In Conversation with John Walters

In 1987 I interviewed John Peel’s producer John Walters for a book I was writing about pirate radio and the early days of Radio One. The man could talk for England and filled two C90s for me while barely drawing breath. His career took in spells as an art student and art teacher, trombone player with the Alan Price Set and twenty years, as he himself put it, as ‘John Peel’s representative on Earth’. His death in July 2000 was as unexpected and as untimely as that of Peel four years later. To those of us who got nine-tenths of our musical education from them, their absence is still keenly felt. Listen to the output of most generic radio today and it’s as if Peel and Walters never existed. There is already a generation of kids in their late teens to whom they are just dim and distant memories handed down from older brothers and sisters. Pretty soon their names will be as remote as those of legendary radio figures like Uncle Mac and Archie Brough. (Ask yer Grandad!)

Peel once famously said that Walters was ‘sustained in his retirement by his determination to deliver the eulogy at my funeral. This eulogy will be unbelievably long and more about Walters than about me!’ That statement has an unbearable poignancy about it now. What follows is barely a tenth of what Walters bellowed at me that day in his cramped shit-pit of an office in Egton House, former home of ‘Wonderful’ Radio One.

‘I Thought I’d Get a Pamphlet’

I was playing with Alan Price at the time. Doing a session in Maida Vale for one of these programmes called ‘Swing into Summer’ or something like that, those old Light Programme shows which had a lot of live guests. It was all very simple stuff. All the brass round one mike. And the balance was like, ‘Move the tenor sax in six inches. Stop there. Now play the same thing again.’ There was no mixing, or anything like that. Everybody was packing up to go round the pub, and I was standing watching and they were all messing around behind the glass and having a bit of a laugh and a coffee and, frankly, I remember looking at it and I thought, ‘Actually those people behind the glass seem to be doing approximately nothing, y’know.’ And I thought, ‘There must be jobs in here, ways of earning a living.’

In the band we never met other people. We never met, say, the Who. They were always working somewhere else. So if you were in Manchester you didn’t see the groups who were in Leeds and so on. Everybody thought you did, but you didn’t. But I thought if you could work at the BBC, then you’re in show business all the time. And so I simply wrote to the BBC. The strange thing was, I thought I’d get a pamphlet. I mean I wrote, really, for a pamphlet and got a job.

They said, ‘Come in and see us.’ I’d got the ‘gift of the gab’. I’m reasonably articulate, decidedly verbose. They said, ‘Hello, come in. So you’re with one of these bands . . . ‘We were in the charts at the time so they were pretty impressed. I think they’d seen the Beatles’ films and thought it was like that, which really it wasn’t at all. It wasn’t even like that for the Beatles. And so I babbled away and told a few jokes and they were clearly wildly impressed. ‘Look, we’ll be in touch,’ they said. ‘We’ve got something coming up.’