John Peel
2002 Interview

Gone but not forgotten. Back in 2002, Nick Doherty talked to the Radio 1 jockey who was an inspiration to generations of listeners

By Nick Doherty

Do you lament the supposed absence of ‘stars’ from today’s scene? A Hendrix or a Bowie?
No, not really. One of the things I like about dance music, although it’s changing a bit now, was the fact that people preferred to remain anonymous and you’d get records that had absolutely no information on them at all. They just kind of ‘were’. You had to assess them for what was on the record rather than thinking ‘oh, this is a cool record label’ or this is a hip DJ’ or whatever. I kind of like that. It seems to be an almost ‘punk’ spirit in a way. You couldn’t be influenced by anything other than what you heard in the groove.
Do you miss having a record label, and why don’t you run one now?
I did have one, I suppose, and it was never a success financially. In fact, we lost money, if I remember correctly, on every single release bar one. I did quite like it but it was terribly indulgent. Not as indulgent as it would have been had I not had a business partner, admittedly. One of my projects, and I’ve gone someway towards realising this, was… I’d chosen the name ‘Sharon’, I’m not sure why, and I was going to recruit 101 women called Sharon. I’d collected the name, address and phone number’s of about fifty at one point. When I reached 101 I was going to put them in a studio, and not let them out until they’d made an LP. That seemed to me to be perfect.

I quite liked the idea of recording an LP for reasons other than commerce or music. Unfortunately the ‘101 Sharons’ project had to be shelved but perhaps some enlightened entrepreneur, Richard Branson or somebody, would like to give me the money to fully realise my boyhood dream. I liked having a label. It enabled you to put out stuff that you liked without, in those days, having to worry about whether it was going to work commercially. I’ve never been a good business man.
Actually, why aren’t you a music industry mogul by now? Do you have business acumen?
Absolutely not! And I don’t want to be. I’m entirely happy with my role in life. I don’t want to sound smug, but I’ve been fantastically lucky – I’ve been able to do everything that I’d have wanted to do at the age of 19. I’ve got the perfect job, I’ve got an amazing wife, four really nice children that I’m really proud of, I live in the country in a house that I really like… I can’t imagine how anything could really improve my life. Like Teenage Kicks I can’t imagine anything you could add to it or subtract from it to make it better.
Do you never feel a sense of ‘possession’ with the people you’ve supported? I always think of Pulp, whose records you played for years before they became ‘the biggest band in Britain’ etc. From a record buyers point of view, I always hated bands I liked getting into the charts. All those other people feeling the same way etc…
No! I want everyone else to feel the same way. I want them to be popular. I want them to be successful. I wouldn’t put them on the radio if I didn’t want other people to hear what they do. Some of my colleagues are quite concerned about the influence that they may or may not have on the record industry, but I don’t give a fuck about the record industry. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I’m grateful for what the record industry does, in as much as it provides me with the things I play on the radio, but that’s as far as it goes. There are some record labels that I know personally and am fond of, but the record industry as such is of absolutely no interest to me at all.
How do you avoid becoming cynical about the industry? About the ‘best of/most of’ culture, the demographics, the marketing spends, and all the rest of it?
By not paying any attention to it. Not even knowing how it works, or being involved with it on any level. People often ask me questions about industry practices etc, and I know that when I reply ‘actually, I have absolutely no idea at all’, they think I’m being disingenuous. But I really don’t. I mean, I’ve not been in a record company office for 25 years.
Has religion played any part in your life? Do you think it might as you get older?
I live in constant dread of having a religious experience really, because up to a point, what makes life attractive is the uncertainty. Religion seems to bring a certainty into peoples lives, and I wouldn’t want that. I mean, obviously, I don’t want the kind of ‘am I going to live through the night?’ uncertainty. But low-level uncertainty makes life interesting.”
Is there any one rule that you’ve learnt that could be passed on? Any one piece of advice that you cherish above all?
The only principle that I would apply to anything is derived from The Water Babies. There was a character called ‘Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby’ and I think ‘do as you would be done by’ is the only philosophy you need. Treat other people as you would wish to be treated yourself. I can’t think of anything to beat that to be honest.
At a recent event to celebrate your radio career, they pulled out a seventies ‘Radio 1 Annual’ in which you’d been interviewed. You basically outlined a vision of radio in twenty years, which has held true. So how about the next twenty?
The fact that within the past year research has shown that more people are listening to the radio than watching television is encouraging. Obviously it has a portable quality that television can’t have, and also, however spontaneous a television programme may purport to be, it isn’t really. I just think radio has all of the advantages – you can do things as they happen. This is why things like playlist committees piss me off. You get a great record in, like [The White Stripes’] Hotel Yorba and the playlist committee say ‘hmm, interesting. Hmm. Yes.’ But because it doesn’t fit into some generic sound you get ‘let’s talk about this again next week will we? ’ Next week the same thing happens. Three weeks later they may put it onto this other thing, which I really don’t understand, where a record is listed but not played! It’s just on some kind of list for the honour of being on it. We’ve got all of the cards! The newspapers can't do it, the magazines cant do it, television cant do it, but a great record can come in and you can go down and say ‘PLAY THIS NEXT!’ And we never do that. We never do it at all. Unless Robbie Williams comes in for an interview with a CD of his new single in his jacket pocket. It’s like a gambler that deliberately loses! We have all the cards, radio has all the cards, and they never play them. And I simply don’t understand that. ”
People always still ask ‘Did you hear about such-and-such’? It’s rarely ‘did you see that on the news?’’
That’s true. You know that when you do TV, and they say ‘it’ll only take ten minutes’, I say, ‘nothing, in the whole history of television, has taken’ only ten minutes’. You’re going to have to set-up, do the lighting…’ Before long it’s ‘do you mind if we repaint that entire wall? Can we just tease your hair a bit?’ The nature of TV is that it cannot be spontaneous. And radio can, and is, and should be! It drives me nuts. There are people who I really like, like Mark and Lard and Jo Whiley, and you just think there should be more for them. You know, ‘someone just brought in this great record, let’s play it’. The trouble is it has to go to committee. I don’t know how the playlist committee works, I’ve never been to it, but I get the impression from what people tell me, that it’s essentially Blair-ite, a democracy in name but not in action. One of the things I’ve just been debating [at a Music Industry Seminar] in New Zealand is ‘do the public relations industry have too much control over the media’ – and I think we should just tell them to fuck off. They wouldn’t exist without us. Obviously, I as a DJ need them to give me the records, but that’s all I need. The idea that we’re constantly making deals with them and being grateful towards them…fuck ‘em.
How about writing? Do you enjoy it?
I find it really therapeutic, I really do.
Do you lock yourself away?
No. I have a computer in the hall. In fact, I like to write when there’s a lot going on around me. I always think I do better when there’s chaos and noise and people coming and going. My Radio Times columns keep getting cut back and back and back. They are always ‘re-designing’ the page, and it’s gone from a 1,000 words, to 800, to 650 and now to 400. I may be re-designed away completely eventually. I’ll be re-designed away to greetings cards length. ‘Have a wonderful holiday – John Peel.’ A lot of stuff I’ve totally forgotten doing. People come back and quote things at me and I think ‘that’s really clever! Did I write that? I must have got that from one of the kids…’
There’s perhaps a little bit of Larkin in you, and I know you have an affinity for Morrissey’s lyrics, and they were both viewed as ‘Little Englanders’ in some ways. So what about ‘the state of the nation’? Do you rail against the prevalence of juvenile delinquency etc?
It’s one of those things. You think ‘how have these people got into the state that they’re in? Really young people... why is it? Their parents and their mothers sometimes lose interest in them when they become pregnant again, or when they stop being cute and ‘girly’ babies and become a pain in the arse, as kids do. You want to rescue them in a way. You want to know what would be the secret to providing them a nice life. Morrissey and Larkin in their time have both been accused of having rather right-wing attitudes and I don’t feel that punishment is the answer. I’m a bit of a wet liberal. Obviously, when I do eventually have the shit kicked out of me by kids when I go to collect my pension I may feel very differently, but you just think ‘there has to be a moral advance to match the technological leap that’s occurred in the last twenty or thirty years. I want it to happen. Not for my sake, because as I say my life at the moment is wonderful and has been for many years, but I just want other people to have a good time as well. I hate looking on unhappiness. I can’t cope with other people’s unhappiness. I just wish I could do something about it, and you can’t. That kind of frustration is with you all the time.
I read that you started out as a correspondent on the Merseybeat sound in America, under somewhat false pretences. Do you carry the weight of guilt for that?
Absolutely not at all! It gave me an opportunity to do what I wanted to do. I feel as though I’ve been quite useful and that people have quite enjoyed some of it, so the fact that I had to… not lie exactly, it was more of a sin of omission rather than commission. Americans seemed to assume that because I came from the Liverpool area that I would know The Beatles personally. I never said that I did, but then I never said that I didn’t. I don’t feel guilty about it at all, because otherwise no-one would be playing Mark Smith vs Safe and Sound’s Identify The Beat on the radio. And I think it’s important that somebody should be.
John Robert Parker Ravenscroft OBE (known professionally as John Peel), sadly passed away on 25 October, 2004.
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