Spectropop remembers

JOHN PEEL (1939 - 2004)

Presiding spirit of British music radio for almost 40 years

John Peel was Britain's most durable and consistently innovative disc jockey for almost 40 years. While most of his Radio One colleagues became identified with a specific era, style or genre of music and were soon superseded by younger faces, Peel endured thanks to his remarkable ability to adapt to changing musical fashions and to remain at the cutting edge of taste. He had a seemingly bottomless enthusiasm for the new and the leftfield, and in his time he championed underground, progressive rock, punk, reggae, hip hop, hardcore and ethnic music long before they crossed into the mainstream. Once they did, he frequently lost interest and went off in search of the next musical innovation. In later years he broadened his appeal as a broadcaster beyond his Radio One audience and presented Home Truths on Radio Four, a much-loved weekly miscellany that chronicled the eccentricities of British middle-class life.

Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft into a well-off family in Heswall near Liverpool a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War, he was educated as a boarder at Shrewsbury School. His life was changed in the 1950s, like that of so many of his generation, by the advent of rock'n'roll. It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession, although any thoughts of a career in popular music had to be put on hold while he completed his National Service. On his demobilisation in 1962, he went to the US, initially to work for his father's cotton business. His encyclopaedic musical knowledge and the emergence of a phenomenon called the Beatles who fortuitously happened to come from his hometown meant that he was soon an in-demand guest on local radio stations in Dallas, Texas. Carefully cultivating his Liverpudlian connections, he became something of a minor celebrity and went on to work as a disc jockey for stations in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino, California. An early marriage to an American did not last.

By 1967 America had finally started to counter the British musical invasion of the mid-Sixties with its own new "underground" rock sound, based mainly on the West Coast. Typically, Peel immersed himself in the new scene and when he returned to Britain with a bunch of records by the likes of Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band and Country Joe and the Fish, such artists seemed as exotic and mysterious to British listeners as the Beatles had a few years earlier to American fans. It was the heyday of the pirate radio stations, and with no outlet for a broadcaster of such eclectic and non-mainstream tastes on the BBC's conservative Light Programme, he landed a show on Radio London, which rivalled Radio Caroline as the most popular of the off-shore broadcasters.

Adopting the name John Peel, he called his late night show The Perfumed Garden and set about turning it into a flagship for the nascent "flower power" generation, as he used it to introduce British audiences to American bands such as the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground. He also championed a new breed of British underground acts, such as Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine and the Incredible String Band. When the Marine Offences Act effectively outlawed offshore broadcasting in August 1967, Peel was one of several pirate disc jockeys to switch to Radio One, the new BBC vehicle designed to replace the now illegal stations. Through his Sunday afternoon show Top Gear, he continued to promote new music, mixing records with "in the studio" sessions by new bands, most of whom could not get a look-in on the airwaves. He also had a late-night show where he played an even more eclectic selection of the weird and wonderful.

Many of the obscure acts he showcased via his Top Gear sessions went on to become household names. Marc Bolan was a close friend, and Tyrannosaurus Rex, who were regulars on his early programmes, owed their success in no small part to his unswerving support. Rod Stewart and the Faces was another group supported by Peel when few others wanted to know. After they became successful, they repaid the favour by inviting him to appear with them on Top of the Pops, where he pretended to play the mandolin on Maggie May.

He threw himself wholeheartedly into the counter-culture of the time and contributed articles not only to the music press but also to such hippie house journals as Oz and Gandalf's Garden. He filled his columns with semi-mystical flower-power musings, the feyness of which in later life caused him a mixture of amusement and embarrassment. In one infamous column, which he would never have got away with today, he described the delight of sitting on Primrose Hill in the afternoon sunlight watching young schoolgirls walk past. At times he was in open conflict with the BBC hierarchy and with his fellow, more conventional Radio One disc jockeys, whose chart-orientated musical tastes he openly derided on air. He also hated the slick approach of colleagues such as Tony Blackburn, and his own style could not have been more different. It became commonplace for him to play records at the wrong speed, lose his running order or forget the name of the track he had just played. The BBC was sensible enough to realise that it was all part of his charm, and that it was his refusal to toe the line that was largely responsible for his popularity.

In 1969 he set up his own record label, Dandelion, and signed a roster of wilfully non-commercial acts, including Principal Edward's Magic Theatre (whom he put up in his house for a time), Bridget St John, Stackwaddy, Kevin Coye and Medicine Head, who gave the label its only Top 30 hit with Pictures in the Sky. At one point he even had the bizarre idea of forming a group called 101 Sharons, with the intention of finding that number of female singers with the same name. Legend has it that he abandoned the project when he got to 40. Such a cavalier approach to commercial success could not last, and the label closed in late 1972. The 26 albums Peel released in the three years of the label's existence all later became collectors' items.

During the 1970s, Peel's influence waned a little as the music he had been responsible for popularising became increasingly mainstream and predictable. Then, in 1976, punk exploded like a rash of acne across the music scene. Peel became its most vocal champion on the airwaves. As he switched his playlist to a diet of the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Undertones, he alienated much of his core audience who switched their allegiance to DJs such as Bob Harris, who was still playing the rock supergroups whom the punks dismissed as "dinosaurs" and "boring old farts". But Peel discovered an entire new audience who loved the fact that he could play a record like Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and then declare he liked it so much he was going to play it all over again - the first time that had ever been done on BBC radio. He went on aligning himself with challenging new music for the rest of his career, and by the 1990s he was the only member of the "school of '67" still broadcasting on Radio One, as the likes of Harris and Johnnie Walker transferred to Radio Two. In later years, his programmes were often presented in homely fashion from Peel Acres, the name he gave to the family base in Suffolk, which he shared with his wife Sheila, whom he affectionately referred to in his programmes for many years as "the Pig", on account of her laugh.

In 1998 he added another string to his bow as the presenter of Radio Four's Home Truths, a listener-friendly magazine programme full of warm and whimsical stories which his one-time producer John Walters once described as "about people who have fridges called Renfrewshire". He was also in demand as a voice-over artist for television advertisements, although he reportedly refused to work on adverts for products that he did not use himself. His many honours and awards included Melody Maker's DJ of the Year on 11 occasions, a Broadcaster of the Year citation in 1993 and a Sony Gold award for a lifetime's contribution to radio in 2002. In 1994 he was even given a "Godlike Genius Award" from the NME. He also received several honorary degrees and was appointed OBE in 1998.

At the time of his death of a heart attack in Cuzco, Peru, he was working on his autobiography, which is scheduled for publication in 2005. He is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1974, and by two sons and two daughters.

From The Times

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft (John Peel), OBE, broadcaster:
born August 30th, 1939 - died October 25th, 2004.