I wrote a little thing about John Peel for ‘We Happy Few’. That website pokes into some curiously dilapidated corners of the culture.
Edit, November 2017: ‘We Happy Few’ has sadly left the World Wide Web, so I reproduce my piece here:
Loath as I am to extol another dead white male, it’s difficult to talk about the past without them. As patriarchal voices go, John Peel rises above the taint of 1970s BBC broadcasters, principally by the reputation for humaneness and inclusivity that accrued around him since the 1990s. Last year Faber published a fat book on the man and his radio shows, David Cavanagh’s Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life. The distinction of this book lies in Cavanagh’s method of listening to a vast selection of surviving complete radio shows from Peel’s first broadcasts on the pirate Radio London in 1967 (which followed some stints on radio in the USA) until his penultimate year, 2003. The book proceeds through the years, Cavanagh describing a chosen show, with the musical selection and a brief current-affairs snippet providing a unique portrait of the times, as pop music struggles with its inevitable maturity, rebellions, and banalities. The news extracts that Cavanagh provides for each show often emphasise the Troubles, which is an illuminating reminder of the fragile condition of peace in the UK, especially now that the mass media’s terror focus has shifted geographically.
Cavanagh’s introduction makes the case that the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was testament to the broad-minded spirit that Peel – effectively single-handedly – fostered in the national culture. But over its 600-plus pages, Cavanagh weaves no thread of connecting argument to make the assertion compelling, instead allowing the accumulated descriptions of daily brilliance (or folly) to tell its own story. It is not entirely uncritical, but Cavanagh is, by necessity, a fan. I remember him for a review of Elastica in 1993 in Select magazine in which he explained their 20-minute set as being over in the time it takes to eat four apples. It’s an image which hasn’t left my mind, mainly because I can’t imagine ever eating four apples in quick succession. Cavanagh also wrote a career-spanning piece on The Fall in that peculiarly nineties phenomenon, the magazine-and-CD series Volume. He is an erudite writer, and can be very funny, though there’s a sense he’s on his best behaviour for this project, and his mischievous character does not shine through in the text enough for my liking.
The book was subject of a curious review in The Wire (381, November 2015). In it, Derek Walmsley was perturbed by this valorization of a patrician voice – a voice uncomfortably associated with the climates of the pop industry and the BBC which facilitated the abuse of the young and vulnerable, and with the pre-internet world of individual, Reithian authority. The Wire’s review does raise some pertinent points, but the charge of Peel’s irrelevance in the age of internet radio is positively bizarre. The Wire itself used to provide radio listings for open-minded shows, in which Peel’s show was an eternal fixture in a minuscule list for national radio. It’s easy to forget how difficult it was to find out about, for example, The Pendulum Floors. It is odd to think that, while we may celebrate the abundance of free access to information afforded by the internet, we shouldn’t also lament the loss of prescribed spaces within a state power apparatus such as the BBC. If recondite information is too easily available, why should a state broadcaster waste valuable resources delivering it to an indifferent audience. Much better to have another series of ‘Imagine’ with Alan ‘Oh No Not Alan Yentob Again’ Yentob. Structure is unfashionable, but surely the adherents of freedom and chaos still like a lock on their toilet.
There is an emotional component to Cavanagh’s book which will be entirely different for every reader – at least for those who devoted too much of their youth being informed by the inimitable sounds of Peel’s broadcasts. For me, as someone who began listening regularly in the early nineties, the book took on more personal significance as I recognized individual programmes that I had heard live. Combined with this is the mounting sense of sadness as the text accelerates (covering two years rather than one in the final four chapters) towards its inescapable terminus. The epochal cultural moment isn’t the rise of the internet but the loss of a public figure who had a vast knowledge – through first-hand experience – of global pop music from the 1940s to the present.
David Bowie was still alive when I read Cavanagh’s book; he crops up a few times. The entry for 30 June 1968 ends with a description of a Tyrannosaurus Rex concert at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Bottom of the bill was David Bowie from Bromley, performing a mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.’ A handful of pages later, the entry for 16 February 1969 ends with a description of a Tyrannosaurus Rex concert at Birmingham Town Hall: ‘Bottom of the bill was David Bowie, once again performing his mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.’ There’s a parallel universe in which that sentence is repeated again throughout the 1970s. I choose to believe that, somewhere, David from Bromley is still performing his mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.