JOHN PEEL – A PERSONAL TRIBUTE
By Bob Harris
I first met John Peel at the end of the summer of love, in the autumn of 1967 at his
small basement flat in Fulham, London . Marc Bolan was there when I arrived, sitting
in his loon pants, cross legged on the carpet, cork-screw hair shaking gently in rhythm
as he strummed through the set he was planning to play at a gig he and John were doing
together that night at London's leading hippie club Middle Earth.
I was there to interview John for the student magazine ‘Unit', published at
Keele University and edited by Tony Elliott, with whom I later co-founded ‘Time Out'.
I was extremely nervous, not to say in awe… knowing that I was going to be
spending time that sunlit afternoon with the man who had already changed my life.
I had arrived in London the previous year, spilling hundreds of vinyl singles and
a Decca stereogram into a small Hampstead bed-sit, bringing with me a deep passion for
music and a determination to become a D. J.
Like so many kids in the late 1950's, my introduction to pop radio had been through
Radio Luxemburg…Alan Freeman, David Jacobs and Jimmy Saville with his ‘Teen
and Twenty Disc Club', broadcasting across the night time void into the tiny transistor
radio tucked under my pillow, from a distant transmitter in the Grand Duchy. The reception
was awful, but it was while listening to those old Elvis, Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers
singles phasing in and out of my consciousness that I decided that playing music on the
radio was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world. In 1967, Pirate radio
was providing the exciting new equivalent, knocking everything that had gone before it out
of the water. Jobless and broke but full of optimism, I sat listening for hours.
Radio London immediately became my favourite station. With Kenny Everett displaying his
on-air genius and Tony Blackburn and the other jocks sounding so sharp and bright, the
station had an energy that I had never heard before on British radio. The station played
the hottest tracks from the burgeoning Brit-Pop scene, with the Beatles, the Stones, the
Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces and others providing a fantastic soundtrack to those early
days in the big city. I felt I was learning from the very best. But nothing had prepared me
for the impact of the new broadcaster who turned up one night with a stack of new American
albums to take over the midnight to 2 am graveyard shift.
Broadcasting ‘…in my stoned solitude from the middle of the North Sea …'
John Peel suddenly arrived in my life with a mixture of records, poetry, letters and
conversation. The format was diverse, the content an absolute revelation. The show was called
‘The Perfumed Garden'. Even the name was exotic. I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
It was instantly clear to me that this was a programme that was stepping way outside of
the usual boundaries of playlists and format. The airwaves literally crackled with the sounds
of a new generation of music…Captain Beefheart, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Love,
the Doors, the Incredible String Band. Whoever this person was, I wanted to be him. I wanted
to press a button and be there in that studio, finding this amazing stuff, getting these
incredible letters from people who were feeling the same way as me and broadcasting it all for
as many people as would listen. At that moment I knew that this was my way forward and that I
had to stick by this feeling. That it really was possible to go on air, go out on a limb and
just play the music you really loved, with no compromise.
Prior to meeting John, my first wife Sue and I went to one of his gigs at Middle Earth. I
wanted to go over and introduce myself but didn't have the nerve. But it was odd, because he
spent a lot of time that evening staring across the club at us both. It was almost as if he
already knew us.
When I finally arrived at his Fulham flat he was lovely. He and Marc and I talked all
afternoon about music and the radio and I've just been reading through some of the things he
said that day.
‘I think that somewhere in your day or week, you need a programme where the people
who are listening are not treated as though they are totally moronic. I don't know why I
called the programme ‘The Perfumed Garden'. I didn't know about the book at the time,
it was just a nice idea, wandering at night through a perfumed garden. As far as I was concerned
it was a state of mind'.
‘Letters played an important part in it. People would say ‘Hey, would you try
to do this' and I would try to do it. I think it is the way a radio programme should be. I
would like to think that it was more than just a pop record show because it did, I suppose,
try to influence people into at least sitting up and thinking about the ideas that I think
are important. It doesn't mean that I thought everyone else had to believe in them, it was
more a question of ‘here you are – do what you like with them''.
As I left, he gave me a copy of a new album he thought I would like. It was ‘Forever
Changes' by Love.
For the next few years, John and I were close friends. I would say that for a while he was
my best friend. He wrote about me in his various newspaper columns and talked about me on air.
Crucially, he became a strong advocate of mine at Radio 1, introducing me to his producer
Jeff Griffin, with whom I did the pilot that was to lead to my first ever radio programme…
sitting in for John on ‘Sounds of the 70's' on19 th August 1970. Two years later I was
second to John in the ‘Melody Maker' D.J. poll and becoming famous as the host the
‘Old Grey Whistle Test'. I would never have dreamed it.
I saw him only a few weeks ago. I was taking a few moments break from my weekly show at
BBC 6 Music. The studio is just along the corridor from the ‘Home Truths' office at
Broadcasting House. He told me he thought I was looking very dapper. ‘Young Bob',
as he always called me.
He was also complaining about the number of times he kept getting stopped in the street
by people thinking he was me. He even talked about it on ‘Grumpy Old Men'. ‘I
keep telling them I'm not you. I never did the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test' but they won't
believe me. We don't look anything alike. I'm about three stone heavier than you for a start'.
We laughed and as always it felt good to me to have Peel-approval.
To this day, I apply the template of ‘The Perfumed Garden' to every show I do. I have
been proud to always acknowledge him as my broadcasting mentor. As he did with so many, John
was responsible for getting me started and setting the standard to which I try to aspire. I
never even gave a thought to the fact that he would not be here anymore.
Learning of his death this week has knocked a main pillar right out of the centre of my life.