John Peel would have been 75 years old this year. I was reflecting on his impact on me both musically and on my approach to life and here are five things about Mr Peel that stand out for me – what are yours? Write me a letter or make a comment here, or even send me a piece of new music to listen to ….
1. Stay Young and Keep in Touch – So many people only like music at a certain time of their lives – the 60’s, 70’s, 90’s etc. and they are prone to saying things like “All music is rubbish now” when they should simply say “I only listened to music between the ages of 14 and 23 and I’m a creature of habit so I’m on repeat from now on”. One of John’s teachers said of him:
“It’s possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays…”
2. Refuse to be ruled by metrics – Peel refused to be influenced by ratings or playlists. Instead it was the “John Peel brand” that made the ratings. You never knew what you might hear on one of John’s shows and that in itself produced the listeners which he needed to satisfy BBC bosses.
3. Support innovators – John would break new acts that would otherwise not receive radio play. Amongst these he was responsible for bringing my friend Bill Nelson and Be-Bop Deluxe to the attention of music lovers. Some years later, Bill captured Peel’s Liverpudian tones in the introduction to his “Modern Music Suite” . Listen to the full piece, which features John Peel and Tony Hancock in the opening section of the suite:
Amongst a long list of artists and bands that owe their success wholly or in part to John Peel are: Pulp, The White Stripes, Mike Oldfield, Nirvana, The Strokes, Bauhaus, The Doctors of Madness, P.J. Harvey, The Smiths, Bernie Tormé, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, The Cocteau Twins, Bill Nelson, Marc Bolan and T.REX, The Slits, The Cure, The Undertones and Billy Bragg.
The manner of John getting to know Bragg was rather unconventional. Bragg heard John say he was hungry on air and rushed in with a Mushroom Biryani and a copy of “Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy”. Peel went on to play a track from the album but at the wrong speed (Bragg’s albums were recorded loud and short to play at 45 RPM).
4. An anti-establishment member of the establishment – John Peel’s biography states that Peel was anti-establishment because he knew how the establishment worked – he’d been part of it and he didn’t like it. He attended public school in Shropshire, but was shy and quiet and he was frequently bullied for not fitting in. Instead of playing rugby, John rebelled with a choice selection of rare vinyl. It’s a feeling that resonates at my core. I went to a grammar school, hated rugby and suffered a degree of bullying for not fitting in, preferring to listen to music and obsessing about science – something of a geek by today’s standards :-) A great life lesson for innovators is to know the system you are trying to influence. John Peel knew what he had to do to keep the BBC just on the right side.
5. A Witty Life Long Learner
Towards the end of his life Peel had embraced hip hop, drum and bass and a number of other musical genres, never getting stuck in a musical paradigm. Eventually the BBC succumbed to ratings and Radio 1 decided to cut an hour of his show in favour of a Drum and Bass programme. Peel responded with his usual wit – read the full letter here and his parting shot to Matthew Bannister:
“Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae which you can subsequently market”
Peel’s attitude to most things was filled with a totally original wry sense of humour and irony – none more than with his views on his eventual death:
“I’ve always imagined I’d die by driving into the back of a truck while trying to read the name on a cassette, and people would say, ‘he would have wanted to go that way.’ Well, I want them to know that I wouldn’t”
Finally, an acrostic poem written in 2004 by my friend Dave Brooks and some video content of a few of the artists that John Peel broke including archive footage from Sir Richard Branson discussing John’s contribution to Virgin.
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.