Jarvis Cocker pays tribute to John Peel

Pulp's Jarvis Cocker thrust a demo tape into the great man's hands in 1980 - and eventually became a pop star. Here he pays tribute to the broadcasting legend whose deadpan wit, enthusiasm and everyman demeanour made him a favourite of gangly punks and grandmas

I guess I knew it was a big deal when my grandmother said how sorry she was to hear that John Peel was dead. I mean, I knew it was a big deal to me personally and to just about everyone else involved with the music business, but for my grandma (and my mum, for that matter) to be upset as well, that was another matter.

What was it about the man that endeared him to such a wide cross-section of society? My grandma said there 'wasn't an ounce of malice in the man', and maybe that's a clue: people felt they knew him well enough from listening to him on the radio to make judgments about his character, as if he were a friend. It seems quite ironic that at a time when whole departments in radio and TV stations are given over to 'market research' and 'demographic investigations' that someone who attempted to please nobody but himself ended up forging one of the most profound links with his listeners in the history of broadcasting.

My relationship with Peel began sometime in early 1977. I was desperate. I'd heard all about punk rock but couldn't get to hear any, since the local radio station in Sheffield had deemed it 'not real music'. One night I started twisting the dial, hoping that something would happen, and then - bang! - it did. I caught the end of an Elvis Costello track followed by a low, droning voice that I would come to know very well, introducing me to a whole new world.

The voice was key, I think. You know how they say you should have someone to guide you through your first acid trip? Well, The Voice was like that - no matter how far-out and downright scary some of the music was, The Voice was always there to let you know everything was alright. 'Hey,' it seemed to be saying, 'just let it happen. You don't have to like all of this: just give it a chance.'

Not that you listened to the John Peel Show just for the music. No, you got off on the funny stories, the wild digressions, the occasional faux pas. This guy was just sat in a studio somewhere making it up as he went along. Maybe being an adult wasn't going to be so bad after all.

Like all relationships, there came a time when I wanted to take it a bit further. In my case, this meant forming a band, before, in 1980, having the temerity to present the man himself with our first demo tape after he'd been DJ-ing at the local polytechnic. I expected to have to fight through hordes of other local scenesters to make my presentation - I mean this was the John Peel - but no, here he came, on his own, carrying his record cases.

I made my move; he put one of the cases down to take the tape, mumbling something about 'giving it a listen on the drive home', then left, no eye contact. The job was done.

That period after the consummation of our relationship was the sweetest for me: we secured a session on his show, got photographed in our school uniforms by the local paper, and went to London to the Maida Vale studios we'd heard so much about. (OK, John wasn't there himself to oversee the recording but, hey, the ex-drummer of Mott the Hoople produced it.) This was it: the big time. Except, of course, it wasn't.

For every one of the bands who got their first break via a Peel Session and then went on to greater things, I guess there must be at least two or three who were never heard of again. For a long time I thought we were going to be one of the latter. I took it badly. Inevitably, it hurt. Oh, John, why hast thou forsaken me, I'd ask.

But that wasn't the point; the point was that Peel gave people a chance. Sure, he had his favourites, but generally he was concerned with seeking out new stuff, giving it a go, and then moving on to the next thing. It was for other people to sift through it all and decide what it meant. It was for other people to make a career out of it. That's why his show never felt formulaic or stale because he was always on a quest, always just passing through on the way to who knows where.

Long after my lesson in tough love I got to meet the man at his home, just before our album Different Class came out. It was weird meeting someone that you felt you'd known for years already for the first time in the flesh. Plus, he was a bit shy; still not much eye contact. There were no rock star anecdotes or reminiscences about his years in the 'biz'. It was what people produced, rather than what they did in their private lives, that interested him. I mentioned a track called 'Murder by Guitar' that I could remember hearing on his show as a kid. I couldn't remember the name of the band. He disappeared into a back room and emerged three minutes later with a seven-inch copy of said record. It was by Crime, it transpired, and it still sounded great.

Ultimately, I think, Peel's appeal came down to something very simple: he was an enthusiast. The only reason he was doing what he was doing was because he loved it - and he loved it so much that he wanted to share it with people. To have your own radio show and play just what you like! To communicate with the audience just as if you were talking to a friend. What a simple idea! How obvious!

So how come no one else is doing it?

Jarvis Cocker

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Flashback: October 1981

Jarvis Cocker recalls a teenage meeting with John Peel and Pulp's first-ever studio recording session, 25 years ago ...

Jarvis Cocker

14, Oct, 2006 @11:00 PM

Peel's box of secrets

A privileged glimpse of the most prized seven-inch records of the late DJ tells you all you need to know about pop: here the White Stripes and Bill Oddie are equal partners.

Paul Morley

18, Sep, 2005 @2:39 PM

'Does music still matter? Yes ... and no!'

Jarvis Cocker, guest editor, sits down with a cast of famous friends to discuss pop in the 21st century, iPods and selling baked beans.

Jarvis Cocker

15, Oct, 2006 @5:41 PM

Article image
Soundtrack of my life: Jarvis Cocker

The Saint Martins College student turned cultural provocateur reveals his inspirations to Will Hodgkinson

Will Hodgkinson

18, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Loud and proud

John Peel was not just a great DJ, but also a fine journalist. Here, in this exclusive extract from the introduction to a new history of death metal, he recalls his first exposure to the joys of grindcore.

12, Dec, 2004 @1:11 AM

CD: Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis

Our guest editor's debut solo album is suffused with the fear of 21st century Britain, and is all the better for it, says Jon Savage.

Jon Savage

15, Oct, 2006 @2:13 PM

CD: Pop review: Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications

This is a record that's more intriguing than entertaining, says Craig McLean

Craig McLean

16, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

John Peel and Sheila, The Pig's Big 78's - A Beginner's Guide

Ben Thompson finds himself curiously saddened by Peels' collection of esoteric relics

21, May, 2006 @12:46 AM

Editor's letter

This month, OMM is edited by Jarvis Cocker, founder member of Pulp and man of the people.

Jarvis Cocker

15, Oct, 2006 @10:12 PM

Jarvis Cocker bags Roald Dahl film role

A chance encounter at Paris party leads to screen part, reports Gareth Grundy

Gareth Grundy

03, Oct, 2009 @11:01 PM