John Peel relaxes


I'm writing this in the month we've been marking the first anniversary of John Peel's passing. Dunno about you but I miss him even more. Just seeing him on that BBC4 tribute night brought a tear to the eye [Is that because there's always stories being told about John's own easily flowing waterworks?].

The night was mainly footage of Peel in his element: talking about the Fall, chatting with the Undertones in Derry, standing in the world music tent at Glastonbury with a look of unconcealed joy on his face as Kando Bongo Man strutted their stuff or some utterly fantastic archive material from the late 60s. We could never have a programme like How It Is on a Friday teatime in 2005, - Peel expounding about issues of the day before Pink Floyd achieved lysergic lift-off or the Fugs ripped into the Vietnam war. More of a reality show than any of the fake crap about now.

How many times can we mention that huge gap John has left? Not enough. The more you hear what a great bloke he was, the more you smile. It's Christmas soon so here he is again. Every year, John unveiled his Festive 50. For some years, the man ruled Christmas. I'm not looking to reprise those but, while rummaging about for a John Walters Zigzag column, I came across a list I painstakingly scrawled between 1967 and '68, detailing every Peel session that had gone out on Top Gear, the programme he co-presented with Pete Drummond on a Sunday afternoon between 2 and 5 o'clock. I started remembering the very first Peel shows on Radio One and one thing led to another. Some I remember just like yesterday. I was 13. I had little else to think about.

The first show went out on October 1st and featured a stellar line-up. In terms of status and notoriety, the bill was like a Summer of Love equivalent to the Anarchy tour. Pink Floyd had already released their debut album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and weighed in with versions of 'Instellar Overdrive' and 'Astronomy Domine' which were quite different from the album. Sonic anarchy as Roger Waters screamed, Sid Barrett's spidery guitar spat scrambled brains space-dust and sometimes they sounded like they were revving up a flying saucer. Tomorrow were notorious for their single, 'My White Bicycle', which was basically psychedelic garage punk going on about acid. The Move and Traffic were also seriously hot groups of the day, showing that you could propel psychedelia into the charts. The Move were smashing up TVs and cars live [as a statement against consumer society], while pummelling out drug anthems like 'I Can Hear The Grass Grow'. They were in trouble for promoting their latest single, 'Flowers in The Rain'. - the first record to be spun on Radio One - with a postcard of Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the nude. Traffic were the exotic new outfit formed by Stevie Winwood from the Spencer Davis Group.

It was the sound of the new London underground that was striking terror into the establishment in a way not seen since the Stones four years earlier. Tremors like this wouldn't be experienced again until 1976 [which was actually less of a total revolution in terms of opposition from authority and musical groundbreaking]. Peel had been in at the start with his Perfumed Garden show on pirate Radio London and was now pushing the new sounds on lazy Sunday afternoons via the British Broadcasting Corporation. There was delicious irony in the fact that a Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio One is given over to music which is 75 per cent either about, inspired by or performed on drugs!

Tim Rose was an inspired inclusion on the first show's bill too, being one of the giants of the Greenwich Village folk scene with gnarled, biting classics like 'Hey Joe' and the anti-war 'Morning Dew'. Peel would always throw in a bit of protest or political comment from the likes of Phil Ochs or the Fugs. Blues singer Big Maybelle represented another strain of roots and showed how Peel was already fearlessly diversifying but this was perfectly natural as the blues was behind everything on the show in some way or other.

It makes me laugh when writers marvel at the fact that Peel DARED to play The Clash, Beefheart, Elmore James and Joey Beltram in the same half hour. That's how it was done. Un-self-consciously. That's why I like all sorts and never feel like I'm sneaking into someone else's garden and nicking their carrots when I hop from box to box. I'd already experienced Peel's wide open tastes under the proverbial bedcovers sneaking an ear to the Perfumed Garden, his show on the pirate Radio London but, in retrospect, that afternoon in September 1967 probably defined my whole attitude to music from that point on. Many say the same thing.

That was the live sessions [necessitated by the antiquated 'needle time' laws the BBC had to stick to which restricted playing records in favour of giving work to musicians]. For the records, Peel plugged his obsessions. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were unveiled for the first time to a mass audience with a track off their Safe As Milk debut album. The quiet surreal genius of blues guitar explorer John Fahey is the classic case of somebody I heard on Peel turn into a lifelong personal obsession. It was also the first time the Velvet Underground got played on UK radio. It was either 'There She Goes Again' or 'I'll Be Your Mirror'. Others included Tim Buckley, Love, the frenetic psychedelic punk of the Misunderstood.

To a 13-year old, getting assaulted with such an impossibly rich and exciting new world just set the tone. It says something for the man that I can still hear that voice announcing a lot of the tunes I've just mentioned. His humour was full-formed and, although tempered with the seasonal flowers and rainbows, the dryness and humble qualities already had him anchored as a good bloke. When I got to meet and know John ten years down the line I found out he was [even if he did advise me not to sell my typewriter after he'd given my Vice Creems single its first and only airing].

After the first Top Gear, the following weeks brought a steady stream of delights. An important one was the November 15 appearance of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band - the late Vivian Stanshall's crazed bunch of anarchists, idiots and moral vandals who would turn out whole songs about shirts or taking a difficult dump. Peel would later enlist Stanshall to present the show when he went on holiday. A biggie came in November when Jimi Hendrix made his first appearance, choosing to deliver an instrumental called 'Driving South', a cover of Muddy Waters' 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and even a hammed up 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. Another coup was when Mick Jagger and a very relaxed-sounding Brian Jones came in to talk about their new album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Frequently, Peel would throw up a classic session that you'd be talking about at school the next day. London three-piece the Nice blazed in with an epic rendition of 'America' from West Side Story which they'd turned into a protest against the Vietnam War with Keith Emerson ripping the shit out of his Hammond organ with knives to replicate a normal day in the killing fields. The group would get into further trouble for trying to burn an American flag onstage while doing the song, which got released as a single. One week Peel was raving about Tyrannosaurus Rex, the new project started by Marc Bolan from John's Children...

I could go on. In 1967, this was the punk explosion. Anarchy in the UK. It was all about looking different, not accepting the rules laid down by society, opposing oppression and having a whale of a time on whatever it took to get there. The soundtrack was often spectacular and like nothing ever heard before. It was new, exciting and pushing out the barriers. Peel was at the forefront and in the thick of it. Ten years later he'd be the only show on Radio One playing The Clash. And so on. There really was no difference - especially to John Peel. One year since his death but 38 since that first Radio One show. In between, he never wavered.

Kris Needs – tMx 22 – 11/05
Contact: - We're All Addicted To Something