"Way up here in the stratosphere, holler mighty loud and clear, E-diddley-ock! Ho! This is Jocko and I'm back on the scene with the record machine. Correct time now … 8:19."
— Jocko Henderson, "The Original Rapper," WDAS-AM Philadelphia
"And er … what was I going to say now? Ah … yes."
— John Peel, BBC Radio One
When John Peel abruptly died on vacation in Peru in 2004, the BBC set up a tribute "Keeping It Peel" micro-site online, garnering a record three million page impressions in its debut month. An American listening to Peel's airchecks from the late 1960s through his untimely demise would have to recalibrate the metrics of what makes an iconic disc jockey. Peel didn't have much in the way of ritual patter or self-developed cadences, nor did he display many of the dynamics of speech associated with an on-air personality. Yet Peel was a U.K. pop culture personality — replete with an OBE from the royal family — as well as a folk hero for his steadfast beliefs. He revealed quirky family matters to listeners, made emotional references to his Liverpool Football Club and didn't edit his opinions about artists' current work (it seems that nobody was safe).
His followers' view of his heroic common-man image is similar to the underdog idolatry Alfred Hitchcock created for leading men Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Unlike Hitch's characters, though, John Ravenscroft was real and delivering new artists until his passing, from Radio London's pirate-ship home base in 1967 through his later dominance of BBC Radio One's 14-to-36-year-old demographic. Along the timeline he broke psychedelic, reggae, hippie bands, prog rock, funk, punk, post-punk, house, grindcore, grime — trends large and small — finishing the trip as an aging man still vital.
To an audience of Britons, this unfinished autobiography turned biography via his widow Sheila is probably an avuncular, humorous glide through Peel's formative and halcyon days. Those of us who couldn't grow up under his fabled musical guidance have to piece together a different, maybe more imaginative story from Margrave of the Marshes. Peel's finished recollections comprise almost half the book, but don't get past an imminent pilgrimage to a brothel during a 1964 Texas/Mexico border-crossing that's left as a cliffhanger. What's outlined up to that point is plentifully eyebrow-raising and can be related to through pop-cultural analogues instead of a Briton's familiarity with the material.
If you're not English, you can experience lads at public school through plenty of pop musicians' warped psychic portrayals, or best with Michael Palin's Ripping Yarn, "Tomkinson's Schooldays," which was more documentary than comedy according to Peel. The author's reminiscences of explicit sexual victimizations and beatings over arcane rule violations are unpleasant and a bit shocking, but they become relevant in fleshing out his anti-authoritarian stance as rebellious music presenter on the mighty BBC.
Peel becomes Woody Allen's time/event traveler Zelig as his recollections move forward to his expatriate days in Texas as a cotton worker. He's astonished to be able to walk up to JFK's motorcade in Dallas to shake the Democratic nominee's hand, answer questions about being British in the Deep South and photograph a posed-for-his-camera politician. When Kennedy is back in Dallas on his final day, Peel describes running to the scene of the crime like a distraught friend. Using only his English accent to fake Liverpool press credentials, Peel sneaked into the police conference revealing a clueless Lee Harvey Oswald to the greater world, and eerily now can be viewed on videotape near the plotting Jack Ruby.
Months later, the Beatles became America's obsession and young John Ravenscroft's phony Liverpool accent got him a personality job on Dallas' KLIF as "official Beatles correspondent," lying to the local marks about his connections to the Fab Four. Being British in America equaled sex, sex, sex and Peel writes it likes he speaks it, describing being a teen deflowering machine, ultimately happy with the exploitation.
John's second wife, Sheila (or Pig, Peel's pet name for her, by which she's commonly known) takes up the mantle to explain why musicians and listeners alike revered the man that the book's foreword writer, Jack White, describes as the most important DJ in rock history. Along with Liverpool F.C., new artists were Peel's obsession. He listened to 400-plus weekly demos morning-to-night at his country home, playing his favorites on-air and reacting like a gobsmacked fan on the mic. Little-known acts were made institutions — Captain Beefheart (one 1972 show featured 18 songs), the Fall, the Undertones — often with subsequent invitations for BBC studio sessions. The Smiths' Johnny Marr once related their Peel Sessions as the high point of their recording careers, claiming that "This Charming Man" was penned three days before a visit. Later Peel Sessions were recorded in his country home, with bands visiting like family. Belle and Sebastian brought gifts of food, White Russians and dog toys.
Pig's chapters reveal Peel the eccentric, a far-from-perfect specimen; quietly hilarious, confounding and sometimes an emotionally fragile man, putting all of it on the air. It's tough to imagine mass-media-slogged Americans having a large-scale love affair with a personality like John Peel. It's tough to imagine a serious music fan not wanting to have firstname.lastname@example.org
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