The Day I Didn’t Meet John Peel

Is that the Sheldonian Theatre in the background? Or just my bruised ego?
The object of my bruised and battered ego

We all have things in life we regret, and the most painful memory I have is of having the opportunity to meet the man who was the inspiration for this blog and passing it up.

I was in my fourth term at Oxford, some time in early 1983. To make extra money to supplement my ever-fading grant, I worked every Friday night at the Student Union bar. I had been warned by the bar steward that this was band night, but I nevertheless blithely accepted. I thus missed the Madness gig, where a bunch of skinheads attempted to cause a riot, the Beat, the reggae discos, and most of the summer balls. Moreover, the John Peel Roadshow came to town, and of course, I was working. For the uninitiated, John would pack a box of his favourite records, some crowd pleasers, a lot of new ones, and play them to often unappreciative audiences in an attempt to bring his musical message to the masses, usually driving himself there and back on the night.

He was playing in the main hall on this night, and I was working at the other end of the building. Time was finally called, after a night of trying to explain to the Rugby Club that throwing plastic glasses at the staff was not a nice thing to do, and narrowly avoiding having a fag stubbed out in my face by a girl who I wouldn’t serve after last orders had finished. We cleared up, got our money, and sat down for a well-deserved pint of Ushers. Enter one of the guys from ENTS (who were sort of roadies for the events), saying “The Roadshow wants to be paid”. Liz, the manageress, asked, “Do I get to meet John Peel?”  The supercilious twat raised his eyebrows at her, and merely replied, in a flat monotone, “Wow”.

Now at this point, my work finished and no students left hanging around (no doubt gatecrashing parties at Magdalen College…which of course I *cough* never did), I could have asked to go along. But I didn’t. Why not? WHY NOT??? Because a) I was shy of making the demand, and b) because I had a cavalier attitude that poked me in the back and said, “You don’t need to meet famous people. They’re just like you and me. They’re nothing special.” However, in this case, I was drastically and unforgiveably wrong. John Peel was not like you and me. He threw his life and soul into the pursuit of the new, and made sure we had a great time discovering it with him. He was tireless in his support of nascent groups, most of which you would probably never have heard of without him. He gave sessions to the Smiths, Pulp, the Undertones and thousands of others when nobody knew who they were. As  a reward, Radio 1 shunted him mercilessly around their schedules, giving him thankless graveyard spots and reduced hours to play the music that was his life. How arrogant I was. How much it makes me feel sick every single day to think that I threw away that chance. Now it’s lost for good.

So Liz came back after about 10 minutes, with a tale of her awe at what a nice, down-to-earth family man he was. And life went on. I graduated with a (not bad) degree in English and Education, went through several crap jobs I thought I was suited to, got married, had a son, and have spent the last six years in a land I never thought I would ever get to see. But as rich as my life has been, that one missed opportunity has left a hole that these pages have constantly tried to fill. The moral here? If there is one, it’s that you never know what you’ll miss until you try it: and that sometimes a spirit of adventure and maybe a little righteous arrogance goes a long way.

Like a lot of fans of the man, I didn’t listen to his shows as much as I should have done, and I never taped them, because I moved around a fair bit, and the cassettes would probably have got lost in the shuffle anyway (just like the huge vinyl collection I threw out in 1987 to make way for my new-found passion of CDs). In particular, I disliked the sessions, because in my ignorance I regarded them as inferior versions of songs which I could easily buy in the shops. Now they’re circulating the Net like so many pieces of gold dust. The first I can remember hearing was one that a friend taped in 1979 from a bunch of Scottish schoolboys (two of whom were brothers) who didn’t appear to be able to play their instruments very well, but had already had a track or two released on an Earcom compilation after they sent a demo to the Gang Of Four’s label, Fast. Of course, that never deterred JP, and the private recording of their sophomore effort was first broadcast on his show on 13 September 1979. They were called the Prats. Listening to them now inspires the same sense of mixed feelings I had then: a noise, to be sure, but one that would carry resonance through the new decade, and seemed to embody the spirit of what John was about. He played things, to paraphrase his words, that he knew people would like today, and others that he hoped they would like tomorrow. If you’re out there in some form, John, sorry for not taking the initiative when I should have done.

Prats, Peel Session 1979-09-13

Prats 2/Poxy Pop Groups/You’re Nothing/Jesus Had A PA/Nothing/Prats 1

11 thoughts on “The Day I Didn’t Meet John Peel

  1. A fantastic piece. Bizarrely, the bass player in the Prats was a guy called Tom Robinson (no, not that one!) who went on to manage Fopp in Edinburgh, employing amongst others over time: Drew who records as Wounded Knee (gets mentioned in the Wire), Ali Robertson (who records as part of Usurper, and also often gets mentioned in the Wire), Tony Taylor who is Ex Lion Tamer on 17 Seconds Records), Paul Mckeachen from local the X-vectors…oh yes, and me. And he’s a Hibs supporter, which is a good thing, obviously. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Oh, he’s a really nice guy too, shoulda mentioned that, being one of the first places to say they’d stock 17 Seconds Records products.

  3. Back to your best Steve.

    Top real world nostalgia and a lesson indeed. You weren’t to know then what you know now.

    And it’s good to see your soul – it’s so pink and perky with lashings of candid charisma.

    Thanks for the memory.

  4. Hey Dick, what a lovely guy you are (but I’ve always known that). Maybe I should do more of these!

  5. I was lucky to meet the man in Covent Garden in 1983. He was on his way to the BBC studios after being at the Rock and Pop awards. He had was obviously fed up with the results as when I mentioned that Paul McCartney had won best pop video for Pipes of Peace he commented sums the fucking night up. I offered to take him for a drink but he said he had a show to do and then he disappeared into the night. I treasure this meeting and will pass the story onto my grandchildren

  6. Davy: As ever, succinct and speaking volumes. I will take your advice to heart, sir.
    fatbhoyjim: Great memory, thanks for contributing!
    Adam: Ah, my soul brother, how similar we are. Thank you for the thumbs-up.

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