“Fuddludumph! Lovely! Just waiting for that.”
No, we still can’t believe it, either. We never thought we’d be hearing awed tributes to John Peel, partly because, in common with everyone else who grew up with him on the radio, we never seriously contemplated him not being there, but also because, as unarguably deserved as the “most important figure in British music for 30 years” homilies are, there’s still something odd about seeing such grand terms applied to a man as naturally humble as Peel. With him, it tends to be the little things we remember most, and here are a few.
Peel himself was massively disparaging about his early years in Dallas and California, as a middle-class boy with an impossibly high voice pretending to be Paul McCartney’s drinking buddy, helping launch Captain Beefheart. He may have been regarded as a ‘maverick’ later on, but he immersed himself in the ‘60s. A move back home gave rise to the evocatively-named John Peel’s Perfumed Garden on Radio London and his tenure of Radio One’s session-tastic Top Gear programme while writing wistful whimsy about Tyrannosaurus Rex in alternative rag the International Times. Then there was his stewardship of Dandelion records, a sort of anti-Virgin in hippie empire-building terms, where the likes of Tractor, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, Stackwaddy (whose LP ‘Bugger Off‘ was named, Peel claimed, after the phrase the band found themselves chorusing whenever he poked his head round the studio door) and even Bill Oddie released platters to the sort of splendid commercial isolation most of his future playlist would bask in (Medicine Head had a top five hit, but only after they left the label).
By his own admittance, he “fell into” his DJing career, in the days before anyone regarded the noble art of spin ‘n’ chat in those terms. As Radio One ground on into the ‘70s and the likes of Bates and DLT introduced the concept of DJ as professional personality in no uncertain terms, Peel’s show became ever more distinctive. It was like nipping round to the house of a good mate with an unlimited collection of records, which he’d then play you at random, with fervent enthusiasm for each and every one. With the added bonus that he wouldn’t try and cadge a fiver off you afterwards.
Probably for the TVC generation the most well-remembered phase of the Peel show was the late-’70s to late-80s period - let‘s call them The Undone Homework Years - when late night musical eclecticism ruled the roost. Tune in for the new Pixies single, and you’d find yourself listening to a Sonic Youth ‘noise experiment’, an ancient jazz standard from Professor Longhair and His Shuffling Hungarians, the harmonious guitars of African instrumentalists the Four Brothers, and an Ivor Cutler monologue first. Only the most narrow-minded Pixies fan could resent this, and even then not for long - for all the mud Peel endlessly threw at you, some of it was bound to stick.
If whole genres sailed past you prompting nothing more than quizzical indifference, something, maybe just one single you wouldn’t have thought of searching out in a million years, would come as a revelation. For all the times it seemed that Peel was only playing gargantuan Belgian New Beat tracks or sessions from autopsy-obsessed Coventry thrash-metallers Carcass purely for his own benefit, there would be some unexpected song, like a ragga version of The Lambada or a speedcore cover of the Munchkin Song from the Wizard of Oz that brought in letters by the sackful from hardened Wedding Present fans wanting to know where they could get hold of this stuff. Whereupon Peel would have to rummage through a stack of papers in search of the catalogue number, which he of course never had to hand.
Ah, the foibles. Accidentally accrued over countless years, Peel must have had more ‘catchphrases’ than Everett and Steve Wright combined, though of course they weren’t designed as such. Less enlightened souls might suggest they were the aural ramblings of a bloke who didn’t quite know what he was doing, but we knew better. There were the baroque eulogies to a just-played Fall track, of course. The way he always refused to talk over the endings of records, which often led to a battle of wits with some stop-start new wave effort, invoking the terror of dead air (“For a moment there I thought the BBC emergency backup tape would kick in there, and then the nation would be at war.“) There were anecdotes about John Walters, Peel’s like-minded but rather more extrovert producer, who as the ‘80s progressed took to “producing” Peel’s programme from a deckchair in his front garden. Explicit sexual lyrical content was post scripted with “I’m not entirely sure but I think that last one may have contained references to sub-navel delights.“ His quest to bring the listener information on the track he’d just played was forever thwarted by “the Radio One fun computer”. Good-natured mocking of the records he didn’t much care for in the annual viewer-voted Festive 50 was a Christmas tradition. You could secure airplay for your band by bribing the man with a mushroom biryani, or making sure your song ended with a triumphantly satisfying “fuddludumph!” on the drums. And, of course, the line that permeated the comic vocabulary of people who’d never even heard his programme: ‘Sorry, I appear to have started that one off at the wrong speed.’
All this implies unprofessionalism, but he was perhaps the most professional and dedicated of his Radio One contemporaries, continually ploughing through endless new releases and demo tapes, taking his own roadshow to student unions up and down the land, recording extra-curricular shows for obscure eastern bloc stations, and a dozen other activities you wouldn’t catch Steve Wright doing if his career depended on it. On a similar tip, he co-hosted a weekly programme on BBC Cambridge for a while, which was one of the most charmingly ramshackle hours of radio ever broadcast - when his co-host, reading out a local gig guide, remarked on TBC’s apparent residency at the Corn Exchange, Peel gracefully interjected “I think TBC might stand for To Be Confirmed, actually.“ He was never less than totally honest about the music he played - when he largely deserted prog for punk in the late ‘70s, it wasn’t bandwagon jumping, he just found something entirely new that he felt worth championing (or as Walters pithily put it: “I used to go and see Genesis, and after about three minutes I thought ‘Oh, I wish this would stop!’ but with punk you could see a gig and be in the pub an hour later.”)
Peel’s well-known self-deprecation was never calculated, but it was a great weapon against snooty criticism from those looking for a bit of sacred cow-culling controversy. In 1990, an NME journo, in a dismissive review of Fallesque indie also-rans Levellers 5’s debut LP, sniffily concluded “This record reeks of early ‘80s John Peel - and, hence, early ‘90s John Peel”. Peel’s response to the suggestion his programmes hadn’t changed in a decade? A wry “he’s right, you know!” and a special summer series in which he dug out loads of old records he hadn’t played since the early ‘80s, along with a slew of old Fall sessions of similar vintage, which made for fantastic listening. Peel 1 NME 0.
Then there was the momentous week in ‘93 when Peel, following some sort of bet station controller Johnny Beerling had made at a conference, was parachuted into the weekday lunchtime slot. First record - "Why Are People Grudgeful?" by The Fall, followed with the obscure reggae original version of the same song. The daytime playlist did occasionally get a look in, of course, but not a lot of respect from yer man - Chris Isaak single Can‘t Do a Thing (To Stop Me) provoked the retort "Yes I can, mate, I can take your awful CD out of the machine and throw it as far away from this studio as is humanly possible." How the Gary Davies brigade frowned.
On telly, Peel was a reliable intrusion of sarcastic bonhomie for most of the ‘80s, popping up on Top of the Pops in tandem with Janice Long or, best of all David ‘Kid’ Jensen for an often ridiculously costumed double act in between performances (“Hi down there, shorty!“ “Hello, big guy!“) and the memorable occasion when Peel referred to every act he introduced as “multi-talented”, culminating in “the multi-talented FR David”. Voice-overs, from those first tentative steps suggesting “no three things go quite as well together as the three things in Trio” onwards, were a reliable means of funding his kids’ education - Peel always justified advertising bogroll by suggesting that his rich, chocolate brown tones “made people want to wipe their bottom”.
After that came the late ‘90s, or The Classic Plant Years as we’ve come to know them, with Peel’s agreeable baritone cropping up on programme after programme, and of course giving him a whole new audience on Radio Four’s most genteel of cult successes, Home Truths. His Radio Times columns, with the by-line pic of him perched uncomfortably on a chrome stool, were fun, too. And all through this, he showed no intention of easing up on his permanent work-in-progress, the music programmes. He’ll quite simply be incredibly sorely missed by millions, many of whom possibly don’t know it yet.
And David Bowie still owes him fifty quid.
"'VD' - why did I say that?!" - peel.mp3 [2.60Mb MP3 file]
We're keen to hear your hopelessly obscure Peel anecdotes. Send them here.
One favourites memory of John's late night show is the Festive 50, when his
famed suspicion of technology came to the fore. Even in an age when home
computers were starting to really take hold, Peely still did the WHOLE thing on
bits of paper - and in answer to the suggestion that the Festive 50 was compiled
on some complicated machine? - Adam JG Nelmes
"....not on this programme pal!"
- Adam JG Nelmes
In the summer of 1987, to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of "Sgt.
Pepper", Channel 4 had a late night discussion programme about "The 60s", which
had filmed inserts and a round-table panel. As John had been the first to play
"Sgt. Pepper" on Radio London, he was probably a very obvious choice to be one
of the panel. - Nigel Stapley
At the end of the programme, there was a sort of round-the-table summing-up. Anthony H. Wilson (or whatever nominal persona he was inhabiting that night) was the chairman. I don't remember who else was on this panel, but one of them was a 17-year-old girl, one of those thoroughly poisonous and obnoxious Thatcherite groupies who seemed to be taking over the world at that time (she's probably in the cabinet now).
When asked for her summing-up, she went through the usual litany of how dreadful and disastrous the 60s had been ; how it had destroyed decency and respect for authority, and how the plebs no longer knew their place, etc. When the clockwork had wound down, Wilson turned to John Peel for his view, and Peely said something like, "When I hear things like that, and see what is going on around me in this country today, I only wish I had the courage to become a terrorist, because I sometimes think that that's all I've got left." I, sitting alone in my bedroom, an unemployed 25-year-old graduate, cheered. Up until that point, I'd thought I was the only one who thought that way.
- Nigel Stapley
In 1989 John Peel took himself off to the Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne,
covering the event for Radio One. Although he had little time for the music, he
did appreciate the idea of the event. Attending the press conference of the 12
year old French entrant, Peel was moved to ask, "Does she speak English?". The
reply came back, "She barely speaks French..." He also confided that he felt
overcome with emotion at having made it on to the stage and touched the
scoreboard. And all this from a man who championed The Pixies.
- David Bridgman
- David Bridgman