Good Night and Good Riddance – How 35 Years of John Peel Helped Shape Modern Britain
11 years on from his untimely death and it’s become apparent that John Peel’s big shoes are yet to be filled and it’s doubtful they ever will be. This weighty, geek-pleasing (and baiting - more on that in a bit) tome from David Cavanagh goes a long way to confirming this.
Breaking down 35 years of Peel’s radio work show by show, Cavanagh discusses the playlist and context of some 300 shows Peel recorded from 1967 – 2004, ranging from his early days as a psych-loving flower child on Radio London all the way through to his final days of bemusing and entertaining listeners alike. There have been few DJs (particularly DJs old enough for a free bus pass) who’d happily follow '50s skiffle records with skull-splintering gabba. Each show opens with a list of artists featured (yep, the nerd in me did a little 'whoop' of joy) and a short paragraph on the wider political and social events of the day. Cavanagh’s theory is that Peel often responded, overtly, or, more often not, to the world around him. Taken this way, Peel’s shows are a lens to examine Britain through.
Throughout this mammoth process, Cavanagh – whose previous work includes the history of Creation Records, My Magpie Eyes are Hungry for the Prize – makes compelling arguments for Peel’s remarkable influence over popular culture. In the introduction he forms a convincing case that the music Danny Boyle chose to soundtrack his much-feted 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was almost entirely indebted to the memory of Peel, noting that the musicians Boyle chose - Mike Oldfield, Dizzee Rascal, Pink Floyd, New Order, High Contrast, The Sex Pistols and Frankie Goes to Hollywood - were all first championed by the DJ.
Further in, the book offers a few insights into Peel that may have been obscured by his later status as a man who’d play only the most outré music. In the '70s, for example, Peel had an unerring ear for a hit and I was surprised to learn he’d been instrumental in breaking such soft-centred drive time favourites as Mungo Jerry’s 'In the Summertime' and 10CC’s 'I’m Not in Love'.
In a seemingly constant quest for new directions in sound, Cavanagh talks of Peel ‘purging’ his listeners whenever he felt things were getting too safe – first in the late '70s when the DJ embraced punk, then later in the '80s when he starts to play hip hop and dance records, sternly rebuking his listeners for noting voting for enough rap in 1988’s annual listener’s poll.
On the subject of hip hop, Cavanagh is a wry observer, if not necessarily a fan. He points out that Peel’s castigation of LL Cool J’s sexism could be seen as somewhat hypocritical in light of the DJ’s previous championing of the likes of proud all-American misogynist Ted Nugent. This refusal to hero worship Peel is one of the book’s strengths. Whilst Cavanagh has an immense love and admiration for the man, he doesn’t allow this to let him avoid discussing the trickier details of Peel’s life – his doomed marriage to the 15-year-old Shirley Anne Milburn, or his occasional political flip-flop. As a result, we get a rounder portrait of a DJ who was, by and large, a true humanitarian who often found himself on the right side of history. He knew, for example, that Tony Blair was an arsehole, publicly stating he’d never support Labour again in the wake of Blair’s Gulf War.
There are, however, some criticisms that can be levelled at the book. Cavanagh has a woeful grasp on dance music – almost belligerently so. Despite Peel’s championing of everyone from Plastikman to Jumping Jack Frost, Cavanagh’s analysis of rave is consistently patronising. You can only assume Peel would snort at his assertion that hard dance music “is a case of rapidly diminishing returns” or that all music journalists find it impossible to write about techno with any intelligence (he’s clearly unaware of Kwodwo Eshun). I was also annoyed at Cavanagh’s decision to include no index (the geek-baiting previously mentioned). In a pragmatic sense, this makes the book a bugger to review. It also undermines the strength of it as a reference tome – a strange decision for a book that seems tailor-made to dip in and out of. The argument for doing so does have some credence, however, with Cavanagh claiming that he wants readers to have to approach the book as they would one of Peel’s own shows – you can’t skip the bits you don’t like in order to to get to the stuff you do, it has to be taken as a whole. This conceit also highlights why we’ll never see another Peel – his power lay in the fact that listeners were strapped into his ship as he steered through choppy waters; you didn’t like the happy hardcore tune he was playing? Tough, you’d have to sit it out to hear the White Stripes' exclusive. And maybe, just maybe, you’d change your mind along the way. With a culture now fuelled by internet-enabled instant access, this wilful fkkking with expectations would never stand.
In conclusion, this hefty round-up should make it onto a few Christmas lists and rightly so. It’s exhaustive and often fascinating. As a series of snapshots it’s a great way to chart the restless invention that has characterised English pop music – it even works as a potted history of the country itself. In many ways it’s a more revealing portrait of Peel than his incomplete autobiography – what better way to describe the man than through the records that made him?
Good Night and Good Riddance – How 35 Years of John Peel Helped Shape Modern Britain by David Cavanagh is published by Faber & Faber and in shops on 1st October.