A friend sent me the news a couple of minutes after it was announced. I guess that he’d been listening to the radio. I sent him a four-letter word in reply and logged onto bbc.com to read the story. The news was obviously still breaking, there were only a couple of paragraphs and a link so that readers could send in their memories.
As the afternoon progressed, that list of tributes grew and grew. I called my sister to tell her and stumbled over the words.
We played ‘Teenage Kicks’ in the office.
I switched on the car radio when I left work at 5. It’s tuned to a news and speech channel. They’re talking to Jarvis Cocker on the main bulletin. I flick over to the highbrow talk channel and they’re doing much the same.
I don’t know where Radio 1 is on the dial. It used to be 1053 / 1089 when I was a kid but it’s long since moved to AM. I try and remember a station ident and decide its somewhere near 98, switch to FM, and press the up button. The digits flick through until they stop at 98.2, and Underworld starts booming out of the car stereo, followed by Pulp and followed by the Smiths, and that’s when I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut and I start to cry.
In its own unique way, Radio 1 is trying to pay a tribute to John Peel by dropping the playlist and playing the sort of thing they think he plays, but they’re only playing the safest tunes, the ones that did cross over, the ones that he’d probably stopped playing anyway. They’re reaching out, but they’re falling so far short that it serves to remind you just how unique he really was and how much of a gap he’s left behind.
I’m reminded of those knackered tapes that I’d make of Peel Sessions, of those early Strange Fruit releases with the identikit sleeves. I remember the night he played ‘Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft’ by The Wedding Present and I went out to buy it after school the following day. I remember how upset I used to get with the Festive Fifty rundown, and how he and John Waters used to talk cack for five minutes at a time, an obvious precursor to the witterings of Mark and Lard.
When I get back to Northampton, its the lead item on the 6 o’clock news. They cut over to Andy Kershaw, a close friend and former Radio 1 colleague. The presenter asks him what his favourite memory is of John and he’s close to tears when he says that there’s no way he could possibly narrow it down to one.
Switching the digital radio on, I instinctively press the button for Radio 6. As we move to a multi-channel age a lot of the post-Peel DJs have been shunted over here. You feel it’s probably his natural stomping ground but of course there’s no way that the controller of Radio 1 would try and shift him.
They’re playing ‘My Favourite Dress’ by The Wedding Present.
Kershaw, both on that news bulletin and later on on Radio 4 makes the claim that John Peel has probably been the most important figure in British rock over the last 40 years, more influential than John or Paul. Nobody challenges him. The controller of Radio 1 says on the news, ‘John really is irreplacable. I have no idea what we’re going to do.’
I can’t think of another person in this country whose passing would trigger such a wave of affection. I can’t think of another cultural figure that would lead the country’s national pop station to dump the playlist. The newsreader on Radio 4 said the response from listeners had been unprecedented. Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you’ve lost it.
Six years ago, in Simon Garfield’s book, ‘The Nation’s Favourite’, John said “I’m a great believer in getting your priorities wrong, setting your sights low so that you don’t go through your whole life frustrated that you never became prime minister. Really, it’s playing and listening to records that I like.”
That’s how I’m going to remember him.