”HELLO, I’M A LITTLE fat chap that plays records on the radio,” DJ John Peel announced at the start of a recent broadcast. A chubby disc spinner he may be, but Peel is also a legend in his own time in his native England, where his BBC radio shows, now running for more than a quarter of a century, have helped launch the careers of, among others, David Bowie, T. Rex, the Fall, the Smiths and Dinosaur Jr. Even at age 53, Peel has an unerring, undiminished sense of the best in cutting-edge rock.
In the midst of a massive release of The Peel Sessions — collections of studio recordings made by artists especially for his BBC show — Peel has launched Peel Out in the States, a special series of programs broadcast in America. Where Peel’s U.S. fans previously had to make do with hearing him via shortwave on the BBC’s World Service, they can now enjoy his dispatches from rock’s front lines on 205 stations across the country.
Peel, who was born John Ravenscroft and worked as a pirate-radio jock before joining the BBC in 1967, compares his life’s work to the French archer who fired an arrow into the air at the battle of Hastings in 1066. By chance, the arrow fatally injured King Harold, paving the way for William the Conquerer to become king of England. ”I feel as though I’m doing something similar with these programs,” Peel says, ”and I hope they’re coming down somewhere.”
The French-archer comparison is interesting. What do you hope that arrow does?
Well, I don’t want to kill anybody — that’s where the analogy ends! I’d like to just excite somebody and inflame their interest and get them listening to stuff that they might not otherwise listen to. That’s a lot to ask of an arrow.
Things seem to be changing in popular music. There is more adventurous music on the charts now.
Yeah, it’s mainly on your side of the Atlantic. In British music at the moment, there’s an incredible amount of shite about. The innovation, as far as I can see it in guitar music anyway, certainly comes from America. British music seems to be referencing the past so much. Bands like Suede, I don’t object to them at all, but they are built up of a whole series of things taken from the past.
Do you make a conscious effort to be eclectic in your programming?
It’s not as organized as that. You’re giving me too much credit, really. I record the Peel Out shows at home because I hate being in London. It’s not even a studio; it’s a kind of prepared corner in one of the rooms downstairs at home, which is why — if you listen to them on extraordinarily good equipment — you’ll occasionally hear tractors going past or sheep going ”baaaah.” I’ll just go in there with a pile of records that I’ve heard in the past week that I’ve enjoyed and just do the program. There’s not much strategy involved.
At 53, you’ve seen several great epochs of rock come and go.
I’ve seen them all, really. The only advantage of being 53 is that I’ve had my life transformed by hearing Elvis Presley. I still remember how startled and alarmed I was when I first heard him coming out of the radio.
Well, what do you think of this epoch we’re in now?
I think it’s pretty neat. The ones that are boring, you don’t realize are boring until it’s over. When you look back, particularly on the early 70s in this country, no new bands came through at all. Every band contained at least one member of a previously successful band that had broken up. Now it seems like people are getting good ideas all the time. And most of them seem to be coming from the United States and Canada. Bands like Polvo, where it’s all out of tune — you sometimes get the impression that two records are playing simultaneously. There’s a wonderful double EP by Wingtip Sloat, and I don’t know anything about them beyond this record. Whenever I get a pile of stuff from the States, there’s a guarantee of something good in there.
Most people’s ears tend to atrophy by the time they’re about half your age.
I know that most of my contemporaries have stopped at the Beatles or the Grateful Dead. In art or theater or literature, nobody says, ”I’m sorry, pal, you’re 45, you’ve got to spend the rest of your life reading the same book or seeing the same film or going to the same play.” There is a kind of pop music where people are doing very interesting stuff. Because this area of pop music is still relatively new, if you happen to be my age and you’re still interested in it, it just looks odd because it’s not happened before. But rock & roll started as I was an adolescent, and I just grew up with it.
To what do you attribute your longevity?
Not getting involved in office politics. The great strength of the BBC is that it’s a noncommercial organization. Once the management have accepted that you do what you do reasonably well — or that there are people who like what you do — they just leave you alone to get on with it. I can honestly say that in my 25 years with the BBC, they’ve never told me what to play or what not to play. I suspect that would be pretty damn hard to find anywhere else.
Is the music on your programs now going to stand the test of time?
It doesn’t matter whether it does. Some of these things are of the moment and should be of the moment. A lot of the stuff that I played — particularly in the early 70s — that I liked at the time, now I swoon with embarrassment when I hear it. When Radio One started, there was me who was playing lots of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and there was another fellow who played loads of Tamla-Motown. He regarded me as a complete dickhead, and I regarded him as the Antichrist. And, of course, it turned out that he was right. Of the two, it’s the Tamla stuff that I’d like to hear now. I’m not at all worried that some of this stuff will sound like complete crap in a couple of years time. At the moment, it sort of hits my G spot, as it were, and that’s enough for me.