This is a transcript of the sixth show in the six-part documentary series Peeling Back The Years, in which Peel is interviewed by his long-time producer John Walters about the development of his musical tastes down the years. The final programme of the series catches up with a few artists who didn't fall into the previous five shows.

See Also


John Walters: For the last time, I’m rather glad to say, Ray Martin & His Concert Orchestra, Blue Tango, John Peel's first purchased vinyl in 1952.

John Peel: Shellac!

JW: Was it now? I was just about to say I thought purchased vinyl probably wasn’t in those days.

JP: Shellac.

JW: It just shows how far we've gone. In this series we’ve sampled his listening history through to the present day, and on this programme we are tidying up a few loose ends and looking at the big picture and generally indulging in those sort of clichés. Before we do that, actually, something that I saved for the last programme. Did you ever do that sort of thing, like standing in front of the mirror with a tennis racket? I mean, did you ever want – we've had a quarter of a century and more of you listening - but did you want to partake?

JP: I nearly made a record. I don't know if I’ve ever told you this, but I nearly made a record in Dallas during the Beatle era and around the time I first started – well, not the first time, but the first time I started as it were full time on the radio. And some people in Dallas, realising that almost anything that came from Liverpool, regardless of what it looked like, could sell records at that time, dragged me into a studio. I can remember very little of this myself. It's one of those things that obviously the memory mercifully blots the realities out. But they dragged me into a studio and I can’t even remember what the song was, but they encouraged me to sing this song and I sung like just a line or a couple of lines. It was that kind of, “OK, fellas, you can all go home. OK, sorry about that. There will be something in the post for you.”

JW: Well, I wish we had that tape, but we have got here your version of the original Top Gear theme done in about 1970 when we made an album for BBC Records, BBC Enterprises, played on the Jews harp.

  • John Peel: Top Gear Theme (LP – John Peel Presents Top Gear) BBC

JW: The Top Gear theme played by John Peel on the Jew's harp. And of course some of our younger listeners won't remember the original theme – and frankly, you won't recognise it from that! Come on, let's get back. This is a sort of end of term programme. We’ve done six programmes – well, this is the sixth – and there’s a few names we’ve not mentioned that you have opinions about and you have been associated with. This is somebody I have often – because obviously I have this privilege that the average listener doesn’t have of having listened to you talk about things for many years – Roy Orbison! Now, you see, Roy Orbison hasn’t featured… Did we mention him in the first one? I rather think not. But you see him as a pretty damn crucial figure, and yet most people see him I suppose a bit fringey. He's not a sort of, you know, Little Richard style, "ah, what rock is about" – and yet he was on Sun. A sort of strange fringe. Was it the unhinged voice that you have often referred to?

JP: Yeah, that certainly, but also because – I mean, he is one of those people I can vaguely identify with. I mean, he is one of those people who have sort of popped up at different stages of my life. When I first went to America, one of the first records that I ever bought – actually it was a record called Uptown, which predated Only The Lonely, and it was all about a bloke not having any money but one of these days he was going to have money and as a consequence of having money would become socially more successful, which is how I rather felt at the time. But then he went on to do a whole string of records which really I felt were my life. And then I saw him in Ipswich a couple of years ago. He came on, he started with Only The Lonely, which he sang appallingly badly. He couldn't get the high notes, all over the place. I thought, “This is going to be really embarrassing.” But he quite clearly needed that first number just to clear the tubes, you know, and after that he sang magically. And he did Ooby Dooby, which because I hadn’t heard it done live before reduced me to tears – I’m a bloke who cries fairly easily I should emphasize – but then he did Running Scared, which is like the ultimate loser's song. You know, loser going out with girl who previously went out with a successful, more sociable human being; they meet each other and she stays with the loser rather than going out with the previously successful bloke and so on. And when he sang that and the hideous roadies receded into the background, and it was just a great moment.

JW: Well, Roy Orbison Running Scared has clearly reduced us to something. Another name from the same period who you have always said, “That is the man for me.” And I met him the other day. He came in to do Johnny Walkers thing, because he has still got his career going, and you were sort of “I'd be frightened to meet him” – Duane Eddy! Now, he is not an unhinged voice. See, he is not a wild man of rock or the things that we have talked about. He is not an Only The Lonely man.

JP: No.

JW: Now, why the twangy guitar of Duane Eddy?

JP: Well, that goes back to a record by Jody Reynolds called the Endless Sleep – (sings) “It looked to the sea and it seemed to say, I took you baby…” Anyway, that was punctuated with twangy guitar and I remember thinking the first time I heard it coming out of the radio, “I would like to hear a whole record of that.” And be damn – a couple of weeks later if I didn’t hear Rebel Rouser by Duane Eddy, which was like an answer to my prayers. And in a sense, if we are talking about the unhinged voices, it is a very clear and identifiable sound. I mean, you can tell Duane Eddy straight away, you know.

JW: So you think it is more the unhinged guitar?

JP: The unhinged guitar, although it is not particularly unhinged, but at the same time it speaks to me. There’s no question about that.

JW: But a lot of those tracks did become sort of twangy hits. You know, “Hey, the twangy guitar.”

JP: There are some horrors.

JW: Which one would you pick, though, to say, “Fine, if you want to say why Duane Eddy, this is why.”

JP: I always liked Hard Times.

JW: But apart from, Hard Times there by Duane Eddy of course. But as I say, apart from trying to sort of clear up your rock roots and one or two of your heroes who haven't fitted the pattern of these programmes, there’s a lot of major figures who you have had some dealings with that are really the sort of figures that appear on people's posters in their bedrooms all around the world. David Bowie – somebody who I would have thought the way he developed – he was into sort of style, you know, haircuts and things, a lot of the time, funny clothes – exactly what you're not into.

JP: Perhaps that’s why I quite enjoyed all of that. Because there is obviously a side of you that would like to be – a side of me anyway, I don’t know about you, probably is of you as well, although I don’t know you’d admit it – but you’d quite like to be slim and attractive and fashionable and…

JW: Sorry, I was just…

JP: You may feel that you are, I dont know.

JW: Exactly. It's my expression. Still (???). But I mean, Bowie clearly developed. We did have him on the programme, I mean, several times.

JP: Yes, and I’ve got letters from him asking for money, that's how long ago I encountered him, and he wanted to start an arts lab in Beckenham and sent me these letters with rather these sort of drawings that, wasn’t that the fella who did the Geodesic domes? Something Fuller? Anyway...

JW: Buckminster Fuller. (coughs)

JP: That’s right. In that style. And got letters from him, as I say, going back that far. And I liked some of his records. I just liked the idea that he was always a step or two ahead of the game, and that is why it was disappointing for me in the last couple of years he has rather slipped from that position, you know. And I feel that the original David Bowie would now be doing a lot of, you know, like hip-hoppy kind of things, I think.

JW: That is rather implying, though, that your appreciation of Bowie is more of an intellectual thing and not a, “Wow, my ears are really responding to this” – like we have been saying through this series, what your ears respond to. You are more or less saying, “I can understand he’s pretty clever.” Was it his cleverness that you liked? Did you like…

JP: Well, envy! Envy really I suppose, as much as anything else. But yes, the only Bowie record that I ever listen to these days is the thing that he did with Lennon, which is Fame.

JW: Another person who everyone would say, “That’s one of the great figures of rock” – Lennon! Now, I know that you were associated with Lennon to some degree in those early days. He would send you a postcard and see you as one of his OK people. You met him presumably at some stage.

JP: Yeah. Around the time of the dissolution of the Beatles, when he was living with Yoko, I met them then, and you know, I used to see them from time to time. And one of those things, there are very few people actually in the whole of this history that I rather wished weren’t famous people, because I enjoyed their company a lot. But you realized you couldn’t go to the match with them or go around and have breakfast with them at the café, just because they were such celebrities life would be intolerable if you tried to do that. And John Lennon was one of those. Elton John was another actually. He’s a bloke I never see now, but we used to see each other from time to time, who I like very much as a human being and wished wasn’t famous.

JW: But of course Lennon was rather more than famous, because some people do become that. It was strange situation when the year before he was killed, he didn’t seem to mean anything.

JP: No.

JW: And then suddenly everyone in retrospect started to see him as a sort of almost like a philosopher of our time, almost like Gandhi or something. I mean, did you share in that, or how did you feel about that strange emotion and hysteria…

JP: I thought it was complete nonsense.

JW: …when he died?

JP: I was phoned up at about 5 o’clock in the morning by Radio 4 and asked to go down and do a bit of a chat about John Lennon. And frankly it was only the fact that I was taken unawares and was still half asleep that I agreed to do it, because I hate that kind of professional friend of the dead routine. A lot of people seem to earn a living doing that. And I wished I hadn’t gone down there in the event. Because at that time he was writing stuff that was frankly rubbish, you know. I mean, the last LP and so forth, all that stuff was very, very substandard. And…

JW: I mean, Lennon wasn’t much more when he died than George Harrison.

JP: No. Which is a pity. Because I mean he had been so far removed from what was actually going on for so long. That’s why, obviously I would like to have the money that these people have, but I should hate to live the kind of unreality that they live, because it just means you miss out on so much – as is evidenced by someone like Bowie, you know, who presumably still thinks he has got his finger on the pulse and that he knows exactly what is going on.

JW: But let's pick an example now of something when you felt like Lennon had got his finger on something, you know. I mean, what record would you pick to say, “No, no, after the Beatles he did do some something, and this is it”?

JP: Well, you know, a lot of it was ideologically sound but fairly half-baked – I think we have to face that. But I liked the fact that he was still capable of being angry, and he is quite clearly very angry in this, which is Gimme Some Truth.

JW: John Lennon of course, with Gimme Some Truth. Well, while we are cleaning up the major figures in this last programme – Hendrix we didn’t mention. Well, I think he had a name check in the first…

JP: And ought to be jolly pleased too.

JW: Exactly. I don’t know, I wonder if we’ve rather implied that in your view Lennon had rather outlived his usefulness before he was unfortunately killed – we’re not speaking in terms of human death here – but Hendrix, do you think perhaps in rock terms that he went at probably about the right time?

JP: Well, I think probably yes. You know, if you are viewing the thing dispassionately, he probably did really. Because it’s difficult to imagine what he might be doing now. One suspects that he could be easily into something rather grizzly like new age music and just providing yuppie soundtracks, which seems to me the direction he was drifting anyway.

JW: So many people do.

JP: People don’t understand what it is they do that’s good. That is one of the interesting things that you encounter with so many people - that they don’t actually know what it is that is strong and worthwhile about their own work.

JW: OK. Well, before we carry on, let’s hear a Hendrix track, a track that you picked from the period when you felt he was particularly in a high creative vein. Red House.

JW: Somebody else who when I first knew you and when Radio One was first starting – in fact, before them, I remember seeing David Jacobs turn to the camera on Jukebox Jury and saying more or less, “I hope that if this sort of record is made generally available then we will stamp it out” – and that was Frank Zappa. With the first album people thought, “There is something happening here. What is happening?” What is? I mean, Frank Zappa you are now likely to see with an orchestra at the Barbican. Well, how do you feel about Zappa? There’s a good man to look at.

JP: Well, his early stuff I used to enjoy quite a lot. I mean, until he got into his kind of lavatorial phase, which I found rather tedious, and that seemed to take up like a decade of his life. I mean, everything he did was fairly lavatorial, which is fine if you are like 12 years old or something – our William would probably find it all vastly entertaining – but I just found it rather tedious. But his early things I liked a lot. And of course I admired him as much as anything for his sponsorship not only of people like Wild Man Fischer but also Captain Beefheart, which is kind of crucial. Well, in the early part of his own life.

JW: And yet his own work rather lost that rootsy almost instinctive feel about Beefheart and Wild Man Fischer, were Zappa came to be more as if were like “a contemporary composer” - “it’s a funny life, this music...”

JP: People have this yearning to be the clown playing Hamlet, you know. They all want to be taken terribly seriously and to be perceived as “artistes”.

JP: OK, pick a track that you think features Zappa but is still OK.

JW: Well, because it’s got Beefheart on it, I’d pick Willy The Pimp.

JW: Another name that you used to mention a lot 10, 15 years ago and say, “He’s something different”, and you’d play, I suppose more the unhinged voice in some way, and that was Neil Young.

JP: Yeah, well, he seemed to be unhinged in every aspect of his being. His guitar playing as well I used to really like – those long kind of shrieking guitar things, which weren’t heavy metal guitar solos at all. Again, instantly identifiable guitar player. And I went to see him playing at Wembley about a year ago and was reassured in that he wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought he might be from evidence gathered of seeing others of his contemporaries playing now, who by and large are awful. I mean, he is still good. Some of the stuff he did was a bit clumsy, but by and large there was enough there for me to come away feeling quite satisfied with his performance. But I saw him playing in a gig that he actually mentioned, so he must have thought quite well of it, playing in Hammersmith four or five years ago, and one of the great gigs in fact it was. Just everything fell right on the night as they say and he was particularly good then.

JW: Well, pick a track from the period when you felt he was particularly good on record then.

JP: Well, there are lots of tracks of about the same length and which start of with him singing and go off into a long guitar bit, but I suppose the best of them is probably Hurricane.

JW: Do you ever go back, listen to these records and say, “Let me get one out now from 10, 15, 20 years ago” and put it on and sit in the evening and listen to this for pleasure?

JP: Well, actually no, frankly. I never listen to old records, the whole side of an LP. I can’t remember the last time that I did that for pleasure, like an old record. Just simply don’t do it. Not because I don’t have time to do it, but because I really don’t want to. If I’ve got time to relax, I’ll go and play football with the children or go and fall asleep in front of the television or just go for a walk to the top of the hill and back or something, you know. I’ll do something totally different. The only time I ever really listen to old records comes if the Pig and I are in the house on our own, by and large, which again doesn’t happen very often, and I’ll be playing new records and she’ll be in there – because my record room is next to the kitchen, where she spends most of her time pottering about and so on, and most of the time on the phone actually to organize runs for children, transporting children around the county – but I’ll occasionally go and find an old record, which I will insert into the pile of new records so that … because I know that every time I do, she will come to the door with a daft grin on her face and say, “It’s nice to hear this again.”

JW: “Have some food”!

JP: Occasionally some food, yeah. And, uh…

JW: What would you say summed up that, though? Is it, “Ah, the Beatles”? I don’t know what (???)? What is it?

JP: Well, it tends to be very specific tracks from very – again, things which we can associate with things like a walk in the Black Forest, you know. That’s a cue for a song in itself. Things we associate with holidays or gigs that we went to. I suppose something that would be fairly typical of that would be something like Poco’s Rose Of Cimarron.

  • Poco: Rose Of Cimarron (LP - Rose Of Cimarron) (ABC)

JW: I notice when you talk about, often groups or individuals that you say you are a bit of a fan of, they are often people who are not very like you. Mark Smith of the Fall we have mentioned. When you had your own label, Dandelion Records, Stackwaddy – a bunch of rough boys – even Morrissey. I mean, do you actually look up to people that you wish were a bit like yourself?

JP: I admired Morrissey more than anything else because of his … I did a Roundtable with him once, the first time I’ve met him – I’ve only met him twice. The other time was in a motorway service area just south of Newcastle, for those of you who think he might turn up there again and want to go and hang out – apparently it is one of his favourite service areas. But doing Roundtable, he would deliver himself of these judgements, which he did in a not, I mean, his use of language. He gloried in his use of language. You could tell, just the way he was sitting there. And when he delivered himself of some particularly harsh judgement and things, the way that he did it obviously gave him immense pleasure. I mean, when he had finished saying what he had to say, he would sort of sit back with a vaguely self-satisfied smile on his face.

JW: Perhaps that’s the sort of thing. You think, “Gosh, I wish I could do that.”

JP: Yes, I’d love to do that.

JW: So that really, I mean, I excepted him, but perhaps he is one of those people, like say Stackwaddy – you think, “Gosh” – or perhaps Rod Stewart and the boys, over the years you have talked about, you know, in these programmes you have talked about so many people. You have thought, “Gosh, they did this.” Almost, “I wish I’d done this.”

JP: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true.

JW: I wonder if – you see, you’ve often had all sorts of barmy obsessions, people like Wild Man Fischer, who people don’t remember now too much I imagine, but I mean, was a Frank Zapper protégé who just obviously was a slightly strange individual who (???) sang his own songs and did a rather mad thing away on street corners. I wonder if you thought, “Gosh, I wish I could be as loopy and confident…”

JP: Yes.

JW: “…as confidently loopy as that”?

JP: Yes, I think that’s a very important part of it. I mean, I envy people who at least give the impression of being uninhibited, because coming from a kind of northern middle-class background, public schools and so forth, father away during the war – I mean, I feel very, very guilty about things, I’m not sure what, but I’m very much hedged in by guilt and terribly inhibited. I know that, and I simply can’t escape from that. And perhaps I am very envious of those people who can.

JW: And yet you have often taken over these characters, musicians, artists, who other people wouldn’t take up and you have sort of cosseted them a little bit. And very often still other people, in the case of Wild Man Fischer, still often can’t see what could be possibly of value about this twerp. And yet other people who fill stadiums and are toast of the town and front page of the Rolling Stone – one has got to say this, because we are not just doing the history of your ears and what you did like; it is also valuable to say the history of your ears and what you did not like, like Springsteen.

JP: Well, I…

JW: Well, Springsteen is the toast of many a continent.

JP: Yeah, and Andy Kershaw, whose judgement by and large I respect, thinks he’s terrific, and a lot of other people.

JW: Quite a lot of people.

JP: It utterly mystifies me. I can’t see it at all. I mean, when he first started out, as everybody said at the time as I recall, it sounded to me like sub-Dylan stuff. And it just doesn’t ring true. In the same way as I can’t really describe what it is I find attractive about the things I do find attractive, I really don’t know what it is I don’t like about Bruce Springsteen. It just doesn’t ring true to me. I suppose that’s what it boils down to.

JW: Well, OK. Let’s listen anyway to a little bit of Springsteen – actually, let’s not bother. Let’s listen to a little bit of Wild Man Fischer.

JP: Yes!

JW: The wonderful Wild Man Fischer, who certainly won’t appear on Top Of The Pops, at least not in…

JP: And a more than adequate stand-in for Bruce Springsteen.

JW: I think so! Speaking of Top Of The Pops, though, over the period we have been talking about – let’s face it, we’ve covered, you know, a good 25 years, a quarter of a century – you are now a pop, you’ve got kids of your own now.

JP: Right.

JW: What do they think of the music they hear you playing? Do they ever express an opinion?

JP: Yes. It’s unfavourable in almost every instance. In fact, a couple of years ago, William and Alexandra, who are the two older children, did come in – it was one of those wonderful kind of situations where you feel actually this is not the way it is supposed to happen at all – they did come in because they were watching television and said, “Daddy, do you mind turning the records down a bit, we can’t hear the television.” I said, “Hold on a second. I’m supposed to say that to you.”

JW: Well, that rather implies that you have sort of taken an extreme course, which in a sense we know you have. I mean, your ears have led you on to different things. I don’t know if it is quite like drugs and in theory people go from softer to harder drugs – there is that possible process and perhaps that is what you have done with music, thinking, “I want more out of this, more choices.”

JP: Well, I do feel at times rather like one of the Roman emperors. And I used to say it was Caligula, but I was corrected and told it was actually Nero, whose kind of craving for sensation got to the point where the only thing that would delight him would be to be dressed in animal skins and turned loose in an arena where he would claw off the private parts of slaves who were lined up…

JW: Yeah, yeah…

JP: I haven’t quite reached that point!

JW: No, no...

JP: I mean, sometimes musically I am heading in that direction.

JW: Well, exactly. I’m glad to hear it! It does seem to rather imply though that you started off with – we’ve talked only today – Roy Orbison. I mean, “pop boy” – everyone could accept those songs. And you have gradually gone on and getting more from pop music, more from rock music, until you have got to – don’t you feel like, what, Test Department, I mean, people banging on metal, bang, bang, crash, crash – this often using rhythm, but there’s not always that, there’s screaming and shouting. Occasionally you do come up with them. So do you feel, well, intellectually, “I can’t go any further and still be rock”? I mean, “We must have got to the end, there can’t be any future now”?

JP: No, I don’t believe that for a moment. I mean, I live in not just the hope but the expectation that it will constantly update itself, in the way that any other area of creative activity has done. See, I always think back to the Royal Society in the middle of the Victorian era where they were having meetings and seriously discussing the possibility of winding the Royal Society up because they felt that everything that was to be discovered had been discovered and that science in a sense had come to a stop, they knew everything there was to know and there could be no further progress. And this was in something like 1860, 1870. So whenever people say to me like that rock is dead on and so on – you see these pieces in the paper – I think back to the Royal Society in the Victorian times and think how wrong can you possibly be. And I am sure that tomorrow’s post, or if not tomorrow then the day after that, there is going to be another record which persuades me, you know, that there is still a lot of life left in it and there is a lot to look forward to.

JW: Well, we’ve finished all the programmes by saying – punk programme, pick us a punk record, let’s hear it, or something that couldn’t have happened without the punk period, you know. In this one it seems logical to then say, not necessarily pick us a classic – pick us something from now that you have opened the envelope, taken it out and thought, “Ah, my old ears are still flapping away like Dumbo here, like an elephant in the breeze.” Pick us a record that you think, “Now we can finish on a full record that is OK, it’s now, and we can carry on.” Like the Archers, there could be episodes carrying on.

JP: Well, somebody turned up in the office the other evening who had been involved in some quiz programme with Peter Powell, I think, and he had just come back from New York and had brought me a record by some people called the Bad Boys Orchestra. And it is kind of Latin house / hip-hop – exactly how you define it, I don’t know. I think funnily enough there was a piece in the NME about this a few weeks ago but I’d not heard any of it before. And although as I say, it’s not the most radical thing in the whole world, it is something I had not heard before.

JW: Do You Want To Dance by the Bad Boys – perhaps a classic of tomorrow when we look back, as we’ve been looking back over this last six programmes at the history of John Peel’s ears. Out of curiosity, what did you feel about this series?

JP: Ah, I didn’t know you were going to ask me that. Well, not a lot really. Because as I said earlier on, I think radio programmes about DJs are only slightly less silly than TV programmes about DJs. And I’d sooner have had the time and particularly Saturday afternoons to play some records.

JW: Well, there we are. That’s made our last six weeks’ work totally redundant! I tell you what, we won’t finish up with Ray Martin. Out of curiosity, you hadn’t presumably heard that to any degree since 1952, we’ve heard it rather a lot in recent weeks – I’m sure Roy Anderson is very glad to get the composer’s royalties – what did you make of that? Did you enjoy hearing that record again, Ray Martin’s Blue Tango?

JP: Well, I did the first time, yes, because I haven’t heard it for a very long time, because I’ve got a 78 and no 78 player.

JW: I tell you what we’ll do, as it’s the end of the programme, I won’t ask you to – it’s not like Desert Island Discs, whichever of the records you would keep, because you’ve kept most of them anyway, you’ve got them at home…

JP: Far too many of them.

JW: …but instead of Ray Martin’s Blue Tango to finish up with, I did notice at the very start, if you remember, for the first piece of music you said you were ever able to identify was Post Horn Gallop, because you’d heard it at a circus when you were about five years old. And I noticed a slight tone of regret, some of our listeners might have noticed, when you said, “And I still don’t own a copy.” Which, from knowing you for years, I know means, “Hint, hint, hint!” All right, I’ve brought you a copy of Post Horn Gallop. Let’s finish the programme by hearing it.

  •  ???: Post Horn Gallop
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