John Peel: home truths

18 Oct


As is the case when one’s heroes are thrust into the tabloid spotlight for the wrong reasons, there are normally three options.

The first is to mount a vigorous, impassioned defence as to how your godlike idol could never have done such a thing, or that the very thing your godlike idol is alleged (or even has been proved) to have done is really “not all that”.

The second is to spurn your godlike idol for being charlatan and a fraud, sever all emotional ties with him or her, burn all related memorabilia you may have accrued during your blind years of ignorant fandom and publicly announce to all and sundry that he or she is no longer the apple of your heart’s desire but the evil object of your deepest disdain.

The third option – probably the most English and by far the easiest – is to “keep calm and carry on” as if nothing had happened.

The unpleasant – and quite probably genuine – revelations this month that John Peel had engaged an ongoing (3-month) improper physical relationship with an impressionable 15-year-old Black Sabbath fan (female), back in 1969 (when he was around the should-have-known-better age of 30) has given a lot of us pause for thought. Here was someone widely regarded as little short of a saint committing one of the most repugnant crimes known to society.

The whole grisly Jimmy Savile scenario, while shocking and stomach churning, and certainly one that affected far more people, many of whom who were far more vulnerable, was somehow less of a shock because it had been the subject of jokes and rumours for years. Like many of my peers I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It as a boy and unsurprisingly none of this went through my impressionable mind, but decades later it became patently obvious that this jingly-jangly, cigar-smoking, latterly be-tracksuited character was definitely more uncomfortably strange than eccentric. I was also quite fond of Gary Glitter in the 1970’s too. Then again, these were the times when some people were shocked at the suggestion that the Village People (or Freddie Mercury, or Rob Halford)  were gay, let alone that a pudgy Bacofoiled-up preening turkey was a paedophile (ostensibly heterosexual) sex tourist.

Abusing the trust and ingenuity of minors is WRONG, even if you consider that they are “gagging for it”. Even if they actually ARE. It’s always wrong, no two ways about it.

THIS girl was fifteen too, I’ll have you know

Peel was probably the nearest I had to a hero, and as The Stranglers once pondered… whatever happened to all the (real) heroes? When Peel’s affair with this underage girl began, he had just come out of an unhappy marriage to an American girl of a similar age (which was freely admitted by Peel in his autobiography, and, if I’m not mistaken, before), possibly as an altruistic gesture to get another emotionally screwed up young person free passage out of the country and back to the UK (or even to help his own immigrant status working in the US) or maybe just to legally take advantage of a young “bit of skirt” (to use the demodé parlance of the day).. who knows. Although this is pretty worrying behaviour by 21st century mores, back in the 60s and earlier, it was apparently a common practice in that part of the US. NO EXCUSE, I grant you, but that’s how it was, and probably why these “revelations” did not shock Britain to its core when they were made, either in Peel’s lifetime or immediately after Margrave of the Marshes was published.

It is at this juncture that I feel tempted to engage in my own rather irritating vice, and one John Peel probably has something to do with – quoting song lyrics. And curiously the lyrics of another “fallen idol” in many of my peers’ eyes: those of Steven Patrick Morrissey. For it was Mozzer who stated that “Fame, fame, fatal fame” could play “hideous tricks on the brain“, and who himself went on to win himself enemies and lose himself fans when his militant vegetarianism and easy-to-(mis)interpret-as-racism comments about England or the Chinese veered dangerously into the realms of self-parody.

I imagine early transatlantic fame had also played a few hideous tricks on Peel’s brain as well, and sad as it is to admit it, I imagine that it wasn’t until he met “the Pig”, his future wife Sheila, that his brain settled down and he evolved into the benign patron saint of alternative music that he was until so very recently best known for being. I do recall someone on a Peel documentary – a fellow DJ perhaps, or maybe even his brother – saying that marrying Sheila was the best thing Peel ever did, a far greater thing than giving so many amazing musicians a leg-up in the business (along with a handful even he might have been glad to forget). Maybe this was the true significance of what on the surface seemed like a mundane platitude.

John Peel did not register on my conciousness radar until the early 80s, when I was at secondary school, by which time he  had been a married man for almost a decade. “My” John Peel didn’t play Black Sabbath, Yes and T.Rex but Bogshed, Yeah Yeah Noh and T. Chippington. And electro, and dub and happy hardcore… and more.

Just as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band bore little resemblance to Love Me Do.

He evolved.

The John Peel I “knew” would probably have been ashamed of playing some of the prog rock noodling that he aired in the 70s in the 80s or 90s.  Just as he was probably ashamed of certain other things that went on back then.

No excuse, but everyone makes mistakes, it’s just that some mistakes are a bit more serious than others. Or a lot more.

But being English, an unfortunate trait that both the late man and I share, we often tend to be fairly “matter-of-fact” about these things. The traditional English response to the classic opening conversation gambit “How are you?” is seldom “I’m fine!” but “Not bad ” “Can’t complain” or ” Mustn’t grumble“.

We’re not very good at the Tiger Woods-style mea culpa in dear old Blighty.

Just ask Nick Clegg.

Often a dignified silence is considered best, not unlike in the Vatican City.

The mighty fall..

Nonetheless, the whole “Dead Radio One DJs in Paedo Shocker” scandal (linking Peel to Jimmy Savile’s shuddersome predatory “activities” in a similar way to the way George W. Bush linked 9/11 with Saddam Hussein) also shows a continuing hypocrisy in British journalism, especially of the tabloid variety. Did anyone notice that the Daily Star turned Peel’s grim 3-month dalliance into THREE YEARS? Google it yourselves, I’m not linking to it here. And the Daily Mail, whose awe at such horror has turned it into the WORLD’S favourite – or maybe I should say “favorite”, there are so many Americanisms and US spellings in their damn hackery – online paper, while simultaneously printing stories about how Punky Brewster or the nine-year-old on the Cosby show is no longer jailbait, or that some 15-year old model is “looking good“.

Billy Bragg, whose gift of a mushroom biryani to John Peel famously opened the door to “fame”, probably addressed this tabloid hypocrisy best in this ditty “It Says Here“, when Auntie Beeb allowed him to say the word “tits” in front of Selina Scott and thousands of other breakfasting Britons in 1984:

If these accusations made against John Peel are true (and it looks like they probably are, given the acknowledgement of a sexual relationship in the unmistakable Peel vertically-inclined handwriting that appeared in the press) , then his actions cannot be defended or excused. The papers, just as they have ensured the words SAVILE ROW will no longer be associated with tailoring but with sexual predators at the BBC, have forever associated Peel with underage sex.

Of course it takes “two to tango”, and I would like to imagine it was she and not he who made the first move, but that is still no excuse. He was also unaware of any “impregnation” (despite the era of “free love” having  made its mark, I imagine a widespread awareness of “safe sex” was yet to hit a pre-AIDS-aware world), although he may have suspected as much he was never informed.

But the papers are always willing to place their godlike judgements.

In another situation where the man was less of a role-model figure, then maybe the girl might have been derided as “loose“.

Or have we forgotten Charlotte Church and her “voice of an angel”?

What good does dragging up the misdoings of the dead if it does not go hand in hand with an investigation of the living and the apparent  “anything goes so long as no-one knows” culture of the BBC and other institutions, and if it merely causes distress, grief and embarrassment to surviving spouses, children or other relatives?

All hands on decks

The regrettable prevalence of haterz and trolls in this (totally) wired world often means that even friends, Peel-friendly musicians or merely admirers of Peel’s championing of diversity and “the new” against the same-old-same-old are ignorantly tarred with the child-abuser-apologist brush unless they “disown” him.

It’s all so black and white… so “us and them“.

To end this rather atypical post I will just state that I will be “Keeping It Peel” on October 25th… although I am expecting to read a lot of tweets and the like saying “I’m Keeping it Peel today, I’m shaggin’ a 15 year old LOLZ” to go with the “Now I know why he loved Teenage Kicks” and “Gives a new meaning to the words ‘Peel Sessions’quips that pass for wit these days from people who usually find the notion of creating a false death rumour (to get their egos trending on Twitter) hilarious or who send threats of violence or death to footballers each time they fluff a penalty or whatever.

I’ll leave the last words – more or less – to Morrissey once again. Although these words could well be addressing himself, I’d like to redirect them to reference the post-Sheila, post reckless-wild years-John Peel, facing the wrath of the self-righteous media and the Frankie-Boyle-wannabes on the social networks. This was the John Peel I “knew”, or at least the John Peel I grew up with.

“It’s so easy to laugh,
           It’s so easy to hate,
                 It takes strength to be gentle and kind”

The song – “I Know It’s Over“, as you may have guessed – is sung from the grave, and seems to be appropriate for someone who was frequently described as both “gentle” and “kind” during the time I knew of him.

I also do feel that Peel himself – once he’d expunged his demons with the help of the family he created to replace the distant absent parents he had suffered in real life – would have been totally disgusted with his younger self, but that his matter-of-fact dismissal of his relationships with “groupies” etc was his stiff-upper-lip boarding school upbringing showing through.

After all, he was a devoted father of four, and regrettably, for some of us men, maturity only comes with parenthood.

So this coming October 25th we will be celebrating the good that Mr. Ravenscroft produced and how (as I’ve stated previously in these parts) the music made the people come together and how (musical) PREJUDICES were broken down thanks to his sterling work. Which is in no way a defence of child abuse, whatever a handful of haterz and trolls and tabloid journalists might want to make you believe.

Jarvis Cocker – a fellow Peel devotee – was once, you will recall, moved to invade the stage and make comical (read “obscene” in tabloidese) gestures to protest at Michael Jackson’s “god-complex” at the Brit Awards. He later explained that if Jacko had stuck to what he was good at (i.e.: making great pop songs like Billie Jean and Thriller and moonwalking) instead of trying to “heal the world” (and inviting small children to stay over at Neverland) he would still have been universally hailed as a genius instead of a fallen star in his later years.

John Peel, contrary bugger as ever, did most of the good in his life after the bad bits.

* Another, possibly better written piece on the subject here.

Thank you for your time. Normal service will resume as soon as possible.

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3 Responses to “John Peel: home truths”

  1. Martha Farquahar 22 October, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

    Small details but telling ones. The original Daily Heil story said “met at a Black Sabbath concert in Summer 1969.” Black Sabbath didn’t yet exist in Summer 1969. Peel’s postcard says “1970.”

  2. anotherwisemonkey 6 June, 2017 at 7:25 pm #

    I don’t know how you can write things like “I would like to imagine it was she and not he who made the first move”. She was 15. He was an adult. Whoever instigated what happened, he had a responsibility a) not to put in himself in a position where it could happen, and b) to withdraw immediately from the situation should it even be remotely broached.

  3. Martha Farquahar 15 July, 2017 at 7:33 pm #

    It is a made up bunch of BS. Daily Heil altered age from 16 to 15. See my above comment.

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