This is the transcript from Desert Island Discs from 1989 or thereabouts, featuring John Peel. For the uninitiated, Desert Island Discs is a half-hour programme on BBC radio which could feature any 'personality' - politician, actor, sportspeople, whatever. They basically talk about their life interspersed with musical pieces which mean something to them. Guests are allowed 7 records on their island, plus a book and a luxury item (they are already supplied with the works of Shakespeare and the Bible). The show has run for many years, originally hosted by its creator Roy Plumley, and on his death taken over by the interviewer quoted below, Sue Lawley.
Today's castaway is a broadcaster, the only disc-jockey to have stayed the course on Radio One. He was there when it started 22 years ago, since when he's enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as the perceptive voice of pop. His enthusiasm for the unusual and the extreme has made him the champion of several generations of rebels, from flower power through punk to hip-hop and hardcore thrash. The eccentric public schoolboy who conquered his shyness by taking to the airwaves is now a cult figure whose upon who age has conferred unwanted respectability. He's the man with the lugubrious voice, John Peel. John, is it unwanted the respectability?
It is really, yes, one of the problems I've had since becoming 50 is that because of the amount of media attention that this rather unremarkable event garnered, I've fond that the people who listen to the program don't write to me in such an intimate way as previously, which is rather sad I think, so I'm hoping, as I'm only going to be 50 once, that this won't happen again unless I survive to be 100, so hopefully it'll all die down and they'll start writing to NME again in the same way as before.
Why are you still there, why are you the stayer as oppose to all those Dave Cash/Simon Dee/Terry Wogan/Ed Stewart sort of people. - you were the nonconformist but you're still there.
People do find it curious that a chap of my age like the things that I like but I do feel that it's one of those situations where everyone's out of step except our John, because in every other area of human activity - literature, theatre or something like that, you're not supposed to live eternally in the past, you're supposed to take an interest in what's going to happen next and this is what I do, it seems to be a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.
Not only are you 50 but are happily married with 4 children - is it they who ask you to turn the music down?
Ha, indeed it is, it was only a couple of years ago that the 2 elder ones, Alexandria and William came to my room in the form of a deputation to as they were watching television elsewhere, and they said "Dad do you mind turning the records down a bit?" which I thought was terrific, this role reversal.
But have you taught them good taste in pop, or haven't you bothered?
Well, I don't think it's something you can teach, I think that it's important, if it's important at all for most people, that this taste is the first thing that's wholly theirs, it's not instilled in them by parents or schoolteachers.
So what's the first record?
It would be Zadok the Priest as recorded at the coronation of George VI. Somebody in my study at school - you were moved around as a junior boy from study to study and each term and obviously hoped that you didn't fall in with some of the more disagreeable of the house - and one chap had a complete recording of the coronation of George VI. He was a man I much admired, mainly because of the way he overcame his stammer and his shyness, and his speech in 1941, 'A man stood at the gate of the year', I regard as one of the great recordings of all time, but this seldom fails to move me to tears
Why do you think it does make you cry?
I'm not really quite sure, I think that with all the things I like and all things that are done well anywhere on earth, it's like when people ask me as they often do what criteria do you apply to choosing records for the programme, I've never known the answer to that nor would I wish to know the answer to it because I feel that the core of everything that's worth doing there must be a kind of kernel, something which is unidentified and indescribable.
But can pop musicmake you cry?
Yes, it can and has done many times in the past.
But where did your taste in music develop?
I have simply no idea, at all, I don't remember music ever being played at home in any form, my father had a collection of dance band records from the 1930's which he passed onto me and I alas destroyed because they were all on 78, obviously, and I think I used to be given records by despairing relatives - "what shall we give the boy?" - and I just liked them as objects, I still do, I shall never come to terms with compact discs, because they're not - people say 'sexy', which is a ludicrous term to use in this context - but they're unpleasant objects, but records I really like.
You mean old black 78's?
Anything, there's something about records which is really satisfying.
So did you spend your youth in those shops where they had records in kind of stand-up buckets, didn't they, with brown wrappers?
Yes, that's right, and on those days too the charts were determined by sheet music, you would just go in and ask for a copy of some thing like 'The Little Shoemaker' and there would be 20 or 25 different versions of it and they'd just give you whichever one came to hand, and I quite liked that - it was a rather random way of buying things, you'd come home with all kinds of treasures.
So where is home, Liverpool?
No - I only said Liverpool to people at a later date because it was easier to say Liverpool than Burton, which is a small village on the edge of the River Dee where I lived until I was the age of 17 - in the Wirral.
And what did your father do?
He was a cotton broker, a family business which my grandfather had been involved in and probably others before that, but it was a dying business, and in the 1950's... a lot of people had kept it going through the war, but he'd gone off and fought in North Africa and so forth, so the family business had been in suspension for about 5 years so when he came back it was quite difficult to get going again - it lasted his lifetime but it wasn't the sort of business which he'd have passed onto us.
You didn't see lot of him when you were small as you were born around the outbreak of war?
That's right, four days before it started. Yes, I must have seen him as a baby, because there are pictures of him holding me as a baby, but I don't remember seeing him until I was 6
Do you think that's affected you in any way?
Well, very possibly. It makes me sad, he died about 15 years ago and I miss him now more then when he actually died, because there are more things now which have happened because I'd have liked him to have known about - doing this programme being one of them, but things like honorary degrees and so forth because when I started on Radio One he'd go into his club, the old Hall club in Liverpool with a lot of stories which would start "you'll never guess what that damn fool boy of mine has done now", but he used to tell people and I was quite pleased with that, because he obviously saw me as a bad lot at one stage.
Let's have your second record then:
Well, about 3 or 4 weeks ago I was standing in the fog at Stowmarket station and there was no-one else on the platform waiting for the train to London and the only light was very diffused light through the fog, and I was standing at the end of the platform. And behind the station there's an industrial estate and very faintly and very tinnily from the industrial estate I could hear Roy Orbison's "It's Over" and it was a magical moment.
You were sent off to boarding school in Shrewsbury with contemporaries there like Paul Foot and Michael Palin. Did you love it or loathe it?
I was sort of indifferent to it, it seemed inevitable, you're obliged to observe all sorts of ludicrous rules and privileges and I'm always astonished how when I look back on it that no-one ever questioned any of this stuff, because I don't think you could possibly get away with doing the things that were done then, when I try to describe it to my own children they think I'm making it up. And when you talk about it does sound like you're describing something that happened at least a hundred years ago. It was very brutal... I got beaten something like 30 times in my first term, and these were not for deliberate offences but just for having forgotten to do something, I was a rather forgetful chap, I was constantly in trouble.
One of the masters was quoted recently, and I don't know where these quotes come from but he said that you were a beastly little boy...
Yes, well, this was a fairly common observation and one of the more generous ones... my mother gave me my reports about 5 or years ago which she'd kept in a trunk in the attic in the traditional style, and they were quite horrifying, I was appalled just how ghastly I mush have been - but it was just stupidity, not malevolent in any way at all. I wish I had been, I wish I'd been a rebel, saying "I'm not going to do that" or "touch me again and I'm going to belt you", but I was lucky in having an extraordinary housemaster, a man called RHJ Brooke, who later became the Reverend RHJ Brooke, I'd regard him as being the greatest man I ever met, and he recognised uniquely that I was a fairly hopeless case academically and so forth, but encouraged me in some of my more wayward pursuits. For example, he put me in the study next to the house library where they used to listen to classical music in rather solemn circumstances and he encouraged me to play very noisy records in my study next door, he rather liked the idea of having a disruptive influence in the house
So he was to blame then?
I suppose yes, he is the man who is ultimately to blame, yes.
So what did you think that stage you were going to do with your life?
Well, I simply had no idea at all. I'd wanted from a very early stage to get into radio - I'd listened to Radio Luxembourg and American Forces Network in Europe and naively assume that the dj's there chose the records themselves and because I was accumulating records at quite a rate and living in the country and having no-one I could play them to except my brother, and he wasn't interested - and also I was fired by parental disproval, my father would stick his head in and say "what's that awful record you're playing there?' and would mispronounce the names of the artists deliberately to inflame further - and I thought "what I'd really like is a job on the radio playing records that I like to other people", and that in essence is all I've ever done. And people try to read more into it than that, but there isn't any more to it.
What did your brother end up doing, as a matter of interest?
Well, most interesting, I have 3 brothers - one is 7 years younger so he didn't really enter into these proceedings, but Francis insures nuns, uniquely.
Well against almost anything - if you have a nun you want insuring, I can put you in touch with him.
Let's have record number three.
This is by Jimmy Reid, I moved to America when I completed my National Service and lived in Dallas, and everyone there used to listen to a program called Kats' Karavan (spelled with 2 K's) and the big hero on Kats' Karavan was Jimmy Reid - at the time I was going out with a girl called Nancy Bowling from Bryan Adams High School and this record was 'Our Tune'.
Jimmy Reid, "Too Much", memories of Nancy Bowling in Dallas, Texas where you'd become popular, I think because you'd become a sort of surrogate Beatle?
Yes, well, that happened obviously when the Beatles came along in 1964/65, and by that time I'd been living in Dallas for 4 years working principally as an office boy which I thoroughly enjoyed, but it was one of those things where my father would write me anguished letters saying "How are you getting on in your career?" and I'd say "Well, I'm still an office boy with every prospect of remaining one", but when the Beatles came along I was sitting in my... I used to live in a shed at the bottom of someone's garden, and which again I was quite happy doing and a chap called Russ Knight, The Weird Beard on the radio station KLIF in Dallas, was talking about Liverpool and talking a great deal of nonsense about it, so I phoned him up and said that I was from Liverpool and he immediately put me on the air and we talked about Liverpool and I set him right about one or 2 things and I was then invited to go down to the station and become something of a Beatle expert because the Americans in a rather charmingly naive way assumed that anybody who came from roughly the same area as the Beatles, if they weren't blood relatives, certainly would be an intimate friend - and I never said that I did know the Beatles, but then again I never said that I didn't. So I became an Beatle expert, and as you say, a surrogate Beatle to the point that I used to get mobbed in downtown Dallas by gangs of teenage girls - so I used to make sure that I spent a great deal of time in downtown Dallas.
You wouldn't have missed any of it for the world?
Not at all!
And you changed the accent didn't you?
Well, I did, yes, I was then required to obviously have more of a Liverpool accent and I've never been terribly good at doing one, but I developed something that was satisfactory as far as Americans were concerned, and I'm rather stuck with it now, people that hear it from the first time assume that I come from somewhere in the Midlands which I must admit I deeply resent (!)
So you changed the voice, you changed the name too?
Well, that was wished on me when I came back from America in 1967 and was desperate for work, so I went to the pirate station Radio London and told them I'd been working in California, which was true, and they said "we'll give you a job on the air" because they knew their days were numbered and they thought that somebody who'd been working in California would be pretty darn exciting, but they said that John Ravenscroft, which is my real name, was too long a name for people to memorise.
John Robert Parker Ravenscroft.
That's right, and one of the secretaries said "why don't we call him John Peel?" and since I was desperate for work, I said I'll be John Peel, but if I'd gone there 3 or 4 months earlier I'd be Mark Roman so I think I got off quite lightly.
I wonder why Peel though?
Well, I suppose because people will already know the name from the ghastly folk song.
And of course there's the beard, have you had that forever?
Erm, no, I grew this in my late twenties. As people always say, something to hide behind, but in my case because whenever I shaved it always looked like I was the victim of a knife attack, I used to bleed and it'd take me hours to stop the bleeding, so I grew it and when I was about 41 or something like that, I shaved it off out of curiosity, and in fact in one of the toilets here in Broadcasting House and stood in front of the mirror in complete horror at a complete stranger because from the chap who'd disappeared behind it as a 27 year-old fellow, not a great looking bloke, but slim and not unpleasant, suddenly I was looking a mixture of my mother and Mussolini - not a happy combination at all. Quickly my wife told me to grow it back again and quite rightly so.
So you'll keep it forever?
I think so!
This is from Misty in Roots at something called the Counter-Eurovision in Brussels in the late 1970's and the start of this sums up, I like to think anyway, if there is an ethic of anything we do on the Radio One programme this describes it.
<Spoken intro>: "When we tread this line, we walk for one reason. The reason is to help another man to think for himself. The music of our hearts is roots music, music which recalls history, because without the knowledge of your history you cannot determine your destiny.
The music about the present because if you're not conscious of the present you're like a cabbage in this society.
Music which tells about the future and the judgement which is to come. The music of our hearts is roots music."
John, when you joined Radio 1 in 1967 as I understand it, it was, quote "to look beyond the horizons of pop," unquote - was that your phrase or theirs?
Oh, it was very much theirs, and I think that by it they intended that I should go down to the London Palladium and interview Dusty Springfield about the forthcoming lp and stuff but fortunately the producer of the programme, Bernie Andrews, now alas retired, had a very different project in mind and we were much interested in what was flower power music, the music that was coming out of California and a lot of it coming from Britain as well, so we bent the rules over a period of time
So you were playing stuff that the other dj's during the day weren't playing?
That was certainly the case and still is to a certain extent, but I hope that I don't have elitist feelings about the music I like and never have done, I wish that other people would play it - and the irony of it is that bands we were playing at the time like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and Cream - people at the time said "how can you play this awful stuff?" whereas now they're pillars of the establishment, those that have survived.
But you were regarded as a kind of late-night nutter?
Well, to a certain extent...
But you became, well you are, a bit of a cult and it's not a tag that you like?
Not at all, not really, people will do this and if you try to avoid having an image and try to be yourself which is obviously much easier, it's like the difference between telling the truth and telling lies, you don't have to remember what you said and to whom, and when you said it whereas if you tell the truth it's just a lot easier to be yourself... but people at times in the past, not so much now, but the lack of image becomes an image in itself, people will try to make you into some kind of something they've developed in their own mind.
The interesting thing is, though, thinking about it, it doesn't necessarily involve a deal of loyalty on your part to your listeners, I mean you alienated a lot of your listeners in the mid-70's when you started playing punk and they really didn't like it and they switched off.
No, they didn't like it at all, that certainly was the case, but for me it was the same when I first heard the Ramones - they were the first punk band I that heard - and hearing them was the same as hearing Little Richard as a teenager, it was like Saul on the road to Damascus, it was a revelation, rather frightening in a way, I borrowed the record from a record shop in Oxford St and came back and put about 5 or 6 tracks from it onto that night's programme and you felt rather threatened by it, it was so alien and terrifically exciting. And a lot of people phoned in, the switchboard was jammed, which as we know isn't a difficult thing to happen to it, but people phoned in and said "you must never do this again" and then they wrote in afterwards and said "you must never play any of these records ever again" and of course I always find that very exciting and then played a great deal more of them, and it was terrific, the whole audience changed in the space of about a month, the average age of the audience dropped by about 10 years, and all those people who wanted to go on listening to Grateful Dead records for the rest of their lives obviously got off the train at that point
We'll pause there and have some more music, what is it?
This was a record which somebody else did play on the radio, I was driving up to see Liverpool play and I was in a traffic jam round Stoke-on-Trent, I think, and I heard Peter Powell play the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" which I'd been playing for months, but to hear it played by someone else was a stupendous thing and I actually burst into floods of tears in the traffic jam - I'll try not to cry now...
The Undertones, "Teenage Kicks" - you should do that John, it sounds funny me saying it.
You did it very well!
Do you champion the new for new's sake or do you do you actually have to like the sound? I know it's difficult for you to define...
It is difficult - no, I do genuinely like it. I suppose, really, I like it when people are making records because they have to be made. If they are in any way successful there comes a point where they are making records to order, not just to the requirements of the record company, but and accountants and so forth, but also to the audience, a mass audience having a record by a particular band, want something which is vaguely similar the next time out, it's a bit like when you buy cornflakes, and go to the supermarket to buy them again, you don't want them to be ginger-flavoured or something whimsical like that you want them to be pretty much like they were previously - so there comes a point usually quite early in their career if they're at all successful in which the start to make things which don't interest me any more and it's not, again, elitism or any kind of peculiar snobbery, it's that the element that somehow attracted me initially is somehow bled out of them by the record company processes.
There are undoubtedly groups who would never have made it to the top if it hadn't been for your initial loyalty and encouragement which has meant that you have been - are in - a very powerful position - do you enjoy that power?
Not at all, really, and I don't think you can allow yourself to reflect on it when you're putting programmes and I don't really entirely believe in it anyway, because, and people say there are certain bands and obviously you advance them a little bit and bring them to a slightly wider audience than they previously had, but at the same time there are numbers of bands whose records I've stoutly resisted playing and I've refused to have in session like U2 and the Police and Dire Straits all of whom applied for sessions at one time or another all of whom were turned down by myself and producer John Walters, quite rightly so I think, so if ever I started to think of myself as some sort of kingmaker, I can reflect back on those bands who have become stupendously successful... and Bruce Springsteen.
What, you turned him down?
Not for a session no, but when his earlier records arrived, I thought they were rubbish and no-one else could understand why I felt like this, I thought they were dreadful, I still think they're dreadful as a matter-of-fact and so it's really quite a good thing I think for me to turn against you because it's a guarantee of stupendous success.
Let's have another record.
Well, when my daughter Florence was born about 8 years ago Sheila, my wife, was very ill and it turned out subsequently that we both feared for her safety really, she thought she was going to die and I rather suspected that she might as well, she lost a lot of weight and as I say was very ill indeed, and I had to sleep in another part of the house because she made so much noise when she was trying to sleep, and it sounds selfish but it was something that we agreed on as it was the only way that _I_ could get any sleep, and she came to me about 4 o'clock one morning and said that she thought that the baby was about to be born and she climbed up onto the ledge above where I'd been sleeping in the room where I play my records and lay down and I went and made her a cup of tea and put on Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto and when it had finished we both drove off to the hospital, both of us thinking separately that she was going to be very ill, possibly die. In the event she was perfectly alright, and Florence was born, a most healthy and pugnacious child, and so Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto means an immense amount to both of us still.
Played by Peter Caitin with the LSO conducted by Edward Condell, a record in memory of Florence, who is nearly 8 now John?
Yes, that's right, a most lively child, a most amusing creature.
And there's Thomas who's 9, Alexandra who's 12 and William who's just 14. Each of whom who have a Liverpool name too?
They do yes. This is a source of great embarrassment to them, as I always point out to them if I'd been a supporter of Shrewsbury Town they'd be called ... well, William for example is called William Robert Anfield Ravenscroft, and if I'd been a Shrewsbury Town supporter he'd have been called William Robert Gay Meadow, which would have been difficult to live with.
What about the others?
There's Alexandra May Anfield, and Thomas is Thomas James Dalglish, after Kenny Dalglish obviously, and curiously enough he looks slightly like him, he's blond and stocky and quite good at football and in fact scored his first hat-trick a couple of weeks ago
Which is greater, your passion for Liverpool Football Club or your passion for music?
Erm, they're both about the same. I always say, when people ask me which was the greatest moment of my life, that seeing Alan Kennedy scoring the winning goal against Real Madrid in the Parc du Princes in the European Cup Final was probably as good a moment as I've ever had, but that's perhaps being a bit flippant, I'd have to say that the birth of the children would be actually superior to that
And their mother Sheila, you call her during the course of your programme 'The Pig'?
Yes, this is only because she snorts when she laughs, she's always been called Pig by me for that simple reason
Does she care about music, does she mind all that loud stuff?
I think she quite likes some of it, if she ever rushes into my room and says "that's terrific", then I know that I'm onto a winner, so I trust her judgement considerably on that.
And you all like together very happily in Suffolk, a life which is not at all avant garde, not at all rebellious, in fact thoroughly decent and sane, perhaps that's the truth about you, that you're an ordinary chap?
Yes, I always feel that the music I like, and I genuinely like, the stuff I play on the radio is my own way of going out on the street and righting these wrongs that I think should be righted.
That's the confrontational side of you, that's the hooligan inside?
That's right, trying to get out and whack people over the head
Some more music...
Well, over the past decade there's been one band whose music has pleased me more than anyone else's, that's been The Fall from Manchester, they're still around, I suppose they're one band who have lasted from one end of the decade to the other. Almost any of their records would give me great pleasure but Eat Yerself Fitter is a particular favourite
I don't get the impression that you're the least practical, how long would you last on the desert island?
Not very long I'm afraid, er, I'm hopeless around the house, I can change light bulbs and things like that and I did once put up a corner cupboard in the house and it's been up there for 15 years, it's held in place with wire coat-hangers but you can't tell that from the ground... ha, not a practical man at all.
So you couldn't catch a fish or snare a rabbit?
No I couldn't, well, I don't eat meat anyway, so unless there was a great quantity of fruit and vegetables on the island then I should be in real trouble I think.
So is there no happiness for you in the solitary state that we offer?
No, I think that there would be but only for a very short time, there have been times in the past when I've just needed to get away and what I've done was to check into the most peculiar hotel in Scarborough and just spent the weekend watching tv and reading by myself, when life got too much for me, I don't need to do that any more thank goodness, but I could cope for about 24 hours, that's as long as I could do it for I think.
What you'd need would be a regular supply of new releases to give you zest?
Yes, that and detailed reports on the football!
So John Peel is going to go on and on looking forward?
Well, it seems to me as I said a natural thing to do - certainly I will, yes.
Your last record?
Well, this would be by the 4 Brothers from Zimbabwe. A few years ago I went to Zimbabwe to open a British Consul exhibition on pop music, a replacement I should say for Dave Lee Travis who didn't want to go, so that kind of keeps you humble, the knowledge of that, and my wife came with me because I always insist that she goes everywhere because I just wouldn't like it if she didn't, and we went out into one of the townships to the Zaratoga Club to see the 4 Brothers play and it was something like a film, someone asked her to dance and she's a very exuberant and lively dancer and she danced for about 3 numbers and when she left the dance floor everybody applauded like in a John Travolta film and I said to her later "I wish the 4 Brothers could play at my birthday party" and she genuinely organised this without my knowing anything about it at all - we had a marquee in the garden and I wasn't allowed to go into it, and when I was allowed to go in, the 4 Brothers were there, it was stupendous and I maintain they are the best live band I've ever seen.
And you cried?
I did cry, yes, I'm afraid I did.
The 4 Brothers and you can say this one John.
Well, it's something like Passepano Panetziedsu but when I say it to them or have said it to them in the past they shriek with laughter - but it's close enough
Now can you choose one of those 7 which is more important to you that the others?
Well, a lot of them are kind of 'down' things, things which would make me moody and introspective and perhaps it would not be a good idea to have those with me
But you are moody and introspective?
Yes, but I don't think it would be healthy to be like an island by myself, I might do myself a mischief ultimately, so I'd have to take something which cheered me up which would leave either the 4 Brothers or the Undertones and I think because I've known the Undertones for so long and I've always claimed that it was my favourite record of all time I'd have to take Teenage Kicks.
Live up to your own image...? The book, what would you like to read?
Well, I wish I had more time for reading, I like reading and I'm always appalled by my own ignorance when I read about English literature, if I won the football pools I should like to spend the rest of my life just reading I think. Dance to the Music of Time would do very nicely because it's so long and my memory is so poor that by the time I got to the end of it I could start again at the beginning and it would be as a new book to me.
Anthony Poel's Dance to the Music of Time. And your luxury, have you through of one?
Well, a football, I'd have to have a wall or something I could kick it against, but a football would give me a great deal of pleasure because... as a boy playing football, I've always been a rather graceless creature, I don't dance, I've never danced, I've always been too inhibited to dance, when I was playing football I always feel graceful, I feel as other people would feel when they were dancing, so a football would be essential.
Right, John Peel thank you very much indeed, for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs. You can go back to Radio One now.