The great British deejay John Peel has died of a heart attack, while on a working holiday in Peru. For many years, he had been the longest-serving deejay at BBC Radio One, from when the station opened in 1967 until just yesterday.
Most Spirit Of Radio listeners would be most familiar with Peel from the huge catalogue of sessions that were recorded for his show, from X-Ray Specs, to The Cure to Radiohead.
My girlfriend phoned me on my cell phone, to tell me the news as I was standing at waiting for a streetcar on my way to work. I uncharacteristically burst into tears. I was surprised how shocked I was and what an impact Peel had on my life.
Mind you, I've been listening to his shows since about the age of 12 in the early 1970s, being an ardent fan of music. In those days he was the only alternative to the dreadful medallion man, of monopoly rock and pop broadcaster BBC Radio One, like an insiduous form of mindlessly happy propaganda.
Peel could be maddeningly and willfully obscure but he addressed his audience as a group of human beings. He was always witty and interesting and approached music as a fan. He refused all the usual trappings of pop radio such as jingles and patronising reminders of what station you were listening to you. He could be quite gloomy in an eeyore-ish sort of way, but that made him all the more endearing to me.
In his early career he was the first to champion Jimi Hendrix who was unknown in the States and came to the UK in 1967. He also gave prominence to progressive bands like The Groundhogs, Family and Roxy Music. Brian Eno says the band would have never stayed together if it were not for Peel.
But it was the advent of reggae and punk that further radicalised John's show, He was the first western deejay to play Bob Marley and went on to champion hundreds of punk bands. His own personal favourite record is 'Teenage Kicks by The Undertones. He also loved The Fall.
In the 1980s, when I was doing Live From London I listened to Peel about two or three times a week. The range of artists he recorded in session alone was breathtaking. But he was always extremely self-deprecating. When I interviewed him for CFNY and tried to pay tribute to his introducing Britain to reggae, punk and hip-hop, he quickly shot back, "Yes but you have to remember I gave Simple Minds their first break as well, and for that I deserve a good kicking!"
He was quite quotable that way. I liked his line "Just because someone has the aptitude to play a bass guitar, I fail to see why we think they would necessarily have anything interesting to say about the world."
One of the great joys of the Internet was that I was reunited with Peelie's shows. If anything, he was even better and more relaxed in the last few years, playing more and more fascinating material, perhaps liberated from the onerous role of being the only alternative music voice on radio.
One thing I was very pleased to see was that in the last 15 years or so of his life, he was finally recognised as one of Britain's national treasures. This came about largely because of a huge cultural shift at BBC Radio One in the early 1990s, which saw him treated for the first time as something other than a marginalised freak show. He was even given a show on the BBC's main speech radio network, the delightful 'Home Truths' which told the remarkable stories of quite ordinary British people. He also wrote witty columns for a number of newspapers.
As Ivar Hamilton would no doubt agree he had an indirect impact on us at the station. I even mailed Ivar tapes that he took great pleasure in listening to.
When my girlfriend and I got home last, I dug out some cassettes of a John Peel show from 1990. We then proceeded to drink wine and get quite pissed to the strains of Ned's Atomic Dustbin, The Fall, and Curve, plus loads of oddities including a Four Brothers track, (a band from Zimbabwe) being played at the wrong speed. a gospel choir from the U.S mourning the death of Martin Luther King in song and a compilation he was very excited about at the time from a fanzine called Mind The Gap.
We paused to listen to his witty interludes. In one he read out a letter from a Scottish listener called Alex.
"He wanted to assure me that not all my listeners are misery-ridden and parentally repressed - he's sixteen and apparently perfectly happy."
My world is a much poorer place without John Peel. I will really, really miss him. I really do feel I've lost a friend.