John Peel interview - January 1994 (?). Reprinted from interzone magazine
Recently someone said to me "I enjoyed this Peel Sessions album, but what is Peel?' Not surprisingly this was an American talking, because in the UK, John Peel enjoys almost legendary status (though he wouldn't thank you for reminding him). Certainly he's been the most important disk jockey in the UK over the past 25 years. As well as being a soccer (he hates that term) obsessive - he follows Liverpool who were the world's top club side in the 1970's/1980's - he runs Strange Fruit Records which is a outlet for thousands of exclusive session tracks from a wide variety of bands. With the SubPop Peel sessions album amongst others now available worldwide, more and more people will hear the name.
How did you get into music?
Listening to my father's 1930's/40's dance bands records by the likes of Charlie Kunz. Then people started buying me records , quite randomly; I thinkk it was a foundation of what I think's a fairly broad taste. I started buying records for myself. In those days there weren't different categories - just pop music. I got records by Johnny Ray and Frankie Laine - I saw them at the Liverpool Empire and was terribly disappointed that Frankie Laine must have been nearly 30! Then I started buying rock'n'roll when it first came out, but also music at the black end of the spectrum, mainly rhythm and blues, and by the time I did National Service at the age of 17 I was listening to a lot of Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, & Sonny Boy Williamson. And a lot of Trad jazz like Chris Barber.
Ironically enough, Peel's career started in the USA, Dallas to be precise. After leaving the army he headed for the USA...
I started off in 1961 in Dallas with WRR -I believe it's now a MoR station. I was doing a show called Kats Karavan - it was an r&b program and some of the records I had then, although American music, weren't actually available in America. I always liked the idea of getting on the radio - for me it was the perfect job, having a consuming interest in music. I'd just hang around radio stations. I went to KLIF in Oklahoma City for 18 months as the kind of resident Beatle expert, on the strength of coming from the Liverpool area. I got fired from there, worked in California for a while then came home in1967.
I managed to get a job with the pirate station Radio London on the high seas - it was anchored outside British waters.
All the pirates were closed down by the government's Marine Offences Act, so I applied for job with Radio 1 and got a 6 week contract. I've been there ever since.
In the US today you're best known for Strange Fruit records and its Peel Sessions. Had you any experience in running a record label before?
I ran Dandelion from 68-72 really just to record a friend, Bridget St. John. It went through CBS, Warner Brothers and Polydor - using their money.
The only hit single was Medicine Head's Pictures in the Sky. Though we had a number1 in the Lebanon, by an artist called Beau.
So how did the idea of sessions come about?
Basically we're obliged to have non-recorded music - we're only allowed a certain amount of 'needletime' due to Musicians Union rules. The choice was either to have silence, or get bands to play live...
What are your favourite sessions?
Well... it's really impossible to say, there have been several thousand... Perhaps Culture - I wish they'd done more -
Reggae acts are anmazingly unreliable - in fact Culture were the most recent not to turn up. You try to explain to them that they'll be playing to 1/2 miliion people, but that doesn't seem to be important to them.
The Slits was something of a classic, and I liked several by the Wedding Present.
Given the unpredictably of it all, there have been very few bad sessions, though sometimes if you see a band live - after a few beers they seem a lot better. Also, often it'll be the the first time they've been in a studio.
So when did you get the idea to release the material recorded on record?
I'd been arguing with the BBC about this ever since it started - I originally suggested the BBC release it through BBC Enterprise, on their own label. I went to Richard Branson at Virgin amongst others, but he wasn't keen, so eventually I went to Clive Selwood again and together we set up Strange Fruit.
You've recorded just about every 'alternative' band over the last 25 years - any you've regretted missing?
There's been a few American bands that it would have been nice to have - for a while it was difficult to get American band into the country in the1960's/70's.
You got Hendrix though.
Yes, but he was just about counted as British at the time. We managed to get Captain Beefheart in under some pretext. The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead would have been nice. There are a lot of good American bands at
the moment that we can get in - in fact at the moment I might be hard pushed to find enough UK bands to fill the sessions.
The Clash were perhaps the top UK band that never recorded for you?
They did come in actually - they did backing tracks but then said the studios weren't good enough - not a very punk attitide - though the story from the studio was that they were too out of their heads to do it.
What about the new SubPop compilation?
My son William helped choose the tracks, out of what was available.
One of the reviews said that the absent bands were more conspicuous, but that was unavoidable - Nirvana wouldn't give permission and Soundgarden pulled out of recording a session.
Did you ever meet Kurt Cobain or the guys from Nirvana?
I was backstage at Reading and my 3 children were there too - Kurt stood on Alexandra's foot - that's the closest I got.
Do you see Kurt's death as the end of an era?
Pople are always looking for some sort of significance - it doesn't mark any beginning or end and only demonstrates the destructive nature of fame. But it's just incredibly sad. You feel that you could have done something to help - come and stay with us for a couple of weeks! - but that's not the case.
Do you think that the UK and USA scenes are becoming similar?
Things are so diffuse it's almost impossible to establish a pattern - so many diffefent kinds of music around.
The size of the market makes adifference as well as different cultures and economic factors too - people in this country are obliged by circumstances to think of things more in economic terms while _and it's a gross generalisation I know - some people in the USA can dabble in whatever they perceive as art. I don't think we can really allow ourselves that luxury
The USA's indigenous music seems to be rap at present
It seems that by and large rap in America has been taken over by big record companies and become commercialised. Also it's very sexist while UK rap like CTTN and Gunshot are quite the opposite.
Finally, the World Cup ...
It's very open - delighted at the Irish and would like to see them go through. The heart says Brazil to win...
It does seem to be mainly the ex-patriots who seem to be turning up at present; maybe that'll change if the US do well.