The John Peel Show and a teenager’s musical education

‘We’ve had almost everybody, except the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and more recently Oasis. I never really thought Oasis were much good to be honest’.
[John Peel]

The Olivetti Chronicles, by John PeelAt the risk of enraging fans everywhere, this is a sentiment / prejudice I heartily agree with (this lack of endorsement did not seem to hold back Oasis’ progress in the 1990s). Other surprising omissions from Radio 1’s Peel Sessions list were Emerson Lake and Palmer in the 70s and later U2. Bands such as The Smiths and Pulp certainly benefited from national radio exposure. A quirk of Peel’s programme was that once a band became successful he tended to ‘drop’ them from his play list, reasoning that they would be played elsewhere and so did not need the exposure – and anyway their inclusion took up broadcast time away from other performers.

Many bands did not reach the heights after exposure on his programme either as a recorded session or having their record played. In fact John Peel delighted in playing these unknown acts saying “If I didn’t play them, then who else will?”

This Saturday, 25 October, is the tenth anniversary of the death of John Peel. Like many others, my musical life has been hugely influenced by his radio programme, partly because he never stood still in his musical tastes (however much some of his audience wished for a continuation of the familiar). This was highlighted by the many protests from the pre-1976 audience who were dismayed by the programme’s shift towards punk and new wave and away from progressive rock. In hindsight this was not such a shift as even in the early 70s the sessions, heavy with synthesizer and guitar solos, would also include other musical genres so were never simply about rock.

“I know that what you really want to hear are the records you bought a couple of years ago played over and over again, but there’s not a lot of point doing that, I think”

With Spotify, SoundCloud and You Tube online sources, my teenage sons were spoilt for choice in their discovery of different musical genres, young unsigned bands and also the means to explore the musical past.

Margrave of the Marshes, by John PeelAs a teenager in the 1970s, I was restricted in my musical exploration by the contents of my local public library’s record collection and the radio: Radio 2 and 3 for jazz and folk music and the sterling efforts of John Peel whose nightly Radio 1 show literally opened up a world of music, even if it did result in some former enthusiasms being subsequently “disowned” as an embarrassing reminder of my youth (Tubular Bells springs to mind…). Unrestricted by radio playlists and current pop charts his programmes were never predictable and I continue to enjoy a number of performers and musical genres first discovered there.

To illustrate this point, here are three very different musical discoveries from listening either to recordings or from one of the 4,400 broadcast sessions during the show’s 37 year existence (an alphabetical listing of all performers on Wikipedia runs to 58 A4 pages!):

Essential Martin Carthy

 

Martin Carthy –  an English traditional folk singer still producing and performing interesting music.

Hatful of Hollow, by The SmithsThe Smiths – whose first session forms a major part of their compilation album ‘Hatful of Hollow’, which was a useful antidote to the glossy synthesiser / drum machine chart material of the period.

Shumba, by Thomas Mapfumo

Thomas Mapfumo – a Zimbabwean musician whose hypnotic melodies continue to hold my attention.

 

If you wish to find out more about John Peel, read his autobiography Margrave of the Marshes (completed after his death by his widow). John Peel also wrote a large number of articles for such periodicals as The Listener and columns in national newspapers and the music press – many of these are gathered together in The Olivetti Chronicles. He seemed to take great delight – or was pressganged into – reviewing gigs by some very non-Peel performers such as Cliff Richard, Madonna and Wham!

After his death many obituaries and tribute articles appeared in national and regional newspapers. These can be read using Westminster Libraries 24/7 subscriptions to newspapers including The Times Digital Archive, Newsbank and also UK Press Online. The Times database uses scanned pages from the original newspaper. However for the issue containing his obituary and tributes (27 October 2004) there was an original printing fault making the first column difficult to read. Use Newsbank as an alternative source for these original Times articles.

John Peel has also appeared as a recent biographical entry in the The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, another 24/7 subscription available to Westminster library members.

[Francis]

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