Saturday, October 25, 2014

John Walters: the power behind the throne

In January 1981 the BBC documentary strand Arena made a programme, Today Carshalton Beeches... Tomorrow Croydon, on the subject of the John Peel show and the young bands that send in demo tapes, produced by Alan Yentob and directed by the acclaimed Anthony Wall (who was still making in-depth music documentaries for the BBC at the end of the 90s) Interviewed within the confines of the semi-legendary tip covered in albums, music papers and detritus that was Room 318 of Radio 1's then base Egton House (as seen above), Peel discussed his ongoing love of new music, the amount and attitude of prospective new discoveries and his uncomfortable feelings about being a position of power with regard to new bands with typical self-effacement, the sympathetic view attempting to gain a full measure of the quixotic man.

Except the documentary is for large parts a two-hander, a second party getting in some of the best and most level-headed lines. Denying the oft broadcast woes of the record labels with the first hand assertion there was "more music about then there ever was before", commenting on the pre-punk malaise on how he "went to see Genesis and thought after the first twenty seconds or so 'god, I wish this would stop'", John Walters makes a laconic, pathos-laden sidekick to his colleague's trademark self-effacement. It's a microcosm on the relationship between Peel and the man who, to one degree or another, produced his programmes for 22 years until retirement in 1991, while making his own arts-related programmes (despite being from a time when producers weren't seemingly as keen to be heard on the air as their DJ) and steadfastly keeping a bemused eye on the doings of management and other such nuisances. Andy Kershaw, a later co-inhabitant of Room 318, would later call Walters its "true genius... the philosopher, the creative force, the cultural prism, the inspiration, the social historian and agitator, and the genuine soul rebel".

Finding such an amusedly detached, anecdote-ready working class made "good" figure not just behind the controls on the other side of the desk but at all in such a space at all within 1970s BBC Radio seems a stretch. Born in 1939 in Derbyshire, Walters studied fine art at Durham University, worked as a schoolteacher and journalist and worked as a trumpeter with trad jazz bands, making it into the briefly popular Alan Price Set. Making a magnificent appearance on the original radio version of Room 101 in 1992, Walters nominated a particularly wayward note of his that was easily audible in their 1966 version of Getting Mighty Crowded.

Recording sessions within BBC property had piqued Walters' interest in becoming a recording engineer for the Corporation (in his words it was a job he saw as involving "bugger all other than click a stopwatch and write down a few odds and sods"), joining Radio 1 on its launch in 1967 and teaming up with Peel, only fifty days Walters' junior, on the new music programme Top Gear in 1969. The pair didn't get on at first, Peel recalling later that his own still very hippyish approach rubbed up badly with Walters' noted lack of packdrill and hatred of anything too folkie. Walters later told the underground magazine ZigZag "I'd seen the more superficial side of the 'underground' thing and thought it was going to be all that "running through the cornfields of my mind" sort of piss, because there was so much of that "margarine policeman" stuff after 'Sgt. Pepper'...and when you've done a four year art school course, you're not easily fooled by third form poetry or fourth form philosophy, or fifth form paperback oriental religion." In time they realised they had plenty in common - senses of humour, love of new music - out of which grew the sort of rapport that would see Walters and his new wife Helen take John and his own wife Sheila (Walters had been their best man) on their honeymoon, as long as Walters kept to booking and knocking up running orders and generally stayed out of the studio during actual broadcast. Eventually the pair developed a shared deity, the Great God Snibri, which depending on his audience Peel would either describe as "the god of small coincidences which work to your advantage" or the deity responsible for free records.

It came in useful. Disguised well under his more raconteurish pose, Walters was a usefully hard-headed ally, doing more than arguably required to keep successive heads of the station from considering Peel's position and warding off the sort of kindly suggestions as to stop playing early hip hop or jungle as they were, as it was put to the pair of them by BBC executives, "music of the criminal classes". Indeed, in early 1977 station controller Derek Chinnery asked Walters point blank to confirm that the show was not playing any punk, which Chinnery disapproved of. Walters replied that in recent weeks they had been playing little else. In the Arena documentary Walters pointedly noted that the explosion in DIY recording had come about as young wannabe musicians had realised "you don't have to start by buying a smoke machine", and later that the show's weakness for scrappy back bedroom bands meant radio now had "room for drummers with no sense of rhythm".

Peel and Walters show their colours, 1971

For his part Walters, while often acknowledging his skill at reigning in unnecessary excesses from all concerned parties, deflected suggestions that he was that responsible for the shifting tone and perception of his colleague once Top Gear mutated and eventually became the more familiar show under Peel's own name in 1975, telling ZigZag "Although I've got one or two awards at home for a top radio show, they're off Peel's back in a sense because there's no question of the show existing or being successful because of me. It's successful because of him, and if there was someone else producing it, as long as they were the sort of person who wouldn't get in the way, he could do it himself." That said, for his part Peel thought the relationship developing with him, as well as that with his future wife Sheila, saved him from a post-hippy spiral downwards and made him sound happier and more confident in playing more experimental acts. More bluntly, when Peel made it to This Is Your Life in 1996 Walters described him as "the most important individual in British rock music", though he did also warn "if he ever achieves puberty the rock business is finished".

Even so, while Peel carried on his endless listening time it was Walters head out and about to size up and discover new talent, although he passed on the Sex Pistols after deciding on seeing them that Johnny Rotten was "a boy I would not trust to hand out the scissors - I wouldn't like to be in the studio with this lot." It was however he who recommended The Fall to their future greatest fan, having seen them supporting Siouxsie and the Banshees after a tipoff from Danny Baker, signalling his intentions by writing Mark E Smith a letter in which he dubbed the band "the worst group I've ever seen". Peel once wrote he'd never having seen Walters so excited as the day after he found the Smiths at ULU in May 1983, booking them for a session almost immediately; Morrissey for his part noted in his autobiography "if not for the continual exuberance of John Walters, John Peel could never have encountered the Smiths." Walters booked Adam and the Ants in 1978 after seeing them bring then-manager and infamous punk scenester Jordan onstage for one song; "painted face, hair standing up about a foot in the air, and (she) began to shriek; I thought, get that girl into the studio and let her shriek to the nation!" Indeed he would often make a point of overseeing session recordings, allowing bands encouragement and the freedom to experiment, and when tasked with producing Vivian Stanshall and Keith Moon on Top Gear stand-in slots did what he could to control, encourage and eventually carry off their torrents of absurdist ideas.

Such was the impression Walters made on colleagues that he bowed to common requests and started making his own programmes, beginning in 1981 with Walters' Weekly, an "oik's eye view" of arts and culture (here he is interviewing Brian Eno in 1982) laced with articulately amusing rants and suggestions. This led to semi-regular appearances both as a music press reviewer for Janice Long and David Jensen's early evening programmes and on Radio 4, progressing from slots on Loose Ends, Start The Week, Kaleidoscope and Woman's Hour to eventually landing short-lived series Largely Walters and Idle Thoughts. There was later the occasional sortie onto television, though his only proper series was an examination of the changing face of film, Cinema Nation, for Sky in 1999.

The classic trifecta: Peel, Walters, Easton

Peel once mused "Walters is sustained in his retirement by his determination to deliver the eulogy at my funeral. This will be unbelievably long and more about Walters than me". It didn't turn out that way, and on the occasion of his final show in June 1991 Peel paid fulsome on-air tribute: "People who've listened regularly to the programme will quite clearly know what a considerable debt we owe to him, and he's going to be very much missed. We've always tried to think of different ways of describing our relationship: quite clearly, the words that he uses are very different from the ones that I use, but the neatest way that I've managed to conjure it up anyway is to say that we're like a man and his dog, each imagining the other to be the dog, and I think that's not a million miles from the way that it's worked over the years." In Margrave Of The Marshes, the Peel autobiography she picked up on after his death, Sheila wrote of how, less than half an hour before his fatal heart attack, Peel had been musing on how much he missed ringing up Walters to discuss everything and nothing.

In the many thousands of words and hours dedicated to Peel's legacy and achievements the part Walters played in the development of his show and his entire persona has been overlooked, perhaps not unsurprisingly, but it does seem that when Walters' widow Helen tried to get BBC Radio 4 Extra interested in repeating some of his output a few years ago and was told there was not enough interest and fewer researchable archive clips of the man about whom Peel wrote on his passing "I owe Walters more than I owe any other person in my life" it seems a huge oversight and abandonment of legacy for such a tireless enthusiast, wryly colourful narrator and altogether unique figure over two decades of groundbreaking musical and social achievement.

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