Today is the seventh anniversary of the DJ, broadcaster and all-round music legend John Peel‘s unexpected and much-mourned death in 2004. As one of the many, many music fans of all ages who loved his Radio 1 show and were inspired by the incredibly varied and hugely eclectic music he played, I still can’t believe he’s no longer with us; no longer playing strange records at the wrong speed and introducing an extremely unprepared world to the musical delights of death metal and the likes of the Aphex Twin. So, today I’m celebrating John Peel Day, and #KeepingItPeel in order to honour the great man’s memory and legacy….
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… – RHJ Brooke, John’s housemaster, in one of his school reports.
Born John Ravenscroft to a well-off family in Cheshire on 30th August 1939, he spent his youth at Shrewsbury, a well-regarded public school, where he fell in love with 50s rock ‘n’ roll (much to the annoyance of some of his teachers!), before going on to do his national service in the Royal Artillery – which he didn’t enjoy very much at all:
The Army said afterwards, ‘At no time has he shown any sign of adapting to the military way of life.’ I took it as a compliment.
By the early 1960s he was in America, technically working as part of the family firm, but instead he was actually becoming more and more infatuated with the rock ‘n’ roll that was causing such a moral panic on both sides of the Atlantic at the time – to the extent that he ended up with a job at a radio station in Dallas at the height of Beatlemania (not because of any technical ability, but because his accent had a Liverpudlian twang!).
Being in Dallas at this time meant that he also managed to play a peripheral part in one of the most notorious events in American history – somehow blagging his way into the press conference in which it was announced that Lee Harvey Oswald was to be charged with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy….
Returning to the UK in 1967, John found a job at the pirate station Radio London. This period was the height of these illegal and highly influential radio stations, many of which broadcast from ships moored offshore. Because of the illegality of stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline, many of the DJs involved – John included – felt they had to use pseudonyms to protect their identities and broadcast with less risk.
It was here that ‘John Peel’ was born – and his show, ‘The Perfumed Garden’ clearly demonstrated his broadcasting style, featuring underground music, poetry, discussions on politics and letters from listeners. This was unlike any of the other DJs plying their trade at the time, and it sounded, as his later Radio 1 shows always did, as if he was broadcasting to you, the individual listener, and no-one else:
You had a remarkable two-way dialogue with the audience which is not possible to simulate on land. You put the show out completely on your own in the bowels of a rotten ship three miles out at sea. You knew the audience felt a little bit daring listening to you.
The law caught up with Radio London in August 1967, forcing it to close and putting John out of a job. However, the BBC were launching a pop station and he was offered a job with the brand new Radio 1, beginning his new show in October 1967. His trademark eclectic taste in music and what became known as the ‘Peel Sessions’ were part of the show from the start, creating a distinctive style of broadcasting unknown to the BBC up until that point.
Over the next thirty-plus years, the BBC – to their credit – let him get on with playing the music he liked, despite the odd spat – as he acknowledged in 1979:
They leave you to get on with it. I’m paid money by the BBC not to go off and work for a commercial radio station… I wouldn’t want to go to one anyway, because they wouldn’t let me do what the BBC let me do.
And the music he liked was music from every genre you can think of and then some. He broke (or helped to break) countless bands, giving many who later went on to superstardom their first chance at mainstream exposure via a Peel Session. He inspired music fans and musicians alike, as Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker recalled in 2006:
Like countless other people, I guess, the John Peel show was the place I really learned about music. Up until then it had been a mixture of songs from my Mum’s record collection that weren’t too bad and chart stuff – now, suddenly, for two hours every week night I was exposed to so much other stuff; the punk rock that I’d been searching for initially, for sure, but also so much more. Listening to the show became an act of almost religious devotion for me.
And the Peel Show became “an act of almost religious devotion” for so many other people, including me. I used to listen in bed, headphones attached to my little transistor radio, lying wide-eyed in the dark as John played yet another incredible track by yet another incredible band that I’d never heard before, introducing it in that wonderfully laconic, laid back voice of his.
I still remember hearing about his death. A friend texted to tell me and I didn’t believe it at first. Couldn’t believe it. Peel’s show was such an integral part of my teenage years – I had hoped he would go on forever. I genuinely couldn’t believe that I’d never be hearing that voice again, never hear him apologising for playing a seven inch at the wrong speed again, never be bemused or amazed by his choice of tunes again.
His love of music reflected my own, and he introduced me to some amazing bands and artists that I still love today – without him, I suspect that a very large percentage of my (very large!) music collection wouldn’t even physically exist, let alone be stacked up all over my room in ever-growing and teetering piles.
For generations of music fans, John Peel was almost like a member of the family – you know, the cool cousin or uncle who has a great record collection and loves to share his music. And that’s what he taught me, that’s what he gave me: the knowledge that good music is something to be shared, to be loved collectively, to be passed around your friends and family with enthusiasm and passion.
And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, hence #KeepingItPeel.
John Peel – always remembered, still missed.