John Peel – King of the Anoraks

 I know this is filed under ‘rambling’, but believe me, this will be far more rambling than the usual shit I write under this tag, so umm… well, you’ve been warned.

It’s John Peel Day today, so first things first: I will be taking part in a special broadcast on Fresh Air Radio between 8pm and 11pm tonight, hosted by the wonderful H.P. Neilson, in tribute to the great man (John Peel, that is not, HP – not yet anyway).

There is a John Peel Day every year though, and I’ve never written about it before, so why now?  I’m not really sure, but I think perhaps because I pretty much ignored the death of Steve Jobs too, and the two of them have enough in common, that this feels like the chance to say a little bit about both characters.

The reason I never eulogised Mr. Jobs is because I am neither a drooling Apple fanboy, nor a determined naysayer, and it seems those were the only people writing about him when he died.  Personally, I use Apple products all the time, and as much as I admire certain aspects of their design, I find their clamped-tight-shut approach to UI design particularly frustrating, so I am a fan, but not one without a caveat or two.

A little like Peel, Jobs was a genius not because he got everything right, but because of the courage of his convictions.  I was a design engineer for ten years before I gave it up to run a record label*, and having worked in that industry for a good while, it is not particularly Jobs’ (or Jonathan Ive’s) design skills in particular that I admire.

The genius of Jobs and his team at Apple was not that they had the ability to design great products.  Lots of designers have that.  It is that they had the courage to actually make great products.

Almost every design process I have ever been involved with has failed at this, because people are cowards.  They are afraid of making something too expensive, so they compromise on the quality of the materials.  They are afraid of not addressing as much of their potential market as possible, so they try and make a single device to suit all users, and end up delighting none.  They are afraid to compromise battery life to make an incredible user interface, so they compromise both and end up excelling at neither.

That clarity of vision and purpose at Apple, and the courage to follow through with it, was their great genius and, despite my ambivalence to a lot of their products, it is the one thing at which I still believe they stand head and shoulders above everyone else.

And to get back to John Peel, I think something similar applies.  Like Jobs and Apple, I greatly admire John Peel, but I would never claim to love everything he did. In fact, I will go further, and confess that I rarely ever listened to his show. The reason for that is really quite simple: his taste in music was actually too broad for me, and I would end up listening to far too much stuff I didn’t like.

Still, he had that clarity of purpose which means that more than anyone else I can think of in radio, I admire his work hugely.  If you question this, just listen to anything else on the BBC at the moment.  6Music is supposed to be the eclectic music fans’ channel, but if you listen to it you will almost never hear anything as challenging as the stuff Peel would play.  In fact, 6Music is basically just safe music for the musically-inclined middle classes, if you ask me.  Being a member of the musically-inclined middle classes myself this suits me perfectly of course, and they are the only station likely to ever consistently play anything we release, but the programming is hardly challenging, particularly during the day.

The reason for this is highly unlikely to be the tastes of the producers and presenters who pick the music, as you can bet your life some of them listen to some fucking weird shit behind closed doors.  No, it is more likely to be an organisational failure of courage, and too many people with fear of failure.  You can’t play really weird stuff all the time or you’ll probably lose your listeners, and in the current climate of axe-happy BBC bigwigs running scared of the Tories you wouldn’t want to be the producer who took a chance and failed to connect with an immediate audience.

That said, though, Peel himself clearly was not hamstrung by this kind of fear.  He seemed to have cast-iron belief in what he was doing, to the point of being shunted around the schedule all the bloody time because successive management teams, although they recognised his value, really weren’t sure what to do with him.  It also says something for the man that despite being as awkward as that he still managed to hold on long enough to actually get to the stage where his legend protected him.  Would anyone be allowed to be that willfully idiosyncratic for that long nowadays, in the world of data mining, stats, the constant need to justify yourself. Maybe, but I have my doubts.

If anything, the most obvious proof that Peel did something special is hiding in plain sight.  Have you heard anyone try and describe themselves as the new John Peel or even, despite being happy saying how much they admire him, ever say that they are trying to actually emulate him?  It hardly ever happens.

It even took John Peel something like thirty or forty years to become ‘John Peel’, so it would take a spectacular feat of hubris for a current DJ to declare that as their ambition these days.  Even the most arrogant Radio careerist is a little leery of trying to compare themselves to him, despite him being pretty much everyone’s hero – it would seem cocky, distasteful and deluded.

You can’t try and become the next John Peel, not least because even the man himself didn’t seem to aspire to anything in particular.  He just seemed to stick around for ages doing a job no-one else, however much they admired him, quite had the courage, charisma or luck to really pull off.  And as much as his actual show, I think it is that integrity of purpose which really marked him out more than anything else.

So for a tune, and to explain the title of this post, we turn to Aberfeldy, who years ago wrote a lovely tribute to Tom Weir.  If you substitute Tom Weir for John Peel in these lyrics you kind of get something which still almost sort of slightly works – “John Peel, king of the anoraks, anoraks, anoraks!”

Aberfeldy – Tom Weir

*Yes, with a steady wage and everything.  Please don’t ask.

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