JOHN Peel is dead, long live John Peel. The honest diamond in the Radio 1 dustbin of naked ambition and negligible communication skills had a cutting edge which will continue to glisten long after his passing.
Peel did not discriminate by musical style, nationality or age - his passion for Ivor Cutler had nothing to do with the poet being one of the few artists on the playlist older than its compiler - but Scottish bands always ranked high in the venerable radio man’s affections.
Among those were Edinburgh’s Ballboy, who found themselves in the unenviable position of returning to Maida Vale in London last week to record their fifth Peel session, the day after hearing of his death.
The band’s singer and songwriter Gordon McIntyre is understandably distracted, being in an overly familiar studio. "It’s incredibly weird, because the last time we were down he was actually here, sitting in a booth listening, and now the booth’s empty," he said. "And the whole point of doing Peel sessions for me was not because you would sell more records as a result, but that John Peel got to hear what you were doing."
This sums up the unique relationship the DJ built up with artists throughout his 40 years and more behind the microphone, the droll intonation failing to disguise the fact that he really cared about the music and precious little else.
Patrolling the same late night alternative beat on commercial radio during the Eighties, I did feel like a Peel ally by default. Needle time restrictions meant most independent stations scheduled shows featuring demo tapes and singles by local talent, but John led the way from the mighty BBC, sounding like Radio 1’s freshest, most dynamic presenter - which is not to damn him with faint praise.
Despite broadcasting concurrently, I discovered he also had a show which went out on the BBC World Service between 3 and 4 in the morning, so I could get home and tune in after signing off at 2am.
One night I heard him play a typically inspired segue, merging Elmore James’s song ‘Dust My Broom’ into one of his favourites, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band with ‘Click Clack’. It sounded so good that I brazenly nicked it for my next show, passing it off as the product of my own consummate taste, figuring neither of my listeners were likely to tune in to the World Service. More than a decade later, guilt got the better of me when interviewing Peel to promote his new television series, Sound of the Suburbs. Gently amused by the babbling confession, he simply said: "Not at all, glad to be of service..."
Peel was frequently first to play bands who went on to great success, from New Order and Simple Minds to Blur and Pulp, but he was always the seal of credibility rather than a barometer of commercial success.
McIntyre and Ballboy are recording the song ‘Frankie and Johnny’ at Peel’s invitation, part of a special tribute he planned to Scots skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan. No one is sure what will happen to that project now, but they plan to keep their end of the bargain regardless.
"Last Christmas we played at his house, which made the news all the harder to hear, having met his kids and family friends," said McIntyre. "To me he was a hero, and incredibly modest with it, considering the effect he had on people who played records, made records and loved records."
Peel’s death had a no less profound effect on Eugene Reynolds of The Rezillos, Scotland’s pre-eminent post punk band who recorded more than one memorable session for his radio show.
He confesses to a major faux pas last week when he and fellow singer Faye Fife were getting in shape for their forthcoming Christmas comeback shows. "I asked her what she thought about the news of John Peel’s death. We were power walking up the Braid Hills in Edinburgh and she nearly fell all the way down. She had not even heard so I felt dreadful.
"The only time news like that has had a similar resonance with me was when John Lennon was shot - it really was that powerful. Unlike his contemporaries on the radio you always felt he was talking to you, not at you. And his infectious love of music meant his support convinced you there was light at the end of the tunnel."
Some who recorded a session or received a prestigious play for a precious independent single may have found that light was indeed an oncoming train, but being welcomed into John’s musical family was often reward enough. Ian Boffey of Greenock noiseniks The Dragsters still recalls his two and a half minutes of Peely fame from 18 years ago with great affection.
"He opened his show with our single ‘Albino’ one night in 1986, and it was just an incredible rush hearing his theme tune end, and the intro to our song start up. The fact he had played it was everything, although we did think that the doors would immediately open, and it would be a hop, skip and a jump to a major record deal. That proved to be a bit of a false dawn, although we did get a Janice Long session the next year!"
To survive with such dignity and energy without compromising, and to express a catholic musical taste unprecedented in broadcasting in this or any other country, required great resolve beneath the affable exterior.
Peel supported world music before it even had a name, giving exposure to Jamaican and African musicians and bringing reggae and hi-life to an immeasurably wider audience.
He would privately despair of his daytime, so-called star, colleagues at Radio 1, and their desperate desire to be more famous than the artists whose records made or broke their shows. Throughout his career, Peel was more interested in having a curry with The Rezillos at Kushi’s in Edinburgh’s Broughton Street, or popping into Stuart Braithwaite’s mum’s house in Lanarkshire when filming a TV series in the neighbourhood, to see if Mogwai’s frontman fancied coming out for a pint.
Interestingly Braithwaite considers his Nineties crop to be the definitive Peel Generation, although his leftfield predecessors from the Seventies and Eighties would all claim him as their own. His current favourite memory dates from one of Peel’s stints presenting BBC television’s coverage of the Glastonbury festival.
"REM were playing, and they were desperate to speak with Michael Stipe, but he said he would only do it if John Peel conducted the interview. John politely turned him down, explaining that I was already booked to come on for that slot. Maybe he thought he owed us one from the previous year. His trousers had burst, and Barry [Burns, Mogwai’s man of many instruments] had to lend him a pair of his."
Perhaps that is how the most influential DJ of the past 50 years would like to be remembered: a man of many splendid and diverse records, but not enough trousers.