John Peel

I can still remember
The last time we played on Top Gear
And though each little song
Was less than three minutes long
Mike squeezed a solo in… somehow
And although we like our longer tunes
It seemed polite to cut them down
To little bits – they might be hits
Who gives an… after all ?
Tell me how would you feel
In the place of John Peel ?
You just can’t please
all of the musicians all the time

Robert Wyatt, “Moon in June”

Back when I was a teenager and just getting into this stuff, a lot of bands had these four track “Peel Sessions” album, and I figured it was some sort of pun like “MTV Unplugged,” and I’d be treated to the sounds of peeled bands. Since peeling involved charging import price for about 20 minutes of music, I didn’t satisfy my curiosity for a while.

When I did, I still didn’t realize that Peel wasn’t some Rush Limbaugh-like demagogue but a peculiar product of government-subsidized radio, British noblesse oblige, and vaguely laddish youth culture. It was years before I realized that there were other presenters too who had radio sessions, and some of those even got issued. Peel meant an archival release of historical importance, worthy of being preserved. I knew only one other radio name–Andrea ‘Enthal of Pacifica’s KPFK–and Pacifica didn’t exactly work hard at making her sessions available.

My experiences with him were entirely secondhand. Varispeed Fall tunes on cassette, scratched Yeah Yeah Noh vinyl, poorly packaged EPs with a cover consisting of no more and no less than a list of every band whose session had been released.

Still, what I heard was great. English post-punk was my obsession and Peel provided the only historical evidence of some of these bands. Yeah Yeah Noh, the Prefects, the Creepers, Scritti Politti, Josef K, and others cut out the middleman and just released their sessions themselves rather than blowing cash on rerecording in a proper studio. The only good-sounding live recording of Henry Cow was on Peel. The Pop Group, the Slits, the Nightingales (“Butterbricks”!), Subway Sect, the Only Ones, Roxy Music, This Heat, the Go-betweens, Napalm Death, Wire, Datblygu…

I couldn’t hear most of his 90′s sessions, since they weren’t available here, but from looking at the lists, he stayed relentlessly current to the end. My tastes wandered in different directions, but Peel somehow kept up his enthusiasm for zillions of British rock bands until the end.

Peel was by his very position an unfair arbiter of taste, and just his particular tastes were indicated by who did and who didn’t show up on his show, who continued to show up long after their moment had passed, and who was undeservedly ignored. But as a powerful patron, he was one of the best of his time, and lord knows if we’ll see his like again.

[And, as soon as I can upload files again, a few of my favorites:]

The Prefects, “Faults” and “Total Luck” The Fall, “New Puritan” Yeah Yeah Noh, “It’s Easier to Suck than Sing / Cottage Industry”