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Open your mind, Peter
Some personal thoughts on John Peel and pop on the wireless.

In the autumn of 1986 a new radio station opened in my home town of Bremen, northern Germany. Radio Bremen 4 was the new pop channel of the local state radio broadcaster and was modelled after British pirate and American college radio stations. In 1986 I was making the transition from listening to Top 40 mainstream pop to what was then called ‘indie’ music. But even in the summer of C86 I was only listening to The Smiths, The Housemartins and similar well known bands. I simply didn’t know anybody who knew more about this guitar pop music and relied on the pages of Smash Hits to discover new indie bands. Radio Bremen 4 played a big role in changing all this. They had a really good day-time play list and the non-stop music shows called 101-mixes were just great. They would even send you the track listing by post if you were interested.

Most German radio stations had weekly chart shows where they played the German single charts along with any stuff from the UK and US charts that they could get their hands on. Radio Bremen 4 also had a chart show but only covered the UK Top 40 (it was the only one worth listing to). The other half of the chart show was dedicated to the NME indie singles charts. One Wednesday in December ’86 was probably the most momentous single day in my young musical life. Indie-pop was at its height and in the indie charts that night were Razorcuts, Talulah Gosh (twice), The Chesterfields, Close Lobsters, The Flatmates, The Go-Betweens, Mighty Mighty, The Soup Dragons and The Wedding Present. That night the DJ changed my life and though he probably didn’t realise it. I hadn’t heard of any of these bands before, but I loved them all and it soon became clear that I’d found ‘my new thing’. Don’t get me wrong, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead was still my favourite record of that year and they only paved the way for the things to come.

Radio Bremen 4 also had some specialised night time shows, most notable ‘Axel P. Sommerfeld’s Needle-time and Burghard Raush’s Rausch-Hour. They played mostly more traditional independent music as it was popular in Germany at the time, but also threw in some of the new poppy bands from the UK. There was also talk about one show that was actually done by an English DJ in English. For some years I was listing to the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). Germany had lots of these channels at the time so I was used to listening to English radio, but usually only for their Top 40 shows and sometimes during the day. But why would a German station have a show in English by this guy named John Peel?

I was about to find out. His show was different from anything else on the radio I was used to. He played such a variety of music and was just so enthusiastic about the things he played - he just loved it. I must admit that right from the beginning, I didn’t like many songs he played. There was a lot of weird stuff, not quite poppy enough for my ears. But in his weekly, two hour show there were always a dozen good songs and I discovered so many bands through him that I would have never heard of otherwise. These were the days when people used to record music from the radio onto tapes and I still have many tapes with songs I recorded from the Peel show that I never heard of again.

Listening to him became an addiction and it turned out that he also had a weekly show on BFBS. Sometimes I even tried to listen to BBC Radio One on A.M. but the sound quality was just too poor. I was mainly interested in the sessions that bands recorded for him, which he broadcasted on his Radio One shows. As these were on late at night and I was a student at the time, it became impractical to listen to him. So, I started setting up two timed tape decks to record the two hour shows. They next day I would sit down and fast-forward through the tapes and copy all the songs I liked onto another tape. Besides the music uncle Peel played, it was also fascinating to listen to his stories and comments between songs.

Over the years I became more involved in the music scene myself, I wrote a fanzine and became friends with some German indie-pop bands and labels. I would also occasionally write a letter to Mr Peel and send him some German records.

It was customary at the time to spend your summer holidays in the UK buying records and going to see bands. In the summer of 1989, my friend Andy and I travelled around the UK. We interviewed 20 bands for our fanzine and also met John Peel to give him the latest bunch of German indie-pop singles. He invited us to come to see him again after we returned from Scotland. The following is an extract from an article I wrote for my “Anorak – Can I just say sweatshirt” fanzine:

“On the way into the lobby of the old Radio One building in central London, we had to struggle through a crowd of teenagers and inside we bumped into the reason, Debbie Gibson (where is she now?). Right behind her was the great old man of British music radio. Without the grey hair it would be hard to believe he just turned 50. With his ponytail he could be in his mid-twenties at least from behind. It is weird to listen to this pleasant voice known from hundreds of hours on the radio, coming from a real person. We went to a close-by pub and started an informal interview by asking him about his 50th birthday party. “I am happy that the whole thing is finally over. Celebrating a birthday for three whole weeks takes its toll. After the big party in London were The Fall, The Wedding Present and House of Love played we also had several parties at our house. Axel P. Sommerfeld was at one of the parties and he tried to explain to me why he stopped his needletime show. It’s a shame that such an ambitious station as Radio Bremen 4 is now commercialized and plays music for a mainstream audience only. There are already enough chart stations in Germany.”

Besides his 4 weekday shows for the BBC, John is also recording shows for BFBS, the BBC World service, Bremen 4 and a Finish and an Austrian station. That’s about 13 hours pure broadcasting time and he is already doing this for over 22 years. Since Janice Long and Liz Kershaw got off the air, he is the only national DJ for alternative music in the UK. Is he aware of the huge responsibility he has? “Yes, I am in a certain position of power, but I am not comfortable with that at all. I just play the records I like, as simple as that. Of course there are many bands I don’t like and I don’t play but you can’t really blame me for that. There are many others that are responsible if these bands are not played on the radio. The daytime DJs here at the BBC pass all the records that even sound remotely ‘indie’ on to me. But what can I do about it, I am not the director general of the BBC.”

We went back to the BBC and first into John’s office. On the desk were three bags full of demo tapes and a huge pile of records and letters, all from just one day. John uses his two hour commute to his home in Suffolk to listen to most of the tapes. It’s time for tonight’s show and we move on to the studio. Next door the DJ still plays his Debbie Gibson records. After two songs I chatter into the open microphone but John doesn’t mind and introduces us as friends from Germany. Even after three hours in traffic and several beers in the pub John is seemingly enjoying himself. When playing some hardcore punk he turns up the volume in the studio to painful levels. His highlight of the night was a Japanese band that seemed to have used kitchen utensils only to produce their sound. Pure noise, no musical attempts to be heard anywhere. My highlight was the wonderful session of Irish band ‘Hey Paulette’. While playing the songs John opens his mail and among it was the new 7” by Sinitta. John can’t believe it: “Why the devil do they send this to me?” He listens to a demo tape from the north of England and likes it, so he calls the number in the letter. But according to the mom her son is out with friends. I’m sure he was disappointed, a call from John Peel and he wasn’t home. What does John think about the problem that many of his listeners don’t share his broad taste in music. The hardcore fans hate the Four Brothers and dance floor stuff whose followers turn off the radio during punk. And even us indie-pop kids have to listen to two hours of music we don’t really like to discover three great new bands. “You have to be more open to other musical styles, expand your horizons. As I said before, I just play what I like but not what I think my listeners may like”. That’s easier said than done if you have some strong likes and dislikes in music. John Peel has an important role in the British scene, but you hardly find him at parties of the music industry or music papers. “I am not the type for those big parties, and with most people there I have nothing in common to talk about. You only go there to be seen, I’ve rather been heard. I am an old man and prefer to spend my time at home with my neighbours where one doesn’t have to talk about music.”

For most young musicians it was a very special moment when John Peel played their songs. For me as a non-musician, it was good enough when he mentioned my name or played records I had sent him. One evening when I was having my birthday party with some friends I got a call from him. I had sent him some new records and had thrown in a copy of my ‘Mind The Gap’ compilation tape. Rather than playing any of the records he wanted to play several songs from the tape and called to ask whether it would be okay to read out my address so that people could order copies from me. In the following weeks I sent over 150 copies to people around the UK and it certainly helped me to sell over 1200 copies of the tape in total. Thank you John.

In these days, whenever I came to London, I’d have drinks with John and on one occasion he invited me to come to stay at his farm, as it is on the way back to the ferry home to Germany. It was lovely meeting his family not to mention being shown around his record collection in the attic and I helped him filing the votes for the annual Festive 50.

Despite his advice “Open your mind, Peter”, I was sticking with indie-pop. I got deeper and deeper into that scene, learning about bands from fanzines and other fans I’d met over the years. I also got into small American bands, many of which didn’t sent their records to the BBC. So along with the decline of indie-pop in the UK, John Peel and radio in general lost importance to me. There were now many other ways to find out about new records and he didn’t play many songs I liked anymore anyway. I guess the only thing I opened my mind to was African pop from Zimbabwe and Zambia, with bands like the Bhundu Boys, Shalawambe and Amayenge.

When I moved to London in 1999, I was in the position to listen to his regular shows on the BBC. But even though they were still magical, they had changed. He was broadcasting on the web to a worldwide audience and was reading out emails in real-time. He was also broadcasting from Peel Acres, his home studio with his family as a production team. You could check out the track listing the next day on the BBC web site, no more guessing how to spell the name of that great new band from Zambia. Musically speaking, there was very little that really excited me, so I usually only tuned in for sessions by Belle & Sebastian or Camera Obscura. I talked to him a few times on the phone and briefly met him again but somehow, after all those years, the bond had been broken.

This week John Peel was on the front pages of most English newspapers where they declared him the greatest and most important radio DJ ever. I was extremely saddened by the news of his death, and even though I hardly listened to his shows anymore, I will miss him dearly.

Peter Hahndorf, London October 2004

 
  • The interview from September 1989 was done in English, then translated into German and now translated back into English, so don’t take anything literally.
  • If anyone has a copy of the show when John played five songs from the Mind The Gap tape, please let me know. I would like to hear it.
  • Sinitta was one of the bad acts on Stock, Aitken Waterman PWL label.
  • Further reading: “In Session Tonight” The complete Radio 1 recordings. Published by BBC books in 1993. Unfortunately hard to find today, but maybe they will do a second edition some day.
  • Last updated: 17-Nov-2004 © 1994-2017 TweeNet Creative Commons License