FORGET Glastonbury, forget Leeds Poly student union, forget the Radio 1 Christmas party – John Peel’s favourite gig was Scunthorpe Baths. Fact.
He used to play at the celebrated municipal venue at least once a year in the mid Eighties and generally spent the next couple of nights on his Radio 1 show going through enormous lists of shouts and requests he picked up from trollied patrons. And he always said that it was his favourite gig of the year. We loved him for that.
We loved him for other reasons too – the sheer variety and quality of music he came up with, night after night. We loved the avuncular, slightly dotty professional persona, which often found him playing records at the wrong speed or playing the wrong side. And we loved him for the fact that he bothered turning up in Scunthorpe at all.
His gigs were the highlight of the year as far as many punters were concerned, no question about it. And I think he liked the fact that he wasn’t playing to a bunch of student wall-flowers waiting for the new single from the latest NME-approved indie muppets on a full discretionary grant.
When he played at Scunthorpe Baths Hall, Peel was playing to a bunch of hard-drinking northerners who lived in an absolute shit-hole and needed to pack in as much fun as possible before they returned to the grim realities of the early shift at the steel works – if they had a job at all.
Everybody danced, all night.
I interviewed Peel after a gig at the Baths in 1986. He got the beers in and bought us a curry and was every bit as brilliant and hilarious and knowledgeable and impressive as you would imagine.
As of today, we can all listen to Peelie’s record collection.
Close your eyes and you could almost be at Scunthorpe Baths.
* * *
Meeting John Peel is like dipping your toe in the Pacific. You get the impression that there’s a huge, vast ocean of endless anecdotes about Marc Bolan, the army and the BBC. Given the opportunity, he could drown you, no doubt about it.
But instead of your life flashing before your eyes, it would be his.
When you talk to him you have to contend with the facial expressions and the Rasputin eyes, still not dulled by decades of vinyl junkiedom.
Give this man a chat show. Make him the new Tarby.
I ask him what it’s like to be constantly portrayed as some kind of indie St George fighting the Radio 1 pop dragon – what’s it like being a hero?
“Well, I know better myself. The odd thing is, I never get slagged off anywhere. I don’t know, perhaps you’re the one to do it. It’d probably do me some good if you did. Everyone says, oh, what a nice old fella he is, and you start to feel like Father Christmas – a rather gloomy Father Christmas, by and large. I certainly don’t feel heroic, not at the moment, anyway – I’ve got a cold or a bout of flu coming on.
“I look at myself through the eyes of my children, and they don’t think of me as heroic at all. I’m a rather grumpy bloke who makes them finish their breakfast. Having children helps a lot.”
What is the role of your radio show? What’s it there for?
“It goes back to what I wanted to do when I was 11 or 12. I lived out in the country and was by nature a rather solitary youth. I was quite happy with that, it didn’t bother me at all. I bought a lot of records and didn’t have anyone to play them to. In essence, that’s what happens now.
“What I do is find records that I quite like and find interesting and play them on the radio. That sounds a gross over-simplification, but that’s the truth of it.”
Would you play chart music, if you liked it enough?
“Not really, because although I quite like some of it, it’s played by everybody else. I get Madonna and Europe at home because of the kids and like some of it, or at the very least understand why other people like it.
“I don’t see my programmes as an alternative to the rest of Radio 1, I see them as an addition to Radio 1.”
A question from the public gallery: Is there any chance of a Wire Peel Sessions release?
“There are certain people, like the Cocteaus, who don’t want their stuff to go out. And this includes all the Rough Trade bands funnily enough. They got sulky because distribution was through someone else. I don’t have anything to do with that side of things. I just pick from the list of available sessions. In fact, that is my only involvement with it really.
“So we can’t have any of the Rough Trade bands and Virgin as well. That’s a bit mean-spirited really. When they first started up, nobody would play their records except me.”
That’s Richard Branson for you.
“I don’t suppose he knows anything about it, too busy flying about in hot air balloons and making a prick of himself.”
Do you ever get disappointed by indie bands who can’t wait to sign up to the first available major?
“Not really because, in a way, I can’t really blame them. I like a lot of the stuff that indie labels put out, I’m glad they exist, but they’re amazingly inefficient. You’d be surprised at the number of records for which I don’t receive promotional copies, just because they’ve forgotten to put one to one side for you.
“It would be very impertinent for me or anyone else to suggest that a band remain in uncertainty and financial misery just in order to satisfy someone else’s artistic cravings. If a band sign to a major and start making crap records then I suppose it’ll be them who suffer. No one will buy their records and the label will drop them.”
Do you ever think it’s a losing battle trying to get bands like the Bhundu Boys into the charts?
“There’s no greater battle to fight than a losing one. Who wants to win?”
[This interview was first published in Airstrip fanzine in 1987]