I finished the John Peel autobiography, ‘Margrave Of The Marshes’ last night. I say ‘auto..’, he actually wrote just under half of the book, his wife Sheila finishing the rest of it. The changeover between the two, the sudden nature of his part stopping and her picking up the story, is one of the saddest moments in any book I’ve ever read. It’s odd to think of a 65 year old man as having so much unfulfilled potential, especially one who was already arguably the most important figure in the development of pop music in the UK. I’d argue that anyway.
His life story is candid, heartwarming, beautifully written as you expect from the presenter of Home Truths, full of his love for music, his family, tales of his frankly insane youth and young adulthood. I’m not sure I’d have liked him if I’d met him in the late 60s, though even then, the excerpts from his diary that Sheila quotes reveal a man I have an enourmous amount of empathy and respect for, despite his opportunist deceptions involving the Beatles and deflowering numerous american highschoolers…
His marriage to Sheila is an inspiration, his love for his family equally so. His impact on me as a musician and music fan has been written about here before, but it bears repeating – growing up in Berwick on Tweed, pre-internet, music information was pretty hard to come by. There was the mag trinity of NME/Sounds/Melody Maker which, whilst nowhere near the cheap nasty nonsense they are now, were still pretty trend-driven, even if those trends were a little more underground that they are today. No, the only real source of information about music-without-boundaries was Peel, and I devoured his show voraciously, recording it onto Tandy cassettes, making compilations of Pixies sessions before they were released, and collections of tunes by The Wedding Present, Bongwater, Napalm Death, The Stupids, Rob Jackson (not THAT Rob Jackson, sadly), Billy Bragg, The Bhundu Boys, Extreme Noise Terror and hours of obscure Soukous and strange German techno squawks.
The overall effect was that of removing all possible labelling from the process of making music. This allowed me to be simultaneously a fan of BoltThrower, Weather Report, The Cure, Wet Wet Wet, George Benson, John Zorn, The Alarm, Yes, The Housemartins and just about anything else that came along. I was often being accused of having ‘no taste’ – not bad taste, just no discernment about what to listen to at all. Truth was I did, I went through obsessive phases (just as Peel did), and kept the best of it as I moved on. In 1986 I voted the Mission and The Smiths the worst bands in the Smash Hits readers poll. By the 1990, I had every album the Smiths had ever released, along with having cultivated a near-obsession with The Cure and The Pixies that lasts to today. Only this week I’ve been introducing various students of mine to the majestic delights of Kim Deal’s bass playing via ‘Debaser’ and ‘Hey’.
The more poignant, funny, engaging and revealing the book became, the greater the pain at John’s loss. The greater the sense of anguish for the family at having lost him – as much as I miss his broadcasting, and regret never having met him, it quite obviously is nothing compared to the excuciating pain of losing a parent/husband/brother/friend.
The tributes when he died were effusive, though not a surprise. I was one of millions of teens from the laste 60s onwards who saw the world of music though Peel-tinted specs, who dispensed with the style fascism of most teen music-factions and took on the mantle of music-lover. I think it’s safe to say that without that exposure, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. My relationship with music would have been very very different indeed, and that desire to explore as a listener would never have spilled over into that desire to explore as a player that lead to me playing solo.
So go, read the book, remember John, tell your kids about him, make them read the book, and buy them a copy of the new Billy Bragg boxed set, the Hardcore Holocaust’ Peel sessions compilation, The Shed Sessions by The Bhundu Boys and any other weird nonsense you find in the hope that they’ll grow up to view labels like ’emo’ and ‘goth’ and ‘pop fan’ to be as erroneous as they really are.
John, you are missed.