He may have left us, but this collection of Peel faves will provide inspiration for generations to come
Of course, John Peel hasn’t really died. He’s like a pale, fuzzy-chinned and pot-bellied Tupac stomping through our consciousness, growing in stature and import every day. Dressed in green half-length shorts and lace-up boots, his wisdom and humour still inform many of our record-buying choices. His voice still sits silently at the back of every radio that ever carried it, a whisper strung between stations, an almost imperceptible chuckle and sigh weaving in and out of the static.
John Peel was loved because John Peel proved you weren’t really alone and, even if you were actually alone right there and then, at least here was a person who understood you. Someone who knew that the impeccably muzzed-up psychedelic folk of Fairport Convention (represented here with ‘Meet On The Ledge’) was easily as cool as the saucer-pupilled, frozen out disco-chic of prime New Order (‘Ceremony’).
Peel knew – so you knew – that Van Morrison may nowadays be a fat old grump in a bad hat, but, hell, he also wrote ‘Sweet Thing’, a song of love and hope filled with such a perfectly beautiful longing that 36 years after it first appeared the young, unspoilt, uncynical Van’s howl of desire will still knock you on your back. Peel knew that great guitar music could mean the petrolly, cocaine and brandy holler of The Faces (‘Stay With Me’) or the vinegary, chips and gravy growl of The Wedding Present (‘Brassneck’). He knew that punk could be Joe Strummer’s grimace as he ground out ‘Complete Control’ as much as it could be the way Fergal Sharkey brushed his fringe out of his eyes as he crooned through ‘Teenage Kicks’. Peel knew, and this is the DJ’s art in miniature, that the song is everything.
Fundamentally, pop music is not about artists or albums or careers or longevity, that’s for record companies and archivists. The three-minute pop song is the strictest, yet freest artistic discipline anyone can apply themselves to. You can say everything or nothing. Be as droll and arch as The Smiths (‘How Soon Is Now?’), or as lunatic and spare as pre-Beatles skiffle hero Lonnie Donegan (‘Lost John’). The thrill to be had from hearing people blow the air around a room in a way you’ve never heard air blown around before (Cocteau Twins’ ‘Pearly Dew Drops Drop’, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s ‘Mr Apollo’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Spanish Castle Magic’) is one that, in a few, obsessive individuals, will never fade.
The abiding love and respect that Peel commands is, of course, tied up in our sense of self and our sense of nationhood. For many of us, Peel’s was a voice almost as recognisable as our parents’ and his 37-year stint at the BBC meant he was as much part of who we were as people as Coronation Street or Top Of The Pops. But what his hang-dog expression and rampant self-deprecation hid was someone who was so dedicated to exploring and enjoying new music that he would spend hours every day with his headphones on listening to record after record just praying the next one might be so good it would, in some psychic way, pay back all the hours of searching for some way out of the ordinary.
Of course, this desire for the new pissed plenty of people off. Just as audiences had grown used to John the hippy he began playing David Bowie (‘Life On Mars?’), when the audiences got used to glam he began playing the Ramones (‘I Don’t Want To Walk Around With You’), when the audience got used to punk, he hit them with reggae (Culture’s ‘Lion Rock’) and perfect pop (Altered Images’ ‘Happy Birthday’) and that was before indie and new beat and hip-hop and techno and jungle and breakbeat and happy hardcore and noisecore and hi-life and, well, what else have you got in that box, John? If there’s one downside to this otherwise deeply loveable CD, it’s that it concentrates so heavily on Peel’s rock and indie tastes and no room at all is found for, say, afrobeat legend King Sunny Ade or grindcore übermen Napalm Death. Would their presence have not flagged up a little more of what Peel was really about rather than the cripplingly awful Belle & Sebastian? But that’s an argument for another day. For now, it’s enough to have blues guitar shouter Elmore James (‘Dust My Blues’) making a great big racket to have Peel’s ghost
of a smile breaking out everywhere you look.