INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo NOVEMBER 2015 - by Keith Cameron
THE NATION'S SAVING GRACE
Mammoth history of John Peel's radio career does a great man justice.
David Cavanagh: Good Night And Good Riddance
John Peel's death in October 2004 was the cue for some shameless attempts to co-opt his legacy. Prime Minister Tony Blair paid glowing tribute, though didn't mention Peel's 1998 public repudiation of the government, while the BBC renamed a wing of Broadcasting House in his memory. The irony would not have been lost on Peel, who for most of his career was scorned by colleagues and shunted around the schedules like an embarrassing relative; as late as 1996, his weekly Radio 1 airtime was cut to just four hours. Yet as David Cavanagh notes, John Peel embodied the BBC's Reithian principles no less than establishment icons Richard Dimbleby or John Arlott. "The last of an old breed... [Peel] was the kind of broadcaster a nation grows up to treasure."
Beginning its chronological journey through two hundred and sixty-five Peel programmes in 1967 with the pirate radio Summer Of Love musings of The Perfumed Garden, Good Night And Good Riddance asserts that without shy, chameleonic, endearingly clumsy DJ John Ravenscroft, Britain today would be a very different place. The author realised as much during the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which incorporated the music of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Mike Oldfield, The Sex Pistols, New Order, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and more, right up to Dizzee Rascal, all stars who had benefited from Peel's advocacy when they needed it most - before anybody else cared. Cumulatively, over thirty-seven years of favouring the obscure and obtuse, typically late at night, John Peel infected successive generations. "He did more than anyone in the British media," Cavanagh argues, "to get a nation of young minds interested in mistrusting the mainstream."
With the same punctilious detail and wry understatement that decorated his history of Creation Records, Cavanagh recreates John Peel's domain, a place where musical opposites are flung together, Brian Eno albums are unwittingly played backwards and Ivor Cutler or The Fall are always in session. Each entry is prefaced with a story from the day's news - sometimes banal, often grim; the Irish Troubles are a recurring theme - a format that helps contextualise his evolution from hippy idealist into the disillusioned, irascible but no less passionate supporter of the underdog who blossomed during punk and beyond. Although Cavanagh clearly admires Peel, and writes especially well where their passions intersect - the elemental appeal of The Undertones' Teenage Kicks, for example - he is critical of his inconsistencies and failings, trivial or otherwise, be it chastising listeners for clogging the Festive 50 with the same wan-faced indie bands he's afforded hours of airtime, or occasionally acquiescing to the careless sexism of a less enlightened era.
Despite its forbidding six-hundred-page length, this is a fabulously readable and deeply rewarding book: a musical travelogue, a cultural history of Britain, a radio diary, even a personal drama - by the mid-'90s, Peel's hounding by BBC management was seriously damaging his health. Good Night And Good Riddance is like reuniting with an old friend, and realising you miss them more than ever. It also definitively proves that nowadays we all live in a John Peel world.
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED
• In 1969, guardian of the nation's morals Mary Whitehouse demanded Peel be fired by the BBC for joking on air about having contracted VD. He kept his job but his show Son Of Night Ride was dropped.
• On October 16, 1979 Peel was thwarted in his attempt to air the debut EP by a young Dublin band. "If anyone from U2 is listening, both copies were far too warped for me to play," he explained.
• The vote for Peel's year-ending Festive 50 chart was subject to rigging on at least two occasions.
• In 2000, Peel and his wife Sheila enjoyed a QE2 cruise from New York to London in the heady company of Barry Norman, Delia Smith and Alan Hansen. "A good time was had by all," he informed his listeners. "We ate and drank prodigiously."