John Peel: the sixties undrugged…

Apologies for the late arrival of this short, personal tribute to the late John Peel. I had hoped it would find a home beyond Slugger before now, but I guess it didn’t fit anywhere else. I hope it’s not out too much out of place here on Slugger.When I heard the tragic news of John Peel’s death at 65 whilst on a working holiday with his wife Sheila in Cuzco in Peru I was also on a working holiday; a universe away from home on the beautiful and isolated west coast of Denmark. My wife and I communicated our shock by text.

I couldn’t follow the Danish news reports. On the radio, his name is repeated over and over, cut with the names of bands he either inspired or gave a break to whilst the music industry was bent in other directions waiting, hoping or praying for the ‘next big thing’.

He was a Radio 1 original, who remarkably held on to his late night slot long after his big name contemporaries had all been pensioned off to pastures less green. He was an icon to many of my Belfast school friends in the late seventies who were starting their own bands.

He kept his job (and more importantly his audiences) by doing what the sixties were supposed to be about and so often weren’t – doing his own thing. And as conformity has increasingly taken the place of rebellion amongst the youth, he continued to exert an encouraging influence over his ever-young audience.

I remember a conversation I had with my young and almost entirely irreligious son when I was driving him into school a few years back. He’d contrived a fascinating analogy between the rank order of Radio 1 DJs and the hierarchy implicit within the Catholic Church – from sinners through believers, priests, bishops, archbishops, and the Pope.

Sarah Cox, who was hosting the breakfast show at the time, he had close to the bottom of the pile, since he believed that she was largely compelled to stick ‘religiously’ to the station’s play list. As the day schedule progressed the DJs concerned would gradually climb in status as they appeared ot have greater conscious choice over what music they actually played on their show.

By early evening Steve Le Mac took the penultimate slot and was duly declared Pope. The only one perceived to be truly exercising free will by my 13 year old was John Peel, aka God.

It wasn’t simply his originality, but his ability to encourage the exceptional from ordinary people that kept his audiences coming back for more.

More recently he began to speak to people his own age through his Home Truths programme. His shambling rough delivery belied a sharp intelligent eye for a good story and a keen interest in the real lives of those he interviewed – a journalistic value noted by its general absence elsewhere on radio or television.

He drew his interviewees out with a fluent combination of humour and empathy. One memorable instance was Scotsman Kenny Ritchie an inmate on death row in the US since his conviction in 1981 for murder, and his wife Karen, who shared the short time they were allowed by the state penitentiary to speak by phone with Peel.

Every so often Ritchie was cut out of the conversation by the automated reminder that they were talking to a prisoner held within a correctional facility in Ohio. It was simple, but compelling radio.

And then he was gone. To quote that eloquent master of parody, Flann O’Brien, “I do not think we shall ever hear from his like again.”

I headed off that weekend to crack open an early Danish Christmas beer and remember one of the few genuine and enduring characters who found his feet and his voice that much hyped and much loathed decades – the sixties.