#keepingitpeel: The real legacy of John Peel

One particular day remains a sad and significant for music lovers across the world.

On this day, in 2004, John Peel died from a heart attack whilst he was on a working holiday in Peru.

Peel’s influence on his audience – whether they were the average music fan, broadcasters, journalists or musicians – was so significant, in a career spanning over four decades, that his legacy is still celebrated and preserved.

An International John Peel Day was held on 9 October 2010, for example, where several artists (who would’ve been expected to appear on Peel’s show, if he was still alive) performed live for charity and in memory of Peel’s achievements. However, it’s clear that Peel’s legacy has been forgotten in some quarters.

Radio One’s ‘Keeping It Peel’ website, for instance, has not been updated since September 2007, despite his long association with the radio station.

To mark the anniversary of Peel’s death, the Football and Music blog came up with the idea of holding a ‘Keeping It Peel’ day.

This a rare chance for bloggers, and users of social networking websites, to mark this day by writing about a Peel Session or posting one.

This post isn’t some half-baked obituary or one that pretentiously lists how many modern artists Peel influenced. It feels wrong writing a post like that.

The great thing about Peel’s shows was that they were the least self-promoting music programmes around.

They didn’t shout from the rooftops about how important Peel was or how important modern and live music was.

Peel knew that the music was the star of the show, and he would present them in his own warm and unassuming style.

Many people immediately associate Peel with ‘Teenage Kicks‘ by the Undertones and The Fall.

But there was far more to him than those two acts. ‘Drill’ by Wire could be considered as a fairly safe choice as my personal all-time favourite Peel Session.

Wire are the typical John Peel band: a critically-praised alternative band, who never managed to make the commercial breakthrough they sorely deserved.

It’s by no means as eclectic as Flying Saucer Attack’s space rock, the jazz-fusion of Brand X or Melt-Banana’s animated grindcore stylings in ‘Spathic!‘, but ‘Drill’ represented the purpose of the Peel Sessions.

This version of ‘Drill’, clocking in at nearly nine minutes, was never a song made for radio but such a thing was irrelevant to Peel. What mattered was the song – no matter how commercial or cool it is.

What really mattered was the fact that ‘Drill’ was a journey in artistic mastery, and how it managed to sound so experimental and complex, despite being based on one single chord.

We have Peel to thank for bringing a great song like ‘Drill’ to our attention, one that manages to sound so fluent and addictive despite its distant feel.

Even for indie darlings like Wire, ‘Drill’ is the kind of song that other broadcasters would’ve ignored for sounding alienating and different.

The qualifying factor for Peel was whether it was a good song or not, nothing else mattered.

The other defining factor about the Peel Sessions was that each artist could say something different and new about music, no session was ever the same.

The subtle performance of Slowdive’s ‘Shine‘, which brought out new found depths to an ethereal song, could happily sit alongside the brash anarchism of ‘Tired‘ by Crass or the haunting self-turmoil seen in Kevin Coyne’s frequent Peel Sessions.

The controlled aggression of The Wedding Present’s Peel Sessions recordings were just as outstanding as the inner beauty of ‘Falling and Laughing‘ by Orange Juice, the enigmatic ‘Free Range’ by The Fall and the bouncing pop of the brilliantly-named Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s ‘Spanish Dance Troupe‘.

I could go on for hours about the many Peel Sessions recorded over the years, but I won’t. The point is whoever the artist, you could always find something new; no matter how tired the music industry was.

Peel’s unique approach to broadcasting is irreplaceable, but what’s more depressing is how standards have slipped since his death.

Others that understood Peel’s way of thinking – that music is something to be enjoyed and to obsess about, rather than being a fashionable fad – have also passed away like Tony Wilson, Steven Wells and Frank Sidebottom creator Chris Sievey.

You rarely find broadcasters like Peel nowadays; they’re either brown-nosers such as Zane Lowe and the ghastly Jo Whitley, impressionable presenters like Colin Murray or those who are utterly devoid of any musical knowledge like Nick Grimshaw.

Peel understood that you can’t like everything, and that there has to be light and shade.

He knew that if there was a particular track he didn’t like, he didn’t make a fuss about it – he simply moved on and played a track that he loved.

Peel made his feelings about “white boys with guitars” and some of the ‘Festive 50′ selections known, but the fact he was indifferent to certain songs meant that he was sincerely passionate and enthusiastic about the records he did like.

He wasn’t self-aware about plugging certain bands like some BBC 6 Music broadcasters and he didn’t have the tokenism that is prevalent in ‘Later… with Jools Holland’, he meant every word he said.

It didn’t matter to Peel if unashamedly liking Wham’s ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ made him look uncool, if ‘Rhine and Courtesan‘ by Rachel’s was seen as an elitist Peel Session or if Blur’s ‘On Your Own‘ was a popular favourite.

If he liked a song, he played it – it didn’t matter what genre it was from or if no-one else liked it. It was his ears, not his eyes, that were important.

That should be the most important legacy of John Peel, not that ‘Teenage Kicks‘ was his favourite song of all time.

Because of Peel’s humility, some may have missed the point of what his shows were about.

It wasn’t for the audience to be in awe of him and to like every song, it was for the audience to discover new music and to judge it for themselves without any pre-conceptions.

Peel wasn’t there to be cool; he was there to discover new sounds and to be enthusiastic about them, even if they may have been overwhelming at first. Peel sums his shows up when he said: “I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before.

Music blogs, critics, magazines and radio stations can only act as a guidance and reference point, it can never substitute discovering new music and deciding whether you like for yourself.

It’s something that should be done every day, not just today.

Whether it’s buying a lost Peel classic like ‘I Set My Face to the Hillside‘ by Tortoise on eBay or listening to the next big thing on Spotify, it doesn’t matter – as long as you carry on discovering music you’ve not yet heard.

It’s the John Peel way. It’s what he would’ve wanted.


8 Responses to “#keepingitpeel: The real legacy of John Peel”

  1. October 25, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    As expected a great article. You are a fine writer.
    Thank you for everything.

  2. November 16, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    We are attempting to provide context on a new series of great football league teams on The Two Unfortunates blog by listing the winner of Peel’s Festive Fiftyinthe year in question.

    Those annual rundowns were the highlight for me, poised over the tape recorder as I was. So many great bands although I didn’t much enjoy his favouring of Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror. Sadly totally irreplaceable.

  3. 6 Ronnie
    September 17, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    When he was a guest on Radio 3’s version of “Desert island discs” he floored the interviewer by asking him to recommend a song for him. No one had ever done that before.

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