Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tribute to a radio god

ONE of the guiding voices of my youth has been silenced forever. John Peel, the BBC DJ who introduced me and legions of other shortwave radio nuts worldwide to some truly exciting new music in the Seventies, has died in Cuzco, Peru where he was holidaying. He was 65.
I was saddened by the news as almost through my entire tormented teenage years, I faithfully tuned in to Peel's weekly half-hour music programme on the BBC World Service.
Lying in bed at night, ceaselessly fiddling with the antenna to optimise the static-filled signal, I would have my ear glued to the crackling speaker, eagerly soaking up the strange and beautiful noise that became a staple of Peel's unfailingly imaginative playlist.
I believed at the time that it was the most thrilling music show anyone could hear on the radio. And the best thing was, Peel somehow always managed to squeeze in as much music as possible in the sinfully short time-slot he was alloted.
I marvelled at the way he'd introduce a band with a few choice words and let the music speak for itself. And amazingly for someone who talked so little, Peel's was a voice you never forgot.
For many years, he was the only true sympathetic "friend" I had. The voice may have come floating from an incredible distance, but it spoke a language you could relate to. Often, it felt like you were listening to an older brother whom you admired for not only his cool tastes in music, but also for his uncanny ability to predict future trends.
It was through Peel's programme that I discovered glorious stalwarts of the British rock scene like Steve Hillage, Rory Gallagher, Robin Trower and Soft Machine, and many promising new bands. One of them was Be-Bop Deluxe on whose album 'Sunburst Finish' (recently reissued on CD by EMI) I never hesitated to shell out the then-princely sum of RM12.
Being obsessed with blues, folk and prog rock at one stage, I wasn't so appreciative during the time Peel kept plugging an endless parade of loud and noisy unsigned bands. But it's a good thing I didn't tune out as much of the music he played went on to become a blueprint for the British punk-rock revolution.
Peel was the kind of music lover for whom honesty of expression and artistic commitment meant more than glibness and technical polish. Which is why he featured loads of intriguingly ragged unknown acts on his show. There was a weird joy in giving your full attention to a band that seemed out of tune yet capable of moving you in ways that their more established counterparts could barely manage.
Indeed, I remember listening to some of the most astoundingly original music by groups that were sadly just swallowed up by oblivion. I can't recall their names or the titles of their tunes, but their sounds are still swirling somewhere in my head.
The tributes that have been pouring in, including one from British Prime Minister Tony Blair who characterised him as "a unique voice in British broadcasting", are a testament to Peel's legendary status as a broadcaster and his enormous influence on the evolution of British rock over four decades.
He was a true original, one who was worshipped as a god by a lonely teenager who owes him an eternal debt for musical enlightenment.


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