This is a transcript of the second 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 second programme, discussing Peel's early experiences as a disc jockey, takes the story up to the first years of Radio One and Top Gear.
- Ray Martin & His Concert Orchestra: Blue Tango
John Walters: That’s Ray Martin’s Blue Tango, and back in 1952 it became the first record bought by the 13-year-old John Peel. Last week we heard how his taste developed from collecting in a decidedly random way, sort of looking for new styles, new artists, even new labels, through Lonnie Donegan and Bill Haley to what he described as a sort of taste for the wild men of rock. Well, this week, let’s take a step beyond being a consumer and move you into the music business. Because you’d gone through public school and two years in the army and by 1960 you are working in Texas, outside the music business of course, but hanging around radio stations. You did say last week that listening to music had always been very much a solitary occupation, partly because nobody liked at public school what you were listening to - but you suddenly seemed to find, what? Was it the need to be famous and be on the radio? Or was it a need to share what you were listening to that made you want to move into radio?
John Peel: No, certainly it was the latter. Because over a period of time, listening to all of this stuff, you built up this yearning to have somebody who you could play it to. And I suppose it goes back long before I was in Texas. It goes back to when I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg and the American Forces Network and think this is the kind of job for me, then I could play my records on the radio to a substantial audience.
JW: I gather you first got onto radio, as I say, as a guest specialist, I suppose, in 1961. Do you know what the first record was that you ever played, that you ever actually introduced, to a disc jockey there?
JP: Well, I genuinely can’t remember, but it would almost certainly have been something from the Bluebird catalogue, because the reason I had got onto the radio in the first place, or so I imagined anyway, was because I went down to WRR, which was in the Showgrounds, the station was in the Cotton Showgrounds in Dallas, where they had the annual Texas State Fair. And I went down there and I’d got these records that I’d bought in Holland, or bought from Holland, although they were French – the sleeve notes were in French – and they were records drawn from the Bluebird record catalogue. Now Bluebird Records was a label which I think was affiliated with RCA. It was their kind of race record label, and the music on Bluebird was linked, the kind of solo acoustic guitar player or piano player, with the electric Chicago bands of a few years afterwards. So it was mainly acoustic stuff, but mainly little groups. So I took them down there, and the people who introduced Kats Karavan was a fella called Hoss Carroll, and he’d never heard any of this stuff and was obviously quite interested in putting it on the radio. I think actually in retrospect what he was more interested in was putting me on the radio, because in those days I used to talk like a minor member of the royal family – I had a perfectly extraordinary accent. And this was after two years of national service and about a year of Dallas, so what it must have been like before I went to national service I simply cannot imagine. It was very high-pitched and very nasal and very embarrassing to hear now. But as I say, I thought they put me on the radio because of my extraordinary knowledge of the blues. And I assume they put me on there because they thought, “People are not going to believe it when they hear this pillock.”
JW: But presumably they were more used to the sound of the blues and the sort of race records of the time. Let’s just hear one of the sort of thing – if you can’t remember the exact one, say something by Washboard Sam on Bluebird. And this is the kind of thing that you were first responsible for people listening to on radio.
- Washboard Sam: I'm Feeling Low Down (Bluebird)
JW: Now it does seem to me that you were in rather a strange situation. You were a British guy over at sort of the roots of where it was all happening…
JP: Yeah, but the thing was they didn’t know anything about it. This was the extraordinary stuff.
JW: Yeah, but what I’m saying is, you went over there and you think “the blues.” Because you knew what it was worth, because you’d gone through the skiffle movement and everything here and you thought, “I’m here.” And suddenly in the early ‘60s, you were like a guy who turned up with a bottle in your hand to a dark house and find they’ve moved the party to your place.
JP: Yeah, that’s right!
JW: Because suddenly people were starting to say, “Hey, you’re from Liverpool.” I mean, that’s where everyone suddenly thought it was happening.
JP: I armed myself with the internal phone numbers and news numbers and so forth of all of the radio stations in Dallas, and when I heard Russ Knight, the Weird Beard, who was like the top DJ in the market – and he was wonderful, a really excellent DJ – and he was talking about Liverpool and he was talking the most appalling codswallop. And I phoned up the news number and said, you know, “Can I speak to the Weird Beard?” And they said, “What do you want to talk to him about?” And I said, “Well, I’d like to speak on the subject of Liverpool.” So he came on the phone and obviously regarded me as just another crank caller. But I said, “Actually, you know, I come from Liverpool and know a bit about it and what you’re saying is not actually true.” So he put me on the radio. And by and large I became a sort of surrogate Beatle. And it was like every young man’s adolescent fantasies translated into fact. I shall say no more than that.
JW: I was going to say, let’s talk about this round the pub after programme…
JW: But we are supposedly not doing John Peel’s personal history here so much as your musical development, and what I am wondering is, OK, we’re at that period, you’ve got a good grounding in the blues and you’ve sort of come through the skiffle and the early rock and roll and all that sort of thing. When did you hear the Beatles and think, “hey, this is actually good. This is also the wild men of rock. This is important music rather than just fun music”?
JP: I can’t remember ever having felt that actually. I mean, I liked the records but I was never in a frenzy over them, but was glad of the effect they were having on my personal life. And there was for example a celebrated occasion when the Weird Beard and I went down to (???) Department Store in downtown Dallas where I was going to be interviewed on the subject of Liverpool. And we’d imagined that perhaps 100 people would turn up, 150. We were also going to give away I think it is fair to point out something like 50 free Beatles LPs, which may have been more of a draw than me – although I like to think otherwise. And when I got up on this little platform and the Weird Beard said, “How long have you been in Dallas?” And I said something like, “Three and a half years.” And as soon as I said “half” instead of “ha-yef”, they just went mad. People were being sick. I mean, they really were. Someone was actually sick. I stood there and watched somebody being sick with excitement. And people were screaming “touch me, touch me” – and we had to be rushed out of the store and down the freight elevator. It was terrifically exciting stuff.
- Beatles: I Saw Her Standing There
JW: Well, the Beatles, who were obviously responsible really for you getting into being a proper disc jockey, you know, not just an unpaid helper. But I mean, eventually you did get into playing records professionally, didn’t you, in America of course. I am just wondering what if you didn’t particularly like the Beatles but saw it as part of the scene, what was exciting you at the time musically then? I mean, this is the early ‘60s. The first days of rock and roll had gone. What were you listening to and thinking, “Gosh, I must go out and buy more of this?” I mean, apart from old blues records.
JP: Well, not a great deal really. But I think the first bands that excited me were the sort of post-Beatles bands like the Yardbirds.
JW: I’ve often heard you mention over the years the Yardbirds particularly and often not particularly fashionable tracks. There was something about them that must have rung a chord from what we talked about last week. You know, something far more authentic and slightly dangerous and weird. I mean, what particular tracks struck you like that?
JP: I suppose my favorite Yardbirds tune, because it was based on that Elmore James guitar riff was The Nazz Are Blue.
- Yardbirds: The Nazz Are Blue
JW: By now, the middle ‘60s, you’re a professional jock, a professional disc jockey of course. You must suddenly have been aware that there was a totally different approach to rock music coming and it started to appear, I imagine, let’s say – because you got used to the backbeat and the wild men of rock, the Chuck Berrys and the Little Richards and the spinoffs from that – but I mean Dylan suddenly started to happen in the middle ‘60s, when you must have been on the radio. I mean, what did you make of that? Did you have to play any? And did you like it?
JP: I made the link with Woody Guthrie and with Cisco Houston, because I’d had records of theirs from Dobells during my national service, mainly acetates and stuff like that. So I was familiar with Woody Guthrie’s work in particular. I was never terrifically keen on Bob Dylan, I must admit, and when I came back to Britain and people were talking about Donovan and seeing him as a kind of pale Dylan copyist, I’m afraid I rather preferred Donovan, because at that stage we had drifted into flower power, and I liked the rather limp lyrics that Donovan was writing rather than the Dylan stuff, which although people always said to me that it was terrifically poetic and significant, I could never make a great deal of sense of it. I mean, some of the lines I quite liked, you know, like “the vandal stole the handle” or “the vandals took the handles” or whatever that line is. There were various things like that, the occasional line would leap out, but I never really took Dylan as seriously as I think a lot of my contemporaries.
JW: All right, not Dylan personally then. But presumably by the end of your time in America, before the pirate ship started over here, you weren’t still just an old-fashioned rock and roll disc jockey.
JW: I mean, you were listening to some of the new artists. I mean, if not Dylan, who?
JP: The first indications of what was about to turn into like flower power and hippie music and so on were happening in Los Angeles, obviously. And I went to see Them playing at the Whisky A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. And Van Morrison was still with them I think at that time. But the main reason I’d gone was to see the support band. Now, because I was the number one DJ in the market, I had some influence with the playlist committee, because the playlist committee was this Johnny Darren bloke, so I could persuade him to play a certain amount of stuff that otherwise might not have got onto the playlist. And I’d heard Diddy Wah Diddy by Captain Beefheart on A&M and had persuaded him to put this on the playlist for a while, and it wasn’t terrifically popular and I think it was only on the playlist for a week. But I was sufficiently taken with the Beefheart noise, because it had everything that I really wanted from a record. It had a kind of rhythm and blues root and yet was sung by this bloke with this for the time perfectly extraordinary voice. So A&M Records said that he was about to play the Whisky A Go-Go as support to Them and did I want to go along, so I went along and was entranced by them. I thought they were absolutely wonderful. I mean, I think it was probably the first time that they had ever played outside of their home base pretty much. And the audience by and large disliked them intensely – and that has always appealed to me really. Whenever I’ve been to an event…
JW: A good sign.
JP: It is. I mean it genuinely is a good sign. You know, whenever I see people in the audience getting up and leaving and asking for their money back and things, I always say, “Ah, great, there’s something happening here. Let me hear more of this.”
- Captain Beefheart: Diddy Wah Diddy (single) A&M
JW: Your new departure into sort of new music, as it was then – was it a sort of instinct of “Wow, this is another step from the wild men of rock that were originally turning me on”? Or was it a sort of rather calculating rational approach of saying, “There’s a gap in the market here. This is something new going to happen and nobody else is pursuing it. There’s the Beach Boys selling a lot of records, but I can get onto something and be Mr Clever”? I mean, were you saying, “I can’t see the difference and this is just wild music again. Captain Beefheart is just Little Richard further on”?
JP: I suppose what happens ultimately is that you don’t really know the answer to that yourself, you know, because you can spend a great deal of time in agonies of self-examination. But I think and believe that it has always been an interest in the music rather than any thought of kind of career prospects that has motivated me. I mean, quite clearly at the time the idea of espousing the cause of Captain Beefheart would be rather like saying, “Well, you know, Rochdale are going to win the First Division title.” I mean, you can’t.
JW: But obviously Beefheart was, and he still is, sort of very much on the fringe of, you know, what pop people are listening to. Let’s say at that time – ’65, ’66 – people were listening obviously still to the Beatles, but the Beach Boys and so on in America. Very accessible music. But what would you be playing on the radio if you just say round about that time you’d pick a track and play it on the radio, but it wouldn’t be the Beach Boys and the Beatles – I wonder what it was.
JP: I suppose if you played something like the Doors’ Break On Through that would be an indication of the sort of thing I was playing on the radio at the time that wouldn’t have been getting played on the other local radio stations.
- Doors: Break On Through (To The Other Side)
JW: The Doors there, which as you say would be something you would be playing in America that probably wouldn’t be getting maximum sort of top 20 exposure at all – so that was something different. Now when you came eventually to Britain – or not quite into Britain of course, because you were on one of the pirate boats, Radio London in a thing called the Perfumed Garden, that particular programme that people started saying, “There’s something happening here. A bloke doing something different.” Were you aware that you were playing something very different and that you had sort of taken up a cause?
JP: Well, this is something which came really from my last months with KMEN in San Bernadino, because Johnny Darren and myself had become increasingly dissatisfied with the restrictions of the playlist and had realized that there was something else going on, you know, that we wanted to hear on the radio and wanted to play on the radio. And we had actually formulated a plan for what subsequently in America became FM radio. So when I got back to Britain and went to work for Radio London, I’d got the germ of this idea in my head. And because I was the junior member of the team, I had to double up – I had to do a double shift. I did an ordinary top 40 programme during the day, wherever I was told to go really, and another one after midnight, from midnight until 2. And this is what became eventually the Perfumed Garden. It was something no one else really wanted to do, because it meant a lot of extra work. And it dawned on me over a period of a few weeks that nobody on board the ship, and more importantly nobody in the Radio London offices in Curzon Street in London, was actually listening to the programme. So I gradually dispensed with the advertisements that I was supposed to be running at the time and weather forecasts and eventually with the news and just did a straight two hours of music. Which was I mean music from people in Britain like the Incredible String Band, the Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix , and Americans like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Country Joe & The Fish was an important staple. In fact, the Electric Music For The Mind And Body LP was almost the only LP from that era that I can still listen to and derive pleasure from.
JW: Can you pick a track from that now? Because I remember we played that a lot in the early days of Top Gear as well. It was hanging on for quite a lot of years. What track in particular?
JP: Porpoise Mouth I think would be good.
- Country Joe & The Fish: Porpoise Mouth (LP – Electric Music For The Mind And Body)
JW: Porpoise Mouth from Country Joe & The Fish – very much in the style of what you were playing then on the Perfumed Garden and in the early days of Radio One. But what I was saying was apart from a slightly new style, it was a bit of a cause, wasn’t it?
JW: It wasn’t just something were you would be saying, “Hey, here’s a hole in the market, you know, here’s something.”
JP: No, no, it became by that time it had become fairly evangelical, and I think some of my observations about what other DJs were doing – particularly the luckless Tony Blackburn, who I used to see as really the anti-Christ. I mean, I genuinely used to despise him and feel that he should be done away with.
JW: Quite a nice chap today.
JP: Not a bad bloke at all. And of course I’ve found in conversation with him, although some of his attitudes strike me as most odd, but at the same time like right and left often seem to meet around the back as it were, I find a lot of things he thinks about broadcasting are actually opinions which I can with slight modification share.
JW: But you were then very much poles apart. He was the boy next door playing all the chart singles and so on, and you were doing something different.
JP: But the interesting thing of course is that looking back on it that he by and large was right and I was wrong, you know, and I think that is quite good. Because if people cast you in the role of expert, I think is good for you to constantly be proved to be wrong. Because he would say that Tamla Motown music was the stuff that would endure, and I would say, “No, no, it’s the music of the Quicksilver Messenger Service that is going to last forever.” And I think it is not unreasonable to say that he was right and I was wrong on that.
JW: Except there were clearly some influences that a lot of that early music that you were playing, which I would rather as a listener…
JP: Rather not have heard at all!
JW: Exactly. Well, didn’t want to hear it, but I would be happier listening to Tony’s records. But on the other hand, let’s be honest, music and British music particularly, did move on as a result of a lot of things that were happening, and you were aware that something was happening. Or at least you said you were aware, because I have got here your application from Radio London that I have found in the BBC files to Mark White, who was a sort of senior man in the Gramophone Department – I think head of the Gramophone Department at the time, and you say it is an application, you sent a tape and said where you’d been working. And you say you’d been doing the Perfumed Garden – basically this programme is a forum for the “better sounds in popular music.” Bit pompous today! And then you say, “with the emphasis on the music rather than on myself. And then you define it and say, “By better music I mean the West Coast groups and the British groups that are trying to do something new and imaginative.” And you also make it clear you say the mail has been excellent and not of the “Dear John, We think you’re fab” variety.
JP: I still use that line today! I still use that.
JW: Nothing changes. “I hope there is some possibility of my continuing with what I believe to be an important programme.” Now you, even before joining Radio One, thought that the style of thing that you were doing then was “important.” When you arrived at Radio One – you were there on the first weekend, on Sunday of the first weekend – what did you make of Radio One, having had all this experience in America?
JP: Well, I was intimidated unquestionably, because of the reputation, and deserved reputation, that the BBC had – while at the same time thinking to myself that they actually don’t know what they are doing. Because the programmes that you heard, some of the programmes that you heard, having worked in California and having done sort of frontline pop radio programes, a lot of the stuff you heard was frankly laughable. Because there was for example, because of various arrangements that they had reached, various agreements that they had made with the Musicians Union, they were obliged to use people like the Northern Dance Orchestra, who would do cover versions of various pop hits. And I remember hearing the Northern Dance Orchestra – it’s a tape I wish I had got with me now – but hearing them do a version of a Jimi Hendrix song, which had to be heard to be believed. So a lot of the stuff seemed really quite jokey.
JW: But the laughable aspect was surely that they weren’t obliged to use the Northern Dance Orchestra, but they were obliged to use live music to some degree, but they chose within that to use the Northern Dance Orchestra, or Johnny Howard & His Boys, those kind of Palais big bands of the time. But the programme that you started on was one that Bernie Andrews started and was the producer of – Top Gear – which as I remember it was a sort of follow on from a programme that he had called Top Gear in 1964, which had been seen by the then BBC hierarchy as far too ahead of its time.
JW: He insisted that it came back under that name for Radio One’s birth. But it wasn’t your programme. People often look back now, the hippies of the day and a lot of the sort of 30-40 year-old people who were regular listeners and say, “It was John Peel’s programme. He did something different.” You weren’t using the Northern Dance Orchestra, you were using the Pink Floyd. But it wasn’t your show at the time. In fact, the anchor man was Pete Drummond, certainly for four or five weeks.
JP: Yeah, yeah.
JW: The first show was Pete and you. Second show was Pete and…
JP: Tommy Vance?
JW: No. Mike Ahern.
JP: Mike Ahern.
JW: But Bernie Andrews I gather – I phoned him only last week to check on all of this, and he said, well, yes, he had had to fight to get you on at all, because there were certain people who said, “No, no, not him. He’s not kind of, hey ho, the boy next door” – their idea of what a disc jockey was at that time. Did you feel you were an outsider when you arrived, partly for your personality but also for your interest in music?
JP: Well, very much so. But I was aware at the time that in a sense I had the inside track, because Bernie Andrews was going to bat on my behalf in a very considerable way and wanted I think ultimately for me to end up as the sole presenter of the programme, or at least a regular presenter. Perhaps me and Pete, I’m not sure what he had in his mind at the time, but quite clearly I did have the inside track and there were I think five or six of us competing.
JW: You did the first week, you and Pete, and Bernie was in the driving seat – but this was the first record that you actually introduced.
- Martha & The Vandellas: Love Bug, Leave My Heart Alone (single)
JW: Pete or you announced it, and somebody picked it. Did you pick it?
JP: I certainly didn’t pick it, no. But also we had sessions with people like Lulu. I think there was a session from Lulu, if not in that first programme, certainly in one of the early ones. Because the brief that we were given by the new Radio One was to, I think something along the lines of like “looking over the horizons of pop.” I think this is the phraseology that was used.
JW: Which in a sense it did. As well as having – I’ve got the script somewhere here of that first programme, and I see that as well as having Donovan, Country Joe was in there, the Floyd were live, Pink Floyd were live, one of the live sessions – not the Northern Dance Orchestra – the Velvet Underground were on. But also I see, as you turn the pages, the Bee Gees’ ‘Massachusetts’ was on. The Hollies, ‘King Midas In Reverse.’ Amen Corner. I wondered if you approved of that. Here you are in your first show, you knew a bit about what was happening on the West Coast scene, but you were mixing it in with all this very blatant top 20 pop.
JP: Yes. You see, I don’t think at the time you made the sort of distinctions that people insist on making now, you know. I mean, all of those people subsequently recorded sessions for the programme, oddly enough. And the Hollies certainly were a band that I admired enormously, and I can still sing along rather unpleasantly with some of their greatest hits, and had in fact managed to get their records into my first attempt at a fraudulent chart in Oklahoma City. I managed to get their records played on the radio there, so I was not at all adverse to the idea of having the Hollies on the programme. And people like Lulu I must admit I did find rather heavy going, and there must have been other people in the programmes as well.
JW: Sure. But going through towards the end of the programme, on the last page I see that Captain Beefheart appears.
JP: Quite right.
JW: Yellow Brick Road.
JP: Oh yes?
JW: Now I assume that as nobody else would know who he was – really, let’s be honest about it – that probably was your choice.
- Captain Beefheart: Yellow Brick Road (LP – Safe As Milk)
JW: ‘Yellow Brick Road’ by Captain Beefheart. Definitely I think John Peel’s personal contribution to that very first Top Gear on the first weekend of Radio One. You didn’t appear again until show number five, the fifth week of Radio One, in fact. And again, although there were quite a lot of the work that you would have gone for, I noticed one in particular I couldn’t place at all, and I have brought it along. And this will surprise you rather – I hadn’t heard it myself. It sums up – it sounds like a Bonzo Dog micky take, the style of the band, because it was called – do you remember the Crocheted Doughnut Ring?
JP: I do indeed! On Polydor Records, yeah.
JW: Well, here’s their single.
- Crocheted Doughnut Ring: Two Little Ladies (Azalea & Rhododendron) (single)
JW: That was the Crocheted Doughnut Ring, ‘Two Little Ladies’ – what was it, Azalea & Rhododendron. Now to me, that is something I had never knowingly heard it obviously in 25 years – and I can’t remember hearing it then – but it summed up that kind of hippie codswallop that wasn’t quite you, that Carnaby Street mild psychedelia. “Two Li-tel Ladies!”
JW: You know “li-tel” – it was gnomes would be in that sort of a load of tomfoolery.
JP: Well, but at the same time of course that elves and gnomes stuff was…
JP: Well, exactly. And very much the stuff for example that Marc Bolan would have been doing. I don’t think he was doing that…
JW: Like the Incredible String Band in their own way.
JW: And Donovan.
JP: Yeah, except that they weren’t so much… They were more to do with, let’s see – Donovan was more to do with kind of the realities of, you know, like the rather mild drug culture of the time. And the Incredible String Band had got that kind of vaguely mystical/medieval minstrel-sy kind of feel to it. So, there were at the time a vast number of records of exactly that sort of type that were as you say - so accurately, John – codswallop.
JW: But I also notice in that show, show five, as well as the Crocheted Doughnut Ring, yet another Beefheart appeared. So obviously you were setting off on a certain course and getting certain of your old mates but people who you musically approved of in – but also, that’s the first time that I’ve seen the Misunderstood.
JP: Ah, yes, now the Misunderstood loomed very large in my life. It was sort of Yardbirds-y, and yet with an extra dimension to it.
JW: Presumably as with all those sort of bands, what happens on record wasn’t an adequate reflection of their live appeal.
JP: Well, there is one record, John, which I produced actually. We went to Goldstar Studios in Hollywood, which was the studio where Phil Spector did the bulk of his work, and produced a demo tape, the bulk of which has disappeared, but I think that three tracks have been found by sleuths who have been over there looking for this stuff, including their version of ‘Shake Your Money Maker.’
- Misunderstood: Shake Your Money Maker (demo)
JW: Misunderstood there, ‘Shake Your Money Maker’, and a band that you introduced.
JP: Produced that track!
JW: Produced that particular track – whatever that means. You just sat there anyway…
JP: Sat there, like the one who couldn’t play anything.
JW: But that sort of music, we are still talking about blues-based – and so was Beefheart at that time of course, quite R&B sort of based.
JP: Very much so.
JW: So you were introducing a lot of this to Top Gear. Did you feel Bernie Andrews shared your sort of feel that there was some sort of mission that you’d accomplished, you know, that at least you’d set out on?
JP: To a certain extent, yes. You know, I don’t think he went all of the way. I think Bernie in a way quite liked the idea of being the rebel within the Radio One establishment. I mean, I think that appealed to him, perhaps not as much as the music, but it certainly was important to him that that should be so.
JW: Sure. But that brings us on to something that I have heard you accused of only a week or so ago. Yet again, after 20 years, people say, and no doubt this will crop up later in the series, people say of course you’re just trying to be weird – John Peel is just trying to be different and just trying to play anything that’s weird. That must have been the case then, when Tom Jones and Lulu were bouncing about the charts a great deal, the things that you were playing were not like the sort of stuff that was elsewhere on Radio One, when Jack Jackson was playing.
JP: Right. I mean, you see, looking back on all of this and looking over 25 years of it, perhaps earlier remarks of mine may contradict what I am about to say. But I think it is fair to say that I have by and large seen what I play on the radio as being not so much an alternative to but an addition. People always talk about it as an alternative programme and they talk about these days sort of independent records and so on as if there were something inherently desirable about being independent, as though this meant that the music was itself going to be better. I mean, by and large over the past ten years it has been, but that is coincidental I think.
JW: So you are really saying that right through those 20 years you have not been trying to say, “Here’s my sort of music, which is instead of the mainstream…”
JP: Not at all.
JW: “…but as well as the mainstream.”
JP: I mean, obviously there have been times, like at the moment, you know, when the bulk of what goes on in the mainstream – in other words, a lot of the records that get into the charts – I find utterly repellent, that annoy me a lot, and it makes me very cross hearing them on the radio. I mean, that has always been the case. I think perhaps more recently, having got, having children of my own, has sort of mellowed me a little bit, so I can now listen to the records that they like, things like Madonna and Europe and so forth, without having dangerous increases in blood pressure and so forth, but…
JW: Yes, but in those days, in the early days of Radio One and the early days of your disc jockey career, it wasn’t unreasonable for people’s blood pressure to go up on hearing what you were doing. Because they must have thought this guy is just trying to be strange. I mean, you would play on the same show let’s say new British groups like Fleetwood Mac. Well, here’s a short example of them just being a blues band, which is sort of what they were with Peter Green in the original days, the first time I saw them, and they sounded like this.
- Fleetwood Mac: Coming Home
JW: Fleetwood Mac recreating the blues there. Somebody might look at that and say, “That’s what John Peel is doing – he’s making people aware of the roots. He’s got a blues heritage and he knows all about it.” Then of course in the same show, having got them used to this roots approach, you then throw in the Pink Floyd, which didn’t seem to have any discernable roots in black music, skiffle, rock, anything else. I mean, the sort of tracks you played, like this one, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, which doesn’t seem to have any connection with the kind of stuff that clearly Fleetwood Mac were inspired by.
- Pink Floyd: Interstellar Overdrive (LP – Piper At The Gates Of Dawn)
JW: Now how – listening to the Floyd there and just before that Fleetwood Mac – how can you say, “Ah, that’s all my music. I pulled them all together. It’s still the same sort of thing, wild men of rock and roll. I mean, wasn’t that just trying to cash in on the new sounds and be different? I mean, create a role for yourself in radio.
JP: Well, genuinely not, to be honest. But at the same time it’s a position that is very, very difficult to defend, and you know this yourself and the number of times people have said as well, “What is it that you’re looking for in a band that you book for a session or a record that you play on the radio?” And I have genuinely never been able to come up with an even halfway adequate answer to that. I mean there is no as it were template that I can place over a record or over a performance and say well, this record satisfies these requirements and therefore I consider it worthy of inclusion on the programme. I mean it either appeals to something in me that I again can’t really identify or it doesn’t. And it is certainly not a commercial sense. If it was a commercial sense, then I should obviously be doing a lot better than I am.
JW: But obviously at that stage in ’67, ’68, it was very clear, at least to everyone else in Radio One, that you weren’t like the rest of Radio One. Your musicians weren’t like the kind of sessionmen we’d been used to in the Denmark Street kind of Tin Pan Ally pop makers. You weren’t like the boy next door same as Tony Blackburn hoped to be. Your fans, the people who would come up or bring requests or turn up at Radio One or at your gigs, were not like the cast of Summer Holiday or the average Radio One listener.
JP: It’s still the case. Quite often when people turn up at Broadcasting House now they are made to wait outside in all weathers, which makes me rather cross but it still seems to be the same.
JW: But I wonder if you were aware at that time – I certainly was, because I’d just started as a young producer and wasn’t working with you at all – that there was within Radio One a kind of resentment of what you did mixed in with a sort of fear of this sort of alternative different way of life, different standards.
JP: I was very aware indeed of that, and it was mainly Bernie who shielded me from it I think.
JW: But I remember at that time just drinking with the other chaps from Radio One in the pub round the corner say…
JP: I didn’t even drink in those days.
JW: Of course not. But in those days there was a feeling, of course it’s only a matter of time, he’s got to go, you know. People will have to tell Bernie this programme is a racket, the records were too long, they were all obscure, they weren’t singalong records by and large, and your presentation was not like anybody else’s – he’d got to go. But then what happened was – I can remember this quite clearly – the 1968 Melody Maker poll, which I have here, came out. And you won it! And they thought Tony Blackburn was going to win it, because he was the breakfast man and he was the boy next door. I thought Tony Blackburn was going to win it. I didn’t want to listen to him much, but I thought he was bound to win it. And here it is, John Peel number one, Tony Blackburn number two, Jimmy Saville number three actually. But I mean, in the middle of all this, it was top TV artist girl was Lulu and Simon Dee was the top TV artist and so on. And you look down a fairly straight poll – obviously the Beatles were in there and so on – and there was John Peel, and the top radio show was Top Gear. And I remember within Radio One people were absolutely astounded. And it was sort of resentment mixed with a reluctant acceptance that things had changed and that you had been a key part of it changing. After 1968 you were being seen as a figure of importance and influence. Let’s finish by playing a record that you, well, you feel should have been heard at that time, but looking back now you think if it hadn’t been for you, it certainly wouldn’t have been heard. I mean, this is a sign of your influence, you know, the sort of thing that you could get on radio now. The others had to accept it because you had started to win the polls.
JP: Well, again, we’ve mentioned him several times in the course of this programme – I think I’d have to go back to Beefheart, because of all the people whose records that I’ve played on the radio over the past 25 years or so, I still regard Beefheart, although he is not making records anymore – and I do wish he was but it’s his decision not to, he’s now concentrating on painting – but I do regard him as being the single – and it is pompous to talk in these terms – but the single most important maker of pop music during that time. And if there’s anybody that genuinely could be described as a genius, then I think that Beefheart must be it. And in very programme that I do even now, although I don’t necessarily play Beefheart records, I can hear him five, six, seven, eight records in each programme echoes of Beefheart. So almost anything by Captain Beefheart would be appropriate I think.
- Captain Beefheart: Sure Nuff ‘N’ Yes I Do (LP – Safe As Milk)
JW: ‘Sure Nuff ‘N’ Yes I Do’ – still retaining his links with the blues and the past and I suppose what we listened to in programme number one, and still obviously clearly one of the wild men of rock and roll. And that was an extreme example perhaps of the type of record that established John Peel as a distinctive stylist on early Radio One. Well, next week we’ll listen to Peel’s early Top Gear choices over those first few years in more detail.