We need to talk about John Peel

Have you marked this past decade in detached melancholy? You are unlikely to be alone. It has been 10 years since the death of John Peel; 10 whole years. For those that don’t know, John Peel was a serious force within the British musical establishment. An eclectic master whose work on radio (mostly with the BBC) provided a platform for underground artists to gain exposure on a national level at a time when it was impossible. I mean, this man was truly, truly eclectic in his taste and passion; anyone who can enthuse equally about psychedelic rock/punk/folk/electro or metal is alright in my book. His pan-musical approach combined with a subtle, confessional style and long career has resulted in immense love, affection and respect for the man. It is utterly deserved. Though I should point out that my radio experience of Peel rests solely with Home Truths, a non-music show where he would interview regular members of the British public with interesting stories to tell. It was amazing. I think his magic lay in that he actually cared about things and placed currency in ideas that had none. He believed in people. One of the few.

                              And people believed in him.

I’ve read a few facebook tributes to Peel this past week and, though a facebook tribute is the worst of all offences, the respectful grief was touching. That said, these tributes came from acquaintances who are actively involved in musical pursuits and therefore most effected by Peel’s ideals. Each one a reminisce of the exact time the news arrived; all the sandwiches left uneaten in grief, the tears shed. Pretty potent stuff. This is why I feel so conflicted in saying these words, but say them I must: We need to let him go.

I’m not sure if you realise but there are weird little pockets of ever deepening existential crises within critical circles. You pick bits little up here and there if you keep your ear to the ground. A low murmur of discontent and fear of the endless unknown spread before us. I read a New York Times article recently (which I have since lost the link to because I am an idiot) about how streaming services like Spotify have reduced the value of musical taste-makers (those people who tell you what you should be listening to) as the majority of music is now available at an instant. It also complained about how tribal identities formed by shared culture (e.g. forming friendships because you know/like the same anti-mainstream punk act) were becoming irrelevant as we can simply cross-reference the artist on Youtube and jump to a snap decision. There is no longer power in being a music geek. There is no base connection. The cherished, rarified knowledge becomes worthless.

John Peel was the defining Music Geek. His knowledge paramount. It’s easy to see why those who have since become rudderless look back at him for assurance; to relive a time when we had a guide who showed us the sonic world in all it’s variety. A particular prophet for a particular people. I just think that we owe it to his memory, now, to go out on our own and discover things for ourselves. To stop wallowing in endless self-pity at the state of music; all these endless discussions about the state of music. It is boring and dull. John Peel probably had choice words to say on the subject; but then again he was one to put the time and energy in to discover the vibrancy of the underground. There is always vibrancy in the underground. That is all you need to know. Just go and find it.

                   Or become friends with the band; that helps too.

It is so easy and so rewarding using the Interweb to find some small, random little band from Tunbridge Wells or Portland or Chennai and be so gripped by their music that you want to tell everyone. Or maybe that’s not your thing, maybe you’ll just be happy finding a song that you understand and listening to it for hours on repeat. Sure, some analogue luddite will make you feel bad for not putting the time or money into trawling 5 record stores for one album (or ‘doing it properly’) but then again there are always those prefer using knowledge as a weapon. Just pity them as you would any playground bully. In fact, codifying a sole method in which to discover music goes entirely against what Peel stood for. He was a fan. He liked music regardless of how it reached him. All music.

It goes without saying that I disagreed with that particular New Yorker, Spotify is a glorious addition to the ways in which we listen. Having the sounds of the world at our fingertips is refining our taste on a massive scale. Back in the day I had to save up to buy one album a month, now I can listen to new releases instantaneously. I can hunt down the songs of my favourite films, lost in the memory for years. Most importantly, I can trust my own judgement in the artists I like (which, for a boy who loved Limp Bizkit in a Pink Floyd environment is quite important). I don’t need the taste-makers anymore. None of us do. We are all unique in our tastes. We are all of us; Music Geeks.

It leaves me feeling so happy and positive that people are listening to music purely because they like it, not because it is ‘cool’ or because some trendy told you it was good. As for the mainstream? Well, there is good in the mainstream too (I’ll take you out if you dislike ‘Shake it off’). There’s no shame in admitting it. The truth is that not all of us are going to go and use the tools available to discover something new. Most of us will simply graze on what’s freely, easily available and this is why mainstream music exists. Simple, fun, base emotion in audible form. It’s basically chocolate. I like me a bit of chocolate now and then.

You see, the game has changed. John Peel was so, so important and we must of course remember the work that he did at the time for those stuck in the underground. Still, it is time for us respect the man by letting the myth go. See his life as an example of how much we can achieve if we have passion and drive and don’t follow others. Forget what everyone else says, just trust your ears.


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