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:
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