Of any figure in music broadcasting no shadow looms larger than that of controversial DJ, John Peel. For over 35 years the late BBC radio DJ’s well-heeled drone, eclectic taste and unwavering commitment to championing new music guaranteed him a dedicated following and he became the benchmark against which all radio DJs are measured. Peel’s legacy is nothing short of apotheotic. Indeed for a young Jarvis Cocker listening to Peel’s weekly show was an ‘act of religious devotion’. The internet heaves with similar remarks about his influence and contribution and his Peel Sessions are now used predominately as markers of prestige for the artists who were asked to participate in them.
When British punk reared its sneering head in the mid-70s Peel was one of the only radio DJs to play it, however just a few short years later it had lost its rebellious sheen, moving offshore to the United States where bands such as Black Flag would bash it with renewed vigour into the shape of hardcore to come. Peel began to look for something that would signal a return to the vile extremity of punk’s early days. He eventually found what he was looking for in his hometown of Ipswich. The band was Extreme Noise Terror, and the genre was grindcore. In the foreword to Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore Peel wrote:
At one of those Ipswich gigs, ENT were joined by the even faster Napalm Death; at another by the short-lived but murderous Intense Degree. All three bands recorded sessions for my radio programmes and most of the tracks they recorded ended up on the Hardcore Holocaust compilations. Almost everyone I knew who heard these compilations, or tracks from them, thought they were all crap. A result, I thought.
Grindcore is essentially the bastard child of hardcore punk and heavy metal, with a stated goal of being faster and heavier than all else. With a propensity for puerility and tongue-in-cheek violence, it was, and remains, a belligerent and extreme genre of music. It’s about as heavy and fast as music can reasonably be before descending into pure noise, though it’s not uncommon for that line to be overstepped as well. The progenitors of grindcore are commonly cited as being from the US, but it was British band Napalm Death, and their debut release Scum, which formalised the genre and gave it a name. In 1987, a 48-year-old Peel broadcast Napalm Death’s most well known ‘song’: the one-and-a-half second opus, You Suffer. In September that year Peel invited Napalm Death to the BBC to record their first Peel Session.
Peel’s support for grindcore facilitated an explosion in its popularity. Scum reached number 8 on the UK independent charts and Napalm Death were invited back in March 1988 to record their second Peel Session. In October that year their second album, From Enslavement To Obliteration, unceremoniously jackbooted Sonic Youth from number one on the UK independent charts and sold 35,000 copies straight out of the gate. Even New Music Express (NME) felt compelled to give the band a cover feature, declaring grindcore to be ‘the music for which Jerry Lee, The Who, Helter Skelter, The Ramones, Damned, Pistols, Northern Soul, Speed Metal and Speed Core were just practice.’
Peel went on to promote the careers of a number of other grindcore bands, including the aforementioned Extreme Noise Terror and the animal rights proponents Carcass, whose 1988 debut Reek of Putrefaction Peel declared to be his favourite album of the year. Unseen Terror, Intense Degree, Doom, Bolt Thrower and Agathocles all recorded Peel Sessions between 1988 and 1997. Less than a year before his death Peel recorded a session with Anaal Nathrakh, an utterly feral amalgamation of grindcore, black metal, industrial and death metal.
Although his attention was not surprising, Peel’s profile and affiliation with the BBC presented a moral conflict for grindcore, at least in theory. Here you have a genre founded on a basis of extremity – extreme speed, extreme volume, and extreme concretion. It was not designed for the BBC, and it was most certainly not for the scrutiny of the public at large. The risk that such attention would force a commercially expedited demise like that suffered by punk was a real and present danger and yet, to this date, grindcore remains one of the few music genres to have enjoyed disproportionate mainstream attention and remain, for the most part, unspoiled by commercial interests.
One reason for this is that grindcore’s inherent sense of humour and appreciation of irony makes it uniquely constituted to weather such attention. A more prominent reason however, is that no matter which way you slice it, there is simply no money to be made with grindcore. Despite being one of the most well-known and respected contemporary grindcore bands currently working, the members of Virginian band Pig Destroyer all still maintain day jobs. When asked in a recent interview whether he would like to make a living off Pig Destroyer, vocalist J.R. Hayes responded:
No. It’s already my passion…If I had to rely on the band for my bills I’d have to think about it differently. We’ve always done exactly what we’ve wanted to do. I couldn’t ask for any more. Fuck money. Who could ask for more than creative independence?
While this might seem like purist posturing, it’s more likely to be an acknowledgement that grindcore’s sonic extremity, dissonance and antagonistic subject matter ensures its default setting is DIY, irrespective of the attention it receives. Peel’s actions in dragging it into the view of the masses gave it the best possible start in life, but ultimately its fate was to slide grunting back into the crepuscular world of extreme metal sub-genres, where it has maintained itself dis-respectably ever since.
Hugh Nichols is an arts and culture writer who lives in Sydney. Find his work at pageantcrack.wordpress.com