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Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life Paperback – 19 May 2016
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The first major book on the most colossal tastemaker in British pop history since Margrave of the Marshes
About the Author
David Cavanagh has written for Select, Q, Mojo and Uncut and is the author of the acclaimed history of Creation Records My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize.
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It was a lost opportunity – not to mention a disgrace – that last year's tenth anniversary of John Peel’s death was not more prominently commemorated by the BBC and the wider media. But the publication of this superb book more than makes up for that collective oversight. At 600 pages it looked ominously long and overbearing when it landed on my doorstep but in fact the pages fly by and it is a joy to read.
We all know about Peel the idealist, enthusiast, talent-spotter, starmaker and, ultimately, music industry institution. But what David Cavanagh gets across so well is that Peel was first and foremost a professional broadcaster - one of the very greatest the BBC ever employed - laconic, articulate, erudite, amusing, easy on the ear, in the tradition of Reithian giants from Wilfrid Vaughan-Thomas through Richard Dimbleby to Peel's own broadcasting hero (which I didn't know 'til I read this book) John Arlott. But nobody before or since - DJ or otherwise - has come close to Peel in defining the global cultural reach of the BBC. Years before the internet arrived Peel already had an international following via the World Service and received a growing deluge of letters, demo tapes and Festive Fifty votes from all over the planet including from behind the Iron Curtain where in some countries, as recently as the mid-eighties, being caught listening to subversive music broadcast from the UK could land you in trouble, difficult though that is to comprehend now.
The book has an excellent Introduction - a brief 28-page career biography and concise summary of how the Peel phenomenon was created, highlighting each twist and change along the way. And Peel did change. He underwent several makeovers of style, attitude, taste, and voice (it got progressively louder and deeper). He wasn't perfect: the surviving extracts from his early hippy-whimsical shows on R1 now make cringeful listening and, later on, his rebellious urge to cause incendiary mischief could have got him sacked by the austere BBC on several occasions. What probably saved him was that at crucial times he found two staunch allies (producers) in Bernie Andrews and John Walters, the latter becoming a close personal friend and soulmate. At each career turn Peel always managed to stay one step ahead of the game, although as he used to say “it’s a game nobody else wants to play but that’s not my fault”.
The reason Cavanagh succeeds where so many of the fawning Peel tributes, blogs and websites don’t quite manage to, is because he constantly contextualises Peel and his various jobs and musical phases by cleverly using the playlists of hundreds of programmes from ’67 to ’03, a news story from each particular day and, significantly, the prevailing events/characters/issues at the BBC. The level of research required to achieve this is - to quote Peel in his own assessment of Ken Garner’s classic compendium ‘In Session Tonight’ (1993) - “almost lunatic”. Cavanagh is given access to the BBC archives and throws himself into the task with relish, delivering a forensic analysis which is nearly the equal of Ian McDonald’s ‘Revolution In The Head’, possibly the greatest book written about contemporary music. But then the subject of McDonald’s book (The Beatles) and the subject of this one are arguably the only two British cultural icons of the past half-century whose work could be afforded such a detailed analytical process and still manage to hold the reader’s interest.
Sadly we can’t bring Peel back but for those of us whose passion for music - and for many it’s no exaggeration to say their lives – were so greatly influenced by his mesmerising programmes and thought-provoking attitudes, this book puts that voice right back there with us, in our bedroom with our finger on the Pause button.
My only slight criticism, if I'm being picky, is of the claim in the subtitle that Peel "helped shape modern life" which is perhaps a bit too grandiose and fanciful. But I suspect the author - or more likely his publishers - came up with the byline to make the book appeal to examination boards as a potential media studies (or even sociology) syllabus text. It may well succeed, the book is that good.
Either way, David Cavanagh his written what will undoubtedly come to be regarded as the definitive chronicle of Peel's radio career. Outstanding.
That the first radio play of Wham!' 'Young Guns go for it' was on his show is a little known fact, but the love of Peel and Walters for the Smiths is, and was a major factor in my own enthusiasm for a band that were some much different from anything else. The book shows how the ageing Peel finally understood, after punk and with the emergence of Indie that how always moving to new music, from the regions, and not from the major labels was his path.
Good read and well put together. Sit back, play a complete Festive Fifty from the early 80's, and read.
It would have been good to have some of the threads drawn together. The endless mucking around with his slots, the tiredness, the "betrayals" by artists he championed. Also Home Truths is largely ignored. I would also have liked the lists of artists featured in each programme to include also details of tracks played.
These are quibbles. It's a fascinating survey of a unique, flawed talent.
The subject gives any book about him a head start - - John Peel is the treasure enlightened folk say he is:
"He plays a band from a particular area and suddenly six others from the same area send him demo tapes. Three months ago that area looked like a wasteland; now it's a musical nerve centre. He can spark an entire musical scene merely by playing one song."
And David Cavanagh, raised in Northern Ireland during 'the Troubles,' knows what he's talking about.
Far more than that, Cavanagh turns out to be as much of a treasure as Peel. He doesn't just explain how Peel was a music catalyst: he shows Peel in action being catalytic. He doesn't only explain why so many found this nondescript fellow so uniquely personable, he makes Peel come alive and you see for yourself.
It doesn't even matter if you don't know who he is: you'll meet him for real in the book.
As for the bands, well, Mark E. Smith "sounds like he's heckling his own song." And Cavanagh is confident enough to step aside to sample Peel's comments on the air: The Fall,
" 'full of the kind of guitar-playing which we smart alecks who aren't sure whether it's very clever or just out-of-tune call "angular" '."
And Cavanagh's perception of why John Peel was nuts over 'Teenage Kicks' is so astute and succinct with the simple confidence of a home truth, my guess is Peel would have broke down in tears to read it.
There's real heart to this book. The anecdotes are priceless. There's a lot of cultural information year by year, but never just information. This fellow's a natural storyteller.
When a writer shapes up to be talented, I do a search and buy another of the author's books; and if the light stays green, later another one... until I get disappointed. I've been bitten before, so it's one step at a time, cautious. Ten pages into GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD RIDDANCE I ordered another book by this literary whizz-bang. Twenty pages further on, I ordered another one, because talent this good can't possibly be a flash in the pan and I can't get enough of it.
Not yet halfway through this big volume there was no longer any point playing foxy and I ordered everything he'd published.
You have an option of two covers for this book. The rarer one is 'an uncorrected proofs' 2015 copy and that's the one to get, though it may cost you more and it's out of print. There are no incorrect pages in it, but the reason to prefer it is the cover photograph of Peel standing next to his record shelves, so superior to the greyscale mug-shot that it's worth the extra cost.
If you're reading this in 2022, that's probably 40 quid for a 'Good' condition copy. Best not hang around.