Interview: Author David Cavanagh

British journalist and author David Cavanagh joins us to talk about his new book “Good Night And Good Riddance, How Thirty-Five Years Of John Peel Helped To Shape Modern Life,” which looks at the on air career of BBC legend John Peel. Interview below, but you can listen to the program here

JoE: “I wanted start off just by asking you if such a big book was kind of a slog for you? Was it very enjoyable to do all this work?

David Cavanagh: “I would divide it into two parts. I mean there was the listening, I listened to hundreds of John Peel shows, and most of that I did during 2013. I would listen to two shows a day because I found it was very intense to listen to them so closely. It wasn’t like hearing them the first time ‘round where you’re just kind of casually listening and maybe if you hear something that you really like the sound of, your ears perk up and you concentrate a bit more. This was pure concentration, it was just like a chess game, and to do more than 4 or 5 hours of it was just too grueling. Then eventually I got to the writing stage and that was where I wanted string a whole lot of shows together, about 250 or 260 of them in a sequence that made sense. So, that meant abandoning and rejecting a lot of shows that I really enjoyed hearing because I didn’t think they progressed the book in any way, they didn’t add anything I didn’t already have. But, the sequence I came up with is, for better or worse, a suppose a story, and I think when you hopefully add it up it gives a lot of dimensions of what made John Peel such a fascinating broadcaster.”

JoE: “I’m curious. There are a couple points in the book when you mention that John didn’t always get it right. For instance, there’s a mention of a program where he played “Space Oddity” by Bowie for the first time and didn’t seem to think it was actually going to go anywhere as far as a chart record. Did you encounter a lot of that when you went through all those programs?”

DC: “I mean its ok not to be able to predict when something is going to be a hit. I mean, I’ve been reviewing albums and singles for twenty years or something probably now, and the one thing you mustn’t say, though it’s tempting, is whether something is going to be successful or not because, you know, destiny can prove you hilariously wrong. I think what was interesting about that prediction [is that] he’d been playing Bowie’s record for 18 months or so by then. Bowie was completely unknown. And so Bowie finally comes up with the song “Space Oddity” that is going to be his name, you know, becomes a top five hit in Britain, and in fact 6 years later it was re-released here and it went to number one. I think it was a big hit in America as well – Bowie’s first break through hit. And you would think that listening to it, for a while that this is Bowie’s best song. You know, he knew him quite well, but actually the song ends, and Peel says, “Well I don’t see that song troubling the charts in a million years, but keep trying Dave, keep trying.” But it is quite charming that he- but I suppose when you hear it for the first time you don’t think: “Ah, instant hit” Peel didn’t have to make those judgments, he was just playing music that he liked or thought deserved to be played on the radio. When something is so new, very often he was playing bands that only just formed, band that didn’t have any idea of what kind of bands they wanted to develop into. Maybe they haven’t even done a photo session yet, had any thought of image, or played any gigs, or signed to a record company. They were so new that they were literally taking their first steps into the creative field. So peel, he didn’t have to make value judgments based on if they would be successful or not, he just played them on a criterion if they made a noise that he found interesting in some way. It insinuates where you want people to respond to a piece of music, because the music is all he was responding to.”

JoE: “What I thought was interesting was the comment that you made, for instance this program that I do is very much modeled on John’s work, and you know these days we get so much music thrown our way that it’s hard to just keep up with the pace of thing. But, I think at some place in the book you said that John would play something until the public latched on until the resistance cracked or his passion waned about a track. But I guess back then he had the ability to do that. He was on that air enough to sort of drive home a point with the particular songs, is that right?”

DC: “Yeah, I wrote that about a Wild Man Fisher album that he played a lot in 1969 and into 1970 actually. He did the same thing with Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Quite often, it was as if he was trying to come to terms with himself. If he got hold of an album that really fascinated him, he would just play a track everyday, every night until he got through most of the album. And what was interesting is if he received letters, letters in those days, emails I suppose later on in his life, but mainly letters saying, “God, can you stop playing that awful album?” In a way, that would make him even more intrigued about it, and he’d become relentless, as he did with the Ramones album. He actually got people writing to him and phoning him I think, saying “Stop playing this. It’s horrible. It’s not proper music.” At that point he redoubled his efforts to play almost every song from it. He became something of a Punk Pioneer. He was the first person on BBC radio to get behind the idea of a new wave of bands. He played very short, very fast, very abrasive, very abrupt music that was a total antithesis of the underground progressive virtuosa rock that he’d playing since the late 60s. Somehow he was able to make the transistion so that he just sort of shed one audience like a snakeskin; slowly, gradually, over the course of two years or so and got an audience of much younger kids who were very interested in punk rock. Even though he was much older then them, and I was one of them actually, they trusted him and liked him enough-this guy who was old enough to be our father, this sort of slightly grumpy, but very witty man. Listening to him for two hours a night, hearing music you didn’t hear 99% of the time you didn’t hear anywhere else on British radio.”

JoE: “The punk special that he played, sometime in ’76, didn’t necessarily reflect what wound up being in the festive fifty that year, and I think you said the audience wasn’t always pulling in the same direction as John. So, would you said it was fair that in some ways in punk radio-one kicked down the door and maybe not all the listeners came rushing in? ”

DC: “Yes, it was a slow process. I mean, you can find a show where he first played punk music, and it was played in 1976. The song was “judy is a punk” –off of the first album. But, that didn’t mean everybody had an epiphany, “my god this is the future.” A few people did, and the enemy over here and sound magazine, which used to exist in those days, were definitely around that time, saying, “well look, we need to look to New York. There is this really exciting scene that’s based around CBCG’s. That’s where Blondie and Talking Heads are playing.” So, people over here were reading about them, but Peel was the only person playing them. But, of course he had to wait until they all made records. A DJ can only spring into life when there is music for him to play. So, he concentrated on the Ramones a first, through the late spring and summer of ’76. Most of the listeners didn’t like it at all because they didn’t think it was serious music. The Festive Fifty, at the end of the year, didn’t feature any Ramones songs or any British punk singles. But, there weren’t many of those because the Sex Pistols didn’t get into the studio until autumn. But then there was The Damned, but their single was October, I think. The festive fifty voting tended to be done I think in early November from memory. So no, you’re right, the festive fifty of ’76 was Stairway To Heaven, and it was Leila, and it was Child in Time by Deep Purple, and it was Free Bird, and it was the last stand of the old guard for the listener appeal he had for 1968 or 1969. This was the music they loved. They loved Shine On You Crazy Diamond, they didn’t like New Rose by the Damned. So what had to happen was a new lot of listeners came in who had heard about it somehow; maybe they read about it or had an older brother or somebody at school [who] knew about this guy, John Peel. “You’ve got to listen to him, he’s on at 10 o’clock on radio-one and he plays all these new bands” So, gradually a new listener-ship replaced the previous listener-ship. It’s something that most DJs back then (I don’t know what it’s like now) would probably be quite frightened of the idea of losing hundreds of thousands of listeners. It’s a bit of a risk to take with your career. But, Peel not only did it then, he did it years later in the late 80s as well. He didn’t seem to mind the idea of hundreds of thousands of listeners just leaving; going out the door, as long as new ones came along.”

JoE: “That was one program think that came around the time of the first banshees record where at the end of it I think he played a version of helter-skelter and then he and then he dialed back and played the original. I’m curious when I was reading that you know it struck me two ways it struck me as well that I guess that makes sense but the same I thought, well it’s kind of bold as well. What did you make of that that choice?”

DC: “Well that’s the point. That’s the first night where you can say for sure he now knows or suspects that he has a new audience and it’s probably because he didn’t get lessons from them. People used to write to peel a lot, and you could if you wanted and maybe pick up the phone. A lot of bands preferred to send him the demo tapes. They tried to jump the queue, door stopping him on them on the steps of the broadcasting house of the BBC. You can give him a tape that way and maybe listen to it that day if you lucky. They wrote letters always, always, letters and he would read some of them out. They were pretty funny. The letters changed, you know. Going into ’77 or ‘78 there were different kinds of letters. They weren’t “please play this super tramp song for me and my lady.” It was much more immediate and direct and it was: “We have a new band were playing in such venue for tonight please read out the details.” It was bands sending him seventy singles that they released on their own tiny little labels that they just started. The electricity was different. The energy was much different and he recognized that. So, yeah you’re right. There was a night in October I think ’78, and he played the whole of the first Banshees album which he just been sent about a month before it came out. He said all of the songs had been written by the band except one, Helter-Skelter, which is a Beatles song. [He said] “It occurs to me that you may not know the original so I’ll play that for you now from the white album.” He would never have done that in 1975. He would just have assumed and he would’ve been correct to assume that every single one of his listeners was totally au fait with every single note the Beatles have ever released.  The Beatles songs were set text to that generation of listeners. But, this a new generation of listeners, and he was beginning to understand that.”

JoE: “I know you’ve made some mention to, I guess it was a BBC anniversary program – an anniversary program with Terry woken is that it? Where he and Tony Blackburn were on and I thought he gave an incredibly good explanation about what he does. He said was more interested in what Liverpool were doing this season as opposed to last season and that’s the way he treated music as well. What would you say about that comment?”

DC: “I spent a lot of time while working this book trying to get to the crux of Peel’s taste in music. It’s not as simple as saying that he had an obsession with hearing new music. He sort of did, but he was also just as obsessed with hearing an obscure country western song made in the 1930s or playing a blues record made in Chicago in the mid 50s. He had a way of putting together a two hour program of music, [and] I think that’s what’s probably unrepeatable or irreplaceable. He just had a weird sense of what kind of songs and styles and genres and sounds went together to make up a really interesting two hours. It’s funny that when John Walters, who was his producer for 22 years and who for a lot of that period was entrusted with coming up with the running order. In other words, putting all the records in sequence that Peel had given him. Walters Had to bear in mind that you had a news bulletin coming up at 11 or whatever. So, Peel would already work out the timings and Walters work out the running order. But I love those shows, [they] are just so bizarre that whatever order Walters had put those records in and they would’ve still found it bizarre because Peel was giving him such bizarre material. So, there were times when the tangerine dream instrumental crap rocks synthesizer piece blasting 17 minutes would’ve been sandwiched by Walters in between a piece of Zydeco music and a punk rock song. That is a collection [and] ridiculous sequence of music but it would be equally ridiculous if Walters had put a Captain BeefHeart song at the beginning of it or a Sly Stone song at the end of it. What he was giving him was a full gamut of every kind of style of music that fascinated John Peel. “

JoE: “Since you mentioned his producer John Walters, I noticed that you didn’t include the show where he paid tribute to Walters after his death. Was that just something that didn’t fit as far as you’re concerned?”

DC: “It didn’t fit the book because by the end I had to be mindful of one important thing which is that the book is very long and it was getting longer and longer. And also, in 88 and ’89 Peel’s career peaks. He becomes a real national treasure when he gets an OBE, which is quite a big award to be given over here. He is given a show on Radio Four, which again is a big deal for a radio broadcaster in Britain. By that stage he is being allowed to broadcast a lot of his shows from his home which was a big deal for him because he had a long drive into London and home and back again. And by that point he’s won all his battles and his long running arguments with Radio One and really he is completely vindicated and has gotten to the top his profession. And so you think, “Well that is it, that’s the culmination of John Peel’s career,” but, my book didn’t culminate because it still had six years to go. He didn’t die until 2004. So yeah, I did have to start not speeding up, but keeping the momentum going at the speed that it had been going, otherwise the book would have a solid dip and the readers would’ve noticed the dipping. In the late 90’s and early 2000s, there is a lot of movement. You’ll notice in the last few chapters he goes to America. At one point he goes to Spain. He’s on the QE2 at one point and that’s just to keep to a sense of movement continuing. So, you know I would’ve liked to have written more about Walters, and maybe one day I will. But it wasn’t appropriate for that moment in the book.”

JoE: “People who are like myself are big fans of John’s work were fairly shocked when we found out that he passed away. Can you describe what your response [was like] or what the response was in the UK in general at hearing the news?”

DC: “Well I can remember vividly because I was doing what I always do. I was typing away at my computer with the TV on, but the sound muted with the TV turned to the BBC news channel. I just happened to casually look up. It was the 25th of October 2004 and the breaking news headline said John Peel dies at 65. The moving strap line that goes on the bottom of the screen said “Veteran DJ dies of a heart attack in Peru.” Three things crossed my mind instantly. Firstly, 65 seemed like a very unfair age for someone to die like that. I knew he had a wife and four children. It seemed very, very sad. Secondly, I thought, “What the hell is he doing in Peru?” It turned out he was on holiday there but, being Peel he could never totally switch off so he was actually working as he was having holiday. He’d agreed to do a series of travel articles for the Daily Telegraph newspaper over here, but of course, that was never published. The third thing I thought of was my adolescence; listening to him when I was 13,14, 15,16 and it turned out that a lot of other people were having exactly the same thought because that remains the top BBC story for the rest of the day. For the next eight or nine hours hundreds of people came forward to pay tribute including our then Prime Minister Tony Blair and a raft of other musicians [and] famous people in bands like New Order and Radiohead. Everybody seemed to be thinking about the years that they spent listening to Peel and how what an impact it had on their Not just music taste, but on the way they saw the world. You know the fact that he encouraged us all to not worry about being part of a minority. Don’t just except the majority major label corporate stuff that Radio One flings at you that you during the daytime. Look deeper. Look under the surface, not just with music but with everything; books, whatever, films, and that is the enduring impact that he’s had on so many of us. Not many people have the confidence to be part of a minority when they’re young. Peer pressure is a very overwhelming thing at times. There was this older guy who you could trust coming on your radio late at night saying, “No, trust your instincts, or at the very least, trust my instincts and then they’ll become your instincts too.” Then they have certainly in my case and millions of other people in Britain. The way we think of music and the way we respond to the diets of culture that were fed is very much influenced by what we learned at the knee of John Peel in those six or seven years when we were younger.”

JoE: “I’m curious to get your opinion on Tom Ravencroft’s show and do you think that that part of John’s legacy is carried through to his son’s program?”

DC: “I don’t listen to Tom as much as I should just because he’s not on at the right time of day for me and in fact this other show’s on at six, Harris Mathews, which I know I would enjoy huge amounts of that if they were on at the time I listen to radio music. Yes, the legacy continues but it doesn’t continue. You’ll never replace John Peel. The relationship that he had with the listeners, that wit, the way he had of talking, unless you were subjective to that man’s wit and personality for six or seven years. You couldn’t get it from anywhere else. He was a classic BBC radio postwar broadcaster. He had much more in common with some of the broadcasters from the 40s and 50s than he did with his DJ colleagues of the 70s and 80s. He had a P.G. Wodehouse way of using language, and it was brilliant. That has gone. I don’t think you’ll hear that now on British radio. Tom’s taste is great and I should hear him more, but, also, I think it would be foolish to see Tom as his father’s son. He doesn’t have his father’s name. He doesn’t call himself Tom Peel. He is his own DJ and I think he deserves to be treated as a separate entity to John Peel.”

JoE: “I listen to it, pretty regularly, and I think he does a great job. I pilfer stuff from his playlists all the time for our program. The last couple things I wanted to ask you: can you talk about the most surprising thing you encountered during your research?”

DC: “Well, every show is different. Every show has a different momentum to it. I guess, in the late 70’s, when I would’ve been literally at the age of fourteen or fifteen, I went back to those shows expecting to hear nothing but Public Image Limited, The Pop Group, and a load of incredibly cutting-edge post punk. It is surprising how much Cockney Rejects he plays. He plays the Dickies a lot around that time, who I think were from California and they used to do comedy version of things like “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. He liked music that was sort of silly. He liked silly punk songs. It made him laugh, where as a lot of the London-based taste makers on the music press [who] would’ve declared punk truly dead by early ’78 at the absolute latest. Peel kept the faith with bands like Sham 69, and much later actually, in the early 80s, bands like Vice Squad. I think when a lot of the American hardcore bands came along in the early 80s, like Jodie Foster’s Army, or whoever, Peel didn’t think, “Oh, this is a new movement.” He probably just thought, “Well, this is the latest thing in punk which I’ve been playing since 1976, when I first heard The Ramones.” So, unlike a journalist, he didn’t have to give things the correct names of their subgenres. He would just respond to the record, and the sound of the record in a visceral or emotional way, which in a way I wish I was able to, but I do as a journalist have to at the very least find a way to describe things in terms of adjectives. But, Peel never had to do that, and in fact, very often he wouldn’t even say what the genre was. He wouldn’t say, “Alright, that’s enough glitch grind-core.” He would just say, “Well that was so and so, and now for something else.” He would just say the names of the bands, and we would have to, as listeners, figure out where is that kind of music from? What’s the antecedent of that and how do I find more of that? Peel, in his head, it just made sense that you would follow a piece of very intense, violent, and aggressive guitar, punk music with something extremely disorientated playing on electronic synthesizers.”

JoE: “I’m wondering, is there a track that we could play on the air that sort of describes your relationship to either John’s work or to the book?”

DC: “Well, they come from every era, but yeah, I have a playlist here that I can pull up instantly, and ill give you a selection. What about a track from The Fall. “New Puritan” from the Complete Peels Sessions. That is very early on in his love affair with The Fall, and that is a classic [The] Fall session, maybe the first of the Classic Fall Sessions, and that is in 1980. So, “New Puritan” I think it the point where people realized that firstly, The Fall were here to stay on the Peel Show, and also that they were becoming a really great band. That session stands out for a lot of people. Mark Riley is the other voice that’s heard on it, behind Mark E. Smith. Riley now, of course, is on Radio-Six music along with Tom Ravenscroft.”

JoE: “Can you talk just briefly about The Fall’s importance?

DC: “They started popping up on Peel’s shows in 1978, when they put out an EP called Bingo Masters Breakout. They would’ve been just one of a hundred bands from around the regions, because Peel didn’t just played the London-based punk bands like The Clash and The Pistols. He played bands from wherever, you know, any band from around Britain who had a new single. Peel would listen to it and he would play it, and that’s what made him so important. So, he played The Fall, and then he had a couple sessions from them. A session from Peel meant you go down to this beauty recording studio and you record four songs, [and] Peel played them a week or so later. Peel’s sessions became a hugely important part of the show, and The Fall just kept playing session after session after session after session, until by the end I think they had done about twenty-six, and presumably would still be doing them today if Peel was still alive. “New Puritan,” which you are about to hear, comes from the third session in 1980. By this stage, they are becoming a really important band in the post-punk landscape, and Mark E. Smith’s writing is getting more and more acclaimed with more and more scrutiny. Here he is having a go with just about everything, including every single person who has entered his displeasure and his wrath has heard The Fall go around Britain touring.”