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This is a transcript of the first show in the six-part documentary series Peeling Back The Years, in which Peel is interviewed by his long-time producer John Walters about the development of his musical tastes down the years. The first programme, discussing Peel's early experiences as a music fan, takes the story up to his National Service stint and the peak years of rock and roll.

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Transcript

John Walters: The record that we are listening to now is Blue Tango by Ray Martin & His Concert Orchestra. It was released in Britain in April of 1952. And it was also in 1952 that Blue Tango became the first record that 13-year-old public schoolboy John Ravenscroft – now John Peel, of course – actually bought. Well, it’s hardly the sound of teenage rebellion. I mean, why hand over pocket money for that?

John Peel: Well, prior to that, of course, my grandfather in particular had been buying me records by people like Danny Kaye and Phil Harris – The Thing, to you remember that? And…

JW: Was it The Thing that went, (sings) “I discovered a bump-bump-bump…”?

JP: (Sings) Right before my eyes!

JW: Carry on.

JP: That’s the very one. That is exactly the one. And also, I mean, when people ask me what it was that I wanted for Christmas or birthdays, I just used to say, “Records.” And not specific records at all, just any record that they were prepared to buy for me I was perfectly happy to receive. And that went on for a few years. I mean, my brother Frank – Francis as he was in those days – one Christmas bought me an EP, the first EP that I ever owned, which had on one side two tracks by Bing Crosby, including Just A Gigolo, which is still one of my favourite songs, a very moving song. And on the other side, two tracks by Russ Columbo, who threatened to equal Bing Crosby but shot himself.

JW: But in this series of six programmes, we are going to talk through your so far undiminished enthusiasm from Blue Tango to Bogshed if you like and what we are playing now. But first let me take you back to that first chart, November 1952. Because your favourite, Blue Tango, was in there, the first record you bought. Do you know what was number one?

JP: I have no idea at all.

JW: Here In My Heart, by Al Martino.

JP: Yes. (Sings) “I’m alone and so lonely!”

JW: Number two, Jo Stafford’s You Belong To Me. (Sings) “See the pyramids….”

JP: Wrong key for me, yes. I’ve only got one key.

JW: And it goes down and it’s not what people think. I mean, it’s not sort of the roots of rock and roll. Number three, Nat King Cole. The Isle Of Innisfree…

JP: I can’t remember that at all.

JW: No, no. Bing Crosby.

JP: But I remember, see I remember writing that down. Because I used to from prior to buying records I used to keep a chart on my bedroom wall. Bearing in mind that I was a middle-class boy, this was seen as a very bad thing to be doing, but I used to keep a chart on my bedroom wall where the sheet music charts – which were the charts of the time – I used to draw red lines. I don’t think I had bits of string, I think it was red lines, where I would mark where every song had gone up and down in this chart.

JW: Because people forget that it was still the period of top tunes, which went right back to before the war, the idea of - I worked in a record shop after work and people would come in and say, “I want – a title.” You know, Singing The Blues, and you would say, “Who do you want it by.” That couldn’t happen today.

JP: Yes, because often you would be offered, I mean, there were available, for a really popular song, 20 or 25 different versions of it. And the record shop in Shrewsbury that I used to patronize in those days, they used to have a little chart where they would list all the songs but then underneath all of the alternative versions that were available to you. So I bought some really bizarre records. In Liverpool I used to either go to Frank Hessey’s - which was overlooking the entrance to the Liverpool Tunnel which was like the hipper record shop where you could buy Latin American music and jazz, which you couldn’t buy in most of them – or Crane’s, which was also a kind of piano shop, a musical instrument shop. And there, if you couldn’t get the version that you wanted, they would usually offer you one by Caterina Valente or some continental star, and you were perfectly happy to accept that.

JW: Yeah, it was the way people used to come in and say, “Do you have Glen Miller’s In The Mood?” No. “OK, I’ll take Joe Loss.”

JP: Yeah, exactly.

JW: Let’s have a look further down that chart. Mario Lanza, Because You’re Mine.

(Sing together) Because you’re mine!

JW: Exactly. But number 12 might have rung a bit more of a note for you. Johnnie Ray, Walking My Baby Back Home.

JP: Oh yes. Well, Johnnie Ray was not the first gig, nor indeed the second gig that I went to, but the third live gig that I went to was Johnnie Ray. But he was seen of course as perfectly outrageous, and I was surprised that my parents let me go and see him. They hadn’t read the popular press at the time, because he was seen as the “Nabob of Sob”, and he had a whole range of preposterous nicknames because he carried on in such an emotional way on stage. Very un-British.

JP: Very demonstrative and given to hysteria, and of course attracted a vast number of screaming bobbysoxers.

JW: But you have avoided my first question, which was why did you buy Ray Martin’s Blue Tango?

JP: Well, because I liked the tune, I suppose. So when I went to buy Blue Tango that was the one Crane’s offered me. Because I also bought, if it wasn’t at the same time, it was a week or so later, Meet Mr Callaghan – and I can’t remember who that was by at all. But that was another kind of instrumental.

JW: I can’t remember, but it went…

(together sing): Di-di-di-di-di-diddle-di-di-di-di-diddle…

JW: Amazing, isn’t it how silly, these records? What other records then? Because we are talking about the early 50s, before rock, jazz and skiffle - whatever happened during the 50s - happened. But you saw something in Blue Tango – what else did you see something in?

JP: Well, I bought a lot of Doris… See, it’s difficult to get the timescale right, because when you check the records, you find actually these records were from years and years later. But I remember buying Doris Day records, The Purple Cow – do you remember The Purple Cow?

JW: “I never thought I’d see a purple cow…”

JP: That’s the one. Even Doris Day buffs don’t remember that one – and there are such things as Doris Day buffs. And Little Red Monkey. Little Red Monkey?

JW: Yeah. “Little red monkey…

(sing together) …duh-duh-duh, du-duddle-du.

(sing together) …duh-duh-duh, du-duddle-du.

JW: Played on the clavioline, which was the novelty instrument of the day.

JP: Let’s see, what else did I buy? Uh…

JW: But was there anything that was a hint of what was to follow for you? Was there anything that was like a hint of black music? A hint of jazz? A hint of the blues?

JP: No. Because… Jazz I knew about because at the station I used to buy Jazz Journal and Jazz Monthly. And there was no possibility of hearing any of the records, because there weren’t any of the radio programmes that I was aware of that played them. But they were the only publications that I saw regularly that were about music, so I used to buy them and I knew all of the names but never heard – I mean, it sounds quite mad. I still see names now cropping up now on reissues and so on and thinking, “I remember seeing that when it first came out.” But I never heard most of those records to this day, because there just wasn’t any information. And my children occasionally say to me now, you know, “What kind of bands did you go and see?” I say, “Well, there weren’t any bands.” And they say, “Well, what gigs did you go to?” And I say, “There weren’t any gigs.” There just simply were no gigs.

JW: And there was nothing on radio, more to the point.

JP: Yeah, nothing on radio at all. I used to listen to Housewives Choice in the expectation that you might hear the occasional good record and to the Two-Way Family Favourites or whatever it was, you know, Forces Favourites, again in the hope that you would hear some exciting records on there. But the most that you could hope for really was the odd Frankie Laine track. Because Frankie Laine was my big hero, my first big hero. I mean, I saw him inbetween… You see, the very first gig I went to, my mother took me to see Obernkirchen Children's Choir. The Happy Wanderer.

JW: Of course.

JP: “Der fröhliche Wanderer", as they say in Germany, with a great show of reluctance. And I went to see him at the Stadium – them rather, at the Stadium in Liverpool. Then the first proper gig I went to was Frankie Laine at the Liverpool Empire. And of course in those days, it was proper variety bills, so you got like conjurers and jugglers and so on and comedians coming on beforehand and then Frankie Laine at the top of the bill, accompanied by Vic Lewis & His Orchestra.

JW: What was your favourite Frankie Laine record looking back now?

JP: Kid’s Last Fight was always my favourite.

JW: The Kid’s Last Fight by Frankie Laine there. A huge star of course, like Guy Mitchell and Johnnie Ray, pre-rock star. But let’s go back a little bit further than that. I mean, did you come from a musical family? I mean, did you have a gramophone at home?

JP: Well, we had this old gramophone of my father’s, which was passed on to me when I reached, you know like seven or eight years old.

JW: But was it one of those that you had to wind up and had to change the needle?

JP: Yes.

JW: A genuine steel needle. A knitting needle!

JP: Yeah, that’s right. And the tone control was that you had a little wheel on the side of it that you turned and sort of vents opened in the front. And if you closed the vents it went “vum-vum-vum”, but if you opened it up it went all toppy. And those were the tone controls. A perfectly satisfactory system – I see nothing wrong with it to this day. I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to technology. It seemed to me to be perfectly adequate.

JW: But what was the first music, if you can remember, that you ever heard? Obviously you can’t always say what you heard, but what, when you suddenly thought, “Ah, that’s music, I’ve heard that. It’s impressed me.” What was it?

JP: Well, the first music that I heard was military music. One of my earliest memories is of traveling somewhere – I don’t know where, my mother even can’t remember, because I asked her about this a few weeks ago – traveling somewhere in 1945 for a military jamboree to celebrate the end of the war. But the first tune to which I could put a name must have been in the same year or perhaps the year afterwards. when I went with my family to the circus in Birkenhead and heard the orchestra, you know playing with the circus, playing The Post Horn Gallop. And I don’t know who wrote the Post Horn Gallop or anything about it, but I remember being very, very moved by it and wanting to get a record of it. I’ve never actually to this day had a record of the Post Horn Gallop.

JW: The Post Horn Gallop was clearly tied in with the fact that it was an exciting day out and therefore you remembered the music, but can you remember the first time you heard a piece of music that you suddenly though, “Hang on, this isn’t background music, this isn’t wallpaper, this moves me in some way. I’m thinking this music speaks to me, there’s something happening here.”

JP: Yes, well, I still – and people criticize me for it – I still tend to associate music with events. And the things that affect me most are records or performances that I have heard at specific events of one sort or another. But the first record that I remember being really moved by was when I first went to Shrewsbury. Now I’ve got the timescales all mixed up here really, because I must have been not buying records, but… My first term at Shrewsbury I remember hearing somebody play the recording of Handel’s Zadok The Priest from the coronation of George VI. Now this is one of those things that people always find faintly ridiculous, because people are always astonished to hear that I was a great admirer of George VI. I remember the famous speech – “a man stood at the Gate of the Year” – which again still can move me enormously. And I just liked George VI, and when his death was announced at my prep school I was the only one who cried. I mean, the others all rushed off to order souvenirs and things, and I am sure they are all doing awfully well in the city at this very moment, but I wept like a baby and was last in the rush through. The thing that people wanted to do was to bags the school newspapers and things so they would have a souvenir of the death of the king.

JW: But that rather implies that the first music that actually came across to you, was something other than just wallpaper, was music, was something that was very emotional.

JP: Yes.

JW: And perhaps slightly anthemic – as people now use about Bruce Springsteen.

JP: Yes.

JW: You know what I mean? But it means a sort of noble kind of – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, anything, but I mean anthemic music. And yet you are not to me – obviously we have worked together for some time – I am not by any means sure that you are moved by that sort of thing today, obvious anthemic, big…

JP: No, but I can still be moved. I mean, Zadok The Priest was used as the theme tune for, what was it, was it one of the series on television, was it Lord Clark, a Civilization? It was one of those television programmes. Or was it something like the Royal Collection of… Anyway, some arts programme on television they used Zadok The Priest and I could still barely bear to listen to it.

JP: I have a lump in my throat when they get to that swelling bit just before they come in with the shrieking. And it affected me, it still affects me, Zadok The Priest.

JW: Where there other boys at school…

JP: None at all.

JW: …who said, “Gosh, I’ve got the latest this and you’ve got the latest that.” That happens today and it happened…

JP: No, never have been. You see, listening to music and listening to records for me has always been an essentially solitary experience, which sounds rather sinister. But I mean there genuinely wasn’t anybody at my prep school, which was called Woodlands, in Deganwy, north Wales, and certainly nobody in Shrewsbury when I went on there who showed any interest at all in popular music. And I mean, I felt the isolation to the point of joining the jazz club at Shrewsbury, which inevitably was called the High Society. And I went into Wilding’s in Shrewsbury, which was like the hip record shop – in fact the only … no, it wasn’t the only record shop, there were a couple of others – but I went in there and said, you know, “Do you have any jazz records?” And they pointed me at the jazz record section, and I bought a couple of things. I bought Sleep and Flamingo by Earl Bostic, which was a marvellous investment even at the time. Still sounds absolutely superb.

JP: Well, the Earl Bostic was absolutely unacceptable. And I’d gone along, as I say, in the hope of finding a kindred spirit, and all I got was a bunch of rather arrogant sixth-formers who just treated me like as a jerk, you know.

JW: So what you are implying, though, is that at that time you were still – can I say that you were still indiscriminately saying, “I like the noise that makes, I like that tune”?

JP: Uh, I just used to go into the record shops and they’d have a rack of the sort of 78s displayed along the wall and I’d just go along and look for labels that I’d not seen before and names that excited me. And to a certain extent I still do that, you know. I mean, if I am buying records or if I have gone into a record shop with a lot of American imports in there, I’ll tend to head for LPs by bands with silly names or amusing titles and so forth.

JW: That rather implies that rather than being excited by a style or an attitude or a rhythm or whatever it was, you were really more like a trainspotter at that time.

JP: Very much of a trainspotter, yes. But I mean, because I had no… There was nobody to guide me. There was nobody with whom I could discuss any of this, you know, and there was nobody that I knew who was even remotely interested in any of the things that I was interested in. So I was just like really trying things out.

JW: So you were sort of milling around buying records because they were pink and you didn’t have a pink one.

JP: Yeah.

JW: But then, at some stage, that kind of St Paul on the Damascus road bit must have come when suddenly it opened up and you thought, “Yikes, I’m buying this because of the noise it makes.” There must have been a record where you suddenly heard that and you thought, “I’m going to pursue that. I’ve got to go out and buy that because of what it sounds like, not because of what it looks like or what the number is.”

JP: Well, I suppose, and again, you get the timescales mixed up here. That was probably Bill Haley, I think. I mean, I was deliberately buying Bill Haley records. Bill Haley was the first person, you know, where I would go into the record shop and say, “Is there a new Bill Haley record?” – and buy it, no matter what.

JW: Your next step socially was National Service, because you didn’t go on to college, you joined everybody in those days. Our younger listeners probably don’t realize what that means. I mean, you had to leave school and join the army for two years or join the air force for two years or whatever it was. You chose to join the army and became, what was it, gunner…

JP: It was 23558538, Gunner Ravenscroft, J.

JW: What I’m saying is that when you went into National Service and the army, suddenly, probably for the first time in your life - because we’re not doing your life story, we’re doing your musical history here - but you were very much sort of middle class in the sense of having a nanny and public school, prep school, all that sort of thing. Suddenly you were mixing with what we’ll call, well, ordinary people.

JP: Yes.

JW: I mean, people who came from Glasgow.

JP: Well, I know.

JW: So they presumably didn’t look down on popular music and it was part of their lives, dance music and everything. You must have suddenly stepped into a different musical area.

JP: Yes, they were more interested in rock and roll. And after I’d finished basic training and was sent to a place called Trials Establishment Guided Weapons, Royal Artillery, to Ty Croes Camp, Anglesey, and fell in there with a bunch of people who quite liked rock and roll. There was a chap there called XX[1], who now teaches – he’d probably now be rather embarrassed if he’s listening to be reminded of this – but anyway, he now teaches guitar I think in Harrow. But he and I formed the basis of what was supposed to be a skiffle group. We never got much beyond practicing in our billet. I think on one occasion we tried to perform during a camp dance at the camp cinema, and I got up on stage rather drunk and started to sing Gene Vincent’s Say Mama, but was dragged off after a line or two of that by real music lovers.

JW: But you are sort of blurring the issue a little bit here, because that is the first time you have mentioned skiffle. And obviously, having known you for some years, I know Lonnie Donegan was an early inspiration to your record buying. But surely that must be a little bit Lonnie Donegan was starting to hit the charts…

JP: Pre-National Service, yeah.

JP: Rock Island Line was the first time that I heard Lonnie Donegan. Again and I’d bought the record because it was Decca blue on blue. Wasn’t it a dark blue label with light blue print? So I bought the record because I didn’t have that label. I took it home and I thought, “This is quite wonderful.” And the other side, John Henry, I was rather partial to as well.

JW: But what was it? Because I can remember back to those days there were some people who said Rock Island Line and Lonnie Donegan and the whole skiffle movement was an awareness of the blues and black music being made to British people, kind of thing. Some people said, “No, no, it’s rhythmic dance music.” Or, “It’s do it yourself music.” I mean, what aspect of it did you seize on, if you can think back?

JP: What I liked was to me in that context and having heard what I’d heard prior to hearing Rock Island Line was the fact that it was so extreme. You know, you’ve got that sort of preposterous high nasal voice singing a song, obviously something of which he had no direct experience at all. I mean, the idea that Lonnie Donegan travelled on the Rock Island line and sort of bellowed down "no sheep, no cows," whatever it was... I could sing it to you but won’t.

JW: Well, it was all that detail, black music in theory.

JP: Yes. Of course, that was the first time when you’d real very sneering reviews in the Melody Maker and the NME and so forth, and they would all say, “Of course this is quite clearly complete rubbish, but listening to this may make you aware of the real thing, if you back and listen to Leadbelly," and so on. And I would go back and listen to Leadbelly and think by and large I rather preferred Lonnie Donegan. And in the same way that years later, listening to Eric Clapton, people would say, “Well, of course Eric Clapton is very well, quite skilled for a boy, and he’s white and so forth, but at the same time what you really want to hear is BB King.” So I went and listened to BB King and I thought, again, on the whole I rather prefer Eric Clapton. So, anyway, with the Donegan stuff, again it was one of those things where I went forward initially and then started to go back, in that I got the next record, which was Digging My Potatoes. And what was on… No, Bury My Body on the b-side. And after that there was an EP on Pye Nixa with Midnight Special, which I still sing to the children in the car and they actually request it, believe it or not – they rather like my reading of it – and New Burying Ground, which was and still is a favorite, again because it is very extreme. I mean, it becomes quite eastern at times. Sort of a very strange dislocated wailing.

JP: My appreciation of Lonnie Donegan’s work was greatly enhanced by my father. For whatever record I was listening to, he used to come and fling the door open on his return from work and say, “Ah, Lolly Dollygen” – like this. And of course the fact that he called him Lolly Dollygen enraged me, as he must have known it would, and confirmed me in my admiration for the great skiffler.

JW: But was your attachment to skiffle in the mid-50s – as many people, you know, did. I mean, obviously, McCartney first saw Lennon playing skiffle. And Clapton, Townshend, everyone sort of started at art school, or whatever they did, doing a bit of skiffle and trad and so on. But to you, was it Donegan specifically as a sort of style, and that kind of high-pitched…

JP: Yeah.

JW: …sort of cowboy blues singer kind of approach? Did you listen to other skiffle people and think, “No, it’s skiffle that attracts me”?

JP: No, I didn’t.

JW: Donegan?

JP: It was principally Donegan. I mean, I listened to the others. I quite liked some of the Vipers stuff and I bought the EP of the first national skiffle contest winners – again, a collectors item, I don’t doubt, if you can find the collector…

JW: Unlistenable.

JP: Unlistenable, but if you can find that collector, he’d pay you a great deal of money for it. But it was principally Donegan, because I really liked that to me what appeared to be, you know, a man slightly out of control. And I’ve always really liked – when people say to me, “What common thread is there in all of the music that you’ve enjoyed down the years?” It has by and large been the extreme voices that I’ve liked, you know, all the way from Gene Vincent and Lonnie Donegan up to Feargal Sharkey and Mark Smith and so on, with people like Marc Bolan and Captain Beefheart, in between. So it has always been those kind of highly identifiable, rather unhinged kind of voices that I have found attractive. But with the Donegan things, I then started, as I said, to move backwards, to investigate some of the stuff that he’d done earlier on with Chris Barber’s band and Ken Colyer’s band. And I actually bought, the first 12” LP I ever bought was Traditional Jazz At The Royal Festival Hall, in 195…

JW: Three?

JP: 1953? Was that the year?

JW: Don’t know, don’t know. Decca?

JP: Yeah. With the red sleeve. With Ken Colyer doing Postman’s Lament.

JW: That’s right.

JP: Stuff like that. But I bought that because it had got Diggin’ My Potatoes and Bury My Body on it. But it had also got Lonnie Donegan linking the two, because it was a live concert recording. So I bought it because of that, so I could hear the great man speak. But then I was entranced to find that on… What is it? Not Ice Cream, what is the one that follows Ice Cream on there? Didn’t He Ramble – isn’t that the one that starts off slow and then gets fast?

JW: Yes, that’s the burial thing.

JP: That’s right. But then I think Ken Colyer like comes in a bit early, or something or is it Pat Halcox, comes in early. Anyway, one of them. There’s a kind of trumpet note early and you can hear Donegan go, “Way!” – like this. And I used to play this record to people – because no one at school was even remotely interested – but I would play this record to them, and I think you should play it now if possible, just so I could say, “That’s Lonnie Donegan!”

JW: Little bit of Didn’t He Ramble there from the Chris Barber band when trad was the king at the Festival Hall there.

JP: And they used to apparently fight with the modern jazz fans. It said on the sleeve notes that there were sort of scuffles broke out when they were changing audiences or something like this. And there was a lot of stuff about the zoot-suited modernists.

JW: Yeah, well, people can’t imagine that now, except people who made Absolute Beginners, that there was a trad versus modern – there was the different styles of what was happening in jazz. Because there wasn’t rock and roll as we know it.

JP: No.

JW: It just wasn’t there. People think it was, but it really wasn’t. But you picked up, as we were saying, on Lonnie Donegan, largely because he seemed to not conform to the pattern and the norm.

JP: Yes.

JW: It was that slightly unhinged quality that you quite liked, or that’s the way you saw it.

JP: And the first time I came to London, again when I was about 17 or something like that, my mother had moved to London after my parents had divorced and was living next to the Tass news agency in Rosary Gardens, where she used to imagine she could hear people being tortured in the adjourning room.

JW: But it was you playing Donegan.

JP: And I used to come down. And the first live gig I ever went to – the first live gig in London that I went to was at the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road, where they had a fundraising do for Big Bill Broonzy, who I think had actually rather inconsiderately just died or was certainly only a day or two away from dying – and Chris Barber played and Ken Colyer played, but more importantly Lonnie Donegan played.[2] And that was the main reason. And I think it didn’t start until midnight. And as I say, it was the first time I had been in London, and thought this was like depraved – I was quite frightened being there, because it seemed to be such an extraordinary world there that I’d entered. And what impressed me most about that particular concert was that when he played his hits they were entirely different to the record, you know, which is something that I’d never experienced before. Because when I had been to see Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray and the Obernkirchen Children's Choir, they had just reproduced the records, you know, quite accurately. And Lonnie Donegan, he actually did numbers the band didn’t know. He’s say, “Hold on a minute, we’ve never done this one before, but let’s have a go” at something or other, and the band would look a bit puzzled and off they’d go and it would all sort itself out and it would be terrific, you know.

JW: So although you liked the noise it made, it was also that idea of the noise that had possibilities of a step into the unknown.

JP: Yes, yeah.

JW: But I mean you’re milling around getting interested in blues, jazz, obviously you’ve got your background in pop music, and it was all pulling together for something. When did you first consciously move into what we now know as rock music, rock and roll, I suppose?

JP: Well, as I said, I’d been buying the Bill Haley records…

JW: But they were also sort of pop records.

JP: Yeah, they were.

JW: They were in the charts.

JP: That’s right.

JW: And you might have bought a Winnie Atwell and a Bill Haley.

JP: Yeah, yes.

JW: But at what stage did you suddenly think, “Hang on, I’m into this style of music?” Not just a name or a color or number.

JP: Well, there were two sort of crucial things, which again in mind happened in the same week, although I think logically they can’t have done. I remember reading in the papers about Elvis Presley. And the language at the time, I can’t really recapture, but it was presented as, you know, a man of such extraordinary wildness and lack of control and so forth – that obviously excited me enormously. I remember listening to Family Favourites when they first played Heartbreak Hotel, and I remember thinking to myself at the time, “He sounds like a mixture of Johnnie Ray…” Well, he sounded like a mixture of Johnnie Ray and Billy Daniels to me, if you remember Billy Daniels.

JW: Yeah, sure.

JP: That Old Black Magic. And this was in fact what the HMV advertisement in the music press a week or so later said. It said it was like a fusion of Johnnie Ray and Billy Daniels. But of course he was much, much more than that. You became aware that this was something utterly different to anything you’d ever heard before.

JP: I heard Little Richard about the same time. I used to listen to the American Forces Network in Europe from Stuttgart, and they would have I think just before the Grand Ole Opry they would have the American top 10, and that is where I first heard Little Richard. And hearing Little Richard for the first time, it really was, as I’ve said on countless previous occasions, it’s true – it was Saul on the road to Damascus. I mean, it was an absolute revelation, because I’d never heard anything so wild and untamed and just sort of potentially threatening. And I though, “This is what I want,” you know. “I’ve found what it is that I’m after.”

JW: Little Richard was clearly a very wonderful character, but most people of course had homed in on Elvis, the people who’d been buying the same records you’d been buying before, in the year or two before. When rock and roll happened, did you respond to the people, the characters, or the music? Some people said, you know, “Oh, Elvis, wow,” and screamed and went out and bought everything by Elvis, but weren’t particularly interested in the style of music, you know. They were just interested in being a fan of a character. But you’ve mentioned Little Richard – but did you say, wow, come on, Eddie Cochran and Joe Turner and all the other things, the rhythm and blues things, that were coming out about the same time?

JP: Well, no. I just went after everything that sounded like that. I mean, I wasn’t too concerned about image, because in a sense we weren’t aware that such a thing existed, you know.

JW: Yeah, but wait a minute. We did know of Elvis mania, of girls screaming and him not being allowed to be on television from the waist down. How do you feel about Elvis? Not later Elvis, but when it all happened. Because some people say, “Well, Elvis was rock and that is the end of that.”

JP: It’s difficult to know. I can’t remember how I reacted really. I mean, I…

JW: Did you buy any?

JP: yes, I bought the records, yes. But when he did a slow one I wasn’t very pleased with that. I didn’t like the slower ones. I still tend not to like the slower ones very much. When I am going through listening to tracks from LPs, they tend to be the uptempo ones that I want to hear again.

JW: But that seems to imply that in rock and roll you were looking for a style. You didn’t want “wow, dreamy guy doing a ballad,” you wanted…

JP: No, not at all.

JW: …something that went chunk-a-chunk-a-chunck-a-chunk, and wow, toe-tapping.

JP: Definitely so. I mean, people like Pat Boone and Paul Anka and the more agreeable kind of by and large North American artists didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Never bought any of the records at all. I mean, what I wanted to hear were the people who would now be described in the tabloids as the wild men of rock and roll. This meant I liked - Gene Vincent was always my, from the moment I heard Be-Bop-A-Lula, was my favourite.

JW: But I wonder if to any degree - because I remember what it was like being a jazz buff then, as you had been into the trad jazz thing, skiffle and folk – to my particular group of people, rock was sort of infra dig. You know, it was a commercialization of a beautiful, wonderful thing that was important. When you got into rock, were you aware of any sort of betrayal? Did you sort of say, “Gosh, I’m committing heresy here and turning my back on certain standards?” Or was it just all good music to you?

JP: I certainly wasn’t aware of betraying anything, because as far as I was aware, there was really nothing to betray. I mean, there was nothing to differentiate buying the trad jazz records and the Elvis Presley records. There was no kind of conflict of interest at all that I was aware of, because as always I had nobody that I could make any kind of, you know – I had nobody to talk to about these things. Nobody would say, “But hold on, you can’t listen to that because it’s not sincere.” Which is the word, as you point out, people always used to say. They’d say, “Is it sincere?” And I mean I would argue that Elvis Presley is as sincere as anything that I ever heard in my life, you know, the early records in particular. And I was operating - really as I still am in a way – in a complete vacuum. Because when I go and see bands like the Fall, I don’t encounter many other kind of 48-year-old fathers of four. And I don’t feel – I always say I feel out of place, oddly enough I don’t really, because I still think of myself as being whatever age the other people there are. But I’ve just become used – not become used, because I mean there was never an alternative. I’ve always just liked what I liked entirely independently of everything that was going on around me and of the tastes and appetites of the people who were my friends at the time. Because there has never really been anybody with whom I shared those tastes, even here at Radio One. I mean, you yourself are a sort of concepts man, like the idea of things, but you don’t go back home and listen to the Fall very often I’m willing to bet, do you?

JW: No, I don’t want to hear anybody at all. I just look at the audience.

JP: That’s right. But you know, so there’s never been anybody I could make these kind of comparative judgments with – it’s always been a fairly solitary thing. But at the same time, that’s never bothered me, you know. At the time I never felt, “Goodness me, aren’t I a pathetic creature listening to all this music on my own and there’s nobody that I can talk to about it.” It was just something that in a sense had to be done on my own. And perhaps the fact that I was doing it on my own reinforced my, confirmed me in it some strange way, because I felt that this was something I knew, something that I had, that I couldn’t share with anybody else. And so that made me feel – it almost sounds a bit spiritual this really – something that I had to do.

JW: Well, clearly in a relatively short time, as I suppose many people did at that time, you moved from being a kind of aimless, you know, fab top tunes merchant really, to finding a definite direction. Something, you know, that was something you were going to buy – rock music – and a certain approach to rock music. I don’t want to sound like Desert Island Discs, but before we finish the programme, can you pick one record that if it had to go into John Peel’s time capsule to say this is my legacy to the university, this is the disc that I would say, “That’s rock and roll,” what would it be?

JP: I think the quintessential rock and roll record for me has always been – because it brings together my two favorite elements, which are those kind of untamed voices, people sounding like madmen really, or mad women, mainly madmen, and guitar playing. I’ve never understood why it is that nobody has actually duplicated the guitar sound that was on those early Gene Vincent records – that very high, clear, ringing guitar sound. So the very best record I think of the era and the genre was Gene Vincent & The Bluecaps, Race With The Devil.

JW: Gene Vincent’s Race With The Devil – John Peel’s definitive rock and roll record. This week we have been talking about John Peel’s early experiences as a fan, and next week I think we’ll look at John Peel’s early experiences as a broadcaster.

References

  1. Peel states in Margrave Of The Marshes (p. 132) that the individual concerned had objected to being mentioned by JP on air and threatened legal action if this happened again.
  2. According to an article by Alexis Korner in Jazz Journal, March 1958, the event took place on 1958-03-14. According to [1], Big Bill Broonzy died five months later, on 1958-08-14.

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