Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RAVES!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 02/09/04

Peeling Back The Years or "Forever (Jimmy) Young"

I can't imagine how I missed it.

For the first time since I got on-line in 2001, I didn't send John Peel an e-mail to wish him a happy birthday. And this year of all years, when The Oldest Teenager In The World reaches pensionable age!

I suppose the real reason was that last Thursday night's show was probably the shortest programme ever broadcast. All of four seconds, before a technical problem somewhere between darkling Suffolk and London silenced The Sage Of Stowmarket. Had the show gone ahead as normal, I would have been sitting here at this computer sending him my customary effusive greetings. But it didn't, so neither did I. Perhaps the programme did resume at some point later on, but I had long since gone beddy-byes and missed it if it did.

Photo of John Peel at Maida Vale Studios

John Peel at BBC Maida Vale studios, July 2004, on the
occasion of Orbital's final live performance.
Photograph © Wendy Lacey

So, what can be said of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft (son of noted Liverpool cotton broker Robert (Bob) Ravenscroft) that hasn't either been said already, or would sound ridiculous if committed to posterity?

Well, let's start by saying that he is the only presenter from the inception of BBC Radio 1 in 1967 who is not only there now, but has been there throughout (despite various attempts - about two every decade - to shove him out to the margins). What is the secret? Does he have a set of incriminating photographs purporting to show strange acts of perversion involving successive Directors-General of the BBC, a jar of mayonnaise and what looks suspiciously like a goat? Does he have a crucial royal connection which comes through for him at critical moments? Or has he simply made a Robert-Johnsonian pact with The Devil?

No, not these (at least, nothing has got into the papers about it). And it's not because he hasn't changed. Au contraire, m'dear, he has. Having played an important part in bringing what became known (in increasingly perjorative tones) as 'Prog' to wider attention, Peel's encounter with the first Ramones LP changed the style of his programmes in short order. Out went interminable meanderings from The Grateful Dead, in came 110-second punk blasts, and the whole 'demographic' (if you'll excuse the obscenity) of his shows dropped an entire generation.

Similarly, he was playing Jamaican music when it wasn't remotely fashionable to do so. This led to the neo-Nazi wankers of the time to send him turds through the post. John, ever willing to give selflessly of himself to others, sent them some of his in return, thus ensuring that they got the better of the transaction.

On into the eighties, and the rise of hip-hop and house. We heard it on his show first. Then, what became known under the shorthand term 'Indie' was the backbone of his selections. The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Wedding Present, The Smiths, all gained their fame as a result of exposure on the Peel Wing-ding. He recorded Pulp nearly a decade before the know-nothings of the corporate media had ever heard of them.

(And let's hear it here for the Peel Sessions, an absolute goldmine of rare performances, often giving fascinating glimpses of artists in various stages of undress...erm...I mean development).

Then there was 'Grunge'. David 'Kid' Jensen, one-time colleague and the other half of the famed 'Rhythm Pals' (like a hip version of the Chuckle Brothers, but nowhere near as scary), tells the story of the day in the late 80s when he passed Peel's office and heard an early Nirvana single. When Jensen asked what on earth it was, John replied airily, "Oh, don't worry, you'll be hearing all about it in a couple of years time!"

African music (Diblo Dibala has long been a favourite). Dance. Electronica. Death metal. All has been grist to the mill when it comes to Peel's Pleasures.

But this has been no opportunist faddism. Backing it all is an immense love of music. His long-time producer, the greatly-missed John Walters, said that Peel was always at that stage of excitement we all went through in our early teens when we began to discover our own musical tastes, adding cattishly that if he (Peel) ever reached puberty, we'd all be in trouble.

I don't think there's much danger of that happening. Where else, on the ever-more demographically-obsessed and computer-programmed radio of today are you likely to hear a Lightnin' Hopkins reissue followed by a thumping drum'n'bass 12", or a Rasta lament, or a track from a demo by a group of 18-year-olds from somewhere like Melton Mowbray? And that's not forgetting 'The Pig's Big 78', of course.

And this is the point to pay tribute to Sheila ('The Pig'), the light of John's life and the motor of his enthusiasm for over thirty years. Also to their four children, William, Alexandra, Thomas and Florence, and latest addition grandson Archie. These are the true testimony and tribute to the paterfamilias (and materfamilas too, of course).

I've never actually met the man, of course (my friends Tez & Wendy have, hence the photograph above), but I find it difficult to believe that there are people out there who do not like and respect John Peel (the singer from The Pooh-Sticks was one such, and where are The Pooh-Sticks today, huh? I rest my case...). What we hear is what he is, and who cares that sometimes he has trouble with the technology of modern life and plays vinyl at the wrong speed? Aren't we all like that in some aspect or other of our own lives?

I look at my own record collection, and recognise how many items in it have been garnered as a result of listening to Peely over the last eighteen years. Where would my musical tastes be now had I never heard The Orb, Dr. Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations, or the perennial delight that is Half Man Half Biscuit? I think by now I would have turned into my father, specifically in that "Music? You call that bloody row music?!!" period that we all went through.

I have avoided that and I'm grateful, very very grateful.

So a belated happy 65th birthday, John. To rejig a title of a song by my favourite singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, You Are Always Seventeen. Long may you remain so.

With love, gratitude and Fall acetates,

The Judge