I’ve been listening to some very old John Peel shows, his The Perfumed Garden from when he was on the pirate station Radio London in 1967, because I’ve just started reading Good Night and Good Riddance, which describes lots of his shows over the decades.
I’ve loved listening to them. It’s not nostalgia as such (so far) – they’re from before I was born and I didn’t start listening to his BBC Radio 1 shows until the late 1980s. But it’s fascinating to hear radio from so long ago, by someone so interested in such a variety of new music.
These days, when we can hear almost any music any time we want, so much of it loses any original context. All music exists at once.
But hearing Peel trying to persuade his listeners – presumably pretty hippy – that the Velvet Underground are “important,” even if their music can be hard to listen to, gives you an inkling of what it might have been like to hear it for the first time.
Or I’ve heard him a couple of times enthusing about Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit which, these days, seems over-used and unsurprising as a soundtrack for druggy, Vietnam-era madness. So hearing it anew, when the band were about to come to play in London, feels more like touching the past, rather than having it re-heated again and again to add period colour.
And then there’s all the non-musical historic detail. Peel, then, was a big hippy, so there’s a lot of describing places, people, events, anything at all as “very beautiful,” and marveling at the old trees in Hyde Park, or a sparrow having a bath (“we’re all sparrows”). Or trying to encourage everyone to go their window and shout into the night, “I love you!”
And when he tells of seeing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the King’s Road – around the time of their trial for drug possession – but didn’t go and thank them for everything because he thought they’d find it “a drag”.
And then there are the very occasional adverts which sound a bit out of place among Peel’s music. I’d only ever heard of Vitalis hair-tonic from a lyric in Guys and Dolls, but it was apparently still advertising nearly 20 years later. Or you could send off for a five-minute 8mm “home movie” about “The Big L” radio station for only 2l. 12s., but 10s. extra for Super-8.
I think there are two varieties of recording available. The first, like this one uploaded by Rob Chapman of Peel’s final, five hour, Radio London show, is taken direct from a tape recording – mono, low quality, with the hiss and interference of an AM/MW broadcast, other voices and tunes occasionally seeping through. Listening to it on a phone’s tinny speakers, late at night, seems the best way to simulate hearing it in real-time, in 1967, on a small transistor radio, all the way from a ship in the international waters of the North Sea.
Then there are “remastered” versions where all the music has, I assume, been replaced with modern recordings. These, like this on archive.org, of the same final show, are more listenable in a way – more bearable to stick on to enjoy the music – but they lose some of the magic. When a faint John Peel appears between the high-fidelity songs, speaking through a veil of crackles, hums, and buzzes, you’re aware of the fakery. Give me the hiss and crackle.
I think, when he was older, Peel rolled his eyes at the optimism and lack of cynicism in his Perfumed-Garden-self, which is understandable – we were all idiots when we were younger. But it’s also
quite lovely very beautiful to hear his enthusiasm for the music, his listeners, wildlife, and so many things.