died, but didn't shed a tear. The same was true of the passing of Johnny Cash, Johnny Ramone, and Gary Stewart. John Peel's death, however, was very different. When I'd heard that he'd succumbed to a heart attack while vacationing in Peru with his beloved wife Shelia (whom Peel affectionately called "Pig"), I was numb. Later that day, after listening to a clip from an old show that someone had posted on the web in tribute, I couldn't help but cry. There was a sui generis quality to his lived-in voice; coarsened from 37 years on-air; it retained a sonorous warmth as he careened (make no mistake about it, Peel could talk fast) from one parenthetical aside to another, or as he spoke excitedly about a band that, at times, wasn't as good as his introduction. John Peel, more than anyone who has ever collected a paycheck DJ-ing, understood that music has myriad transformational capacities: it's empowering, it articulates joy, longing, anger, and resentment and, perhaps most inexplicably, can make me mourn the death of a 65 year-old man I'd never met, who lived a continent away, and whose contribution to the cultural landscape was hosting a radio show that I might have heard a hundred times over the last twenty years.

I first heard John Peel's voice coming out of a tiny radio in an equally tiny Bayswater hotel room. It was 1984, my wife and I were in London for the first time and, as a music anorak and anglophile to boot, I had convinced her that whatever we did that night we had to be back by 10PM to listen to his show. I vividly remember him playing Billy Bragg's version of "Which Side Are You On?" and, once I'd heard Peel, I recall thinking I'd have given anything to sound so authoritative and intelligent. Although it's become a cliché to say this about any DJ, in Peel's case it's particularly apt: his greatest gift was creating the illusion that he was speaking directly to you, as if you were part of an imagined community living in what critic David Peschek called, "a wonderful world of otherness." It was years before I heard Peel again, mostly via shortwave broadcasts or the BBC's international service. Over the last two years I listened to him regularly, the way virtually all of his American fans did, on Radio 1's webcast. And even if I didn't like every record he played (which happened often), I appreciated every word he spoke.

Peel's on-air career actually began in the U.S., after an unsuccessful stint working in the family cotton business, and an only slightly more successful one as a radar operator in the Royal Artillery. He came to America in 1960, initially to sell crop insurance in Dallas, a job he held for three years until a conversation with DJ Russ Knight (aka "The Weird Beard") earned Peel a regular shift on WRR, which had to be the only radio station in Texas with a Brit (not to mention Liverpudlian) DJ during Beatlemania, and the attendant British Invasion. The Texas job led to another in Oklahoma City, but by 1967 Peel was back in London hosting the psychedelically-titled show "The Perfumed Garden" for pirate station Radio London, where he touted the talents of then-unknown performers like Marc Bolan and Pink Floyd. Once the pirates were run aground, he joined Radio 1, where trends, styles, and ageism be damned, he spent the rest of his career, a testament to loyalty that he sardonically described as a cross between "a selfless dedication to public service [and] a shocking lack of ambition."

Whatever the reason, it was during his 37 years at Radio 1 that Peel became an institution, one whose impact went far beyond simply promoting unknown bands, toward shaping cultural attitudes. His imprimatur was so powerful that almost every time he played something, hip-ness barometers all over England had to be recalibrated. Writing in the Guardian, Dave Simpson noted that Peel's opinion so motivated listeners that sometimes, he wouldn't even have to play any music: "When Peel merely muttered something about the first Roxy Music album, I went out and bought it." New bands were fueled by dreams of getting a demo tape or crudely recorded single played on Peel's show. "I was in a band in high school," my friend and fellow academic Roger Sabin wrote from London the day after Peel's death, "and our one aim in life was to put out a single that could be played on his show. No thought for girls, money, etc. – Peel was the man!"

Unconcerned with trends and celebrity, Peel played punk rock, reggae, hip-hop, and grunge before any of it became marketable and mainstreamed. When a performer challenged notions of musical propriety, Peel let them be heard and often became a vocal advocate, be they Capt. Beefheart or Extreme Noise Terror. He never tired of waving a freak flag for his favorite band (the Fall), or extolling the virtues of his favorite single among the thousands he played (the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks," which he thought was the greatest rock song ever, one that always made him cry). Relentlessly eclectic, Peel could overindulge in his latest passion (I heard him play loads of forgettable grindcore, and shitty dance records), and be infuriatingly quixotic, abandoning a genre as quickly as he championed it, especially if he felt let down. Such was the case with hip-hop; Peel simply couldn't abide gangsta rap's misogyny and homophobia, and showed his displeasure by eliminating it from his playlist (though he seemed fond of the latest U.K. hip-hop variant, grime). While that decision smacks of provincialism, it also articulates the strong, unapologetic emotionalism at the heart of his show (and his life) something that made him, in Roger's words, "profoundly bullshit-free."

In his Slate obituary, Douglas Wolk noted that what was surprising about the American reaction to Peel's death was that it far exceeded that of Bomp's Greg Shaw, who'd died six days earlier. Both losses are significant, but as much as I admired Shaw's work, I (along with many other American fans) was enamored of Peel, because I felt as if I knew him, even though it was an imaginary relationship. When Peel began hosting Radio 4's Home Truths, a celebrity-free documentary program about the lives of average British families, he was showing that he felt more comfortable aging and revealing more about himself. The show had its critics, Peel's Radio 1 colleague Andy Kershaw called it "cloying, sentimental, and indulgent," but I don't think Peel gave a toss, he was an unpretentious man who, as he aged, took joy in expressing his cloying, sentimental, and indulgent side (especially after he became a grandfather). My best guess is that he himself might have said that age mellows us all, and if you don't like it then fuck off.

He famously quipped that he wanted a lyric from "Teenage Kicks" to adorn his headstone. "Teenage dreams/ so hard to beat," is how it goes, and while it may not fully explain John Peel – no one song lyric can – it speaks volumes to a life of permanence carved out of the most impermanent of professions.

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