Firstly I'd like to make a couple of things clear. This is not an
anti-Peel piece and I'm only putting forward a hypothesis not a firmly
My theory is that John Peel's Godlike presence, perched atop the Radio
One mountain - like a slightly disgruntled, erasable Buddha - could have
been indirectly responsible for the deep rut that British Rock music has
sunk into over the past thirty years.
For this extraordinary length of time Peel represented the single most
important and assessable first foothold in the music business for a
certain kind of musician. Hundreds, if not thousands, of young bands
across the land have had one purpose in mind - to be played on John
Peel. Nay, to be loved by John Peel. So they would get hold of a
distortion peddle, learn a clutch of bar-chords and contrive the
appropriate attitude of two parts righteous anger to one part rock n'
roll heart. They would then distill these choice ingredients into a
covetable, nicely retro seven inch single, stick it in a jiffy bag and
thereby metaphorically prostrate themselves at the feet of their DJ God.
If they were lucky, and their offering caught the great DJ's ear, they
would then be invited to do a session at Peel Acres. Thus they would
have squeezed through the first small hole in the high wide wall of an
otherwise impenetrable music industry - The John Peel Show.
It's ironic that such bands, whose core aesthetic would have been the
rejection of the formularisations of mainstream pop, would have been
subconsciously conforming to an alternative template - to make something
fast and noisy to please Peely.
But even though 98% of these combos were never going to write another
'Teenage Kicks', it almost became part of Peel's self regulatory
manifesto, that he would give as many of them as possible their two
minutes and thirty seconds of fame.
I'm not writing this piece in any way to detract from the man's almighty
track record of giving early exposure to many great artists and bands
who later became household names. Bands who, realistically speaking,
might otherwise have never even seen the light of day. I just want to
point out what I perceive as an unhealthy codependency between a DJ and
the bands he played in the light of a music industry with very few other
outlets for such bands.
This relationship would be immeasurably beneficial for the band in the
short term but unhealthy for popular music in the long term.
The problem was twofold. Firstly it lay in dear Mr. Peel's passion for
thrashing punk/indi bands, which never seemed to dim. And secondly in
his admirable desire to keep up with the mountain of music that
threatened to swamp him in the chaos of his studio and home. Because he
would rarely play any record more than a few weeks old, because he
refused to revel in nostalgia apart from his Festive Fifty at the end of
the year, this in effect meant that younger listeners (made up partly of
the next generation of bands and would-be bands) were stuck in an
eternal present where they were only being exposed to their equally
young contemporaries - fellow young shoots blissfully ignorant of the
sturdy roots from which their music had sprung. Being influenced by
Franz Ferdinand or even Oasis does not a great band make!
It's ironic that it was Peel who first played Beefheart, Pink Floyd,
Bowie, Bolan, Roxy Music, The Smiths - the list is endless - yet he
stubbornly chose not to play these same artists, after the event, so he
could keep up with all the new stuff flooding in. By trying to keep up,
Peel deprived his impressionable listeners of exposure to their
substantial roots. For a band this was the equivalent of a would-be
novelist not reading any of the classics but expecting to produce a
great first novel. Musicians need some kind of musical education, even
if it's only from the radio. The common currency of three chord guitar
tunes, which most of us have had a weakness for at some point in our
lives, is an easy music to create. Or to put it another way - it doesn't
particularly stretch a guitarist to rehash the riff from 'Pretty
Vacant'. But if all a new band is hearing is other new bands at the same
level of non-development, with the same dearth of influences, the result
is going to be musical stasis.
But again, I must reiterate, I am not blaming Peel or these bands for
this state of affairs. The symbiotic relationship between a self
confessed eternal adolescent and a never ending stream of shabby young
men with Stratocasters is no different from the relationship between
those myriad tiny birds industriously picking bugs from the rugged
landscape of a giant hippo's back. It's just how things are.
In many ways The Peel Effect can be compared to Charles Saatchi's
influence in the UK's art world. It is now commonly excepted that every
bright-eyed artist at Chelsea or Goldsmiths has one overriding dream -
to have Charles in his Persil-white open-necked shirt come strolling
into their studio space offering to buy their whole degree show. So they
start churning out the pseudo reactionary, post pop art nonsense that
they believe will catch his eye. If you visit the new Saatchi Gallery -
tellingly a close neighbour of the Millennium Wheel - you'll see art
theme-parked - theatrically shocking rather than genuinely shocking.
It is meant to represent the current state of modern British art but in
reality it simply represents the narrow tastes and judgments of Nigella
But of course Peel was a lovely bloke and would have, quite rightly,
recoiled at being compared to this smooth advertising executive. But I
do believe this comparison is a valid one. The fundamental difference is
that with Peel and his bands the currency was music and credibility
rather than unfeasible huge quantities of cash.
Peel was a curious mix of the sentimentalist and the revolutionary.
Therefore he remained, until the end, sentimentally attached to the
spirit of the Punk revolution he fully embraced in 1976. The arguable
fallout from this is that rock has stood still for nearly thirty years.
Yes Peel also played a smattering of Reggae and African music, but
whenever I tuned in - fifteen minutes or so was usually as much as I
could take - I would be optimistic hoping to hear something new and
surprising but would simply be subjected to a patience-testing noise. I
refuse to believe that it's simply a sign of growing older that I no
longer want to be aurally assaulted by music, but to listen to John Peel
became increasingly like an endurance test - a real test of one's
So in conclusion, all I'm saying is that if Peel is to be credited for
single-handedly keeping rock music alive for the past thirty years he
should also perhaps take some of the blame for inadvertently keeping it
stuck in a time warp.
But I'd like to end on a positive note. As Nick Cave said on 'Later' last
night - "He was one of the good ones."
And if exposure to countless combos of questionable talent is the price
we had to pay for the gift of a string of idiosyncratic talents who
might otherwise have never seen the light of a record company recording
studio, then it's a small price to pay.
I donâ€™t quite have the time or writing ability to match you word for word Howard (either in quantity or quality), but have to say that I disagree with two fundamental parts of your treatise.
One is the idea that Peel somehow neglected rock history. You only have to listen to Andy Kershawâ€™s celebratory programme first broadcast last night to get a flavour of the sheer wondrous breadth of what John Peel chose to play in amongst the contemporary bands. However, like our host those historical tracks that he did play were usually chosen within a certain context â€“ maybe a death, maybe a re-issue, maybe a recent release triggering a connection, etc.
I myself can clearly remember being turned onto a wonderful series of Charly southern soul LPs (sadly long-deleted and never re-issued as CDs) when really the only reason I was tuning in was to hear whoever might be the new Fire Engines, or whatever. That conversion process was an on-going phenomenon with him, and itâ€™s slightly patronising to speculate that the practice might have stopped when (most of) our generation of Peel listeners stopped tuning in so frequently. The straight-line four-chord rock fans were always going to constitute the majority, but itâ€™s not as if he didnâ€™t give other genres a chance. And it meant that a minority of listeners and artists would follow his less conventional leads, right up to his untimely death.
Many of the small-scale acts that he promoted are/were clearly taking on more than indie/punk/thrash metal as influences, even if it just sounds like a lot of noise to you and I. As far as listeners go, it was always frustrating to see the uniformity of the Festive 50, but that was never a full reflection of his show. I recall plenty of people buying Shabini on the strength of Peelâ€™s patronage, but then voting The Fall 1,2 and 3 in the Festive 50.
Which brings us on to the second assertion that had me grating my teeth which was <I> that younger listeners (made up partly of the next generation of bands and would-be bands) were stuck in an eternal present where they were only being exposed to their equally young contemporaries - fellow young shoots blissfully ignorant of the sturdy roots from which their music had sprung. Being influenced by Franz Ferdinand or even Oasis does not a great band make!</I>
Again, this comes across to me as a tad patronising, and not a little inaccurate. If anything, todayâ€™s consumer is swamped with historical perspective and retrospective re-analysis. Past achievements are afforded an enormous amount of coverage, and it is far from beyond the wit of an early twenty-something to get into Franz Ferdinand and then work out for themselves that their influences are worth listening to as well. I do believe that this is happening right now â€“ certainly a number of my 19 year-old nephewâ€™s contemporaries have made their way back to the Velvet Underground by way of Josef K, Orange Juice et al after reading about those acts in Franz Ferdinand articles.
Even if FF canâ€™t offer anything new in an artistic sense (which is arguable), John Peel certainly could not be blamed for that, nor can he be blamed for the (I would guess pretty constant) x% of listeners/bands that choose to plough a very narrow musical and chronological furrow â€“ Iâ€™m sure we all know punk Year Zeroistas who refused to accept that anything decent was ever produced before 1976, and no doubt those people have their equivalents today.
Anyway, to finish on a more upbeat note, Franz Ferdinand completists will of course be purchasing the latest Songlines to read an article about one of the bandâ€™s members. Who knows where that might lead for some of themâ€¦â€¦
I feel compelled to say this regarding your piece:
Charles Saatchi's detrimental effect on the British art world has been widely acknowledged by both artists and art historians (one interesting book on this is Supercollector: A critique of Charles Saatchi). Apart from treating works of art like stocks and shares, showing little respect for the artists themselves, he is also stuck up his own backside â€“ you only have to read the notes on the work in his gallery to get a glimpse of this.
The comparison with John Peel is ludicrous and painful in every sense, whatever your musical tastes may be.
Firstly Con, I listened to and enjoyed Andy Kershaw's tribute program last night but as his choice of tracks covered the whole of Peel's broadcasting career it was obviously not going to be representative of an average show. It was actually a piece by Trevor Dann, close friend and producer of John Peel that reinforced my suspicions that his show rarely delved into the past. And I quote:
" I argued that Smiths fans might be interested in Van Morrison or Tim Buckley if they were introduced to them by John Peel. But he would have none of it. The two hours of airtime he had every day were too precious to devote to anything other than the latest sounds."
So don't shoot the messenger Con!
Also I mentioned that he would play other genres but that generic indi/punk always dominated.
But you're right about bands being capable of seeking out rock music that is more than five years old, I'm sure many of them do. Peel's show was only one place for them to hear music. This is why I stated at the beginning of my piece that the ideas expressed were just something to think on - only musings not a heartfelt thesis.
And Hannah, I apologise for coursing you any pain with my Saatchi comparison but I did go to some lengths to say I was in no way comparing their personalties or motivations. I even said that Mr Peel would have, quite rightly, recoiled at the comparison.
I was simply trying to make the point that if one man in a parallel field could influence it's practitioners to such an extent, why couldn't John Peel have had a similar influence, albeit, without intending to.
Well, then I disagree with Trevor Dann as well. Peel's show <i>always</i> delved into the past. 6 names plucked from John's last 3 shows:-
Hambone Willie Newbern
If that's not delving into the past, I don't know what is.
Mind you, I'm not surprised that Peel refused to play Van Morrison and Tim Buckley. He probably saw them as boring old hippies. My suspicion is that Trevor Dann was talking in a White Rock context, and there you may have a point - Peel definately did ditch most of the mid-60s to mid-70s rock that he'd previously supported. And he was right to. Most of it served only as something to react against. But he did continue with the 'relevant' stuff - I was reminded today by a former member of The Wolfhounds (mid-80s indie, 3 Peel sessions and appearance on NME C86) of the time he played a track a week from Trout Mask Replica simply because it was over 10 years old and many people would not have heard it before.
Anyway, I'm not having a go at you Howard, just enjoying the debate.
I didn't think you were Con, and I'm happy to stand corrected on this issue. A friend of mine, and occasional CG poster, Nick Hider also put me right on this aspect of my piece by pointing out that Peel used to be more strictly contemporary (when Trevor Dann was producing I presume) but had become more inclined to play older stuff in the last couple of years.
I also agree that no harm was done by him skipping some of the more indulgent 70's stuff and just jumping back to the more innocent and pre-punk excitement of 60's rock n' roll.
The idea of focusing on a single radio programme, with a single radio presenter, and apportioning cultural blame to this is a little hard to take: Peel's programmes sat within a maelstrom of musical inputs, to all and sundry; and even for those who have the extreme prejudices usually associated with being 17 or 18 ('anything but x is commercial crap') are, usually unwittingly, constantly exposed to a multitude of styles and alternatives.
The best always absorb and are always surprised. I can point, at one level, to my own children (late 20s and early 30s) who dismissed everything but what was on the Peel programme circa '84 but who now come back home on their visits and dig out the Everly Brothers and Presley. And, somehow, they know all the songs word perfect, even down to Phil's harmonies.
And, at a deeper level, read the Dylan autobiography. Here we have a guy wandering around in Greenwich Village, sussing out the folk scene at a truly comprehensive level, and yet utterly seduced by the radio stations playing Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vee, Neil Sedaka and Roy Orbison - all of which are in the background but come, and regularly, scorching through to his consciousness. And nowhere is the reason for his genius better displayed by his openness to the strangest of musical bedfellows like Robert Johnson and the Brecht/Weill songs.
Peel knew, better than most, that he was operating within a whirlwind of sounds; and decided, at some point, that he would focus on providing a platform for the new. And, in doing so, to focus even more clearly down to the primitives, the three chorders.
I think he was not only right to carve that niche out, but profoundly so. Every now and then, there is a real need to remember that popular music should be accessible to all in the creative rather than the passive sense - after all, it is the music of the people. And every now and then, we need to strip the pretensions from the form and allow those with a valid emotional or cultural point - but not necessarily the technical skills - to have open access to the airwaves. Such windows have provided the openings for change on so many occasions since Lonnie Donegan in '55 in the UK, and Presley and the boys from Memphis, Tennessee at the same time.
And, when these bands with technical primitivism made their mark, via the Peel programme, the best of them, of course, were always listening to everything. Their breakthrough was focused on Peel; but their ears were open to a plethora of sounds, the cacophony of what all of us hear, every day, from a multitude of sources.
He played his part to perfection. And it seems to me entirely legitimate, to wander off into an anachronism that betrays my age and betrays my ignorances, that he would have played 'Come On' by the Stones but not 'Satisfaction'; or 'Song to Woody' and not 'It's Alright, Ma, I'm only Bleeding'.
Because, at that point, his job was done. And he would, rummaging through the mountains of scruffy tapes piled on the back seat of his car, be focusing on what he knew he should be doing.
Yes Peel was only one radio presenter but he was also arguable the most important Radio presenter for rock music of the past thirty years, so focusing on him I believe was legitimate.
And yes, he loved his three chorders, as you so aptly put it, and supported them with the utmost integrity and singlemindedness, so I fully agree with the spirit of most of what you say Pete.
It's simply that for a long time I have asked myself - why has popular music in this country stood still for decades, apart from the odd burst of creative individuality?
My parents were listening to Sinatra and Glen Miller when I was growing up and the gulf between these artists and my choice of dance music - Talking Heads - was immeasurable. It was music from two totally different planets. Yet the gulf between Talking Heads and Franz Ferdinand is the width of a guitar string. Kids are now basically listening to the same stuff as their parents. How can that be healthy for popular music?
Obviously I'm not holding Peel totally responsible for this, that would be absurd. I'm just suggesting that 'the most important person in the history of rock music' as someone called him the other day, might also have had just a little to do with it's stagnation. I feel you can't have it both ways. If he was the most influential rock broadcaster ever, then he may also have had, in some respects, a detrimental influence.
As with all debates on this website, it will, in the end, come down to musical tastes. Others may argue that Talking Heads and Franz Ferdinand are like chalk and cheese and that popular music in this country has never been healthier. I only wish I felt that way.
The great artists are always going to dig deeper and find the jewels from the past to decorate their own crowns with, but the Bob Dylans of this world are few and far between. The rest of us eventually grow up too, and begin our individual archaeological digs into past decades of music. But I don't think many younger musicians are this proactive ( I know I wasn't) - you just lap up what your culture, and to a certain degree your subculture, is dishing up. Peel was one of the main disher-uppers of subculture in the UK and therefore I don't think we should underestimate his influence.
But yes, he should be thanked not criticised for the job he did. No question.
And if I ever needed a fix of heartfelt youthful distortion recorded the day before yesterday, I tuned into Peel. Nothing can detract from the sad fact that that opportunity has now gone.
.... whilst thinking about John Peel, I kept thinking about his record label in the late sixties, Dandelion. One of his acts, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, was quite original, using drama and lights on stage. I remember vividly the time that I saw them, the night that England lost to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup. When I left for the gig, in Southall, England were winning 2-0, and we know the rest of the story. However, my favourite act of his will always be Bridget St John. Her songs had that quality of English understatement; I treasure her first two albums and especially "Ask Me No Questions". The title track is so sensual, but understated, and has a section with bells ringing and birds singing, against her and John Martyn's guitar. Sounds naff, but its good. I always hoped that her records would take off like Nick Drake's, as they share some qualities - I thought that her music was a kind of female counterpart. But enough of my rambling. These were great, but contrasting, acts that John promoted.
I agree with the broad thrust of your latest post Howard, so I'm not going to get into another long reply here, but it has to be said that Franz Ferdinand have only produced one CD, and lest we forget Talking Heads' debut 77 wasn't exactly the wonder of experimentalism we later came to expect from them. It's therefore slightly unfair to talk about the state of music in this country, and then compare poor old FF with great American acts like the Heads. But like I say, I agree with the general point, and I guess that we should be grateful for the few great artists that do crop up in the UK from time to time.
Aropos of which (and getting back to the topic of talking about great music), I've recently heard good things about Robert Wyatt's last CD Cuckooland, and found out today that the wonderful Gilad Atzmon makes an appearance. Anyone heard any of this?