How my ears were opened

For many people of my generation, the assassination of John Lennon was cause for universal sadness. Not only grief over the death of a man who inspired us, brought us such great music and led by example with his message of love and peace, but also somehow because it symbolised the death of the 1960’s dream that the world could become a better place.

The ’60s, of course, never were entirely halcyon days of drug-fuelled happiness, anti-authoritarian sentiment and the idealistic view that war could end and that all would be well so long as we simply loved and accepted one another. Let’s not forget the Vietnam war, race riots, and the rest. But I was only 14 in 1968, neither old enough to be a hippy, not mature enough to understand the complexities the summer of love represented. But Lennon’s music – and the music of countless others – cut through some of that complexity in a way that even a 14 year old could understand. So, music was a huge joy and inspiration in my life, from a very young age. But for me the person who best exemplified the spirit of the ’60s, and the man whose death hit me more forcefully than John Lennon’s, was the English DJ, John Peel (30 August 1939 – 25 October 2004).

I never heard Peely’s programmes when he worked on pirate radio. But, after the standard fare of the pop charts (more or less all that was available on the radio at the time), I happened one Saturday afternoon to catch a programme called Top Gear. To say I was gobsmacked by what I heard would be an understatement. Here was this soft-spoken BBC disc jockey, with a wonderfully dry sense of humour, playing stuff I’d never even known existed. Progressive rock, world music, interesting folk music, contemporary chamber music, you name it, everything was grist to Peely’s mill. John was all about opening your ears, and he taught me to open mine. By playing such a wide and wonderful range of music he taught me to be open to everything. And so, having been introduced to bands like Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Groundhogs and many more, I sought out as much British progrock as I could lay my hands on. Then Mr Peel would turn everything upside down and play folk singers like the wonderful Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Steelye Span, Fairport Convention, et al. So I bought their stuff too. Next he got really weird and started playing work by the warped chamber group the Third Ear Band, and even, memorably, a 30 minute long raga by the sitar player Ravi Shankar. I recall John getting stink for the Shankar – some of his listeners complained bitterly that he was taking up valuable airtime with obscure Indian classical music. I could only applaud John for not pandering.

Some of his later programmes featured punk rock, techno, rap, house, garage bands and much more. A lot of it went right past me, and I didn’t listen to him quite as much. But I always respected his philosophy of supporting young, unknown musicians, an having an open heart and mind to both the melodic and (for me, at least) the somewhat unlistenable. However, as if to demonstrate just what a good listener he was, not just to music, he began to host a programme called Home Truths, consisting of interviews with ordinary people with unusual stories to tell. Wonderful stuff it was, too, and I tuned in religiously every week.

John Peel didn’t preach love and peace. He gave us the food of love instead.