La vida irreal de Salvador Leal

John Peel

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Me gusta mucho la tradición sajona de los obituarios, estos artículos que reseñan la vida de alguien que acaba de morir y que merece, ya sea por sus aportaciones a la sociedad o por su normalidad como ser humano, un pequeño último homenaje.

Tengo un corto listado de personas que admiro (o que envidio, pues creo que la admiración tiene mucho de envidia); en él se encuentran sobretodo personas ligadas a los medios y gente que ‘va a donde nadie antes ha ido’. Me caen bien los groundbrakers.

En este grupo de personas se encuentra John Peel, de cuya muerte me acabo de enterar. Yo solía escuchar su show en la BBC1 y las reseñas y obituarios me han enseñado que la persona a la que me gustaba sintonizar era mucho más que un locutor de radio. Les dejo el obituario que le dedica The Economist:

John Peel, born John Ravenscroft, music lover, died on October 26th, aged 65

THE modern world of music offers an embarrassment of riches. Faced with shops full of compact discs, records and tapes, the ordinary listener hardly knows where to start. With popular music, in particular, there is now an almost inverse relationship between the popularity of a song and its quality. The best new film or book usually gets noticed; the best new popular song is undoubtedly one that few people have heard of and that fewer still will have the patience, or the funds, to find.

What is the popular-music lover to do? For the past 37 years, in Britain at least, the answer has been clear: listen to John Peel. From 1967 onwards, Mr Peel broadcast a music show on the BBC’s Radio 1 where he played records he liked. In his eyes, he was no more responsible for the music than a newspaper editor is for the day’s events. He did not, after all, create anything. The music was all there already.

Yet selection is creating, after a fashion. A sculptor picks which bits of marble to include and which to chisel away. Mr Peel’s medium was larger than that of any of the bands he championed: the whole of popular music, which was shaped, at least to some degree, according to his taste. The number of acts he raised from obscurity to fame (David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Captain Beefheart, the Undertones, the Smiths) is large; the number of bands he raised from obscurity to semi-obscurity is even larger. Happily, though, he never saw promotion as his task. His demeanour on the radio was one of pure delight: delight in the new, the unexpected and the good. Listening to him, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the listener was at some level irrelevant—the point was for Mr Peel himself to revel in the music.

That is not to say he avoided the usual formalities: “I hope you enjoy this one”, and the like. He said such things, and meant them. But they were secondary. He never pandered to the audience. A catchy, addictive tune might be followed by a few minutes of sheer noise. What he most liked, he once said, was not only music he had never heard before, but music he could relate to nothing else.

Mr Peel’s show was quite unpredictable, save, in later years, for one fixture: “Pig’s Big 78”, halfway through. This was a 78 rpm record chosen by his wife, affectionately nicknamed Pig. The sound quality would be terrible, as no one had made such records since the late 1950s, and the ones Mr Peel played often came from much earlier than that. But the 78s were no exception to his passion for novelty. They were old enough to be new again.

Radio shows are by nature ephemeral. But from his early days on the BBC, Mr Peel had invited musicians to come into the studio and perform for him and his audience. These “Peel Sessions”, as they came to be known, were a sort of shadow Greatest Hits of popular music of the past 30 years. Bands liked coming on his show as much as he liked having them. The publicity, of course, did not hurt, and Mr Peel’s own enthusiasm seemed to lend the music vitality. For all that, he rarely formed close relationships with musicians. It was the end product that mattered to him, not the process of creation.

Crashing the car
Mr Peel lived in Suffolk, a gently undulating county two hours away from London, in a house he dubbed “Peel Acres”. He kept chickens there, like a country yeoman. On the long drive home from the studio after recording his show, he would listen to demo tapes that unknown bands had sent him, throwing the ones he didn’t like on the floor and the ones he did on the back seat. One day, he supposed, he would be squinting to discern a good new band’s name and would kill himself by crashing the car. It was probably, he said, how people imagined he would like to go.

Yet Mr Peel always seemed too young to be considering how he would like to die. And there was too much music to be listened to. Although it was not work to him, but sheer pleasure, he nonetheless spent hours every day listening to music he had never heard before. By the time he died—suddenly, of a heart attack in Peru—he had possibly listened to more music than anyone else alive. And though studios had become as computerised as the rest of the world, he continued to prefer playing vinyls on turntables. They sounded better.

He did not start his radio career at the BBC, but at WRR, in Dallas, Texas. He had been in America for two years, working as a crop-insurance agent, when the Beatles started sweeping America. His scouse accent was suddenly marketable, even if he hammed it up a bit. Although he was born just outside Liverpool, the son of a cotton broker, he went to Shrewsbury, a mid-ranking public school. He once said that his life was changed, and set on course, at Shrewsbury when he first heard Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel”. If it had not been Elvis, it would have been some other song.

He also credited his time at Shrewsbury with sustaining his BBC career. The toffs at the corporation figured that an old boy couldn’t be all that bad, even if he played music no one else on the station knew. But he remained a slightly dangerous outlier. When he first returned to England in 1967, he spent six months working for a pirate radio station on a ship in the North Sea. He never lost that pirate streak.

P.D. Les dejo el sitio que tiene la BBC1 como homenaje, por si quieren saber más de quién era este gran amante de la música.
P.D. 2 También les dejo un foro muy muy interesante que se plantea una muy buena pregunta: ¿Qué canción tocarías como tributo a John Peel? (y que después retomaré como tema de otro post)

Written by Salvador Leal

noviembre 10th, 2004 at 3:01 pm

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