This is the story of the link between the most important disc jockey who ever lived and an amateur actor whose progress through life and amateur dramatics was sound-tracked by the music played on his show.
"I always used to listen to his show, tucked up in bed with a single earpiece in my ear so my mum wouldn't know I was awake." How often did we hear this kind of remembrance after John Peel passed away in October 2004. In those pre-iPlayer days, the relationship between Peel and his listeners was one of immediacy. Unless you were taping his show, you had no listen again feature. Instead, you had to absorb a bewildering, beautiful, frightening, strange, exciting and, at times, terrible mix of music in the moment wherever that was - under your bedclothes, by a hi-fi, through a cheap transistor or while listening in your car.
The car radio was my point of entry to Peel's show. By the mid 90s, 1995 to be precise, I was 19 and fortified by the Britpop records that were reflecting the 60s music which I had gotten into and which had lead me to what I regarded as my natural listening home - Radio 2 - I started listening to The Nation's Favourite. I can reel the names back to you even now: Chris Evans (on the days when his ego didn't keep him off air) Simon Mayo (with Mark Kermode ranting about cinema in 10 minute chunks each Friday), Lisa I'Anson (who appears to have fallen off the face of the earth since the mid 90s), Nicky Campbell (with the teasingly topical Triple Tracker), Mark Goodier (who I saw do a live DJ set at the Twilight Zone nightclub in Redruth that summer). The Evening Session with Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley (was her move to daytimes really such a promotion?) and then Mark Radcliffe and the boy Lard to finish the day off. I lapped it up and at the risk of sounding like an old bastard, I'd gladly have it as Radio 1's daytime nowadays (and I'm aware that those kids who love today's Radio 1 line-up will say the same thing themselves in 20 years time).
In broadcasting though nothing is set in stone and through 1996 and into 1997 that schedule changed. The most seismic change saw Radcliffe and Lard move from 10pm to replace Evans at breakfast. The Evening Session moved forward to 6.25pm and that left the way clear for John Peel to move back into weekday evenings for the first time since 1990. At this point, with his show running from 8.40 to 10.30pm, I only caught snippets of his show while driving to see my girlfriend in Truro, 20 minutes away from where I lived in Falmouth. Other times I would hear him were when I would be driving home from rehearsals for plays I was doing with various drama companies dotted around Cornwall and it's these times that form the basis of this blog.
I've been doing amateur drama since 1991. I started acting during my GCSE year, using it as a way of releasing the pressure of the exams. I followed this up by doing a BTEC in Performing Arts at Cornwall College and through this started making contacts which got me invited to start performing with some of the local amateur dramatic societies - Falmouth Young Generation and Carnon Downs Drama Group were my main societies, all very local and easy to reach after I passed my driving test in 1994. My horizons started to expand a little in 1997 when I was asked to take part in a production of A Tale of Two Cities with West Cornwall Drama Group based just outside Penzance. This meant a 90 minute round trip and on the journey home, my company was John Peel, which meant drum and bass while driving through Rosudgeon and death metal in Helston. A year later, I started acting with St Austell Players, which meant another 90 minute round trip and Peel on the journey home - reggae in Grampound and Indie pop in Tresillian. 2 or 3 times a week, every couple of months, I was exposed to an incredible onslaught of music across every concievable genre by someone who it felt as though was in the car with me. The best possible company while driving through quiet Cornish villages on the long and lonely A30 or A390.
Why this sticks in mind is that once the productions were over, Peel and I would go our separate ways until the next time I was in a play. I didn't listen to his show at home. Sometimes, I would go to Compact Records in Falmouth High Street to try and order a record I'd heard on Peel's show. But
it wasn't till 2002 that I finally did what I should have been doing all along and started taping his
show at home.
I had no interest in keeping complete episodes of his show because invariably there would be stuff I didn't want to hear again. What I was looking for was the stuff that connected with my ears, with my feet and with my soul. Some of it weird and novel, some of it traditional and everyday, but all I knew was that I would know it when I heard it. And if I could bundle it all into mixtapes with his links included, I would be able to make my own Peel Shows for posterity.
I started on 14 May 2002 while I was acting in a play with West Cornwall Theatre Company called The Shaugraun at Minack Theatre on the cliff tops near Land's End. The first track to go onto a mixtape of mine was This Girl's on Fire by Dayglo Superstars released as a split 7" single on Versechorusverse Records with Seedling. At various points through the year, I made recordings and picked out the tracks I liked, putting them on to mixtapes. Mainly guitar based but with enough dance, reggae, electronica and vintage material to avoid sterility. By the end of that first year, I had 4 mixtapes worth.
However, storm clouds were gathering for a variety of reasons:
1) I didn't have a particularly happy year in 2002 apart from meeting the woman I would eventually go on to marry, but that seemed a long way off then. For the most part, the year was characterised by loneliness, isolation, disappointment, poor choices and blind alleys. Peel was a comfort during this time but he also became an association with these bad emotions and as I cautiously looked for an improvement in fortunes going into 2003, I started to move away from listening to his show.
2). I had also started to become a bit irritated with him. All the talk about life at Peel Acres and his family seemed to me to be as self-indulgent as those disc jockeys who went on about their celebrity mates and apparently guilded lives. I knew that this element of home and hearth was crucial to who Peel was but it still grated. I don't know why, probably because I'm a dick.
3). My stereo system's tape function was starting to play up. I recorded a fair wodge of the 2002
Festive 50 show (which won't feature in this blog as I wasn't doing a show at the time) but I was only able to preserve one song, Jeffrey Lewis's The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song because the tape became scrunched up and compressed just at the point that The Datsuns launched into In Love. I tried to record an early 2003 show but the same thing happened. I didn't have the funds to get a new unit and so we drifted apart.
I even stopped listening to Peel on the journeys home from rehearsals through 2003-04. It seemed that whenever I turned on to him, I'd always be coming in just after the start of a
lengthy DJ set. No variety to see me home or I would reflect that there was no point listening as I had no means to record the next night's show. The last Peel show I heard was on March 16 2004 when I was driving back to Cornwall from Walsall having gone up to see my favourite team, Ipswich Town, play there. But this absence didn't really matter because I could always go back to him eventually, he wasn't going anywhere was he?
In October 2004, I was reading the TV supplement from a newspaper and saw a picture of Peel in the radio listing Pick of the Day. It explained that while he was away on holiday, his show would have guest hosts for the week, namely Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld, Robert Smith of the Cure and Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees. "It's time" I decided. Some more tempestuous times were round the corner and I realised that it was now nearly 2 years since I had last listened to Peel. I decided to start taping again when he got back from his holiday and if the machine was still playing up, I would ask for a new unit as a Christmas present.
When the news of his death came through the following week, I felt as shocked as everyone else, but I also felt responsible. I'd neglected him for some seriously stupid reasons and now, just when I wanted to make it up with him, he was gone. The 4 mixtapes were precious to me, but undercut by the realisation that if I hadn't been such a dick and been a bit more proactive in replacing my wonky tape machine, I could have had a dozen mixtapes to enjoy.
However, despite the proclamations that Peel's passing was the end of an era, I stuck to my decision and started taping and making mix tapes again, reasoning that just because Peel was gone, it didn't mean that music would stop. I taped Rob Da Bank when he saw the Peel show through to the end of the year. I was there for OneMusic in 2005-06 and I supported Huw Stephens's Introducing programme and Da Bank's Sunday night show. However I did still miss Peel and found Radio 1's decision to replace OneMusic with Colin Fucking Murray's Evening Session-lite shit deeply depressing.
It was while lamenting this state of affairs that I went to the interent and typed the words "Peel Tapes" into Google. It brought up a website called The Peel Tapes, which featured to my amazement a selection of Peel shows from the final Perfumed Garden in 1967 up to shows broadcast a few weeks before his death. It was my entry into the online world of Peel, a worldview that would expand significantly when I came across the John Peel Wiki a few years later. I was soon to discover many more dedicating to sharing and celebrating his legacy and the music he championed.
When listening to old Peel programmes, I found myself hearing certain tracks and thinking, "That would have definitely gone on a mixtape". We have now reached a point with YouTube, iTunes and Discogs where such tracks can be shared, kept and found more easily. With this in mind, I've decided to embark on a challenge to listen through Peel programmes from a certain point in time and identify the tracks that would go onto a mixtape. Further to this, I am going to try and track down further examples of each artist's work so that I can get a better picture of their work at the time Peel played it.
The choice of tracks will be subjective, I don't expect anyone to agree with me on their merits, though I hope anyone who does find this blog and listens to any of the clips finds more good things than bad things.
Given that it was drama that introduced me to John Peel, I have decided to start this endeavour from November 1991, which is when I started rehearsals for the first show I ever did, Lionel Bart's musical of Oliver, which was a school production staged in April 1992. Along the way, I'll provide context about the shows and the times as well as the music. But before we start with that, let's look at where Peel was in November 1991.
John Peel Wiki