The Real Peel

john peel bbc

BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel was the ultimate music tastemaker. During his 35-year career Peel never adhered to musical limitations and earned a faithful following due to his warm, engaging style.

Before his death in 2004 Peel began writing a memoir, which was completed by his wife, Sheila Ravenscroft. In this excerpt from Margrave of the Marshes (Chicago Review Press), Ravenscroft recalls her husband’s fondness for The White Stripes (guitarist Jack White wrote the book’s forward), Jeff Mills, grime and underground DJ culture.

Words: Sheila Ravenscroft

In the last few years, John seemed to acquire new motivation and energy. He was thrilled about the kind of artists who were doing sessions for him, first at Maida Vale, beginning in May 1998 with 60ft Dolls, and subsequently here at home. John enjoyed the Maida Vale ritual immensely. The evening would begin with him and the production team having dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant; sometimes the musicians—such as Loudon Wainwright III, Underworld or the Immortal Lee County Killers would come too. When the meal was finished, John would be brought a hot towel, despite the fact that the restaurant didn’t provide hot towels for its clientele; this was a special treat just for John. He would usually leave ten minutes before everyone else, at which point the others would smoke the cigarettes they had been holding back in his presence. John then went and sat in the booth in Maida Vale on his own and listened to records until his colleagues arrived with beer for the audience, and the band got ready to perform.

There were some incredible sessions there: Melys played a storming set the night Liverpool won the UEFA Cup; Melt Banana, Herman Dune, T. Raumschmiere and DJ Rupture were also among John’s favorites. The White Stripes did a Maida Vale show in July 2001, the day before their gig at the 100 Club. John had been playing the seven-inches that Jack White had sent him, and had got his mitts on White Blood Cells just before Jack and Meg arrived in the UK.

John Peel at Home

John Peel at home, digging through stacks of music.

When John and his producer Anita turned up at Maida Vale, the band were sound-checking, so John grabbed the chance for a nap. Anita told me she remembers Jack and Meg waiting expectantly for John to wake up. When he did, they all went to the Thai restaurant and talked about the blues. Jack quizzed John about the gigs he’d attended, and John told him all about having seen Gene Vincent. It seems strange in hindsight, but John had little sense of how the White Stripes were poised to explode in Britain. On the way back to the studio, he said to Anita, “They’re very sweet, aren’t they? We must make sure we mention their tour dates so they get a good audience.”

The White Stripes rattled through three sets of three songs, and the faces in the audience told the whole story: no one could believe, from that fearsome sound, that there were only two of them in the band. Anita asked if they could do one more song as a finale. In the event, they did three. The last number was Gene Vincent’s “Baby Blues.” John just welled up. You couldn’t have prised the smile from his face with a crowbar.

Another session that was very dear to John was the one by Jeff Mills. In fact, John was so excited when he heard that Jeff was booked for the show in May 1998 that he asked the producer to check that it was the Jeff Mills. When he arrived, John nervously watched him through the glass, eventually plucking up the courage to go in and say hello. He had thought Jeff looked like the silent type, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Within seconds, Jeff was asking John questions about records he had played and artists he’d met. Jeff had 50 records with him, and John gently suggested that he had probably brought too many for the 30-minute set. Jeff just smiled to himself. The set was amazing, with Jeff flitting effortlessly between the three decks, spinning around, dancing—and he played all 50 tracks. John was buzzing about it for weeks.

In the same year, he turned over an entire show to the techno label Tresor Records to celebrate their hundredth release. Until that point, techno acts hadn’t been invited on the show, for the simple reason that John and his producer Anita thought they would be too cool to accept. But the likes of Pacou, Tony Surgeon, Carl Regis, Tobias Schmidt and Neil Landstrumn were overjoyed to perform, and the session was revelatory. Tony used the opportunity to try out some new, moodier mixes; Neil claimed it was better than a gig; Carl provided a pounding, teeth-rattling finale. John, for his part, was simply bowled over.

It was lovely to see him so swept up in the music. He was the same when he devoted the program to the then-emerging grime scene in May 2004. John had started playing grime three months earlier after listening to the pirate station Rinse FM and had picked up some of the twelve-inches—including the first grime track he played on air, “Battle” by Jon E. Cash—from Black Market Records in Soho. On John’s initial visit there with his assistant, Hermeet, the guy behind the counter, Nicky, had handed them a pile of grime records and said, “Pioneer.” John asked if that was the name of a grime act, but Nicky explained, “No, you’re a pioneer, sir, and I just had to say it!” John laughed it off but it clearly made him happy.

Whenever John and Hermeet went record shopping after that, Nicky would present them with new grime twelve-inches. Invariably, John would flick through them and say, “Got this one. And this. And this one,” like a boy swapping football cards in the playground. He’d bought so many that there wasn’t enough new stuff coming in to satisfy him.

The grime night arose because John and Hermeet realized there wasn’t anyone playing this music on Radio 1; that made it even more exciting. The studio was overflowing with young DJs whom Hermeet had spotted at a club night in Brixton—there was DJ Eastwood and the Renegade Crew, which comprised MCs Purple, G Double E, IQ and IE. Those among them who had started shaving weren’t old enough to drive; those who could drive weren’t old enough to vote. Most had previously been used to mixing in their bedrooms or among friends, and now they were going out live on Radio 1. It was quite a gamble putting on these relative unknowns; the music was so under-represented on radio that it felt doubly important that the show was a success. John was just pleased to have showcased grime when no one else was playing it; he found the rawness and vitality of the scene rejuvenating.

As featured in issue 16

Darren Ressler

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