If you had to pick seven songs over seven days, what would they be? I love music so much and I love so much music that this has posed a serious challenge for me*. But after much deliberation, here’s song the first.
John Peel. Two words to make the true music fan of a certain vintage smile with affection and sigh at his loss. He introduced me and so many people to so much amazing music. I absolutely loved his Radio One show, and the fact that it would be unlikely in the extreme that you could possibly enjoy every record he’d play in any given show.** I first came across his show by turning on the radio followed immediately by my jaw dropping to the floor that a national radio DJ had not only heard of but was playing Napalm Death. And moreover playing them not to mock them, but because he genuinely enjoyed their music. A typical show of that era would see Napalm Death (or other grindcore brethren like Bolt Thrower, Carcass, etc) played right alongside jubilant Zimbabwean pop music from The Four Brothers, inept indie from the likes of The Wedding Present, vintage surf instrumentals and country and western balladeering, cutting-edge acid house and – in all probability – Peel’s absolute favourites, The Fall (aka “The Mighty Fall,” as Peel would always introduce them).
One of culture’s greatest facilitators
Peel, said Julian Cope, was one of “culture’s greatest facilitators.” Cope – who is 100 times the music journalist than he is singer-songwriter – captured perfectly the tragedy of our loss of Peel back in October 2004:
“I always believed John would continue Methuselah-like into his 90s and die peacefully in his sleep. The tragedy of John Peel’s going is that his was a take-me-for-granted role, that of someone we could count on always; a healing continuing force for the greater cultural good. Like Robert Graves, Colin Wilson and Frank Zappa, Peel was a cultural constant whose work we could not always appreciate because it was so damned ongoing that its value could never be judged until he was no longer around. The tragedy of Peel’s death is that one of culture’s greatest Facilitators has just stopped facilitating, and the music world will suffer (and in some places wither) accordingly.”
I love this idea of Peel as cultural facilitator. Peel loved music, and loved sharing the music he loved. This is almost the perfect definition of what sharing and curation is all about in our social media age.
Michael goes on to have a bit of a whinge
Alongside his four nights-a-week Radio One gig, I was amazed in the days of my heaviest Peel worship to discover he also did a show (to presumably no listeners whatsoever) on Sunday nights on BBC three counties radio. Living in Buckinghamshire at the time opened up the chance to tune in to this show, too, and direct access to Peel. I once won a 10" single of the Butthole Surfers’ Widowermaker EP (you will of course remember that one from its 14-week reign at number one in late 1989***) via a write-in competition on the Sunday show.
But the record failed to show. Many weeks later I enquired after it in my postcard entry for another competition. I fairly fell out of my seat when Peel not only read out my incorrect entry to that week’s competition on air (I managed to get the number one record from the previous year’s John Peel’s Festive Fifty countdown wrong), but then said “Michael goes on to have a bit of a whinge,” read out my lack-of-Buttholes complaint, and explained it was not yet out. When finally it did arrive, it had a heartbreakingly lovely yellow post-it note on the front, with a biro’d message in very schoolboy handwriting**** saying “Sorry about the delay. Record only just released. John (Peel).”*****
I could’ve picked hundreds of different great records I first heard via Peel. I’ve gone for Parade Dub by King Tubby (video above), as it’s a magical piece of dub reggae, the highlight of that whole genre for me. And I’d never have known of it had Peel not played it and had I not scrabbled for my notepad to write down what it was – and had Peel not for once actually remembered to back-announce it. I even managed to find a copy of the fantastic compilation it was from – King Tubby’s Special 1973 – 1976 – at the Tottenham Court Road Virgin Megastore on a trip to London a few weeks later, to see the Happy Mondays (for ‘twas that era…). Thank you, sir. I still miss you, and “the John Peel wing-ding” radio show to this day.
* My friends Tony Jackson and Tim Scott have each been so kind as to nominate me for a social media ‘challenge’ to share seven songs (and related words) over seven days. Picking just seven songs from a lifetime is nigh on impossible for me. Just as I’m sure it is for you. I could easily pick 70 songs that meant something to me from each year of my life. And probably write as much as the above about each one. Thank your lucky stars, gentle reader, that this challenge was only to pick seven songs!
** I strive to take this exact same approach to my sharing stuff via Twitter. Everything I share means something to me, but I would never expect any one person to dig all of it. I actively enjoy sharing things that I am convinced no-one will have the slightest interest in. The payoff on those rare occasions when someone does pick up on and chat with you about the most obscure of things is consequently all the more delightful.
*** NB: This didn’t actually happen. To the best of my awareness, the Butthole Surfers were not the most chart-bothering of bands.
**** I was delighted just now to find an example of writing from John Peel’s fair hand posted to Wikimedia Commons. Regard:
***** Not many Johns were sending me 10" Butthole Surfers records by post back then, but I was delighted all the same at the paranthetical addition of “Peel” to his post-it note. What a John Peel thing to do!