John Peel: A Tribute
Warner Strategic Marketing
o mark the first anniversary of John Peel’s death the romantically named Warner Strategic Marketing have released John Peel: A Tribute, a compilation that seems partly an attempt to paint Peel as just another boring indie kid, little more than an avuncular version of Steve Lamacq, and partly an attempt to make him a drivetime Radio 2 DJ by proxy, someone who had a history of loving 'classic rock' by dint of 'getting it right' over the years. And he was, partly, both these things but he was also much more, otherwise there be no need to celebrate his life. As if Peel was ever about getting it right! As a tribute it's a compilation that'll fit neatly in the glovebox next to Queen's Greatest Hits. And that's no tribute at all.
Any compilation that attempts to sum up why people liked Peel, why he mattered, by concentrating on Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Van Morrison and the Faces is missing the point. I know that he played them, but so did everyone else and they have continued to since then. This is the oldies section of the current Radio 2 playlist. I know that he played Joy Division, The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, and Orbital but anyone who needs this compilation to point them out is someone wouldn’t have listened to Peel’s programme, and certainly won’t learn anything about him from this CD. The BBC’s own Peel website is headed with his quote “I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before,” but you’d never guess he’d said anything like that from what is presented here.
Why are Super Furry Animals on this compilation and Datblygu not? Because this compilation is, against all sense and reason, about the familiar and the comforting. Out of two discs, why is there only one non-British or American track? Where’s the Finnish pig-fuck on the Bad Vugum label, where’s any Afro-pop, the Bhundu Boys being a constant presence on his show? Where’s any indication that he opted out of the mainstream during the self-congratulatory Brit-pop years, instead offering a soundtrack of jungle, the Oyster Band and post-hardcore? Where’s Status Quo, Babes in Toyland, Pussycat Trash, Extreme Noise Terror, Stackwaddy, happy hardcore or dub-step?
And of course the compilers have sound reasons for doing this. Sound business reasons, because they can't see that things could be any other way. (And of course this review is a heartfelt attempt, in some small way, to redress that balance.) And of course the BBC had sound reasons for paying no attention to Peel in the latter years of his life, for constantly shifting his show around the schedules, shunting it later and later. Sound business reasons. He was only tolerated so that he could be used as a public service justification for the licence fee, one more tick in the boxes that included their equally tokenistic campaigns on bullying and their exam stress helplines. If he was anything other than a token it would be ridiculous that over forty years after he started at Radio 1 they should be wondering who could fill his shoes. If the space had been provided then someone would have been in that position years before Peel died. It’s as if Peel somehow represented a figure that could only exist one at a time, that only one person at a time can have a non-idiomatic, mutigenre, non-playlisted love of music.
(And to anyone who tries to be contrary, tries to say, that Radio 1 should be all about the POP, about what people want, then witness the simultaneous and systematic destruction of the chart show on exactly the same principle. Celebs and competitions and phone-ins added until barely any of the chart—the records that are actually selling—get played, current presenters JK & Joel snickering at any records that seem middle aged, that aren’t cool (ask Stylus UK Singles Jukebox maven William Bloody Swygart about it.) Check out the absolute CONTEMPT that DJs like mouth-breathing morning host Chris Moyles hold pop in, despite lack of any interest in any other music, in anything beyond tits and trivia. Peel went hand in hand with the unexpected thrill of pop.)
There is no better testament to the fact that the British media establishment had fuck all idea what made John Peel great than this CD. Tacky bullshit that stands in for doing, or even thinking, anything. A cheap and ugly monument that should never have needed to be built. This compilation is a whole universe of unheard music winnowed down to a small planet of stuff everyone already knows.
If you must buy a Peel compilation get the far fresher and wider ranging Fabriclive.07 which he compiled, and which broadly corresponds with what he played the one time I saw him DJ in a club, or see if you can track down his 1969 BBC Records Top Gear LP which features his voice being treated by Delia Derbyshire of the Radiophonic Workshop, gentle folk from Bridget St. John, and some breathtaking electro-prog from Welfare State. Just don’t buy this, this Charles and Diana celebration tea towel that someone has wiped their arse on.