Tag Archives: ravenscroft

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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Home taping didn’t kill music (Happy Birthday John)

30 Aug

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Today, 30th August 2012, would have been John Peel’s 73rd birthday.

73 isn’t a particular number of note (his wife had a collection of 78s as I recall, or was it her pick of his 78s.. not sure..) but it is always worth celebrating the life of the man who in his own way fomented the eclectic tastes of so many of us and who, for people of a certain age (my age and older, I suppose) who lived out their student years before the so-called interweb, was sometimes the sole or at least the initial conduit into a world of music outside the traditional realms of Top of the Pops, although of course many of the musicians he gave an initial airing to would go on to be staples of such programmes.. but that’s another story.

Just as many today would scour music blogs and cheeky content sites trying to find interesting new-to-me music for no money, their counterparts of the 1980s (and before) would sit listening to John Peel’s programme at 10.00 pm on the one-time-wunnerful Radio One (“275 – 285, and stereo V-H-F”) with sweaty fingers paused over rec and play. Downloading a podcast from 6Music or listening to Zane Lowe or whoever on the iPlayer doesn’t really match up in the “magic memory” stakes, however fantastic Stuart Maconie’s musical taste is (and it is, believe me). And just as we would tape the songs off Peel’s programme (or in some cases, just leave the thing running and tape the whole programme), young men and women up and down the country would be inspired to start their own bands, record a demo tape and send it to the BBC for him to hear. Some with the idea of becoming professional musicians, others just keen to meet the approval of their revered tastemaker. Peel usually listened to these tapes in his car while driving to Broadcasting House, or wherever, and once quipped that he imagined many listeners imagined he would be more than happy to meet his maker in a road accident while trying to decipher a cassette inlay. Something he made quite clear was not the case!

Tapes were central to John Peel’s BBC shows, whether they were specially-recorded ones he received in the post from bands, African cassettes sent from foreign parts (like.. er.. Africa) or the cratefuls of TDKs and BASFs that were used to record his shows by listeners like me (and quite possibly by you as well).

Which leads on to the tapes themselves.  Thanks to the web you’re reading this on now, collaborative projects like the fantastic John Peel Wiki compile months and months of Ravenscroft-selected broadcasts, from semi-muffled recordings of  The Perfumed Garden and Top Gear (the pre-Clarkson, even pre-Woollard Top Gear – the “gear” in question probably being a drug reference than anything motor-related) where the great man spoke in what seems a fairly posh-but-weedy voice to crystal-clear digital DAB recordings in the 21st century… recordings of the wise-but-sufficiently-with-it-but-not-embarrassingly-so dad we never had or the one we would have liked to evolve into ourselves one day.

The equally wonderful John Peel Archive, who are currently working their way though Peelie’s “hallowed shelves” a hundred records at a time (100 records per letter, A-Z), have also been keeping their own collaborative documentation of those cassettes on which we tapers recorded Peel’s shows. I myself thought I was being incredibly original in calling one of my “taped off the radio” cassettes “Mixed Peel” until I saw that someone on the Peel Archive Pinterest page had posted photos of his own collection including one with the same name (along with an “Orange Peel”, an “Emma Peel” and so on).

So here are some of my “original” custom-made Festive Fifty cassette inlays from the mid to late 80s, my “golden era” of listening to John Peel. These were the days of photocopied fanzines, of Rotring pens and Letraset, of Pritt Stick and typewriters that jammed. A colour photocopy was a thing of wonder, and nobody owned their own printer. In fact, mention the word “printer” to a sixteen-year-old schoolkid in the 1980s and they’d probably think of orange xerox-mecca Prontaprint or Mr Munnings out of Trumpton.

Looking back on these lovingly-prepared covers (who said “sad bastard” back there?) I really don’t think I could have imagined making such an effort for any of Peel’s contemporaries, even though I regularly listened to Janice Long, Kid Jensen and Annie Nightingale (as well as Mike Allen on Capital and other stuff) and enjoyed most of the music. I no longer own a working tape recorder as various Walkmen, ghettoblasters and tape-to-tape separates have long given up the ghost. Occasionally I dip into the very programmes that live in the cases you see here, recorded by someone else at the same time I was listening (these shows – at least to my knowledge – were never re-broadcast on Radio One) and digitised by that same person or those same persons with more technical flair than myself.

Home taping didn’t kill music, you see. It saved it. For posterity.

Here are some links to some site with shows originally preserved on tape:

Now to start digging around for something for Keeping It Peel day, October’s not that far away!