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Sunday, February 05, 2006

JOHN PEEL R.I.P: Right time, right place, wrong speed

John Peel died today and it brought a tear to my eye. Ok, so he has been dead for over a year now, but this morning I got to the bit at the end of his autobiography where he died (obviously he did not write that bit) and found myself crying. I cannot remember any book making me cry before.

The book, Margrave Of The Marshes, was partly written by the big man himself before his untimely death and then completed by his widow, Sheila Ravenscroft AKA the Pig. This is the book he deserved; it is ten times better than the unofficial biography that was rushed out straight after his death.

Peel himself turns out to be as much of a genius with the written word as he was on air and his self depreciating humour make the first half of the book a treat to read. It was with no little trepidation that I started on the second half, where the pig takes over, expecting an anti-climax. No such anti-climax took place though; The Pig is quite a wordsmith herself.

Peel takes us up to his early DJing days in his own words, although his meandering style of reflection takes in more contemporary memories. This is quite useful in that no-one else could have written that half of his life. The Pig kicks in where her life and Johns started to entwine, and given the closeness of the relationship her reflections tie in very neatly. The two half’s of the book compliment each other perfectly. Needless to say, one cannot help wondering what the book would have been like had he finished it himself, but that will never be.

The Pig uses extracts from his diary and columns he wrote in the press, so his fingerprints can be traced all the way through the book. We do not get to Teenage Kicks until page 300, so it would be reasonable to assume that had he finished the book himself it would have been at least 50% longer. The outline of the book sent to the publisher and added as an appendix confirms this theory.

I have only ever cried at the loss of two ‘celebrities’; the first was Joe Strummer, the second was Peel. It sounds like a cliché, but Peel's style of presenting combined with the fact that through his show I discovered a huge swathe of music that changed my life, I felt like I knew him. Although I had the honour (and I do not use that word lightly) of meeting Strummer on several occasions, I never met John and I remember a sinking feeling when I realised I never would.

Yet again a cliché, but true, I remember listening to his show as a teenager under the blankets with a small ‘portable wireless’… eons before the Sony Walkman had been invented. It was odd, lots of the stuff he would play would be un-listenable nonsense, but you always knew that there was a possibility that the next record would change your life. Stuff that would not be played on any other show, or if it was he would be months if not years ahead of anyone else. Stuff like Young Marble Giants, Half Man Half Biscuit, Aphex Twin, Extreme Noise Terror and many more. He was the first to play bands like Pink Floyd and The Sex pistols, long before anyone else would touch them. This was as true during the punk era as it was throughout the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, right through to his departure to the great DJ booth in the sky.

Back in the ‘90’s when I was still married and before my then wife could drive, I used to have to go and pick her up from work some 45 minutes away. As I left the house I would press play/record on my tape machine to record Peel’s show, and even set my alarm clock to kick in 45 minutes later so as the one machine stopped another would start. I would then listen to the two tapes as I drove around in work. This sounds very ‘sad’ and geek-like, but such was the possibility that he might play something awesome I did not want to miss out on a minute of his show. This enthusiasm was obviously unsustainable, but looking through my record collection, worthwhile. I cannot help thinking of the Mariah Carey lyrics "Last night a DJ saved my life".

I can remember the last time I listened to his show; I was in my caravan parked up in Tintagel in Cornwall in August 2004 the night before the Shambala Festival (the night before Boscastle, 5 miles away, hit the headlines when a massive flood all but destroyed the village). He blew me away with one awesome ‘big beat’ track, 'slash dot slash (dot com)'; I was gutted when he informed me it was by Fat Boy Slim, I had hoped I had discovered something new.. I suppose I had though, having given up hope Slim would make another decent record a year or two earlier. I say that ‘he informed me’, because that was always how it felt, like he was talking directly to me.

Only Peel could get away with so frequently playing records at the wrong speed, but in doing that it was like being around a mate's house and he was playing you some new record he had found. The show became more personal through these little mistakes and was enhanced by them. It has to be said, some of the tracks he played were so off the wall it was difficult to tell what speed they were supposed to be played at, some of the hardcore techno for instance sounded right at either speed!

I found it sad that after his death the BBC celebrated his life with such vigour, given that when he was alive they treated him like sh*te. They did not realise what a treasure they had in thier midst.

Even now, a year on, I feel a void because someone I never knew is dead. I doubt there will ever be anyone else I do not know that will have that affect on me.


At 3:21 pm , Blogger Clint Iguana said...

I have just been talking to Zoe about John Peel. Her first reaction was 'who the hell is he?'

Another reason to mourne his passing, future generations are going to be deprived of the presence of this legend.


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