THE JOHN PEEL LECTURE delivered by Billy Bragg at the Radio Festival, the Lowry Centre, Salford, 12th November 2012

Did you ever hear the story of how I got my first play on Radio One? People think it’s apocryphal, involving as it does the procurement of an Indian take-away, but I’m here to tell you that it really happened.

I was in my mid-20s at the time, a veteran of the punk wars. But I’d been stringing words together since I was 12 when a poem I wrote for English homework caught the attention of my teacher. After checking with my parents that I hadn’t copied from a book at home, he arranged for me to read it out on the local radio station.

As a result, I enjoyed the brief moment of playground celebrity, but more importantly, I got a sense that the ability to make words rhyme could mark you out as special. Of course I wasn’t the only kid in the class who wrote poetry, but for some reason I never worked out, all the other kids stopped.

By the time I left school at 16, I had several notebooks full of songs. That summer, my mate who lived next door taught me how to play guitar. As a result, in 1977, I was in the right place at the right time when punk rock happened.

Turning 19 a couple of weeks after the Sex Pistols dropped a few F-bombs live on tea-time TV, it didn’t take me long to adapt my song-writing to the new style. What I found most attractive about punk was the Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, the way that enthusiasm could trump musical dexterity. Punk was a liberating force, especially for unprepossessing boys from the suburbs.

Me and my mates had some great adventures in our little punk band, even putting out an EP on Chiswick Records, but by 1981 it was all over. I was back living at my mum’s, working in a record shop, still writing songs.

I recorded some of them on a friend’s portastudio and sent my tape into the demo review page of the Melody Maker, where it got a glowing write-up. Hugely encouraged by this, I wrapped my demo cassette in photocopies of the MM review and sent them out to all the major record labels DIY style. The response was negligible. I started turning up at the labels, hoping to blag my way in and speak to their A&R department. I didn’t have much luck.

In fact my only success came at Charisma Records where I was mistaken for the tv repair man who was coming in to tune their VHS recorder into their tele so they could record the first episode of Channel 4 music programme The Tube.

This was 1982. People weren’t so tech savvy in those days. This wasn’t a complete scam – I’d been working for a mate who made audio-visual presentations for corporate clients, so I did know how to tune in a VCR. Once I’d completed the task, I snuck off to find their A&R guy, Peter Jenner. He was a bit surprised to be door-stepped by the tv repair man, but he promised to listen to my tape.

Around the same time, I was contacted by a fellow called Jeff Chegwin who worked for Chappell Music Publishers. He’d read my MM review and wanted to hear my songs. He arranged for me to record some demos at the company demo studio.

I had honed my songs before the unforgiving audiences at the Tunnel, a pub in south east London. Playing there three nights a week as the opener for whatever band turned up to play had really sharpened my skills and led to more gigs in the area. Having no manager or agent at the time, I relied heavily on word of mouth to get gigs.

Peter Jenner came to see me at the Tunnel, liked what he saw and wrote to Jeff at Chappells, saying Charisma would put out the results of my sessions ‘unless they were indescribably horrendous’. I signed on the dotted line and a couple of months later Pete Jenner gave me a box of 25 Billy Bragg albums and pushed me out the door, telling me to see if I could get some airplay or reviews.

I was flabbergasted. I thought having a record out meant that someone else was going to do all this stuff, but in reality, I was still working on the DIY principle.

The obvious place to start was at BBC Radio One. Their night-time DJs played songs that weren’t aiming for the charts. Chief among them was John Peel, whose late night show was a fabulous mix-up of misfit music. I left copies of my album at reception, aware that someone like Peel probably received upwards of 100 records a week.

Later that day, I was listening to Kid Jensen on Radio One with some friends after a game of football in Hyde Park. At some point John Peel stepped into the studio to preview his programme . In the droll banter between the two DJs, Peel happened to mutter that he would do anything for a mushroom biriyani. Thirty minutes later, I was at the Broadcasting House reception with “a mushroom biriyani for Mr Peel”.

The man himself came down to collect it and I told him that I’d dropped my album off for him that very day. Peel smiled, thanked me for the curry and, a few hours later, played a track from my album on his show. He followed the song by stating that, while he enjoyed the biriyani, he would have played the record anyways.

A few weeks later, he invited me in to record a session and from that moment on, all of the things that I had imagined would happen as a result of me releasing a record came to pass.

My credibility soared. The music press took me seriously and I was suddenly in demand outside of the narrow confines of my own circle of friends and acquaintances. People I’d never met wanted me to come and play in places I’d never been to: Aberdeen, Aberystwyth, ‘Up North’.

In short, my career finally took off thanks to Peel.

Radio was the catalyst. I had managed to assemble all the necessary components for a career in music – the songs, the gigs, the publisher, the record, yet I still wasn’t able to break through.

The problem was I didn’t easily fit in with the styles of the day. If I’d had an interesting haircut I probably could have commanded the promotional budget that would done the trick. But I was a member of the awkward squad. I wanted to do things my way.

I often wonder what would happen to a kid like me now?

Could someone who started writing when they were 12 get a break via local radio, release an album made up of their demos and get into the charts? And could their name start with a B and end in double G?

Show video clip of Jake Bugg performing at BBC Radio Nottingham

I’m sure most of you in this room will be aware of how Jake Bugg seemingly came from nowhere to beat Leona Lewis to number one, but for the benefit of the people listening at home, I was to shine a light on the process.

Jake had been doing shows around his home in Nottingham. In late 2010 he came to the attention of his local radio stations. Trent FM put him on their Notts Unsigned programme hosted by Mark Del.

Unfortunately for Jake, within a month of his appearance, Trent FM was absorbed into Capital FM Network and the Notts Unsigned initiative closed down.

Meanwhile over at BBC Radio Nottingham Dean Jackson became aware of Jake as a result of him uploading his tape to the station via the local BBC Introducing website.

The BBC launched it’s Introducing initiative in 2007, offering unsigned artists a chance to showcase their talent on their local BBC radio, feeding into the national network via Radio 1 and 6Music. In 2011, they inaugurated an Introducing Masterclass event, drawing young talent from all over the country together for a weekend of sessions aimed at helping them make a career in the music industry.

After having Jake on his show for a live session, Dean Jackson at Radio Notts managed to secure him a spot at Masterclass, only to find out that Jake had never been to London before. In what may have been Jake’s biriyani moment, Dean found someone from the station to drive him down to the capital where he drew attention from record labels as well as BBC DJs.

Tom Robinson played his tracks on his Introducing programme and Steve Lamacq liked him so much he put his name forward for the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury in June.

A month later Jake signed to Mercury Records and the rest is history.

On Friday night he played at the Bayou Music Centre in Houston Texas with Noel Gallagher, tomorrow night he’s on at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth. I envy him.

What I like about him is that he seems to bear out the idea that when music gets a bit stale, the way forward can often be found at the back of the racks in your local second hand record shop.

I saw another clip where he’s being interviewed by Lauren Laverne and he sheepishly claims never to have heard of Lonnie Donegan. Surprising really because the roots of his style can be found in skiffle, the 1950s musical craze that pre-dated rock’n’roll. Skiffle gets a bad press nowadays, but it was the first DIY musical movement. Like punk rock for greasers.

Donegan, from East Ham, hit the charts in 1955 with ‘Rock Island Line’, an old Leadbelly song from the American South. Suddenly, a whole generation of British teenagers realised that you didn’t have to be an American to make music that rocked. While the Varsity types tended towards the trad jazz scene, in cities all over the UK kids picked up cheap acoustic guitars and began playing skiffle.

Its main attraction being that it sounded like anyone could do it.

In that sense, it was the springboard for many musicians involved in the great democratisation of British culture that occurred in the 1960s. 15 year olds who’d learned to play guitar from Lonnie Donegan – John Lennon and Paul McCartney for instance – opened the floodgates for a generation of kids who swarmed into the creative professions and made the 60s swing.

The nurseries of this cultural revolution were the art schools, which set out to break down the elitism around the arts by encouraging artistic expression among state educated students. For teenagers whose childhoods were overshadowed by war and austerity, art schools represented freedom – a freedom to create, to dream and most importantly to escape the drab world that their parents inhabited.

Pete Townsend, who delivered the inaugural Peel Lecture last year, attended Ealing Art College with the intention of becoming a graphic designer. It was there that he formed his first band with John Entwistle. Later, when he gained notoriety for smashing his guitar to pieces onstage, he claimed to have been inspired by Gustav Metzger’s theories on auto-destructive art, to which he had been exposed at art school.

Fast forward 50 years and we seem about to go back to a state of affairs where decent education in the arts will only be available to those able to pay for it.The coalition government are about to introduce a new exam system that threatens to exclude creative subjects from the core qualifications expected of our 16 year olds.

The English Baccalaureate, the new GCSE performance measure, requires that schools publish the number of students that get A-C grades across 5 subject areas at GCSE level. These are: English, Maths, Science, Modern Foreign Languages and Humanities (History and Geography). These subjects will be expected to take up 80% of the curriculum.

Under such a regime, there is a real danger that the creative arts will struggle to compete with the core subjects. And at a time of cuts to the education budget, the pressure on schools to dump subjects like music and drama if favour of those that offer high marks in performances tables will only grow.

The insistence that knowledge is more important than creativity, that the latter will flourish if left to its own devices is, like the English Baccalaureate, a throwback to the per-art school days of the early 1950s. As Albert Einstein said, Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited while imagination embraces the whole world.

Under the English Baccalaureate, with its reliance on a single end of course exam, the child with the creative imagination will always lose out to the child with the ability to recall knowledge learned by rote.

And it’s not just the creatively talented kids who will suffer.

Evidence shows that pupils from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to go on to higher education. Young people do better in English and Maths subjects if they study the arts. They are more easily employable, more likely to vote, to volunteer and to get a degree.

You might add to that they will be more likely to get into the charts too.

As has been noted elsewhere, there has been a steady decline over the past decade of state educated kids getting into the top ten. A couple of years ago, The Word magazine compared the charts from 1990, when 80% of artists were state educated, with those of 2010 and found the charts now dominated by those who went to private schools.

Now I realise that private education is something that no-one really wants to talk about in the UK. Politicians would rather lay the blame for inequality at the door of the underfunded state system than discuss the excessive influence of the privately educated. But the fact is that, for the first time since the 1960s, our society is dominated by the 10% of the population who go to private school.

The Prime Minister went to Eton; the Archbishop of Canterbury went to Eton; the Mayor of London went to Eton: even the man they tell me is the new Billy Bragg – Frank Turner – went to Eton.

Now you may be thinking here he goes – middle-aged Clash fan railing against the state of modern music. I don’t have anything against those who were sent to private schools by their parents – Peel himself went to Shrewsbury Public School and Joe Strummer went to Westminster. And my only real criterion when it comes to music is whether or not song moves me.

This issue here is not one of social class, but of access.

And John Peel was all about access – allowing artists to be heard on the radio. Peel built his reputation on introducing his listeners to music that they’d otherwise never hear.

For instance I first heard the Sex Pistols on Peel’s show, one night in late 1976 when I tuned in to hear him play tracks from the new album by the High Level Ranters, a traditional folk band who hailed from Newcastle on Tyne.

I doubt anyone else on Radio One was playing the Sex Pistols back then, but the really significant thing is that no-one else was playing the High Level Ranters either.

Peel was a discoverer who led you through a magic perfumed garden of culture, rather than just playing you what was popular.

His great attraction was that he made all this incredible music accessible and in doing so made a career in music accessible for several generations of young artists who would otherwise have struggled in the mainsteam.

For teenagers today, the most obvious path to a career in the music industry would be the shiny floor tv talent shows which have come to dominate the schedules and the charts. When Jake Bugg did his first gig at his school in Clifton, his mates urged him to sign up for Britain’s Got Talent. They simply had no other concept of how a kid from their background could get into the charts.

Yet the judgemental approach of culture-clogging shows like the X Factor is the diametrical opposite of what John Peel stood for. His only criterion was that the music he played had to be challenging – whether it was good or not he let his audience decide.

Now a realise that’s not a very good business model for some of you, that such eclectic programming sounds like commercial suicide, but lets not forget that Peel operated alongside mainstream broadcasters like Tony Blackburn and Steve Wright throughout his career at Radio one

It’s about finding a balance between the comfort of the mainstream and the shock of the new. This is not just important for fledgling artists.

Streaming services like Spotify represent a direct challenge to traditional broadcasters – particularly those who seek to attract listeners through playing familiar songs.

But Spotify does something that no amount of audience research can do – it personalises your play list according to your own taste. Stay faithful and you never need hear any music you might not like. Imagine Peel’s response to the idea of an individual’s personal taste in music being hermetically sealed from the outside world, getting ever narrower.

By seeding their schedules with programmes that introduce new artists, broadcasters can both fight off the streaming services and bring through a new generation of artists. I’m sure plenty of people here in the room are thinking we’re already doing that, mate.

Its true there are already a number of good initiatives and enthusiastic DJs working to bring new talent through. The BBC more than lives up to its public service remit with their local Introducing programmes, with feed through to the network via Radio One and 6 Music.

In the commercial sector DJs such as John Kennedy at XFM have a long-standing commitment to promoting new talent. At Choice FM, Abrantee is upholding another fine old John Peel tradition by introducing listeners to the latest sounds from Africa.

Up in Newcastle, a whole internet station dedicated to new artists, Amazing Radio, invites people to upload their music to the site for broadcast. Billy Bragg lookalike and long-time champion of new music Gary Crowley has a weekly show on Amazing. Notts Unsigned is still there, now website based as NUMusic

Yet for all these sterling efforts, something is not quite right.

When Jake Bugg got to No1, it made national news headlines – why?

Because he never went to stage school nor graduated from the Brits Academy.

He didn’t enter Britain’s Got Talent, not submit himself to the humiliations of the X Factor.

Because he’s just an ordinary kid from a state school.

Should that make him an exception? I don’t think so.

I can’t believe that there aren’t plenty of articulate teenagers out there with an ear for a good tune and a chip on their shoulder who have something to say.

Singer-songwriters can’t change the world – we don’t have answers. What we can do is to hold a mirror up to society and in doing so, raise questions in the minds of our audience.

So my question to those of you assembled here for the Radio Festival is this: given the crucial role that radio played in bringing Jake Bugg to the attention of the music industry, and the good work that is being done to introduce new talent to the airwaves, why aren’t there more kids from his kind of background in the charts?

6 Responses to “THE JOHN PEEL LECTURE delivered by Billy Bragg at the Radio Festival, the Lowry Centre, Salford, 12th November 2012”

  1. Nichola King says:

    Fantastic piece here Billy, just wish I could have got to see you whilst you were in New Zealand recently, hope you come again. Saw you twice when I lived in the UK. I totally agree with everything you say here.

  2. Gary Hudson says:

    Brilliant, perceptive as ever, funny and sad. Best speech by a jobbing muso since Springsteen at SxSW.

  3. Ben Cassidy says:

    The working classes are all too tired! Once they get to a certain age, you have to practice in the evenings, or at the weekend, or whenever everyone in the band is off work. Then the bass player has a kid, then he has to be home by 9 etc. The pursuit of celebrity and celebrity lifestyle paints a picture of an alien world for most working class kids, and the belief that Xfactor is a way out of it all reinforces the idea of success as being measured in money and fame and not in terms of success as a human being or artist with any integrity, intent or message. Maybe the kids are there and just not filtering through, maybe they don’t try because they feel like they’re playing a different game to most of the players already on the pitch.

    I wrote a song about the Sun (in the link), they like it in the pubs but so far I can’t get the local radio to play it. Maybe they’d get sued. Ho Hum.

  4. Dave Warren says:

    What a smashing piece Billy. As a state school arts teacher (Music and Drama) I too despair at the ramifications of the Ebacc on the Arts in schools. I teach in a specialist arts college and can already see pressure on youngsters to move away from studying the arts at GCSE, and this in a school that values the arts!

    I teach loads of “articulate teenagers with an ear for a good tune”, but do often wish they would have more of a chip on their shoulders and address the world as it is (in a rough, tough multi-cultural northern town) rather than as it is filtered through the media and perhaps more pertinently social media.

    Just wanted to let you know that I agree with almost every word you have said here and hope that despite the tempests blowing through the BBC at the moment your message is listened to and perhaps more importantly acted upon.

    Also as a fellow middle aged Clash fan thanks for the heads up on Jake Bugg – I like to think of myself as “keeping up with the kids” (said with an ironic smile) but this one has passed me by.

    Cheers Billy and keep up the good work.

  5. Chris Walsh says:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nvn2s
    That’s the Lecture up, available for a few more days – it was well worth me hearing the tunes in-between the talk!
    I’m a bit late to the party, but after seeing you at the Able2UK gig over the summer, but not hearing you were doing the Lecture until you’d done it, I had to catch up.
    I agree with pretty much everything you said, and appreciate you posting the text of your talk here beforehand.
    I hope an Arts strand gets added to the Ebacc, it would be a backwards step from when I did my GCSE’s if it doesn’t get added.
    I recommend Ben Cassidy’s ‘Sun Song’ which he mentioned in his comment, and I want to hear more passionate political music!

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