Tuesday, October 26, 2004

legends and the Fall

Although I can't really find any words to say, I'm going to try and compose a few now as later on I will be having a drink for the late great John Peel and listening to "Atmosphere" and "Teenage Kicks" and I suspect I will get myself in a right st8.

The number of e-mails I received today with this horrible news is testament to the man's influence and outreach. The quiet evangelist. The polite radical. The revolutionary Radio 4 presenter, for heaven's sake. And I'm just thinking how it was Peel who first played me the Fall and Public Enemy and the Field Mice and Napalm Death and Half Man Half Biscuit and Extreme Noise Terror and the Sugarcubes, sitting here as I type and survey my record collection, pretty much every record I ever own. Listening to Peel sessions, buying Peel sessions, marvelling at everything from Where's The Beach ? to Electro Hippies to the Bhundu Boys to Gore. Being taught to value diversity, to investigate rather than merely to consume. The very worst thing about Peel's death is that there is no-one to take over. Comparing him to any other DJ isn't even a starter. Westwood plays great hip-hop, sometimes. Vance used to play great metal, sometimes. Janice Long used to play great indie, sometimes. Kershaw played great reggae, world and often even the odd bit of jangle. Peel did all of the great stuff and threw in house, techno, noise, beautifully dry conversation, botched cue-ins. Bastro. Jackdaw With Crowbar. Bastard Kestrel. Unseen Terror. Ut. Bubblegum Splash! This Poison! Catapult. And now he's gone, not only are there hundreds of fine bands that will never again be played on national radio, there are hundreds of future Joy Divisions and Undertones and Wedding Presents who will never even get to emerge. Remember how Peel was the only one who withstood hype. He admitted not to really getting the Stone Roses when the fashionistas had them down as messiahs. He refused to give Oasis a Peel Session at the same time that the rest of Britain seemed, madly, to be feting their every fetid chord. He was eventually, inevitably, banned from presenting Top Of The Pops because he was not sufficiently banal, or inane. On his last show, as I remember it, he introduced a Simple Minds video, with gleefully evident displeasure. And this is even before mentioning *punk*. When Peel championed the Pistols, it wasn't a cool thing to do at all. It alienated many of his listeners, but he was compelled to go with what was new and life-changing even then.

And, and, and. He appeared on Desert Island Discs and played Teenage Kicks and the Fall's "Eat Y'Self Fitter", the single greatest record ever to have been, and that ever will be, taken to that increasingly crowded island paradise. He curated the Meltdown festival on the South Bank in 1998 and it was superb. Highlights were many (an amazing post-midnight show from the Jesus and Mary Chain, for example), although a double bill of Lonnie Donegan and Half Man Half Biscuit also speaks for itself. I never spoke to him, ever. I remember a couple of gigs I went to where he was definitely there - Cornershop in Islington in about '94, and Blueboy in Bristol probably not too long after. But then from the FM dial he spoke to me for 20 years. Four nights a week I'd be eagerly taping stuff from his show, listening and learning. And every band he played were truly grateful to be played. I interviewed the Rosehips recently and was thinking just how, excellent band as they were, I'd never have heard them without Peel. That could apply to at least 80% of my all time favourite groups. Think of all the great labels that would never have got off the ground without his mentoring. And I remembered a story of how an ex-friend of mine once bumped into Peel out shopping in Colchester, and was hopelessly lost for words, as you would be in the presence of gr8ness. He could only muster (in retrospect, brilliantly) the phrase "You're John Peel". But Peel didn't miss a beat, just smiled and said, "That's right, young man".

I really don't normally feel moved by deaths, even of artists that meant a lot to me. But this man was the first, last and only. An original and irreplaceable. And it is extremely hard to think of an individual who has influenced UK music more over the last forty years. Seriously, think about it. Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, the Pistols, the Clash, the Smiths, the Fall, the Cure, New Order (who have already admitted they wouldn't even exist without him).

I don't know how to celebrate his life, but virtually every tune I ever listen to will do so. For the time being, I might dig out the Undertones DVD, in which he interviews the band that he helped steer to immortality. First, however, I intend to get modestly, tearfully drunk. Tomorrow night, I'm going to see Extreme Noise Terror. You can guess to whom I owe my 17 year adoration for them...

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