David Gedge: Hello, I’m David from the Wedding Present. Welcome to Chain Reaction. And I am joined with Radio 1 presenter John Peel.
John Peel: It makes it sound as though we are having some kind of physical relationship!
DG: I’ll probably start at the beginning point, which is how did you actually start? What made you actually start broadcasting on the radio?
JP: Well, I would like to have been a journalist and I like doing pieces for the papers now, you know.
JP: But as far as the broadcasting, it was just something that I always wanted to do. I mean, from a very early age, when I was 10, 11 years old and I used to be given records. And of course in those days you were just … People would say to me, “What do you want for Christmas?” or “What do you want for your birthday?” - and I would say records. And it didn’t matter what record, just any record at all would do. And because we lived in the country and you couldn’t get around very easily – petrol was rationed and so on – I built up this yearning to play these records that I liked for other people. I know this sounds impossibly corny, but it’s true. And I thought the ideal job would be, having listened to Radio Luxembourg and the American Forces Network, where they had DJ’s, and I thought, “That’s the ideal job for me”. Just somewhere where I can go and play records I like on the radio and hope that other people will like them too. And although that looks like the kind of thing you put in the worst and most corny Hollywood biography, it is actually true.
DG: Are there any disadvantages then to the job, do you think?
JP: Well, interestingly enough, I think one of the disadvantages, for me anyway, is something which I rather suspect I share with you. Because I’ve always been much impressed by the fact that at your gigs – because it’s something which is obviously liable to be much misunderstood – that at your gigs you go and stand outside as people come in and talk to the people that come in to see you, and then after the band have played you go out and do the same thing. And I mean, this is the kind of thing that obviously can get you kind of pilloried by the music papers.
JP: But I suspect – and I’ve not discussed this with you beforehand – but I suspect it is probably something to do with the fact that you regret the kind of distancing that occurs between you and your audience because of how other people perceive you. If that’s not too complicated, in a way.
DG: Well, it’s actually fashionable now. Nowadays it’s almost like appropriate to have this barrier between people who are in groups - who are suddenly hoisted to this, you know, superhuman “listen to us, I’m a pop star” level – and the rest of the audience. That’s why when I first got interested in music, which was probably in the late 70s, bands were actually trying to break that down. They were saying, “We’re not actually different from you. We’re actually the same people. Anybody could do this.” And that I think really inspired me to actually, you know, start a group, in many ways.
JP: Well, I think it’s an aspect of it that always distresses me. Obviously I don’t get it on the same scale, just being a DJ. But I think DJs, on Radio 1 in particular, certainly started out from the perspective that DJs were really rather special and wonderful human beings and should be treated as such. Because in the early years, you know, they really built the station around them, the myth of the DJ. It’s nice when people come up to you, as it must be to you, when they come up, as they often do, and approach you as an equal and just talk about what you do and the aspects of it they like or don’t like. But I mean, I’ve occasionally had people come up to me at things and because of their perception of what my job is, and perhaps even their perception of why I do it, sometimes they become like shaking with fear. And that seems to me to be incredibly sad, because you know if that’s the case then they’ve entirely missed the whole point.
DG: I think I was probably shaking with fear the first time I met you.
JP: Funnily enough, I was trying to remember where that was. It was in Leeds presumably, but I can’t remember…
DG: I think it was actually outside this very building.
JP: Was it?
DG: Because I brought a demo tape down.
JP: The Lost Pandas.
DG: I saw you enter the building and I thought, “That’s him, that’s him.” And we were just too scared so we legged it around the corner. A couple of hours later we sort of regained our composure and said, “Excuse me, Mr Peel, would you like to listen to our demo tape.”
JP: That’s right. Because I always felt very bad. I’ve still got those demo tapes, incidentally.
DG: I know! As you always remind me every time I meet you!
JP: Don’t know if there’s any bootleggers out there who would be interested in coming to some sort of arrangement.
DG: I’ve destroyed all mine of course, so they are probably the only ones in existence.
JP: Is that right? Have you really destroyed them?
DG: Well, I don’t think they are very good in retrospect. At the time I thought they were brilliant, but I mean…
JP: That’s strange, because I’d have thought that you’d have wished to – like sort of having photographs of yourself as a child, it would have been nice to have retained them. I mean, embarrassing, but quite nice. I don’t think they were that bad.
DG: I probably would be embarrassed if I saw myself in a photo album as well.
JP: Now that implies some deep-rooted neurosis here.
DG: Obsession with erasing the past.
JP: I’m going to have a bite of my cheese sandwich now, David, so you are going to have to talk a bit.
DG: You mentioned your family there and obviously I’ve met them all now and it seems a very close family, which from what I can gather is probably slightly different from your own upbringing.
JP: Well, yes, that’s true actually, yeah. I didn’t have a bite of my cheese sandwich after all.
DG: My question was too short.
JP: Your question was too short. Well, I would like it to be. I mean, obviously I have rows with them, you know, about all of the traditional things, like untidy bedrooms.
DG: I can’t imagine you walking into their bedrooms and telling them to turn their music down - that’s too loud…
JP: Well, it did happen to me once, many years ago. The two eldest – William, who is now 16, and Alexander, who is 14 – did come, sort of hand in hand, when they were about 8 and 6, and say, “Dad, do you mind turning the records down because we can’t hear the television?” I said, “Hold on a second, this is kind of reversal. I’m supposed to do that.” But I don’t want them to be like me particularly. And I don’t necessarily want them to be doctors or lawyers unless they wish to become doctors or lawyers, but I would like them to find, as I did, something that they genuinely enjoy doing and are happy with and can actually earn a living doing. That would be ideal. And I would like them to go to university, not even to acquire the necessary qualifications, because those seem to be less important these days then they were of yore, when if you had a degree if virtually guaranteed you a job. Even if you were actually incredibly stupid as a human being and could barely function socially you could still get a job. I don’t think that applies so much now. But I would like them to go to university for the social experience, because I have always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about having been too dumb to go to university myself. But my own childhood was through no fault of my parents - my mum died this summer in July, something which I actually, I miss her terribly, and I’m glad that I do because at one time I wouldn’t have done, because my relationship with my parents was never terribly close. But in the last two or three years of her life, my mum and I got on a lot better than we ever had done previously. Because she was rather prone to saying things like – because she was a fairly avid drinker – and she was rather prone to saying things that parties, wait for a pause in the conversation and a bit of a silence, and she’d say… I have two brothers, Alan and Francis, and on one notable occasion she said, “Alan was always my favorite son, and then Francis.” And then she sort of fixed me with this steely gaze and said, “And then you!” But in her last years it wasn’t like that at all.
DG: How do you think you are perceived by people? Because I was reading an interview with I think it was Andy Kershaw actually, who said he thought you were like a dotty old eccentric who enjoyed playing obscure(???) records. I don’t think that is true…
JP: Of course the trouble is, you know when, as you know yourself, because obviously you’ve been a victim of it on numerous occasions – when things are written down that you’ve said, you can’t convey on the page the intonation or your facial expression of what you are saying.
DG: He makes it sound like you are actually, what you do, is quite affected. Like you actually play records…
JP: No, not at all.
DG: I think it is not the case, but…
JP: No, it certainly isn’t. I mean obviously there are times when you kind of put records into the programme because they have… I mean, I played a record last night, a 15-second long track by Intense Degree which has got like a really long title and it is from a 7-inch EP which has got 69 tracks by 52 bands on it, and they are all incredibly abrupt. And of course it’s difficult to say, you know, you are playing this because of its high musical worth, but at the same time I kind of like it. You know, I just like the idea.
DG: But those things I think it is probably valid as a pop article, as a pop artifact, anyway, isn’t it.
JP: Definitely so, yes. And I certainly wouldn’t… I quite often, you know, when I am picking a track to play from an LP, I’ll pick one that has a title that kind of amuses me. There was one I played last night which was something about a hummingbird locked in a block of ice or something, from a new LP by Thinking – what’s it called, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. And, you know, I shall play other tracks from it, but that’s the one that I played first – because I liked the title as well. So, I mean, there’s always been one of those things that in the past – not so much now, thank goodness – but in the past, particularly in the 1970s, you know, “raaack music,” progressive rock or whatever we were calling it at the time, was perceived as a kind of A-level subject. You know, something to be taken really rather seriously. And I think it is supposed to be – I hesitate to use the word fun because that has always been so much misused in the context of radio 1 in particular – but you are supposed to enjoy it as well. Sometimes even find aspects of it funny, you know.
DG: You do stand out as like a Radio 1 DJ with a certain set of views which don’t really fit in with maybe some of your colleagues. Do you fit in with other Radio 1 DJs?
JP: Well, there have been some that I knew and liked. People like Kid Jensen was obviously like a good pal and I was really fond of him. And then Andy Kershaw. And over the years there have been quite a few – even people who I thought I disliked. Like Tony Blackburn, once I got to know him a bit, realized that in a peculiar way we felt the same things, although we were approaching them from diametrically opposed positions.
DG: Of course you have been here all the time that Radio 1 has existed.
JP: Yes, the oldest inhabitant. Yes, you know, I’m a great sort of believer in a way of setting your sights low. I feel sometimes rather guilty in these thrusting and ambitious times, but all of the things that I really wanted from life – apart from playing for Liverpool – I’d done or had got by the time I was about 30, you know. Because I had met Sheila, who you know, and I always feel people ought to be interviewing her rather than me, because she is very much the fuel on which I run. But having met her and having bought a house in the country, you know, because I’m a country boy by and large, and having got four amusing and most of the time generous-hearted children, and a job on the radio, and a couple of dogs and a few cats and things – I actually don’t want for anything else. And I sometimes feel quite guilty, because you are all supposed for example to want to get on television, but I’ve done bits of television and I’ve frankly always been crap on there, because I am always really nervous. Whenever I see a camera pointing at me I get all jumpy and ill at ease. And what people used to say when I did Top Of The Pops with Kid Jensen, people used to say, “God, you looked so cool and relaxed on there.” And of course the reason I looked cool and relaxed was because I was actually frozen to the spot with terror. Because as soon as the light came on on the top of the camera, I was immobilised, you know. Like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights. And what they mistook for cool was anxiety and terror. And when I found out I didn’t have to actually do television if I didn’t want to, it was a great relief to me. I mean, there are silly things I’d like to have. I’d like to have a very fast and dangerous car and things like that, but that’s just silliness really.
DG: Are you fairly obsessive about the programmes, do you think? Are you like…
JP: I couldn’t do it any other way, quite frankly, because of just the sheer volume of stuff that comes in for the programme, you know – records and tapes, demo tapes. But also another aspect of it is the mail that you get. And I’m sure that this is the same for you. The letters that you get are not the kind of letters that are going to be satisfied with an autographed picture. In fact, if you sent an autographed picture, they’d send it back and say, “What the hell are you sending me this for, you twerp? What I wanted to know if about that record you played after the long reggae record on the 17th of November 1978, you know, that kind of stuff. And most of the letters I get, they are the kind of people, you know, that you think, actually I wish they lived in our village. I can never understand why they don’t, you know. I mean, statistically speaking, there must be somebody in our village who listens to the programme, but I’ve not found out who it is. But most of the letters you get are genuinely nice letters. And people kind of open up to you in perhaps a way they wouldn’t do to other people. And when Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill wrote their book about punk, and I was expecting a terrible slagging, and about the only thing they could find to say unpleasant about me was the fact that I was old – which I was even then – and that I was like a social worker. And I was quite proud of that actually. I certainly wasn’t offended by it, you know. I think being a social worker is quite a worthwhile thing to be. Much maligned but well worth doing. And I don’t see myself as doing social worker, but if that’s how they saw me, then I’m quite happy with that.
DH: Well, I think the reason why I actually met you for the first time in person was because I was aware that you do get a lot of demo tapes sent through the post – and let’s be a bit special, so I thought if I wait for you outside Radio 1, then creep up to you and shove it in your hand you would probably take more notice of it. But how many demo tapes would you actually receive in an average week then?
JP: Well, it fluctuates, but I suppose 50, 60, 70, something like that. I mean, because they come in from…
DG: You can’t possibly listen to them all, though, presumably.
JP: I do in the fullness of time. What tends to happen is because – obviously, you know, listening to records and putting together radio programmes is not for me something that you can delegate in any way.
JP: And a record takes as long as it takes. I always say – rather cleverly, actually – you can neither accelerate nor delegate. They like that sort of thing in (???).
DG: I’ll remember that one.
JP: Yes, have it tattooed on the back of your hair! And so I spend most… Well, an average week goes like this. I come home from town on Sunday afternoon, having had two nights in a row when I don’t get to bed until about three o’clock, so I’m fairly knackered. I usually go and have breakfast at Andy Kershaw’s girlfriend’s restaurant in Crouch End and then I go home and unpack all of my bags and file away all the records, in as far as I can do, because things are such a mess now, because I’ve run out of space. Listen to one or two records while I’m doing it, and then usually go and fall asleep in front of the fire, and you know, just sit around. I mean, it’s not one of those things where you get home, it’s not like Disney – all of the children rush out and it’s, “Daddy’s home.” You walk in there and it’s like, “Hush, Dad!” It’s not even like, “Hey, Dad’s home” or “Hello, Dad” or anything like that. “Shut up, we’re watching something on television,” you know. But that’s how it should be, you know. I think it is important if you are a father just to kind of be there really, rather than not doing that thing of where you are trying to relate to them all the time, because I think they get a bit fed up of that, frankly. You always see Americans when they’re interviewed, it’s always that stuff about, “Hey, listen, me and my boy, we’re best friends.” You think, he doesn’t need a best friend, he needs a dad. His best friend will come from somewhere else. He’ll choose his best friend. You’re his dad and he can’t choose a dad, so just be dad-like. So I just kind of hang around and then when they go off to school on Monday morning I start listening to records. And I start usually about half past seven, and I’ll stay in my room working – I mean, I like doing it, it’s not drudgery. Well, sometimes it is, you know, when you’re really tired. But I’ll usually work until about 9.30, half past nine. I usually go and watch either the nine o’clock news or the rather inferior 10 o’clock news. But I work through the day. And I occasionally go out and half a couple of games of tennis during the week. Or about once a week I go to the pub in the village of Rattlesden for lunch. But most of the time I’m working.
DJ: How do you decide which records to play then? Do you have a system?
JP: Well, people always assume there’s some kind of template, you know. A chart that you can tick off, saying this has out of tune guitars – that’s plus one. Singer who can’t sing – plus two. That sort of stuff. But it’s really not like that at all. It’s just an instinctive thing. It just boils down to when I’m playing them you think, “I’d like to hear this coming out of the radio, and other people might do as well.” And I always use the same story, so it may not be unfamiliar to some people. But I was driving back once from New Orleans and it was about 3 o’clock in the morning and I was in the car on my own and I’d left my two friends down in New Orleans, because in those days before we knew about sexism we used to follow the fortunes of a woman who was called “Chris Colt, the girl with the 45s” – and we used to follow her around from strip joint to strip joint. And I was driving back, as I say 3 o’clock in the morning, moonlight night, driving through the piney woods of East Texas, and dead straight road, just rising and falling through the woods. And every once in a while you’d come to a wide place in the road, which would be a small town – or village really, but they don’t call them villages – and as I came over the top of one hill and like the moon right at the other end of the road so you had this silver ribbon of concrete, and Elmore James’s “Stranger Blues” came on. And it starts off, “I’m a stranger here / I just drove in your town.” And as I came down I was whizzing though this little town, and it was just the perfect record in the perfect context and I’ve never forgotten the setting. And I love the idea of perhaps one in every programme, once in every month, being able to imprint something that firmly on somebody else’s memory, you know.
JP: So when I am listening – I’m not saying every record is going to have that effect on any one person, but that’s what I am looking for anyway, in practical terms.
DG: Drive around Texas… Do you think there is a typical Peel listener then?
JP: Well, I know that there isn’t. It always used to be, or people have said in the past, that it’s sort of students – but that simply isn’t the case. Students seem to listen mainly to Simply Red and things like that – for their pains, as if being a student wasn’t difficult enough. And then a former management person within Radio 1, I’d better not be more specific than that, but long since retired, once memorably said in a meeting that I wasn’t at and shouldn’t have heard about but did, that my programmes, when somebody suggested extending them, said, “I think we’ve done enough for the unemployed now!” Which to me was an absolutely shocking thing to say.
JP: But no, from my own experience, you know, the audience for the programme is drawn from all sorts and conditions of people, and I hope that it always is. And I’d sooner work for a relatively small number of people who actually listen to it than to have a sort of mass audience who just have it on in the background. I’d find that very difficult.
DG: Speaking of the management of Radio 1, I suppose, the BBC – do you think you have sort of sustained your career because in some ways you are actually like a true Reithian sort of presenter, you know?
JP: Well, I’d like to think so. Obviously, if Lord Reith wasn’t already dead, he’d die if he heard one of my programmes. But I think – I wouldn’t be able to articulate it very well, but I think there is a kind of Reithian principle behind it. But it is one of those things people always say, “Well, of course you would say that anyway because you work for the BBC, so you’ve got to keep in good with them.” But I’ve had my rows with them over the years, god knows. But the great strength about the BBC, and I really don’t think there are many other places anywhere on Earth where this would be true – but in all of the time I’ve been doing these programmes, and as you said, it’s been since the start of Radio 1 in 1967, no one on the management side has ever, ever once, tried to interfere with the content of the programme. And that’s a great strength of it. Once they accept you know what you’re doing, that there are people who like it, they do just leave you alone to get on with it.
DG: And how would you see, the future, I suppose? Following on from that, with the current problems the BBC faces?
JP: Well, I think people genuinely don’t know what is going to happen, you know. Obviously there is a great deal of uncertainty and unease and all you can do is just, what I always think I’ve done, is play the kind of Geoffrey Boycott innings. You know, just pushing the ball back down the wicket and getting on with it, watching the runs clicking up on the scoreboard. And really I am quite, you know, quite happy to do that. I don’t want to get involved in commercial radio. And to be perfectly fair, commercial radio hasn’t shown any signs of wanting to get involved with me either, because they couldn’t allow themselves the luxury of having someone who goes on the radio and plays in any one programme 90 percent of stuff that has never been played before, you know.
JP: Because they need to have some more familiarity in the programming than that. So I have no ambitions at all. As I say, I used to want to play for Liverpool, but I think I’m probably past that now, although the way the team was playing earlier in the season I might have got an outing, I might have got a game… But all I want to do is just go on doing what I’m doing now. I’m quite happy to do that really until I drop dead, you know. The idea of retirement doesn’t appeal to me very much.
DG: OK. Thank you very much, John, and goodbye.
JP: Thank you very much, David.