Magazine article The Spectator

The Next Big Thing

Magazine article The Spectator

The Next Big Thing

Article excerpt

You're probably sick of reading about John Peel, the Radio One disc jockey who died of a heart attack last week and whose passing was marked with the solemn, exhaustive media coverage usually reserved for great statesmen. This was, after all, only a man who played records for a living.

Andy Kershaw, one of Peel's protégés and a fellow DJ, went spectacularly over the top in the Independent. Peel, he said, was the 'most important person in British music since the birth of rock'n'roll'. Come on, Andy, take a grip. More important than Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, David Bowie? It's a bit like saying that John Heminges and Henry Condell, who oversaw the publication of the First Folio, were more important than Shakespeare, who wrote the plays it contained.

Nevertheless, in the week since I first heard the news of Peel's death, I have found my thoughts repeatedly turning to him. It's no exaggeration to say that for several years in my teens and early twenties, I loved John Peel devotedly. He was the wise, witty and possibly slightly wicked uncle I never had, the man who opened my ears to more pop music than anyone else and encouraged a lifelong fondness for staying up late.

All the obits referred to Peel's gift for making every listener feel he was talking to him or her directly. Certainly, Peel's broadcasts from 1970-72 seemed to be entirely directed at a then skinny kid at Charterhouse who most nights crept back into his study after lights-out to smoke Number Six, drink tepid coffee from a Thermos, listen to the radio and dream.

In those days Peel was a champion of Roxy Music, Rod Stewart and the Faces and folk rock, as well as playing long slabs of prog and Captain Beefheart. I think he even played my beloved Grateful Dead occasionally. The diet didn't seem to change much when I got to Oxford, and in my third year, lodging in a claustrophobic little house off the ring road with a depressive landlady, it was his programme that kept me more or less sane.

In the run-up to finals, listening to Peel with a joint in one hand and a Scotch in the other after a long day spent struggling with Chaucer or Thomas Hardy was a consoling antidote to loneliness and fear.

But after I graduated in 1976, Peel and I grew apart. I still clung to the hippie values and the music that Peel had done much to foster in me. …

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