Known for his eclectic taste in music and his honest and warm broadcasting style, John Peel was a popular and respected DJ and broadcaster. He was one of the first to play American psychedelic rock, reggae and punk on British radio, and his significant promotion of performers ranging from alternative rock, pop, death metal, British hip hop and dance music is widely acknowledged.
Perhaps it's possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays.
In his posthumously published autobiography, Peel revealed that he had been subjected to sexual abuse by an older pupil while at Shrewsbury. His decision to reveal this was praised by campaigners for children's rights.
After finishing his National Service in 1959 in the Royal Artillery as a B2 Radar Operator, he worked as a mill operative at Townhead Mill in Rochdale and travelled home each weekend to Heswall on a scooter borrowed from his sister. Whilst in Rochdale Monday to Friday he stayed in a bed and breakfast in the Milkstone Road / Drake Street area.
While working for an insurance company based in Dallas, Texas, filing card programs for an early IBM 1410 computer (which led to his entry in Who's Who noting him as a former computer programmer), he got his first radio job, albeit unpaid, working for WRR Radio in Dallas. There, he presented the second hour of the Monday night programme Kat's Karavan. Following this, and as Beatlemania hit the United States, Peel got a job as the official Beatles correspondent with the Dallas radio station KLIF due to his connection to Liverpool. He later worked for KOMA in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma until 1965 when he moved to KMEN in San Bernardino, California, using the name John Ravencroft to present the breakfast show.
I had been working on radio in America since 1961, initially Dallas, Texas; then I got into it full time as a Beatle expert in Oklahoma City in '64/66. I was in California for a year and half in San Bernadino, came back here [to Britain] in '67 and was by and large unemployable at the time. I hadn't anything to come home to. Just luck really, being in the right place at the right time, music lovers might argue the wrong place at the wrong time.
While in Dallas in 1965, he married his first wife, Shirley Anne Milburn, in what Peel later described as a "mutual defence pact". She was only 15 at the time, a fact she successfully concealed from Peel, and both her parents had recently died. The marriage was never happy and although Shirley accompanied Peel back to Britain in 1967, they were soon separated. The divorce became final in 1973. She later committed suicide.
The Misunderstood is the only band that Peel ever personally managed—he first met the band in Riverside, California in 1966 and convinced them to move to London. He championed their music throughout his career; in 1968, he described their 1966 single "I Can Take You To The Sun" as "the best popular record that's ever been recorded. and shortly before his death, he stated, "If I had to list the ten greatest performances I've seen in my life, one would be The Misunderstood at Pandora's Box, Hollywood, 1966. My god, they were a great band!
His favourite single is widely known to have been Teenage Kicks by The Undertones; in an interview in 2001, he stated "There's nothing you could add to it or subtract from it that would improve it. In the same 2001 interview, he also listed "No More Ghettos In America" by Stanley Winston, "There Must Be Thousands" by The Quads and "Lonely Saturday Night" by Don French as being amongst his all-time favourites. A longer list of his favourite singles was revealed in 2005 when the contents of a wooden box in which he stored the records that meant the most to him were made public.
Under the spell of the Beatles' newly-released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP and the underground/flower-power scene, John Peel brought 1967 hippy culture to a generation of young British listeners. He played classic blues (Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Elmore James) and folk music (Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, the Incredible String Band, Donovan) and gently introduced the ground breaking music of West Coast bands such as Love, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, Country Joe and the Fish and Jefferson Airplane, their British contemporaries like Pink Floyd, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and Cream - and his special favourites, The Misunderstood (whom he persuaded to move from California to London), Marc Bolan (as a solo artist and with Tyrannosaurus Rex, or T.Rex) and Captain Beefheart (for whom he later acted as chauffeur during the latter's 1969 UK tour).
As important as the musical content of the programme was the personal—sometimes confessional—tone of Peel's presentation, and the listener participation it engendered. He would often wish his audience love and peace, but this seemed sincere and heartfelt, rather than a mere hippy cliché. Underground events he had attended during his periods of shore leave, like the UFO Club and "The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream", together with causes célèbres like the drug "busts" of the Rolling Stones and John "Hoppy" Hopkins, were discussed between records. All this was far removed from Radio London's daytime format.
Listeners, enthused by The Perfumed Garden's unique atmosphere, sent Peel letters, poems, even records from their own collections, so that the programme became a vehicle for two-way communication — by the final week of Radio London he was receiving far more mail than any other DJ on the station.
After the closure of Radio London in 1967, The Perfumed Garden lived on in his column of that name in the underground newspaper International Times (from autumn 1967 to mid-1969), in which he showed himself to be a committed, if critical, supporter of the ideals of the underground; and in The Perfumed Garden mailing list, a group formed by keen listeners, which facilitated contacts and gave rise to numerous small-scale, local arts projects typical of the time, including the poetry magazine Sol. (Peel, supportive at first, distanced himself from this "community" as his career developed - as can be seen from his autobiography, which contains very critical comments on the late 1960s British "Arts Lab" movement.)
I was one of the first lot on Radio 1 and I think it was mainly because ... Radio 1 had no real idea what they were doing so they had to take people off the pirate ships because there wasn't anybody else.
At first he was obliged to share presentation duties with other DJs (Pete Drummond and Tommy Vance were among his co-hosts) but in February 1968 was given sole charge of Top Gear - a role which he held until the show ended in 1975. His subsequent programmes, known simply as John Peel shows, continued in the same vein, playing an eclectic mix of music that simply caught Peel's attention. According to his autobiography, both the authorities at Radio 1 and his audience did not always appreciate the music he played, and at various stages of his career he received complaints for playing music, such as reggae, hip-hop, punk and industrial music, which challenged the preconceptions of his listeners. He later reflected that his Old Salopian background probably helped to save him from being sacked.
From the start Peel had displayed a quirky, eclectic and avant-garde taste in music. He was largely responsible for introducing BBC listeners to punk rock, reggae and hip-hop and electronic dance music. In 1973 he played both sides of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells in full, the subsequent success of which helped establish Richard Branson's Virgin music label. Peel championed the long-running Manchester band The Fall, who played 24 sessions for the show, including one on Peel's 60th birthday. Once he liked a Cocteau Twins album so much that he played a whole side, non-stop, without interruption. His avant-garde musical tastes brought him into conflict with other more conservative DJs at the BBC such as Tony Blackburn and later Simon Bates.
During 1969, after hosting a trailer for a BBC programme on VD on his Night Ride programme, Peel received significant media attention because of admitting on air to having suffered from a sexually transmitted disease earlier that year. This admission was later used in an attempt to discredit him when he appeared as a defence witness in the 1971 Oz obscenity trial. The judge in that case even instructed that a glass of water he had drunk from be thrown out.
The Night Ride programme (on Wednesdays, between 12 midnight and 1am), advertised by the BBC as an exploration of words and music, seemed to take up from where the Perfumed Garden had left off. It featured a highly eclectic choice of music, from rock, folk (e.g. the Incredible String Band, the Young Tradition, John Renbourn, Davey Graham, Tangerine Dream) and blues (Fred McDowell, Jo Ann Kelly) to classical (Albéniz, Dvořák, Penderecki, Messiaen, Pachelbel's "Canon"). A unique feature of the programme was the inclusion of tracks, mostly of exotic non-Western music, drawn from the BBC Sound Archives; the most popular of these were gathered on a BBC Records LP, John Peel's Archive Things (1970). Night Ride also featured poetry readings from Brian Patten, Carlyle Reedy, Adrian Henri (and his band The Liverpool Scene), Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue and many other "beat" or "pop" poets. There were also numerous interviews with a wide range of guests, from his personal friends - Marc Bolan, journalist and musician Mick Farren, poet Pete Roche, singer-songwriter Bridget St. John - to stars such as the Byrds, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono - and even Hans Keller, head of BBC Radio 3. A youthful Richard Branson promoted his magazine Student; Tony Elliott publicised the new London listings magazine Time Out. Peel interviewed a monk, Dom Robert Petit Pierre, and eulogised the night Robert Kennedy was killed.
The programme captured much of the creative activity of the underground scene. Its anti-establishment stance and unpredictability did not find approval with the BBC hierarchy, though, and after 18 months it ended in September 1969. In his sleeve notes to the Archive Things LP Peel calls the free-form nature of Night Ride his preferred radio format, but he was never again to present such an adventurous programme (although others, notably Radio Geronimo, attempted US-style hippy radio). The BBC's restrictive scheduling compelled him to return to the mixture of records and live sessions which was to characterise his Radio 1 programmes for the rest of his career.
Peel made his reputation in the late 1960s, but did not share the nostalgia of those who look back on it as a "golden era". Later, he would speak of being uncomfortable as a "minor princeling among the hippies" and uneasy with the guru-like status he was afforded at the height of his fame. It was easy to forget that he was ten years older than most of his listeners; also, despite his tendency to talk about his life experiences between the records he played, his listeners knew little of the difficulties of his first marriage. He did, however, believe very strongly in the hippy ideals, and was deeply disappointed when some of the leading lights of the underground scene proved to be careerists, opportunists or charlatans.
After separation from his first wife, Peel's personal life began to stabilise, as he found friendship and support from new Top Gear producer John Walters - and from a girlfriend whom he identified on-air as "the Pig". Eventually, on 31 August 1974, Peel married Sheila Gilhooly. The reception was in London's Regent's Park, with Walters as best man. Peel wore Liverpool football colours (red) and walked down the aisle to the song "You'll Never Walk Alone". Their sheepdog, Woggle, served as a bridesmaid.
Peel was the first to play the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", in June 1977, having played "Anarchy in the UK", which was banned from the BBC's daytime play list, in 1976. He was also the first to play Bob Dylan's Desire in the UK, despite Capital Radio having exclusive permission from CBS to be the first to do so. Peel got hold of a copy of the record and, to beat Capital, played it in full, separated by a reggae track while he changed the record over. Peel was to show this disregard for record company rules again when in 2003 he played three tracks from The White Stripes album Elephant before its official release date, resulting in him being threatened by lawyers for the record company V2.
Peel's affection for music outside the mainstream occasionally brought him into conflict with the Radio 1 hierarchy. In early 1977 station controller Derek Chinnery contacted John Walters and asked him to confirm that the show was not playing any punk, which he (Chinnery) had read about in the press and disapproved of. Chinnery was evidently somewhat surprised by Walters' reply that in recent weeks they had been playing little else.
Relations between Peel and the station deteriorated further still when it was announced in 1984 that his broadcasts would be reduced from four to three a week, with Tommy Vance's Into the Music show (playing mostly progressive rock from the 1970s) filling the vacant slot. Peel was unhappy with the move and said so publicly on a number of occasions, although his displeasure was mitigated slightly when Into the Music was axed after only a year.
His radio show was latterly sometimes broadcast from his home in Suffolk, England, nicknamed "Peel Acres", and had a homely air, with his wife, Sheila, and their children, William, Tom, Alexandra (Danda) and Florence (Flossie) often being involved or at least mentioned.
In addition to his championing of new music, Peel also played many older, often obscure records on his show, specifically in two sections he introduced:
Besides the countless bands he championed, Peel also supported the rare and the unusual, often in the form of the spoken word. If not for John Walters and John Peel, it's possible that Vivian Stanshall's "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End" might never have been heard.
An annual tradition of the show was the Festive Fifty—a countdown of the best tracks of the year as voted for by the listeners. Despite Peel's eclectic play list, the Festive Fifty tended to be composed largely of "white boys with guitars", in Peel's words. This frustrated Peel somewhat, and in 1991 he went so far as to cancel the rundown. Topped inevitably by Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", this Phantom Fifty was eventually broadcast at the rate of one track per programme, some years later. The 1997 chart was, unusually, a Festive Thirty-One. Peel wrote that
The Festive 50 dates back to what was doubtless a crisp September morning in the early-to-mid Seventies, when John Walters and I were musing on life in his uniquely squalid office. In our waggish way, we decided to mock the enthusiasm of the Radio 1 management of the time for programmes with alliterative titles. Content, we felt, was of less importance than a snappy Radio Times billing. In the course of our historic meeting we had, I imagine, some fine reasons for dismissing the idea of a Festive 40 and going instead for a Festive 50, a decision that was to ruin my Decembers for years to come, condemning me to night after night at home with a ledger, when I could have been out and about having fun, fun, fun.
Peel's show was the only place on Radio 1 where listeners could hear the latest electronic dance music before they became popular, such as the various styles of house, techno and hardcore music - indeed, there is a UK hardcore track entitled "John Peel is Not Enough" by the artist CLSM, reflecting hardcore's hopes for wider broadcast exposure. Peel was so impressed by this that not only did he play it on his show several times, but dedicated an entire show to the genre, in hopes that it could spawn its own show. Peel also championed a wealth of other musical genres from reggae to death metal. However, his much vaunted eclecticism had its limits; he rarely if ever gave airtime to industrial music, nor did he show any interest in or sympathy for free jazz and improvisation.
Many bands and artists of a wide range of different musical styles from different decades credit Peel as a major boost to their careers. The list includes T-Rex, Led Zeppelin, Kevin Ayers, David Bowie, The Faces, Bolt Thrower, The Sex Pistols, The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Napalm Death, Carcass, Extreme Noise Terror, The Undertones, Buzzcocks, Gary Numan, The Cure, Joy Division, The Comsat Angels, The Wedding Present, Six By Seven, Def Leppard, The Orb, Pulp, Ash, Orbital, The Smiths, FSK, Trumans Water, The Black Keys, The White Stripes and PJ Harvey. Peel's reputation as the most important DJ breaking unsigned acts into the mainstream was such that young hopefuls sent him an enormous amount of records, CDs, and tapes. When he returned home from a three week holiday at the end of 1986 there were 173 LPs, 91 12"s and 179 7"s waiting for him. Another example in point is that in 1983 unsigned artist Billy Bragg drove to the Radio 1 studios with a mushroom biryani and a copy of his record after hearing Peel mention that he was hungry, the subsequent airplay launching his career.
He fronted and provided voice-overs for a large number of other programmes in his long career. Never someone to shy away from controversial topics, Peel agreed to front a 1994 one-off documentary for Radio 1 about the use of recreational drugs by popular musicians. The programme, Lost In Music, made by an independent production company, was heavily slated by a dry BBC Review board and Liz Forgan in particular, who declared that she hoped "my children never hear this". However it received critical acclaim for its honest approach to a delicate subject.
Peel remained on BBC Radio 1 for 37 years, until his death in 2004. During that time over 4000 sessions were recorded for him by over 2000 artists. The last track he played on his final show was "Time 4 Change" by Klute from the album No One's Listening Anymore.
The BBC employed its own house bands and orchestras and it also engaged outside bands to record exclusive tracks for its programs in BBC studios. This was the reason why Peel was able to use "session men" in his own programs. Sessions were usually four tracks recorded and mixed in a single day; as such they often had a rough and ready, demo-like feel, somewhere between a live performance and a finished recording. Many classic Peel Sessions have been released on record, particularly by the Strange Fruit label.
Additionally, for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s he hosted a Sunday evening programme on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire which was also broadcast on several other local stations in the East of England.
You know, Aretha Franklin can make any old rubbish sound good, and I think she just has.
In 1982 he appeared on the first edition of Noel Edmonds' Late Late Breakfast Show where he delivered a monologue in his usual dry style. Though intended to be a regular feature, it was so obviously out of step with the rest of the programme that he did not appear again.
In 1996 he was the subject of the BBC's This Is Your Life.
In spite of all of these appearances he never particularly liked appearing on television and, in an interview for Radio 1's Radio Radio series broadcast on 8 February 1986, disdained those Radio 1 DJs who he felt were using their radio careers as a stepping stone on the way to TV stardom.
As Peel stated,
In the 1980s Peel set up the Strange Fruit record label with Clive Selwood to release material recorded by the BBC for Peel Sessions.
In the 1970's, John Peel and his wife Sheila moved to a thatched cottage in the village of Great Finborough near Stowmarket in Suffolk. In the eight-acre (32,000 m²) garden, referred to on the radio as 'Peel Acres' (a name he had also used for his small London flats in the late '60s), he housed his record collection, estimated by then to be in the hundreds of thousands, in a number of barns and stables. In his later years, Peel introduced many of his radio shows from a studio at Peel Acres.
Peel and Sheila had four children. His passion for Liverpool F.C. was reflected in their names: William Robert Anfield, Alexandra Mary Anfield, Thomas James Dalglish and Florence Victoria Shankly. John credited Ipswich Town F.C. and the family doctor Ian Jenkins with helping to save his wife Sheila's life after her serious illness and regularly went with her to watch her favourites at Portman Road.
In his later years, Peel mellowed. Between 1995 and 1997, he presented a show about children, called Offspring, on BBC Radio 4. In 1998, Offspring grew into the magazine-style documentary show Home Truths. When he took on the job presenting the programme, which was about everyday life in British families, Peel requested that it be free from celebrities, as he found real life stories more entertaining. Home Truths was described by occasional stand-in presenter John Walters as being "about people who had fridges called Renfrewshire". He also made regular contributions to BBC Two's humorous look at the irritations of modern life Grumpy Old Men.
He appeared as a celebrity guest on a number of TV shows, including This Is Your Life (1996, BBC), Travels With My Camera (1996, Channel 4 TV), and Going Home (2002, ITV TV). He was also in demand as a voice-over artist for television documentaries, such as BBC One's A Life of Grime, and advertisements, though he reportedly refused to work on adverts for products that he didn't use himself. He once said that he hoped his voice-over for Andrex toilet tissue would "make people want to wipe their bottom".
Peel became known as one of the few people in public life that could be described as having integrity. On that question, he told Third Way magazine "I don't know what people mean by “integrity”. I’ve always found it easier to tell the truth because that way you don’t have to remember what you’ve said. So, for purely practical reasons, it is the best thing.
He was awarded many honorary degrees including an MA from the University of East Anglia, doctorates (Anglia Polytechnic University and Sheffield Hallam University), various honorary degrees (University of Liverpool, Open University, University of Portsmouth, University of Bradford) and a fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.
In April 2003, the publishers Transworld successfully wooed Peel with a package worth up to £1.6 million for his autobiography, having placed an advert in a national newspaper aimed only at Peel. Unfinished at the time of his death it was completed by Sheila and journalist Ryan Gilbey. It is called Margrave Of The Marshes and was published on 17 October 2005.
In the same interview, he talked about growing old: "I hope I can retain a few of my faculties until I die but the idea of drifting into an unattractive old age worries you."
Two weeks before his death, he told friend and colleague Andy Kershaw that the move of his show, in summer 2004, back an hour from a 10pm start to 11pm, caused him a lot of stress and that he felt marginalised and unappreciated.
Peel died suddenly at the age of 65 from a heart attack on 25 October 2004, on a working holiday in the Inca city of Cuzco in Peru. Shortly after the announcement of his death, tributes began to arrive from fans and supporters both in and out of public life. Among the first to pay their respects were such notable British artists as Blur, Oasis and New Order.
On 26 October 2004 BBC Radio 1 cleared its schedules to broadcast a day of tributes while BBC Three TV added an additional caption to its on-screen logo: "Dedicated to John Peel". A stage for new bands at the Glastonbury Festival, previously known simply as 'The New Bands Tent' has been renamed 'The John Peel Stage'.
Peel often spoke wryly of his eventual death. He once said on the show Room 101,
At one point, he said that if he died before his producer John Walters, he wanted the latter to play Roy Harper's "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease". In the event Walters predeceased Peel (Walters died in 2001), and it was left to Andy Kershaw to end his tribute programme to Peel on BBC Radio 3 with the song, and Peel's stand-in on his Radio 1 slot, Rob da Bank, played the song at the start of the final show before his funeral. Another time, Peel said he'd like to be remembered with a gospel song. He stated that the final record he would play would be the Rev C. L. Franklin's sermon "Dry Bones in The Valley".
His funeral, on 12 November 2004, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, was attended by over a thousand people including many of the artists he had championed. Eulogies were read by his brother, Alan Ravenscroft, and DJ Paul Gambaccini. The service ended with clips of him talking about his life and his coffin was carried out to the accompaniment of his favourite song: The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks". A private family service was held after the public funeral.
In 2001, Peel had written in The Guardian that, apart from his name, all he wanted on his gravestone were the words, "Teenage dreams, so hard to beat", from the lyrics of "Teenage Kicks". In February 2008, a headstone engraved in accordance with his wishes was placed at his grave.
On 13 October 2005, the first "John Peel Day" took place in the UK and as far away as Canada and New Zealand. The BBC encouraged as many bands as possible to stage gigs on the 13th, and over 500 gigs from bands ranging from Peel favourites New Order (who were introduced by Feargal Sharkey of The Undertones) and The Fall, to many new and unsigned bands, took place.
A second John Peel day was held on 12 October 2006. It attracted some criticism from those who felt that the mass press coverage was slightly cynical given the relative popularity of his niche slot while alive. Equally there were some criticisms of the organisation of the day and the later charity single in that it focused on established artists while he was always interested in new and upcoming sounds.
John Peel Day 2007 was held on 11 October 2007.
The BBC had originally planned to hold a John Peel Day annually, but so far there has been no official announcement from Radio 1 of the event taking place in 2008.
17 October 2005 saw the release of a double CD tribute album. A number of other Peel-related albums have been released since his death, including John Peel - Right Time Wrong Speed: 1977-1987 and John Peel And Sheila: The Pig's Big 78s: A Beginner's Guide. The Cuban Boys recorded a tribute to Peel in 2005 sampling some of his broadcasts. Tractor issued a CD in 2006 entitled John Peel Bought us Studio Gear and a PA which in fact he had. There is a dance remix track on the album of their 1972 track for John's birthday: "Ravenscroft's 13 Bar Boogie".
John Peel has attracted a great number of amateur archivists since his death, and there is a large online community of blogs dedicated to sharing recordings of his radio shows. Such blogs started appearing soon after Peel's death, and now hundreds of shows spanning Peel's entire radio career are available in various digital formats. Those at the forefront of this archiving include the blogs Fades in Slowly, John Peel Everyday, Kat's Karavan and Teenage Kicks The John Peel Newsgroup also shares the latest information on newly digitised archive material, and was recently responsible for the purchase of 400 cassettes of Peel shows from the period 1978 to 1982.