While it’s quite daunting just thinking about reading a 600-plus-page book, David Cavanagh must have thought it impossible trying to sum up the legacy of John Peel and chronicle 35 years of his shows in only 600 pages – he must have expected it to top a thousand. But that’s what he’s done with Good Night and Good Riddance: How 35 years of John Peel helped to shape modern life. The subtitle is a little misnomer: it’s mostly confirmed by Peel playing ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols when the BBC had banned the song, his championing of reggae and rap when nobody else was taking a chance on it, bands doing renowned Peel sessions before their debut album’s been released, before their next record’s been announced. He plays your new favourite band before anyone has heard them.
The research for Good Riddance sounds extensive and exhausting. Cavanagh listened to some 500 Peel shows that have survived and consulted the running orders of up to 900 others on microfilm or online. The book is split into years, which are split into shows, which feature some of the bands Peel played that night and the main news of the day. I usually skipped the news bits as I felt they added little to what happened on the show. Cavanagh explains in his author’s note why he’s included them: “For much of his career, Peel took to the air between 10pm and midnight, once the day’s defining dramas had been played out, and often he had the unenviable job of rounding off a turbulent or harrowing 24-hour period in British life.”
We begin in 1967. Peel is out at sea on pirate radio, Radio London to be precise. His show is called The Perfumed Garden, a name he soon became embarrassed about but eventually made peace with. He plays the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Simon & Garfunkel, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane and the blues man Howlin’ Wolf, an anecdote about him helped Peel endear himself to one Jack White some 30 years later. Tyrannosauras Rex and Captain Beefheart are early favourites of Peel in those days and years to follow. Radio London doesn’t last long though as The Man is shutting it down on August 14. The Perfumed Garden is going out with a bang, Peel playing the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, Grateful Dead, and Love over the course of a five-hour show, ending proceedings as the sun comes out at 5.30am. Five hours! It’s this passion that shines through Cavanagh’s tome, that defines Peel. He loved music. Simple.
Settling in at the newly formed Radio 1, he interviews John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1968, plays bands called things like Humblebums (featuring Billy Connolly), still extolling the virtues of Captain Beefheart and Tyrannosaurus Rex, later T-Rex, and playing ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie in July 1969, who we’ve come across earlier, doing mime at the bottom of bills of Rex shows. Of the single, Peel declares: “I don’t see that being what we in the trade call a chartbound sound in a thousand years.” On May 29, 1973, Peel plays side two of an album he had been given a few days previous. Mike Oldfield had been played by Peel five years ago, playing guitar in a duo with his sister Sally. But this is something else. This is Tubular Bells, and Peel plays all 25 minutes of side 2. He says afterwards: “I’ve been introducing Top Gear [what his show is called in the early 70s] for six years now, but I think that that is certainly one of the most impressive LPs I’ve ever had the chance to play on the radio.”
Cavanagh’s idea is a rather simple one, ultimately, charting Peel’s shows through the years, and it proves compelling as we move through the 70s and 80s. Peel grows tired of prog and the snooty rock from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Indeed, in The Olivetti Chronicles, gathering Peel’s various writing down the years, in a piece entitled ‘Public and private taste’ that he wrote for The Listener on April 22, 1976, Peel says: “Around about now, I should be coming through with some sort of summary of the state of play, some glittering aphorism chosen for its elegance rather than for its accuracy. The trouble is that there are no conclusions to be made. There is, to be sure, a wealth of good music being made and recorded, but it lies, in the main, unacknowledged by playlist committees, unbought by the customer, and doomed, at best, to a half-life in some minority culture of other. Let us just say, for the sake of neatness, that, in these unpredictable times, the man on the street is settling for predictability. And who can blame him for that?”
Not even a month later, May 19, 1976, he closes the show with the Ramones‘ ‘Judy Is A Punk’. The next night he plays another three songs from the New York band’s debut album, which he had been loaned. Come December 10, Peel’s show consists of groups like the Damned, Iggy and the Stooges, Television, Pere Ubu and New York Dolls. And just 18 months later, on May 22, 1978: “Punk, the music that Peel took a chance on by playing a 92-second album track by the Ramones just over two years ago, has spread throughout the country, creating the delirious feeling of constitutional overthrow.” But now punk has permeated the mainstream. Peel’s daytime colleagues at Radio 1 – including Tony Blackbun, who still hates it but has to lump it – are playing punk. But our hero thinks some British punk bands are being “squeezed out of the equation” because no record company will sign them. Six months previous he had played a session by Siouxsie and the Banshees and urged record companies to “snap them up at once”. He’s currently championing the Slits, regular victims of chauvinism, particularly when they toured with the Clash. Their debut album is still 18 months away but Peel tonight is playing their second session. Their first was last September. He usually doesn’t go along to watch the sessions being recorded – “he feels a studio is a place of work, not a tourist site” – but he made an exception for the Slits, turning up with his producer John Walters “to offer moral support (which the girls appreciated) in their wrangles with the institutionally sexist BBC engineers. After he plays the session, he urges record companies to take a shot on the Slits.
The Undertones are the band most often associated with Peel. “This is a mighty, mighty record, you know,” he tells listeners on September 25, 1978. He’s just played ‘Teenage Kicks’ twice in a row. Why has it hit him so hard, ponders Cavanagh, surmising that Peel has his mind thrown back to the 1950s hearing it, “memories of his teenage isolation at an all-boys public school, where he immersed himself in dreams of girls and love affairs”. The Fall are another group that Peel champions, having them in for 24 Peel sessions in 26 years, despite their fluctuating popularity. Other bands that he played and supported early on in their career move on, though. He’s seen David Bowie become a superstar, Rod Stewart – formerly of the Faces, who had been regulars on Peel’s show (and even had Peel onstage at Top of the Pops with them in 1969, playing mandolin) – feels he’s outgrown Peel, who has also seen a friendship with Marc Bolan dissipate. It’s a theme that continues throughout the book, with the likes of Sonic Youth not being asked back in for a second Peel session and the Strokes feeling they’re too big for Peel, who subsequently rails against the major labels, corrupting young bands’ ideals. We’re meant to feel sorry for this DJ of simple pleasures, just on the lookout for a new song, a new band to latch onto. He’s constantly seeing his show’s timeslot moved, Cavanagh painting a picture of a station not knowing that Peel was their golden boy all along. Even in 1996, when he had gotten used to having his schedule shunted about, Peel was told he’s be losing an hour of his three-hour show. He decided not to take this lying down, writing a famously withering letter to Matthew Bannister, then-controller of BBC Radio 1.
There are wonderful titbits sprinkled throughout Good Night and Good Riddance. April 3, 1979: “Geoff Travis, the quiet man with Afro hair who runs the Rough Trade label, has been in touch with the programme. He’s promoting a gig at the Achlam Hall in Ladbroke Grove and wants the band Swell Maps to play. The trouble is he doesn’t know their phone numbers. Peel, the information exchange for all things punk, asks the band to give Geoff a ring.” We don’t find out if they do though. He almost signed Black Sabbath to his fledgling label Dandelion a year before they became the biggest metal band in the world. And then there’s this:
And throughout it all, the times they are still a-changing: punk turns to post-punk, which turns to independent music, which turns to the Smiths (who Peel never sees live) and then in 1989 he’s playing songs off an album called Bleach by a band called Nirvana. He has them in for a session. If it all seems a little too good to be true, well, it’s just that Peel, watching that mountain of 7″ and CD submissions grow ever higher, is always looking for something else. Come the 90s, there’s a sense that all he wants is to be surprised. He’d played reggae to the rock kids when nobody wanted to hear reggae. Now he’s playing jungle before it’s defined as jungle. He’s playing trance, grindcore, comedy albums, electro, Aphex Twin, the indiest of Scottish indie. He hasn’t grown complacent, but confident, not convinced by Blur until the latter part of the decade, not moved by Radiohead until Kid A. He doesn’t move with the times but rather preempts them.
We have an idealised notion of John Peel nowadays, particularly as it seems every band claims they spent much of their youth under the sheets listening to Peel’s shows. But if the shoe fits, if the record plays at the right speed… Cavanagh’s book reminds us, particular those of us who never got a chance to listen to Peel’s shows, that without Peel, our list of favourite bands might look a lot different. And if nothing else, Good Night and Good Riddance is a good reference point for someone looking to expand their musical horizons. What was being played in June 1971? January 1980? In the middle of Britpop? It’s another one of those music books that should really be read with YouTube and Spotify at arm’s length.