'Teenage dreams so hard to beat
A tribute to John Peel by Rebeckah Pearce
It was the most tragic news received by the music industry for a
long time. Legendary broadcaster John Peel died of a sudden
heart attack while on a working holiday in Peru, a destination he
had always wanted to visit. John was 65, although in his heart he
was still the eternal teenager.
We took it for granted that John would always be there, always DJ-ing,
always playing an exciting new band or an obscure single from Melt
Banana or Kando Bongoman. John was a one in a million man
in so many ways and will be sorely missed by all that were touched
John Peel started his radio career in Dallas, Texas, and as with
so many stories of his life, there are generally a couple of versions.
One is that the independent radio station in Dallas, WRR, wanted some
of the records John owned and so hired him. The other version is that
John blagged his way onto the station by claiming he knew the Beatles
(who were at the height of fame at the time) and accentuating his
Liverpudlian accent. John's real name was John Ravenscroft
but the station said this was to hard for people to remember and changed
it to John Ravencroft:
"They dropped the 's' as they said that individuals wouldn't
remember my name. Perhaps collectively they could have met up and
remembered my name as a whole but individually apparently they couldn't."
John returned to the UK in 1967 and joined the pirate radio station,
Radio London, where he had his show The Perfumed Garden. When
Radio London was closed down by the government a new radio station,
Radio 1, started up and they recruited John, along with 20 other DJs.
It was here that John Raven(s)croft became John Peel. John remained
at Radio 1 until he died and was the longest serving DJ there.
Establishing himself with his late night show, Top Gear, John
started drawing a faithful following. He played the most eclectic
mix of music - a mix that no DJ had done before or has done since,
and now, perhaps never will. John championed punk, reggae, rock, hip-hop,
country, world, techno, happy hardcore, every type of music imaginable.
John's popularity stemmed from the fact that he was so human on the
radio. He wasn't slick, didn't churn out bad jokes or loud banter.
He was notorious for playing records at the wrong speed, getting distracted
during a song and so not lining up the next record. He would hum whilst
locating a record so the emergency tape wouldn't kick in. You could
hear John dropping things, chatting with producers in the studio and
generally just being himself.
He also pushed boundaries and didn't adhere to rules. John would
often play an entire album on his shows, front to back, if he loved
it. He got into trouble with PR companies for playing promotional
albums he had been sent. This happened recently with Elephant
by the White Stripes. John loved the record so much that he
played almost the entire album before being reprimanded.
John's family organised a public funeral followed by a private service
for family and friends.
I was lucky enough to attend this funeral and sit inside the giant
cathedral in Bury St Edmunds while thousands of mourners listened
to the service outside via speakers.
Musicians from all over attended including The White Stripes, Robert
Plant, Jarvis Cocker and Feargal Sharkey, to name
just a few. The service was touching and traditional with hymns and
songs performed by John's local choir, the Stowmarket Choral Society,
of which his wife Sheila is a member. However, you knew this
was a service with a difference when "Going Down Slow" by
Howlin' Wolf and "Running Scared" by Roy Orbison
were played, filling the Cathedral in its entirety.
Eulogies by John's family, friends and colleagues were read. Perhaps
the most warm and funny being written by John's four children, and
that was read out by family friend, Charlie Bell.
"We have often been asked what it is like to have John Peel
for a dad. A lot of people saw him as a father figure. Apart from
the fact that he was a lot cooler and more culturally aware than we
are, the reality is we have never had another dad but we could not
have asked for a better one."
The children (Danda, Thomas, Flossie and William)
also said that the £2 coin collection that John guarded with
his life would be paying for his gravestone.
Long-time fellow presenter Paul Gambaccini also delivered
a eulogy: "You broke more artists then any broadcaster in
the history of radio. Every artist once needed a John Peel - some
of the people who paid tributes to you were Pink Floyd, Robert
Plant, Led Zeppelin and Elton John.
And looking at you now, that's a big coffin. Its a very big coffin."
It was such an honour for me to sit in a cathedral and pay my respects
among so many of John's family and friends. It is also very strange
to attend a funeral with your musical heroes - yet this went out of
my mind as soon as the service began.
It is a regret of mine that I never met John Peel. It was my ultimate
dream to meet him, the only human on the planet that I would have
been star-struck by, but at the same time would have just wanted to
hug him and say 'thank you'. I finally met John for the first and
last time - sadly, it was as his coffin passed me in the grand Cathedral.
The most poignant moment of the funeral was when John's own voice
kicked in talking candidly about his life and how lucky he was:
"I'm fabulously lucky, I've got everything I wanted as a
kid - a house in the country, an outstanding wife, really great children
and a job playing records I love on the radio. If I drop dead tomorrow,
I'll have nothing to complain about - except that there'll be another
Fall LP out next year."
John's words were followed by a rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone'
as sung by his beloved Liverpool FC's fans. Many of the mourners
outside joined in and as the song drew to a close, the infamous "Teenage
Kicks" by The Undertones (John's all time favourite song)
resonated throughout the Cathedral, escorting John to his final resting
place. As the coffin left through the doors, a massive round of applause
burst out from mourners both inside and outside. It seemed a fitting
farewell to a man so great.
And so, on a last note, I just want to say this: John, you meant
the world to me, I shall miss you terribly, forever but above all,
thank you and rest in peaceful noise.
"I don't plan to retire before I die. I don't like the idea
of retirement. I don't want to play golf. I just want to keep doing
what I'm doing.
I do regard the playing of golf as like entering the antechamber to
death. When my mates tell me they've started playing golf, I mentally
cross them off the Christmas card list."
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