A Celebration of BBC Radio’s very own Liverpool music legend John Peel.
Kevin McManus, our City of Music Head and former NME writer pays his own personal tribute to Peel, and recalls the day he got to interview one of his all time heroes.
BBC 6 Music have just announced that their 6Music Festival will this year be held in Liverpool at the end of March. I’m sure that while they are in the city they will be paying tribute to one of the all time broadcasting greats and proud son of this city: John Peel. If Peel was still on air there’s no doubt that his spiritual home would be at 6. Its openness to playing all types of alternative music from across the world and its championing of the new and the different means it is a natural fit with the philosophy that made Peel such a favourite with listeners across his lengthy broadcasting career. In fact many of the station’s regular presenters will have worked with Peel on the BBC at various times. Indeed his son Tom proudly continues the family tradition with his regular 6 Music show and as precursor to what I’m about to describe you should be aware that Tom’s middle name is Dalglish.
There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes. Well I’ve been lucky enough to meet the two biggest heroes of my life and I’m happy to report that neither disappointed.
If you want to split hairs my interaction with one of them was pretty fleeting but I still felt like I got a real sense of the man. That man was Kenny Dalglish. I’ve been a Liverpool fan all my life and as well as being one of the finest players to ever grace our famous shirts Dalglish was also an inspirational manager. Then when it came to dealing with the aftermath of Hillsborough he also proved himself to be an exceptional human being.
I met Kenny when I was involved back in 2009 in a recording of ‘The Fields of Anfield Road’ single. The record marked the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and was the brainchild of the then Lord Mayor Steve Rotheram. The aim was to raise funds for, and awareness of the fight that was still going on to get justice for the 96. The project was managed by me and a couple of mates. I’d managed to get Ken Nelson who was an old friend of mine, and famous for working with Coldplay, to produce the single. I actually collared Ken at halftime on the Kop at a Liverpool match and asked if he would do it. He is a good man and agreed on the spot. We had great local musicians and fellow Liverpool fans like Peter Hooton, John Power, and Mick Head singing and playing on it.
During the recording Steve Rotherham arranged for some ex Liverpool players and some of the families to come in to the studio to sing on the chorus and be filmed for a video for the single.
Word reached us that Kenny Dalglish was going to be one of the people coming in. He was a bit late arriving so I was assigned to wait for him. I suddenly became like a nervous schoolboy again. Unfortunately our initial encounter wasn’t the way I’d dreamed it might be. In fact Kenny was distinctly grumpy as a result of having to climb up a few very steep flights of stairs to get to the studio. To put it in medical terms Kenny’s knees were knackered and steep stairs weren’t doing him any favours.
But once we got in the studio he forgot his painful knees as he hugged members of the families he had consoled after the tragic event 20 years earlier and greeted ex players who clearly adored him as much as we fans did.
It was a really memorable afternoon that finished with a moment that sticks in my mind still. As he was leaving the studio I shook Kenny’s hand and thanked him for taking the time to come in. He grabbed my hand with both of his, looked me in the eyes and with real sincerity said “No, we should be thanking all of you son.”
The second of my heroes is the late, great John Peel and as I found out when I interviewed him he also idolised King Kenny.
I have to be really honest here but with hindsight it is safe to say that I really think my life would have been very different without the influence of Peely. My career and my life have been shaped by music and John helped determine my musical taste and fed my obsession in those crucial formative teenage years of my life.
I remember being in my tiny bedroom at our house in Captains Lane in Bootle when I first heard that voice coming out of my radio. I know it will be hard for younger readers to understand but when I was 14/15 there wasn’t a proliferation of channels to choose from. When you were moving the radio dial at 10 o’clock at night, searching for music, there weren’t really that many options. By accident I happened on the Peel show which was on weekday nights from 10–12. At that stage I didn’t know who this man was, I just loved the music he was introducing my impressionable young mind and ears to.
Punk was just starting to break and Peel seemed to get it straight away. I now realise that was actually pretty remarkable because he wasn’t a young hip DJ and he also wasn’t a career DJ who just blindly followed the latest scene. Above all he was a music lover and he clearly understood the importance of this new, urgent, angry and often chaotic scene.
What he played really struck a chord with me. Things that stick in my mind are many and varied. There was a young punk London balladeer called Patrick Fitzgerald with a rough and ready tune called Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart which I loved. On the following Saturday I went into town and bought the single (on the wonderful Small Wonder label) from Probe Records. Then there was The Fall, who Peel had an enduring love affair with and who in those early days were ragged and compelling. Everyone knows the story of him getting sent a copy of The Undertones debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’ and loving it so much that he broke all the normal rules of radio and just kept on playing it. At heart the man was above all else a massive music fan and he delighted in discovering unknown gems like this and sharing it with his listeners. All the bands I loved I heard first on his show. Off the top of my head I’m thinking Gang of Four, Mekons, Slits, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Fire Engines, The Scars. The Normal, XTC, Wire, Television Personalities and too many more to mention.
Again with hindsight I now realise I was really lucky because I lived in Liverpool. Peel sparked the fire in me and I was able to follow up by buying the records he played at Probe Records and by seeing many of the bands at a brilliant little club called Eric’s. If you lived outside of a major city then I’m pretty sure Peel was even more precious in providing the only lifeline to the exciting music world outside.
He was the person who got me into reggae by playing tracks from the likes of Culture and King Tubby as well as British reggae groups such as Aswad and Misty In Roots. It is a much overused word but his tastes were genuinely eclectic. His mind was open and if he heard something that grabbed him he played it no matter where it was from and even if he knew absolutely nothing about the artists. My record collection is full of mad stuff because of Peel: like the debut release by two American brothers who made a low fi racket and rejoiced in the name of Half Japanese. I’m sure I haven’t played that record now for over 30 years but I’m kind of glad it is still lurking in my vinyl cupboard as a reminder of that particular period of my life.
Unlike many DJs of the time Peel didn’t perform. He just nattered away in that unique voice and somehow drew you while he talked excitedly about his latest find. Life often seemed to bewilder him as though it was something that got in the way of him listening to the latest batch of demos to arrive on his desk. Then there was the occasional anecdote about life with ‘the pig’ (as he affectionately called his wife Sheila) at Peel Acres or the band he and his producer had been to see the night before.
Another thing that endeared me to Peel was that he didn’t hide the fact that he loved to feature Liverpool musicians. He championed the magnificent chaotic brilliance of Half Man Half Biscuit. He was a big fan of Pete Wylie and his band of the time Wah! Heat. He got to know Peter Hooton, singer with The Farm, when he did an interview with a fanzine called The End that Peter was involved in. He liked the band but, as I only found out many years later, felt like he couldn’t bring them in to do a session as it would look like he was supporting another Liverpool band just because he knew the singer. He told Peter that if the band managed to get a review in one of the national music magazines then he would be able to make a case for them. At that time I was 18 or so and had just started writing for the NME which was massively influential in those days. I reviewed The Farm at a tiny venue in Mathew Street, called The Left Bank. The NME printed the review and The Farm got their very first Radio One/Peel session.
The Peel sessions were a really important part of the show. Bands that Peel and his producer John Walters liked were invited to record four songs in a day at a BBC recording studio in Maida Vale. The results were often brilliant as groups rose to the challenge and pressure of recording quickly. Some bands like Echo and the Bunnymen effectively used these sessions as demos for a forthcoming album. So for a massive Bunnymen fan like myself this was an incredibly exciting sneak preview. On nights like that I would have the following hi tech set up all ready to go: small battery driven analogue radio set up on the ‘box’ in my tiny box bedroom together with a small battery driven cassette recorder. When Peel announced he was about to play a song from a session I would press the clunky ‘play’ and ‘record’ buttons on the recorder. The final part of this cutting edge technology was a small mic which sat on a plastic mount and pointed at the ‘speaker’ of the radio. That might seem like a lot of effort to record a few tracks but to my mind it was well worth it. This was a pre digital age and the only way you could hear those tracks was to be listening in on the one or two times they were played on the show. If you were an obsessive like me you made sure you recorded them so you and your mates could enjoy them again and again over the coming weeks. For bands like The Banshees or a very early Adam and the Ants it was the only chance we had to hear them because they didn’t have record deals. There were some amazing sessions on there and his favourites like Half Man Half Biscuit and The Fall featured many, many times and always delivered. Over the years I have met many musicians who were happy to say things along the lines of “We never quite made it but we got to record a Peel session.”(The value of these sessions was finally realised many years later with a programme of release on the Strange Fruit label).
It sounds daft but because Peel was such a big part of my life I kind of felt like I knew him. Finally many years later (1994) I got a call from a magazine asking me if I’d like to interview John Peel! Peel then rang me at home to make arrangements. That was pretty bizarre having one of your heroes call you up so I tried not to be a stuttering fool and arrangements were made to meet him at the village where he lived in Suffolk. I didn’t drive and the train journey would have been a nightmare so I got Phil, a mate of mine who ran The Picket venue (and who had been a singer in a band that had also done a few Peel sessions) to drive me and the photographer. The three of us were all excited to be on our way to meet the great man.
We met in the village pub and Peel turned up with his wife Sheila who was lovely and brilliant company. It was obvious immediately that the pair were completely devoted to each other.
The interview was dead easy and he was exactly as I’d expected: funny, opinionated, occasionally grumpy, passionate and full of great anecdotes. It was clear he still loved Liverpool and he talked about his early memories of the city. We talked football and our shared love of Liverpool FC. He told a great story of how the first match he listened to was the FA Cup Final of 1950 when Liverpool were beaten by Arsenal. Because of this he said ‘I’ve hated Arsenal ever since, to the point where I’ve never allowed an Arsenal supporter in my house.” He then went on to say that a year ago he thought that this was a silly approach for a man of 53 so he decided to break his own rule and had a meeting in his house with someone he knew to be an Arsenal fan. The outcome? “It was a mistake and I’ve regretted it ever since” he told me in his usual deadpan manner. I think he was completely serious.
Then we chatted about our Liverpool heroes. He told a great story of how he offered to carry Bill Shankly’s bag from the hotel to the team bus after we’d won the European Cup in Paris. His reasoning was that if he had been a young kid he wouldn’t have been embarrassed to ask so it shouldn’t make any difference because he was now a grown man.
We then moved on to a shared hero in the form of Kenny Dalglish. We both idolised the man. Peel then told me the story of how when he heard that Dalgliesh was coming into Radio One he was so excited that he couldn’t sleep. “ I was going to take the kids in to the station so he could bless them but Sheila persuaded me that he wouldn’t understand’. Still he made sure all his kids have middle names from famous Liverpool managers or players, so his son and 6 Music presenter Tom glories in the full name of Thomas James Dalglish Ravenscroft.
It was a brilliant afternoon and time flew by. We talked about Pete Wylie, The Farm, and how the only Beatle he ever got to really know was John Lennon. Obviously The Fall came up and he told me about his 50th birthday party where his wife unbeknown to him arranged for a few of his favourite artists to play.
Their children were due home soon so they invited us back to their house and made us cups of tea while we continued with the interview. At one point I mentioned that my mate Phil had been the singer in The High Five, a band who had done two or three sessions for him in the early 80s. Peel instantly remembered the band but commented that he didn’t believe they had ever done an album. When Phil corrected him he disappeared for five minutes and then came back with a copy of the album from his record library that he kept at home. All in all, pretty extraordinary I thought.
The photographer got the shots he needed with Peel being really accommodating and then they waved us on our way for the long trip home. My overriding impression of what was a truly memorable day was of a lovely, decent man with a huge passion for music only surpassed by his love for his family. The final quote of his I used in the article was:
“ I love doing radio programmes — that’s what I do. I’d love to be thinner and fitter but on the other hand I don’t mind being a slightly overweight 54 year old bloke. It may sound corny but I quite like being me”.
After spending an afternoon with him it didn’t sound corny at all- in fact it made perfect sense.
Phil kept in touch with Peel and its a measure of the man that he was incredibly supportive of Phil’s music venue, The Picket and even made a trip to Liverpool to be there for the re-opening after it had been refurbished.
His radio slot times changed but I managed to catch Peel shows when I could. He was still playing his maverick mix of the new, the old, the obscure and occasionally the plain bizarre. You can’t overstate his influence and presence even in these later years. I recently interviewed Trevor Nelson, renowned as a soul music DJ. He joined Radio One after a pirate radio career and on his first day at the station this young, cool DJ had one request: could he meet John Peel? Trevor told me how he got shown to the tiny office that served as Peel’s base. He opened the door to find what he initially thought was an empty office and then he and his guide heard a gentle snore and realised that Peel was having a little snooze on the floor under a table covered with vinyl and CDs waiting to be listened to him when he awoke.
The last time I saw the great man was shortly before his sad early death. He was booked to play as a special guest at what was by then (and remains) a huge Liverpool club night called Chibuku at the Masque venue (now the Arts Club). Probably not a typical gig for Peel as the audience was generally a pretty young mix of locals and students there to dance to some of the coolest DJ’s of the moment. I remember bumping into Pete Wylie on the night and we both watched in wonder as Peel walked to the decks and the place just exploded. The Masque had three distinct spaces with different DJ’s playing in them at the same time but it seemed everybody wanted to be where Peel was and the place went into a real frenzy. From our vantage point Peel himself initially looked overwhelmed by the response but then like the true pro he was he just got on with it and played a brilliant set. This really young crowd clearly adored him as much as I had when I was the same age as them. To bring the whole thing full circle I’m pretty sure that Peel was wearing an old Wah! Heat (Pete Wylie’s first band) T shirt.
If Peel’s mantle has passed on to anyone then the obvious candidates are his son Tom and Steve Lamacq. I was lucky enough to work with Steve in my NME days and he has that same boundless enthusiasm for discovering new music and the same eagerness to share it with his listeners as Peel did. I worked with Steve 30 years ago and if anything his passion for music has grown during that time which is pretty incredible given how high that baseline was. I remember him taking a week off NME duty to go on ‘holiday’ out on the road humping gear for one of his favourite bands because he was such a fan. All of this unadulterated passion is reflected in his support for things like Independent Venue Week and his brilliant initiative of Wear Your Old Band T Shirt To Work Day.
Let me leave you with one final thought that demonstrates the greatness of Peel. When the 6 Music bandwagon roles into town in March it will be 50 years since Peel was also making an appearance in the city. He appeared in Liverpool’s illustrious Philharmonic Hall on 1st March 1969 at a gig billed as ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex and Friends’. Tyrannosaurus Rex was an early folky vehicle for Marc Bolan, another artist championed by Peely. The ‘friends’ included a fella called David Bowie (a mate of Bolan’s) performing a mime act. Peel’s role I believe was to act as the host and bizarrely to read extracts from ‘The Hobbit’, which I can only presume was loved by the hippy gig goers.
Try to imagine that strange sounding night at the Phil if you can and then think on 35 years later to March 2004 when Peel played to an adoring crowd of young clubbers at Chibuku. That’s a pretty remarkable journey and I think sums up how extraordinary the life and career of Peel was. His sheer love of music, lack of musical snobbery, and inherently decent nature ensured that he remained relevant, admired and often adored by audiences across his lengthy career.