Friday, 19 November 2010 Back in the mid ‘60s, like most British kids of my generation, I was a big fan of the pirate radio stations Radio Caroline and Radio London. Other than Radio Luxembourg (which only came on in the evening and had a pretty flaky signal), the pirates were really the only way of hearing any decent music on the radio.
John Peel was one of the early stars of Radio London and his ‘The Perfumed Garden’ was essential listening
When BBC Radio One started, at the end of ’67, and all the best pirate DJ’s switched over, John Peels’ ‘Top Gear’ show became my new favourite.
In those days, other than the equally brilliant Pete Drummond, he was virtually the only DJ playing the new music that was coming out of the American West Coast - stuff like Moby Grape, Love and Buffalo Springfield. And with his low, lugubrious voice and self-deprecating sense of humour, I always felt he was talking directly to me personally. Between songs, he’d ramble on at some length, in the hippy-dippy, peace and love type way that was fashionable at the time - talking about cycling in the park, looking at the birds and smelling the flowers. And he often used to say how much he liked it when any of his listeners would come up to him and say hello.
One day, for some reason that now completely escapes me, I was wandering around Hyde Park with a small group of school friends and I noticed John Peel sitting against a tree, earnestly reading a book. At that age, I was very shy and gauche and my friends were mostly the same. Nevertheless, I persuaded them to come over with me and try to engage the great man in conversation. “It’s okay” I told them, “he said on the radio he likes it.”
We wandered over and I ventured a rather meek “Hi” to which his response was a sharp and unequivocal “F*ck off!” He didn’t even bother to look up. I was really rather shocked. Not by his choice of language - I heard those same two words, in that exact order, virtually daily from girls at my school. It was just that it was the absolute last thing you’d expect radio’s most mellow, flower-power type bloke to come out with. We obediently did as he suggested, but that day the altar of my hero worship received it’s very first, small dent.
Almost exactly twenty years later, I was commissioned by the NME to photograph Mr Peel at his house in Suffolk. At some point in the proceedings, I light-heartedly mentioned our somewhat unpromising first meeting. Unaccountably in my view, he claimed to be totally unable to recall the earlier event. Nevertheless he was quite apologetic, verging almost on the sincere. A while later, when I was packing my gear into my car, he came out and by way of a further apology and completely out of sight of the NME journalist (Sean O’Hagan) or anyone else, presented me with an album from his extensive collection that I mentioned earlier I’d been looking for for years - Jackie Whitren’s ‘Give Her the Day.' Which was extremely nice of him. He appeared genuinely sorry about that day, 20 years before, that he couldn’t even remember anyway.
John Peel genuinely was one of the good guys and is sorely missed.