I don’t think I would have been happy as a rock musician. Even if I managed to overcome my stage fright and loathing of the spotlight, I believe the appalling sights, sounds, and smells of life on the road would have shriveled my resolve in short order. But I would have loved to be John Peel.
Not that I ever actually heard his show. This revered BBC radio host, who shaped the taste of two generations and launched innumerable music careers, was very much a British phenomenon–barely known in the U.S. and completely inaccessible to a kid growing up in the pre-digital Pacific Northwest of the ’70s and ’80s. But if you were as steeped in the British music of the era as I was, the legend of John Peel loomed large.
Musicians name-checked him, and credited him with making them famous. Rumors abounded of his prescience, his willingness to take risks, and his unerring ear for the next big thing. Although he had to deal with his share of ingrates–Marc Bolan, for one, turned his back on the man who had been his earliest booster–some of the toughest and most arrogant rock ‘n’ rollers uttered his name in hushed tones. Even that well-known cranky bastard, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, suspended his policy of bad-mouthing everyone under the sun when it came to John Peel.
If the idea of holding a DJ in reverence seems preposterous, that speaks to the unique position he occupied as an arbiter of what was worthwhile in new music. He was always a step or two ahead, and pulled his listeners along with him–sometimes kicking and screaming. He had no American equivalent. No one even came close.
Peel’s name has been in the news recently due to the recent creation of an online archive comprising his entire record collection–some 26,000 LPs, 40,000 singles, and uncounted thousands of CDs. This hour-long documentary, John Peel’s Record Box, examines Peel’s career through a more modest prism: a box of 7-inch singles that apparently contained the records which were most meaningful to him. A mini-collection within the archival expanse of his larger collection, it’s a motley, rather mysterious assemblage, containing things you’d expect (such as his all-time favorite record, The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”) and a fair number of curios whose significance may never be known. Among those pawing through the 45s and reminiscing about the great man are Jack White, Michael Palin, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Bragg, Elton John, Mark E. Smith, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Roger Daltrey, Pete Shelley, Damon Albarn, Laurie Anderson, and Peel’s widow, Sheila Ravenscroft.