Friday, January 16, 2009

The late great John Peel (1939-2004)

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft was born in 1939 in Heswell, near Liverpool. He grew up in Burton a small village nearby and was educated at Shrewsbury Public School. Even as a young schoolboy he was fascinated with records and the more bazaar the better. Not exactly happy at school where he was abused he left and ended up doing National Service as a Radar Operator. His first job after being demobbed was a mill operative in Rochdale Lancs, and then in 1960, he went to America to work in the cotton industry. When this job came to an end John stayed in the States doing a variety of menial jobs. He worked for WRR Radio in Dallas where he presented a Monday night programme called Kat's Karavan.

With the British Invasion and heavy Scouse accent he was ideally placed to cover Beatlemania and became the official Beatles correspondent with the Dallas radio station KLIF. John later moved to KOMA in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, then in 1965, John Ravenscroft presented the breakfast show on KMEN in San Bernardino, California. There he started to rebel against playlists and went very much for music he preferred to hear. This was directly reflected by John’s own acquaintances in the business. Being close to LA and Hollywood John met and befriended many of the up and coming bands. When he returned to the UK in 1967 he was ideally qualified to become a rogue broadcaster on the pirate radio station, Radio London. There he adopted the name John Peel to protect his identity and eventually presented The Perfumed Garden.

His command of pop music, distinctive radio voice absence of ‘needle time’ restrictions were perfect for combined with his healthy disregard for authority meant as a late nite presenter, John epitomised piracy by ignoring playlists and station commercials to play nonstop music of his choice which of course was impeccable. At first this was not picked up by the management and by the time it was John was the people’s champion with a massive following who enjoyed their music commercial free. Come the hour, come the man and John Peel was again in the right place to bring the X generation the music of the underground/flower power era. The year was 1967 and John played an eclectic mix of classic blues, folk music, West Coast sound, as well as the new order of British bands including Pink Floyd, Cream and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

John adopted the policy of not playing hit lists and top 40s which was rather ironic since many of the unknowns he choose to air went on to become headliners. He often played complete albums, read poetry, discussed politics and quoted from radical street press publications such as Oz, IT and Private Eye, all of which met with audience approval. John’s microphone style was unlike his contemporaries and he spoke softly and sincerely making his listeners feel like he was talking directly to them. When Radio London closed John Peel joined BBC Radio 1 but he was not their first choice and his ‘old school’ background did hold sway however and his popular reputation did the rest. When John joined Radio 1 his first show was Top Gear, which he co-presented with Pete Drummond and others. The show featured live sessions called ‘The Peel Sessions” which gave a whole host of acts the opportunity to be heard on mainstream radio.

This met with great success and in 1968 John was given a solo spotlight presenting Night Ride. The format was similar to Perfumed Garden and featured almost anything. Night Ride was at times controversial but always good radio and for a late night show had peak audience figures. He liked to follow the music trends before they became commercial and was often seen to be breaking new sounds like West Coast psychedelic music, Punk and electronic dance music, respectively. John’s programme captured the creative activity of the underground scene but its anti-establishment stance and unpredictability made Aunty nervous and they axed it after 18 months. John continued with the BBC and remained with them for 34 years. Following the trend of others he broadcast many of his shows from his home, "Peel Acres" which had the whole family involved. The live sessions continued and were mostly from BBC Maida Vale Studios in West London. Many bands and artists of a wide range of different musical styles from different decades credit Peel as a major boost to their careers. For over four decades John was more than just a jock spinning disc and was instrumental in bringing major acts to the attention of his audience. These include: 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.

He not only championed many new bands but also had his own vinyl pressing business and record label called, Dandelion. In 2001, John Peel was diagnosed with diabetes and found it difficult to cope. He died suddenly aged of 65 from a heart attack in 2004. John was a lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan and also followed the (mis)fortunes of Hibernian Football Club, and Ipswitch Town. The term ‘great’ is overused when it comes to describing performing artists, but John Peel was a great communicator and brought millions of people joy for over four decades years. Peely will be sadly missed.

In honour of one of Britain's most iconic broadcasters, 6 Music presents the John Peel Lecture.

Worth a listen:
Bonzo Dog
Gorilla (1967)

David Bowie
Space Oddity (1969)

Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've) - (1978)

Captain Beefheart
Too much time (1973)

The Clash
London Calling (1979)

Cocteau Twins
Lullabies (1982)

The Cure
Lovecats (1983)

Def Leppard
Let it go (1983)

The Faces
Stay with me (1971)

Fairport Convention
Si Tu Dois Partir (1969)

The Fall
Rowche Rumble (1979)

Davey Graham
Getting better (1969)

PJ Harvey
Down by the water (91993)

Incredible String Band
At the lighthouse dance (1973)

Joy Division
Love will tear us a part (1980)

Led Zeppelin
Whole Lotta love (1969)

The Misunderstood
I Can Take You To The Sun (1966)

Mike Oldfield
Tubular Bells (1973)

Gary Numan
Are friend electric (1979)

Pink Floyd
Another brick in the wall Part II (1979)

The Sex Pistols
God save the Queen (1977)

Siouxsie and the Banshees
Hong Kong Garden (1978)

The Smiths
Hand in glove (1983)

Soft Machine
Joy of a toy (1968)

Tangerine Dream
Betrayal (1977)

Debra (1968)

More on John Peel
John Peel Remembered iPlayer Radio BBC

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