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Interview with John Peel

John Peel

Tell us about growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s, your love for Liverpool Football Club and your relationship with the Beatles.

PEEL: I grew up not so much actually in Liverpool but on the other side of the River Mersey, so not a proper scouser at all. But my dad's office was in Liverpool, so I spent a lot of time in Liverpool, we used to do the bulk of our shopping there. But in the ‘50s there wasn't much going on anywhere, really. In London there was a certain amount of stuff happening, but most of what you got was visiting American artists, 'cause this is really pre-rock'n'roll, you know. So you'd see people like Johnny Ray and Franky Lane and big stars of the time. In the Liverpool Empire there'd be proper concert performances. And then when rock'n'roll started, you'd go and see people like Clive McFatten, Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent - Gene Vincent in particular had a very considerable effect on my life – I thought he was just astonishing. But that was all you got, really. There wasn't very much homegrown stuff at all, you'd get the one or two people like Joe Brown from London, who'd be at the bottom of these bills, but it was all American imports, really. And then I left. I was at boys' boarding schools from the age of seven to seventeen and away from Liverpool during that time. I then went to do two years military service myself. And then in 1960 went to live in Dallas, Texas, for four years. So in fact I wasn't around when Mersey Beat was starting at all. So, in 1965, when the Beatles started to take off in the States, lots of people would say to me: "You're from Liverpool, as you said to me yourself, you must know all about the Beatles," and I knew really nothing about them at all. But purely based on the fact that I came from the same part of the world as them I got a job on the radio, rather shockingly.

And you worked for WRR in Dallas…

PEEL: WRR had a late night program that all the kids used to listen to called "Kat's Karavan" which was a rhythm'n'blues program and played almost entirely black music. But the audience was almost entirely white in one of those kinda strange things that goes on in American culture, and the kids who listened loved the music but if any of the musicians had turned up on their front door they would have called the police, because it was quite a racist society at the time. But I had some records which were only available in Europe - some in this country, some in the Netherlands - and I took them to the radio station and they asked me to go on the program and talk about these records, which I thought they'd done because of my extraordinary knowledge of the music, but I think they probably did because they thought I had such an amusing accent – which by Texas standards I certainly did.

And you were there when John Kennedy was assassinated and also Lee Harvey Oswald. Do you think it shaped you in any way, since it certainly shaped the history of the world?

PEEL: Well, not really. I mean, obviously it changed an awful lot of things in America in the same way as September 11 has changed things beyond recognition in a lot of ways, but it didn't change me as an individual. I wasn't actually there when either of them was shot. I was in Dallas, and I went down to the area where Kennedy had been shot immediately afterwards. I was there about 45 minutes after the shooting and stood around - I told them that I worked for the Liverpool Echo newspaper and so I was allowed through the police cordon - and just stood there watching. It was actually rather boring to be honest, just a lot of people running around staring at the ground trying to find bullets and stuff I suppose. So I went back to work and phoned the Liverpool Echo to tell them about all of it, and I thought they'd be quite excited, in fact they weren't interested at all, really. They wrote a story under the headline, something like, "Liverpool Man In Dallas" I think was the caption, and then they wrote more about my dad than they did about me, they wrote "John Ravenscroft," which is my real name, "son of noted Liverpool cotton broker, Robert Bob Ravenscroft," so they kinda missed the point really. So that night I went down to the press conference in the basement of the police headquarters in Dallas, where they produced Lee Harvey Oswald and said that he was the man who was being charged with the killing of John Kennedy. Which was quite interesting, you know. But then he was taken away again and I went back home and that was that. So mine is only a brief brush with history. It wasn't life changing for me in any way.

And in 1967 you came to London and began working for a pirate radio station.

PEEL: I did, yes. I came back having worked on radio stations. The first full time radio job I got was in Oklahoma City. I worked there for about eighteen months. And then I did another eighteen months in San Bernardino, KMEM San Bernardino. And came back, as you say, at the beginning of 1967, couldn't find work initially and then a man who lived next to my mother in London used to place advertising with Radio London, the pirate station, and he said why didn't I go and talk to a man called Alan Keane, so I went to talk to Alan and I told him that I'd been on the radio in California and he just put me straight on the air without an audition or anything, for which I was extremely grateful. And I did a daytime shift and I volunteered to do the shift from midnight till two o'clock in the morning and, realising that nobody on the shift was listening to this and that probably nobody in the Radio London office was listening either, I changed the whole program around, stopped running the ads and the news and the weather and just started playing some of the records that I'd brought back from California. I called it Perfumed Garden. Within its own terms it was very successful, it got a lot of response. So when in September 1967 they started Radio One, I was one of the DJs that they took on. I had a six-week contract initially. And I've been doing it now for thirty-four years [laughs].

Was the pirate station subversive at all? Did you have any problems with the police?

PEEL: It would be lovely to portray ourselves as kinda bandits, you know, but it really wasn't like that at all. In fact, it was in a sense perfectly legal, in that all of the legal requirements had been satisfied, we were broadcasting from outside British territorial waters, so they had no complaint there. So they had to change the law in order to make it illegal, something which governments are rather prone to doing, and once they brought in the Marine Offences legislation of 1967 or whenever it was, then it became illegal to broadcast into the country from outside territorial waters. Or in fact it wasn't so much illegal to broadcast but it was illegal for people to supply the ships, from which we were broadcasting, with food and drinks. They made it impossible really for the ships to continue to function. And although Radio Caroline staggered on for a while after that, Radio London gave in straight away. The ship was stationary. We were just anchored off the coast, close to where I live now oddly enough, just off Felikstowe, which is near Ipswich. It was perfectly pleasant, you know, it was a nice summer, the summer of '67, there were no rough seas for me to contend with. I quite enjoyed being on the ship, to be honest. It was a bit of a holiday, really.

And then you came to Radio One. What’s the difference between the Radio One of the 60s and that of today?

PEEL: Well, goodness me, there was all the difference in the world, really. First of all we were very limited in the amount of time that we could devote to the playing of records. They had this system that was called the Needle Time system - it sounds like some kind of drug abuse program - but it was a stylus time, if you like. It was very limited, so they had to have a lot of live music in the program - not a bad thing at all, except that the bulk of it wasn't live. People used to get round it - they would record records onto tape and then pay the musicians as though they'd come into the BBC studio and recorded the stuff, and also, which is often unintentionally hilarious, they would have bands like the Northern Dance Orchestra or more memorably the Radio Dance Orchestra of Baden Baden in Germany, play versions of the hits of the day which were often quite funny. I heard the Northern Dance Orchestra do a version of Jimmy Hendrix's "Purple Haze", which I should love to have a copy of, I mean it was just unbelievable, really. And then they'd have live lunchtime programs with Joe Loss and his orchestra, it was probably called something like "Twelve O’clock Club" 'cause everything, you know, had that sort of name. "Lunchtime With Loss" or something like that. Again they would play the big band versions of the hits of the day and band singers would come on and do very straight kinda ballroom versions of the hits of the day. So a lot of it was quite funny, unintentionally so. And in the program that I was doing, which was called Top Gear - I told you they all had terrible names - we were obliged to have in every program two or three performers who'd recorded live in BBC studios. Now we saw this as an advantage, 'cause it meant that we could get people in to record for the program who might not even have recording contracts. Or we could put together different combinations of musicians and use them. We didn't have to do cover versions of the singles and tracks from the LP, bands could play things that they'd wanted to play, but had not played publicly before. It was an opportunity to actually advance the music a little bit, which is what we did.

These days what I do is essentially the same, really, except I do it in a studio very similar to this one. I still play vinyl records, most of the system is going on to hard disk and I don't quite understand it. Technologically the changes are considerable, but they aren't for me. I still use turntables as much as possible, I think I like the sound of vinyl better, and I think it's a kind of warmer sound. But on the other hand, if I was to listen to one of these on vinyl and then listen to the CD with a blindfold on, I probably couldn’t tell the difference. But in my head I think I can, you know. And we still have in every program a recording that has been made especially for the program. Sometimes, like tonight, we'll have a live performance with two bands, in the Maida Vale studio where the Sessions are recorded, and that's quite good fun sometimes, a bit nerve wracking, but… So, that's changed a lot… And there are now of course many more DJs that are actually interested in music and when Radio One started it was seen as rather a bad thing for DJs to be interested in music because then they would then want to become involved in putting together the program and this was very much the responsibility of the producer. So we were hired as presenters, you know, we would come in with a list of records and say what they were. And most of the people, early DJs, were very happy to do this, because it was possible to use your job as a Radio One DJ to get into television and get into business in one way or another and a lot of the people who were involved with Radio One in those early days are now quite successful businessmen. But I was never a businessman.

You mentioned the John Peel Sessions. Which is your favourite?

PEEL: Well, over the years we've had almost everybody, except the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of the kind of big bands of the past. More recently Oasis, I never really thought Oasis were much good to be honest, so they didn't do one. Whereas Blur did a couple of times. My favourites would be fairly obscure things - the two sessions the Slits did during the punk era which were just magical, I thought, were just terrific. Oh, there have been so many. There have been so few that have been bad, it’s amazing, really, when you consider how many have been done. Many thousands now. Very few of them have been disappointing. The Clash did half one, and then amazingly said that the equipment in the studio wasn't up to the standards that they'd expected so they couldn't complete the session. Which seemed to me to be unbearably pretentious of them [laughs]. It'd be very difficult to pick out an absolute favourite from them. There was one by the reggae band Culture that out of all of the sessions that were released on record is the one that I listen to the most, I think.

Do you have a favourite period in the history of rock'n'roll?

PEEL: There've been periods that I've enjoyed more than others. I think the early 1970s was a kinda boring period because the only bands that got recorded were bands that contained at least one member of a previously successful band, so there was very little coming along that was really new. This was around the time that Roxy Music emerged. In fact they were almost the only band during the first three or four years of the 70s that didn't contain a member of a previously successful band, so from that point of view they were very exciting for the time. But there's always been something well worth listening to, there's always been something going on. There is now, sometimes you have to look a little harder, a little further afield, but now with the spread of the Net, and the Web, and all these things, and the fact that more people overseas can listen to the programs and do – they send you records – so it has become a kind of global program now. I now have too many records, far too many, I get so many that I can't really listen to them all. I listen to as many as I can - you've been kind enough to give me six CDs – but every week I get somewhere in the area of 180 to 220 CDs.

And then 12" singles, 50-60 of those, 7" singles maybe 20. I like getting them, obviously. Maybe there’s something in here that turns out to be quite wonderful and then to be able to put it on the radio. To me, what I like, what I like as a listener, and what I like as a DJ is hearing something that I've not heard before and something that I can't relate to something else, you know, so if I listen to this I couldn't say these people have been listening to Travis. I'd just like to hear something that I can't relate to anything else. But that doesn't happen very often. It happened with Roxy Music as I say, going back then, and it still happens from time to time. It happened with the Smiths, really. You couldn't tell what the Smiths were listening to. And, of course, with the contemporary kind of electronica, a lot of that stuff you can't really tell where that's come from either. And that's quite good, I think. That's quite healthy.

Apart from Captain Beefheart and Mark E. Smith from the Fall, who also played in Belgrade before the war started, do you make friends with musicians in general because of your position?

PEEL: Not really. I mean, Mark E. Smith. I've only met him a couple of times, so he's hardly a friend. When I do see him I never know what to say to him anyway, so we just punch each other on the shoulder in a manly way and go our separate ways. And Captain Beefheart phones me about once a year, about three weeks before my birthday in August and I'm always really frightened when he does 'cause I never know what to say to him. 'Cause you always think that what you're saying is so banal and stupid he must be thinking, "Why do I bother phoning this fella?" you know [laughs]. I'm a country boy, I live right out in the country, and we’re just very much involved in our children's lives and just live quietly in this little village. I've always been an old bloke too, you know, people in bands tend to be half my age or less, and they quite reasonably don't want to hang out with old men. And it’s the same for the producers of the program, I feel a bit sorry for them 'cause they have recently assigned two new people to the program, they're kinda twenty-eight and I am sixty-two and they're getting better now. At first you could tell they really were quite upset because they were working with an old man, you know, and I think they were wondering whether they were going to have to kind of clean me up as you do with old men, I don't know whether they thought I was incontinent or something, but they were rather embarrassed about working with an old fella. So, I don't have any showbiz friends at all really, I mean there are people that we know and like, David Gedge out of Cinerama and one or two other people, the people out of Melys in North Wales who we think of as friends really, but not very many.

Do you take encouragement from the fact the biggest proportion of your audience is actually under the age of sixteen?

PEEL: Yes, that's terrific. The programs that I do for the BBC have the highest percentage of listeners under the age of sixteen, because the audience itself is fairly small the actual numbers may not be that great, but percentage-wise it's better than any other program on the station. Which must be a source of some irritation to programs which are deliberately kinda youth orientated, 'cause you know there's no point in me trying to pretend to be a kid, you get a lot of programs on the radio and on television which are presented by people who probably lie about their ages and pretend that they are still kids themselves. Our children always found those nauseating and I think that kids aren't as dumb as radio and television people think they are. I think they'd sooner have somebody my age being straight with them than somebody whose thirty pretending to be eighteen, you know, 'cause I think that's insulting in the long run. And also kids of that age, a lot of them haven't chosen up sides, they haven't become tribal about it, they haven't decided that they're gonna concentrate on electronica or house music or garage or whatever. They're just interested in hearing a lot of different things. They say, "What have you got? Let's hear some of it?" That's a healthy attitude in anybody of any age.

Could you tell us why the latest bands like White Stripes are so important to you? And also, did you ever consider returning as a DJ in America?

PEEL: No, I've got no desire to leave this country. I mean, I like visiting other places, but I'm very frightened of airplanes, you see, which is a bit of a disadvantage. I think I've got almost the perfect job, you know, and to be able to go on doing it at my age I think is wonderful and I have no ambitions to go anywhere else or do anything else. I've never wanted to get into television, or anything like that. I've done the odd bit of television, but I'd much sooner do radio. And I do a kind of magazine program for Radio Four here, which isn't a music program at all, but if they said well you've got to one or the other, I'd do the music programs every time, 'cause that's what I really like doing, you know, and when I'm doing the program, unless I'm not feeling very well, that's when I kinda come alive, that's what I enjoy. As I say, you get free records, you get paid for playing them on the radio, I choose all the music for my own programs, if I hear a band play somewhere, I can say let's get them into recording some stuff for the program and it happens. And it seems to me to be almost the perfect life, really. I mean, I would like to be taller and have more hair [laughs] and things, but apart from those physical things I can't really imagine how my life could be improved. I hope that doesn't sound smug, but it is a pretty good life.

About White Stripes, I like the fact that things happen for no apparent reason, that takes the public fancy, you know. People say, what's gonna be the next big thing? But the pleasure for me is in not knowing. I like to be taken by surprise myself. I first heard the White Stripes when we went to an event in Groningen in the Netherlands called Noorderslag and Eurosonic, and there's a wonderful record shop, very small, not much bigger than this studio, it's just a great record shop, and I went in there and the first White Stripes LP was in there as an import from the States. And I just liked the look of it and I looked at the titles - you develop an instinct, d’you know what I mean? And it looked like the sort of record I would like, so I took it out and I did like it, and started playing it. Now I get a lot of music from Detroit. The fact that it's successful is good, but a lot of people say - which you haven't done, for which I'm grateful - "You've been kind of instrumental in the career of…" They always mention Led Zeppelin for some reason, but I don't think of it in those terms. I don't do what I do either to win praise or fame for myself, but because I like doing it. And if other people like the music that I like, then that's even better. But if they don't like it, I feel sorry for them, I think they're missing out on something, you know [laughs].

When you choose music for your programs what is your criteria? Is the sleeve important to you or the name of the band?

PEEL: You have to bear in mind that sometimes when a band has thought of a clever name for itself, that’s the full extent of their imagination, so they may have a good name but some really terrible songs. But obviously if the sleeve art is good that draws you to it. I suppose the White Stripes LP would be a case in point – you first look at it and you think I can see where that’s coming from and so it attracts your interest. But I don’t really know what the criteria are – I just listen to the records and think, yeah I’d like to play that one on the radio or I don’t think I’ll bother. I don’t think it does you good to analyse it any further than that – It’s like trying to analyse personal relationships – if I try and say why do I love my wife and children you’re asking yourself questions that only you can answer and ultimately of course in that way lies madness. So, I just think, well, this is something I like and just stick it in a programme.

Did you hear much from Eastern Europe during the cold war, or do you know much about bands now from the former Yugoslavia? What do you think about what was going on then and what’s going on now?

PEEL: Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I had a friend who worked on the radio in Poland and he would occasionally send me music from there. There was a strange period after the reggae group Misty in Roots had played in Poland when the voice of disaffected Polish youth was expressed to reggae music, which always struck me as a strange thing. I used to get cassettes of Polish reggae bands which was very odd. I think one of the things in the past in a lot of the music from the countries behind the iron curtain was that there seemed to be a kind of theatrical tradition that infected the music. I went to Russia once and listened to a lot of bands there. I also went to Bulgaria – one of the very few people who’ve been to Bulgaria twice I think – and listened to a lot of bands there. Sometimes they were quite good but they would always for some reason find it necessary to dress up in costume – so someone would be dressed as a clown and then another bloke would come on as a monk, and a lot of it seemed to be derived more from a theatrical background than anything else. This was intensely irritating to me and I never really liked any of it.

There was the odd record but I can’t remember what any of them were to be honest. There were a few things which I played on the radio. And also, of course, a lot of the time when we went to see bands in Russia in particular, the lyrics to us in addition of course to being in Russian and therefore not being something I could understand, they were seen as really political songs and you’d say to someone “what’s so political about this?” Nobody could risk making a direct political statement so everything was very oblique and people would applaud one line of a song – you’d say “well, what are they applauding for?” and they’d say “because of the lyric” and you’d say “well, what was the lyric?” and it would be something which you’d think well, why is that so good? But it would have some resonance or meaning to a Russian audience, which as a Western European you wouldn’t understand at all. So, I was very anxious for information about what was going on in the East but got very little to be honest.

Do you have any recent music from Yugoslavia and what do you think about bands that are coming from Eastern Europe at the moment?

PEEL: Well oddly enough I still don’t hear very many. About the only ones I get to hear are the heavy metal bands. I quite like death metal because it’s just so extreme and so grotesquely tasteless. I think bad taste is quite important. You get these people who will occasionally write to the BBC and complain when I’ve played death metal and there was this case in America where some woman was murdered by this couple that were into black magic and Satanism but then you say, well how many people have been killed in the names of the authorised and established religions? – a great many more. So the idea that you object to these things because they’ve got these silly Satanist lyrics is just nonsense I think. There was a track that even I drew the line at playing. It was quite a good track too but it was called “Kick the Pregnant”, and I thought, that’s a step too far, I’m not going down that road. I quite like, you know, bad taste and so death metal is a good area for me. I’m looking forward to hearing these things because I don’t get nearly enough music from your part of the world.

And the final question: Liverpool FC are now fourth in the premiership. Any comment on their performance?

PEEL: It’s terrible – the only team they can beat is Manchester United – it’s so weird! They lose to absolutely everybody else and they beat United. Obviously, as a man who has frankly hated Manchester United, I’m sure there will be a lot of people watching this who support Manchester United. It’s one of the things that always makes me really cross – the number of people who’ve got no connection with Manchester at all. In this country, kids live in our village and you say, “what team do you support?” – “Manchester United” – and you say “here’s a map of England, find me Manchester!” And they don’t know where it us but they support Manchester United. I say, “You only support them ‘cause they win everything!” I’ve been living with this since I was about eight years old. At the school I went to I was the only Liverpool supporter and I think everyone else, except for one boy who didn’t like football, supported Manchester United. So, I’m glad that Liverpool beat them every time they play them but I wish they could beat someone else as well – It’s really embarrassing. I think Manchester United will win the title again, they’re now four points clear I think. And then of course they then get even more money at the end of the year. The whole game has been distorted by the application of television money because it means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer so it’s very undemocratic.

Even in America where everything is dominated by money – I was amazed for example they didn’t authorise the Tyson fight because it means they’re losing a lot of money and you think they’re going to say yes regardless because of the money involved. But in America, when the professional teams are drafting college players, the teams that are bottom of the league get first choice, which is amazing. I think that’s really good. But here, I mean, Manchester United can afford to pay ten million pounds for a player just to stop someone else from buying him and then just keep him in the reserves and it means that someone else – Middlesborough or whoever – you know this new striker that they’ve bought, Middlesborough wanted him but obviously he went to Manchester United ‘cause it’s a better shop window. So, they’ve just become a kind of equivalent of Harrods, financially dominant. And players, even if they don’t get a regular game with United, at least people will be aware of them so if other teams come looking for them they’ll go to Manchester United first. So it means that teams at the bottom of the table – like Ipswich which is our local team – they have one hundredth of the income that Manchester United has so how can they hope to compete with them? They really can’t. So the situation is established to enable Manchester United to go on winning forever. As you can tell I’m quite bitter about this.

Do you have a message for the listeners and viewers of Radio and Television B92?

PEEL: Well, goodness me. Well, to the listeners and viewers of B92, if you’re in a band or if you’re a musician send me some of your stuff ‘cause I’d really like to hear it.


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