As a longtime program host on Britain’s BBC Radio 1 station network, British disc jockey John Peel (1939?2004) anticipated the appeal of popular musical innovators from the skiffle ensembles of the early 1960s to punk bands in the 1970s, world musicians in the 1980s, and roots-rock and electronic performers in the 1990s. “He had the best ears on the radio,” wrote Allan Laing and Cameron Simpson in Scotland’s Herald newspaper after Peel’s death.
Even more important than the specific musicians Peel championed over the years, however, were the curiosity and free spirit he brought to broadcasting and to the exploration of new music. Some 90 percent of the music he played was new to radio broadcasts, whether those of the BBC or anyone else. Peel never claimed to be a tastemaker, and his manner was modest and generous toward musicians. “You get a lot of credit for putting these bands on the radio, but the fact is that it’s like being the editor of a newspaper?you don’t claim credit for the news,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times .
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First Saw Father at Age Six
Peel was born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in Heswell, near Liverpool in northwest England, on August 30, 1939. His father, a cotton broker, fought in Africa for much of World War II, and Peel did not meet him for the first time until he was six. He was not much closer to his mother, who, as he was quoted as saying in London’s Daily Telegraph , “was frightened of me from the moment I was born,” and “told me that she was never sure what I was for.” It was as a child, listening to recorded music programs on U.S. Armed Forces Radio and Radio Luxembourg, that Peel thought he might like to become a radio presenter, and his encounter with the rock and roll music of Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s deepened his interest in popular music.
At the time, he was attending the Shrewsbury School (a “public school” in British terms, but what Americans would call a private boarding school open to the public). He did poorly there in classes and on exams but was a star soccer player. School authorities, he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph , “practically had to wake [me] up during the night in order to administer the required number of sound beatings.” After finishing school Peel worked briefly in the cotton industry. “My father shrewdly got me a job for one of his competitors,” Peel recalled dryly, according to Spencer Leig of the London Independent . From 1957 to 1959 he served as a radar operator in the Royal Artillery of the British army.
Following his discharge, Peel headed for Dallas, Texas, telling his family that he could learn more about the cotton business there. But he soon became more engrossed in his musical interests. After meeting a disc jockey named Russ Knight, known as “The Weird Beard,” Peel landed a small slot (called “Kats Karavan”) playing rhythm and blues records on Dallas radio station WRR. For several years he made ends meet by selling storm insurance to Texas farmers, and in 1963, claiming that he was a correspondent for a Liverpool newspaper, he talked his way into the press conference, which turned out to be the one at which John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby.
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Peel’s English accent was a professional asset in the United States from the start, and the mania for the Beatles that swept the country beginning in 1964 accelerated his radio career. A few hints that he might be acquainted with Beatle George Harrison earned Peel a legion of teenage female admirers, one of whom, 15-year-old Shirley Anne Milburn, he married in 1965. Peel landed a full-time job at Dallas station KLIF and also worked for stations in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (KOMA), and San Bernardino, California (KMEN, where his free-spirited broadcast style began to take shape), before returning to England with his young wife in 1967. The marriage quickly broke up, dissolving officially in 1971.
Worked for Pirate Station
Peel’s first radio slot in Britain was on a pirate station called Wonderful Radio London, broadcasting from a converted minesweeper in the North Sea (and actually established by a Texas salesman, Don Pierson). He adopted the name John Peel, which came from an English folksong (in California he had shortened his birth name to John Ravencroft), and the playlists on his program “The Perfumed Garden” tended toward West Coast American rock and the psychedelic side of early British folk rock. Peel aired an experimental American band with folk roots, the Grateful Dead. He also liked mainstream English folk-rock such as the music of Fairport Convention. Despite the hippie-oriented atmosphere of the time and the outlaw nature of the radio station itself, Peel was never known to use illicit drugs. Wonderful Radio London was shut down after several months of operation (although later intermittently revived), and Peel was hired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for its new Radio 1 popular music service. By the early 2000s he would be the only member of the original staff still active.
Peel championed the early recordings of the unclassifiable psychedelic band T. Rex (originally Tyrannosaurus Rex) and did much to introduce the music of experimentalists such as Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart to British audiences on his “Night Ride” (later “The John Peel Show”) and “Top Gear” programs. He was the only presenter on the BBC who was allowed to play music beyond the hits of the day, and at several points in his career his standing at the network was tenuous, especially due to the open, confessional tone of some of his shows. His path through the BBC bureaucracy was often smoothed by his longtime producer, John Walters, and he described their relationship (according to the Daily Telegraph ) as being like that of “the organ-grinder and the monkey. With each one believing the other to be the monkey.” Peel’s influence extended beyond radio; the Dandelion label, which he operated between 1968 and 1972, was a financial wash, but many LPs issued on the label are prized collectors’ items.
A unique feature of Peel’s shows sprang from necessity: a BBC regulation left over from the era of classical orchestras and big bands mandated that certain percentages of programming had to be devoted to live music. Peel hosted thousands of bands on what became known as the Peel Sessions after he began issuing them on his own Strange Fruit label in the mid-1980s. As Peel’s popularity grew, an appearance on his show became an eagerly sought-after career boost for young bands. Peel was generous with his time, trying to listen to all of the numerous demonstration tapes sent his way, and he sometimes fronted money to promising musicians for equipment and even transportation. He began a long association with the Glastonbury Festival, a large outdoor rock event, in 1971. In 1974 Peel married Sheila Gilhooly, and the two raised two sons and two daughters.
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Peel neither tried to create novelty for its own sake nor sought to influence the direction of British musical taste. He played what he liked, and he gained a reputation for integrity. Sometimes he said that he selected music for his shows that did not fit into any category he had heard before, and his enthusiasm ranged from the enormously popular Rod Stewart and the Faces, and later on the dance duo the Pet Shop Boys, to experimental German noise ensembles, to reggae and hip-hop, to (well in advance of other radio programmers) music from around the world. In terms of sheer influence his high-water mark was probably his championing of punk rock beginning in 1976, when bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Undertones (whose “Teenage Kicks” was Peel’s favorite song) had very few footholds in the music scene beyond the small clubs where they played. The few musical scenesters who did not get along with Peel questioned the commitment of the middle-aged, conventionally dressed, private-school-educated disc jockey to the angry new music. Yet Peel’s liking for punk and new wave rock continued into the 1980s through several generations of the music; such bands as the Fall, XTC, the Smiths, and the political punk-folk pioneer Billy Bragg all found homes on his program and owed their success to him at least in part.
Stayed Ahead of Trends
In the 1990s and early 2000s Peel completed his long transition from rebel pirate broadcaster to British national institution. A confirmed “Liverpudlian,” he was renowned for his devotion to the Liverpool FC soccer team. He won several awards, including a Godlike Genius award in 1994 from the music magazine Melody Maker , which had often named him DJ of the Year, and he received the Order of the British Empire in 1998. Even as he approached senior citizen status, however, Peel kept his ability to identify promising musical developments. One of his Peel Session guests in the mid-1990s was American rock duo the White Stripes, early in its career; another was the alternative-country vocalist Neko Case. Peel also branched out beyond his usual shows, hosting a variety of BBC documentaries in the 1990s. In 1998 he started a new series on the BBC 4 network called Home Truths , a family interview program that bore little resemblance in atmosphere to his punk-rock programming but nevertheless found a large audience even in an undesirable time slot. His quietly conversational on-air style, much imitated, proved transferable to new kinds of programs.
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Peel was riding high in 2004 with a 1.5-million pound advance on his autobiography in the bank, a new grandchild, and a continuing commitment to his BBC 1 show even after passing the age of 65. The John Peel Show remained fresh and personal, including in later years a feature called “Pig’s Big 78,” showcasing a 78 rpm record selected by Peel’s affectionately nicknamed wife, Sheila. Peel was heard around the world on broadcasts by the BBC’s International Service, increasingly marketed to local broadcasters in other countries as well as to low fidelity shortwave radio. Peel lived with his family in the Suffolk region, in a country house he called Peel Acres, complete with a flock of chickens. Peel and his wife headed for Cuzco, Peru, on what was described as a working vacation. He had already been suffering with problems related to diabetes, and while in Peru he died from a sudden heart attack on October 25, 2004.
The news, in the words of Ian Inglis of Popular Music and Society , caused “an outpouring of national grief not seen in the world of popular music since the deaths of John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, or George Harrison.” Peel’s death was the lead story in newspapers across Britain and on the evening news programs of both the BBC and ITV television networks. Around the world some 300 tribute concerts and club performances were dedicated to Peel’s memory. Biographies of Peel that were quickly rushed onto the market in the following weeks were criticized by the disc jockey’s brother, but Peel’s own autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes , covering his life up to his experiences in Texas, was completed with the aid of recollections from his family. The book, with a foreword by White Stripes leader Jack White, was slated for publication in the United States in 2007.