Peel It Up

Memoir of a radio hero

Were you one of the thousands of hopefuls who submitted demo tapes to BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel? Perhaps he didn't play it, let alone include it on his annual Festive 50 list. But consider this: Did you describe your music as "jazz"? Boast about your saxophone player? Profess a lifelong admiration for the MC5, the Stooges, or the New York Dolls? If so, you doomed yourself to oblivion and didn't even know it: All three were on Peel's short list of "things not to write in any press release."

In Britain, Peel was an institution. From the 1960s until his death in October 2004, he was a constant presence on the BBC, playing the music he loved with a charmingly casual, low-tech approach. He was a hippie in the '60s, hanging out with T.Rex's Marc Bolan and preaching peace and love, but his boundless passion for music made him one of the few Flower Power vets to successfully make the transition into punk.

It seemed obvious that Peel had some great stories to tell. Margrave of the Marshes (Chicago Review Press) is necessarily incomplete, but it's a captivating read, and the closest most of us will ever get to hearing from the man himself. Peel himself wrote the first 165 pages; sadly, he died before getting to write about his first radio job. What he did finish is a rambling, eccentric, often hilarious account of growing up in wartime England, his military service, his first marriage, and the culture shock of being a Brit in early-'60s Texas. He jumps from subject to subject in a way that suggests that this is, indeed, a first draft, but somehow it works; anyone who's heard Peel's shows is used to jarring transitions and occasional flaws.

It was up to his wife, Sheila Ravenscroft, and children to dig through his diaries and their own memories to tell the rest of the story. Sheila picks up where John leaves off — on a visit to a Mexican brothel, where he was apparently just an observer — and helps make sense of the messy prose we've just read. She started out as a Peel fan, too; the two met at one of his live appearances, stayed married for 30 years, and had four children. She doesn't sugarcoat the man's flaws (he could be curmudgeonly and overly sensitive), but it's clear that they loved each other and that Peel remained a relatively unassuming, down-to-earth presence in a business all too often ruled by ego.

At Peel Acres, his home in the English countryside, John Peel's record room remains untouched. His turntable is still there; there are records piled all over the place, plus letters and demo tapes submitted in the hopes of radio play. "There is no physical evidence that Dad isn't still with us," his children write in the introduction. This seems like the most effective monument to a man whose life was music. To John Peel, every demo tape contained a potential next Elvis. That spirit will never die as long as countless bloggers, college radio DJs, fanzine editors, and rabid fans are sharing their discoveries with the world out of a sheer love of music.

 
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