Today is John Peel Day. What’s that mean exactly? It means that 7 years ago today we lost one of the most unique and impassioned voices ever to touch the music business, and every year on Oct. 25th unto infinity we will celebrate his good name.
If you don’t know anything/much about John Peel, there’s numerous websites that can tell you his history. I’m no historian so today I just want to try and relay to you what he meant to me, and my views on music and the industry that so often sucks it dry.
I’m not going to opine and say that today the state of music is all that different from when he was alive. It isn’t. There’s great music and there’s terrible music and there’s everything in between. There’s independent music and there’s music made by people who don’t really care to do a thing but make music, and there’s music that is controlled, created and delivered by a massive corporate machine, that while shrinking, still holds a massive amount of control on the people’s collective consciousness.
Now listen, I said the state of music isn’t all that different today than it was, ever, but yeah ok there’s lots of new and exciting ways to acquire and listen to music these days. Many say that these new things make radio largely irrelevant. In fact, I personally say that every time I attempt to surf the commercial stations just to see what might be on. I can plug a thing into my car stereo and have hundreds of songs I want to hear at my disposal on demand. I could have thousands if I were to go out and purchase a more expensive thing. But I’m old, I can’t even process all that. So a couple hundred is fine.
That being said I often still find myself surfing the stations, in hopes that I will find something that I haven’t heard before that is not complete shit. In Austin we are lucky. From 88.7 – 91.7 on our FM dial we can hear a pretty good selection of stuff at the right time on the right day. KAZI, KUT, KVRX, KOOP, that station Alex Jones is on all the time, and that weird “music of your (grandparents) life” station that comes in from Killeen on 91.3, all have real DJ’s playing real things. If some of these stations have play lists to follow at certain times, they are certainly fairly loose in comparison to the computer driven stations we have to deal with any further right of the dial.
But most cities aren’t so lucky. Many towns across the US (and the world) don’t have any independent stations and many these days don’t even have college radio to turn to. Their dial is a vast wasteland of pop music where the most adventurous sounding stuff they will hear will be on the classic rock station. Venture to the alt-rock station, or egads the “hip-hop” station these days and you’re likely to vomit on yourself if you happen to give a shit whatsoever about art and/or culture.
On the alt-rock station they’re crying, real tears, and on the hip-hop station they are laughing all the way to the bank while they dance on the heads, backs and necks of middle America. It’s a travesty, but fuck it’s never really been all that great. Radio is a business and most people who are in that business are in it for the money or for the kind of fame that comes without having to stand in front of a camera. The real music heads are few and far between and always have been.
John Peel was not few and far between, he stood alone, with a good portion of the worlds music on his shoulders.
I first heard of John Peel when I was a really little kid. Pre-10 for sure and probably more like when I was 7. I’ve been collecting records (and mangling my parents collections) since I was probably about 4 years old, and have been reading about music since about then too. I remember getting British magazines like NME and Kerrang when I was super young (ok probably not 5 but definitely 7ish) and seeing ads in the back selling records. Many would be titled “Peel Sessions.” And it was only a matter of time before I found out what that meant.
Peel Sessions were special recording sessions that bands would do, at the request of John Peel for the BBC, that would generally be played only once on Peels show. Sometimes the artist, or a bootlegger would make these recordings available on record and later CD. These sessions span more than 30 years and feature a wide range of recording artists from around the world. John was a champion of real rock and roll, psyche rock, one of the first people to really play and pay serious attention to punk rock, reggae, and even to a lesser extent, hip-hop. He championed new music coming from original sources that were as genuine as him. He eschewed anything fake. He was not a tool of the major label machine, but the majors certainly looked to him to figure out what they should glom on to next. (Why the majors never got fully behind Happy Hardcore though is beyond me. One of my favorite things to hear on Peel’s show was the insane pummeling rhythm of a gabber track from Holland just after a song from Melys or PJ Harvey or some shit. It was startling and unnerving and exactly what I needed at that moment).
((In fact, I have found myself, obviously inspired by the man, tuning in to some Happy Hardcore at work and turning it up really loud in my speakers or even headphones to wake up co-workers at random times in the day. The world needs Happy Hardcore.))
But that’s neither here nor there, I was young and I was like “Who is this John Peel guy?” Back in those days we didn’t have this internet thing that makes “life” so easy, all I could do was read and hope that I was getting the correct information. Until one day I heard the man’s voice on Canadian radio. I don’t remember what station. See, I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, and in Erie, as you are right on the lake aka the border with Canada, you get a lot of Canadian stations on your radio dial, especially late at night. So often late at night I’d sit with my radio carefully tuning tuning tuning looking for something decent to listen to. And one night I heard him. I heard John Peel.
I don’t remember the songs, I don’t remember what he said, I just remember thinking to myself “Wow this is wildly different from anything else I’m hearing on the radio.” And that’s what he did. He played the music, of quality, that others were scared to touch. In fairness he played the music that others probably never even heard of. He found it, he liked it, he played it, and it showed.
I heard him a few more times in those days, but really not much. I don’t think my young brain totally understood the concepts of time and place, I just kind of tuned tuned tuned looking for something good, all the time.
I was in my early 20s when I moved to Amsterdam for a year and met a guy named Jasper McWhinney. Jasper was from Scotland, but lived in Germany where he and his brother ran an “English Shoppe” and often Jasper would drive from Germany to England, via Amsterdam and he’d stop over and see me. And sometimes he would bring me cassette tapes of John Peel shows he had recorded of his syndicated program on German radio, or on BBC’s Radio 1. Either way it was always a treat. Again I was hearing music, of quality, that I would hear no place else.
THEN a couple of years later, back stateside with newfound internet access I saw that the BBC had begun broadcasting on the internet. That meant that I could hear John Peel, live, three times a week from 4pm – 6pm central time here in the USA, and the shows were archived to listen back to anytime I wanted. Or I mean anytime the dial up connection was strong enough. I swear I listened to the man every Tuesday – Wednesday – Thursday from 1998 – 2004 fairly religiously. John Peel’s show (and underground rap) was what I listened to. Religiously.
And on October 25th, 2004, I woke up, as I do everyday thank the Lord, made some tea and flipped on my computer. My homepage had been set to the BBC site and across the top I saw the announcement. John Peel had died in a hotel room in Peru where he was on vacation with his wife of many years, Sheila. Aka The Pig.
My heart sank. I remember my exact thought at that moment. It was, “What am I going to listen to now?” Not that John Peel was dictating my taste in music, it was that I LISTENED to John Peel and what he played, multiple times a week for six years. His Festive Fifties year-end count down show became as important as Christmas itself. He was like a friend, a real friend, I could turn to and just turn on and feel like I was in the presence of someone great, who really cared about the things I care about. That might sound like a bit much, but it was fucking real. If you really listened to John Peel and his radio programs throughout his 30+ year career on air, I bet you considered John a friend.
That’s why so many people all over the world are celebrating John Peel Day today. The impact he made on real people’s listening habits is immeasurable. There’s podcasts, websites, concerts, all sorts of things happening today in the mans name and that really makes me smile. He’s one of those people whose spirit HAS to live forever.
Tonight I’m going to attempt to do my part, perched at the far end of the bar, in the corner of the North Door – the back bar at the ND – playing nothing but songs from classic John Peel Sessions. It’s free to get in, and there probably won’t be hardly anyone there. But I’ll be there, jammin’, hoping that you show up to jam out in the name of one of our finest patron saints of real music and good, good living, John Peel.
9pm – 2am
Possibly some tamales.
501 Brushy, pretty much right at East 5th Street and I-35 on the east side of I-35. Come down, there’ll be plenty of parking, trust me.