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Thoughts on John Peel's legacy

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Adam Walton Adam Walton | 15:50 UK time, Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Great and good men die every day of the week, so why is John Peel's memory important enough to be resurrected at every opportunity? Why does the knowledge that he would have been 72 today evoke a sense of loss out of proportion with my actual relationship to the man?

Close to seven years after his death, the void he left hasn't been filled. Those of us who are distinctly more ten-a-penny realise his true value as each year passes.

Peel proved you didn't have to be a facile egomaniac to bring people great music. By ensuring he was always in the background, he brought himself to the forefront of our hearts. It was only after a few weeks of listening to his show that I realised I had started to tune in to hear him, as much as the fascinating array of music he hung across the airwaves.

But I miss him now more than ever, because I think that an authoritative, knowledgeable, passionate and prominent voice has never been needed more. Every time The X Factor dupes some poor kid into thinking that talent and expression is all about further watering down the bum gruel of a claustrophobically narrow pop market, I wish John was here to show them another way.

I miss most the natural, enthusiastic eclecticism he brought to music. It was all music to John. I don't imagine he thought in terms of genres. I don't know for sure. I'm just extrapolating on the basis of the variety in his shows. It's an inspirational template - well, more accurately, lack of a template - that influences me every day of my working life.

I think of John every single Sunday. I think of him as I do my absolute best to listen to every track that has been sent my way. The stories I have read and heard of him falling asleep at his desk, a carrier bag of demos at his side, as he sought another moment of wonder or surprise for his audience, keeps me going. That appeared to be the common courtesy he extended to any band good enough to send him music. I try to do the same.

But I feel a little uncomfortable writing about me in terms of him. He is my broadcasting god, of that there is no doubt. However I know I'm not fit to lick his boots. It won't stop me trying.

Of course, John's legacy spreads much further and wider than the dark corner of Radio Wales that I love to inhabit. There are stages at festivals named after him. His name is invoked whenever someone wants to bring attention to new music. I'm not sure what a man who adored the complex opaqueness of The Fall or Captain Beefheart would have made of the easy listening, haircut indie that is positioned in the glow of his kudos. Yes, very rich from a man who is, in essence, doing the same in print form. This is, after all, one long missive screaming: think of ME in the same terms as the late, great John Peel.

That isn't my motivation.

He was my motivation.

I think the finest evocation of his legacy is 6 Music. Okay, it's more sanitised and 'branded' than Peel ever was. Don't get me wrong: I love 6 Music. I'd eat one of my own limbs in a moment for a gig on that station (right leg, if you were wondering). I also love Huw Stephens' Radio 1 show. And I love Rob Da Bank. But I'm rarely surprised listening to music radio now, in the way that I was at least once in every Peel show. Happy hardcore bouncing into Bolt Thrower into gypsy folk into, of course, The Fall (or Datblygu, Melys, Yr Anhrefn et al). You cannot program that random excellence.

There was always a thread, a narrative, through the shows. That thread, of course, was John. We knew all of the music had a place in his heart and that meant that it all, somehow, fitted together. The other great aspect of his music shows was the correspondence he would read out from alienated visionaries in Cleethorpes, clutching him to their lonely hearts via a crackly transistor under the blankets. The love in those letters and, latterly, emails was a reflection of how all of his listeners felt about him.

The frequent criticism I hear about Peel was that "he played a lot of rubbish, though". I guarantee that every one of his diehard audience had a differing opinion on which the rubbish tracks were. That is why he was so special. Members of all of the different musical tribes trusted Peel enough to persevere through the "rubbish" they didn't like because they knew he'd have at least one gem for them by the end of the show. Something they could go order from the local must and vinyl emporium. I'm not sure that there are many who trust the likes of me enough to persevere anymore. Music has become so fragmented and each of the tribes so insular.

Peel helped a couple of generations to be more broadminded than they would have been without his influence. Isn't that an incredible legacy?

You could argue that music lovers don't need a Peel anymore, that sound hounds can be more proactive, trawling blogs/download stores/local gigs and finding stuff for themselves. But Peel would have been better at it than us. He had great taste and unparalleled instincts. And he was brave. His embracing of punk to the chagrin of the proggers and pub rockers who'd started to take his show for granted is the most famous example of him challenging his audience. But he did that continually. Which probably explains The Cuban Boys.

In this bleak conservative age I applaud and miss his most un-conservative of minds and his humble, warm, authoritative tones. Happy Birthday Mr Peel.



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