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for November 1, 2004

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[Inscrutable Links: John Peel Says "Hi". FM106.3 Staff List. FM106.3's 1988 playlist.]

Keep It Peel
by Sean Carolan

Last Tuesday, the entire UK-based music industry were shocked to hear that John Peel, the legendary BBC Radio 1 broadcaster who had been with them since the day they went on the air in 1967, had succumbed to a sudden, catastrophic heart attack while enjoying a working vacation in Peru.
His chronological age, 65, was no indicator of the impact his death has made on those who worked with him, those who listened to him, and most importantly, those who he listened to - and in so doing, catapulted into a limelight that they would not otherwise enjoy. This is because up until the moment he died, he was as important to the independent music industry in England as he'd ever been in his life, if not more so. And that was very important indeed.
Bernard Sumner of New Order and Joy Division stated quite plainly that if it were not for John Peel, there would have been no place in the world for the bands Sumner was a part of. Sumner's was one of many tributes that rolled in - from Robert Smith and Siouxsie Sioux to Rod Stewart and David Bowie, all of whom could thank Peel for supporting them when nobody else would. More recent beneficiaries of his largesse included Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand.
That was Peel's job, of course, as well as he could define it. He saw himself as less a paid pusher of product than a sensible source of recommendations. He was an advocate for interesting artists on the one hand, and intelligent listeners on the other.
This involved taking a lot of risks, of course, but even when his show featured a track that one might regard as unlistenable, it was rendered pleasantly so by the affable, unflappable intercession of Peel's casually matter-of-fact hosting style. He was as at home presenting a record from Elvis Presley as he was one from Three Inches Of Blood. And because he was presenting it, you got the feeling that there was worth - even though you might not like it, you were certain that someone else did.
His style was also marked by a determination that he in no way outshine the music he was playing. He was the first Radio 1 disc jockey to insist that he not talk over records, and constantly put himself down gently when on air. Upon receiving a band's t-shirt, for instance, he lamented on air that he doesn't wear them often because they don't seem to ever size them properly for the pear-shaped man.
If you listened to his show regularly, you inevitably heard about his family, one aspect of his personal life he was demonstrably proud of. If it wasn't his wife introducing a 78-RPM record (the "Pig's Pick 78", from her nickname that stems from her distinctive, infectous laugh, occasionally heard on-air) it was news of the kids or, most recently, his first grandson.
Above all, Peel conveyed the sense that he wanted you, personally, to share in his discovery of new music. A recent defining moment occurred when an interview he was expected to conduct with The White Stripes' Jack White turned into a conversation between two guys who loved music and who each wanted to share what they'd liked with the other. The listener probably learned more about both men in that exchange than if the interview had been conducted conventionally. Peel, in a characteristic bout of modesty, felt the need to apologize to his listeners about the way it went. He needn't have.
John Peel passed from this world far too soon, at the top of his game and the height of a long period of relevance. And he will be so, so missed.

©2004 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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