Book review: remembering John Peel, the pirate DJ who went legit but was never tamed
Bravura work of scholarship looks at Peel's profound influence on British music
More than 10 years after his death, influential British radio DJ John Peel still exerts a spell over the present.
For David Cavanagh, Peel was a curator who turned the airwaves into the boldest public gallery and most liberated pedagogic space imaginable. He was an artist who "displayed a form of erudite, neo-anarchic, abstract expressionist fearlessness". The pirate DJ who went legit without allowing himself to become tamed.
Good Night and Good Riddance is a bravura work of close listening, scholarship and writing. It's a chronological history of 265 programmes that Peel presented between 1967 and 2003 that begins with his show for Radio London called The Perfumed Garden. In those days he would recite in Latin the works of Roman poet Catullus, give up reading the weather halfway through because he found the idea of rain upsetting, and prefaced blues songs by inviting listeners to go for a wander in Hyde Park "straight into all those trees that are whispering ageless, unheard-of secrets to one another and exchanging dark green words of love".
Cavanagh discusses the ways in which - whether by modulating his accent or incorporating top 40 artists - Peel would try not to appear anachronistic. He's especially alert - as he should be after the horrors of recent scandals - to how, even into the '80s, sexist and even misogynist lyrics would fail to be noticed, far less called out. He also points to the irony of Peel refusing to announce the name of Rapeman's Inki's Butt Crack, but letting pass the graphic language of hip-hop outfits.
Most acutely, he picks up on Peel's tendency to identify with bands such as The Higsons, The Wedding Present, Mega City Four - "unassuming, self-deprecating, pleasant if approached … the sort of bands he wouldn't mind going for a biryani with". He was allergic to anything that bore the aroma of the arty or overreaching. Peel was more liberal than revolutionary, but compared with the bromides and giggle-fests of most of his Radio 1 colleagues that still counted for a lot.
Good Night and Good Riddance by David Cavanagh (Faber & Faber)