NME's Paul McNamee looks back at the amazing life of the much-loved broadcaster...
When John Peel’s sad, sudden death at the age of 65 was announced today (October 26) BBC Radio 1, the station that had been his home for five decades, broke with programming and played Undertones ‘Teenage Kicks’ – his all-time favourite song.
It was a fitting tribute to a man whose dedication and unerring passion for all that was fresh and vital and youthful and vigorous about music saw him reject the dictats and mores of broadcasting to pursue a singular path launching the career of hundreds of bands, and soundtracking the youth of millions of music fans.
Born John Robert Parker Ravenscoft in Heswall, near Liverpool, in 1939, Peel was the son of the wealthy owner of a cotton mill. He was sent away to boarding school in Shrewsbury, which he hated, an ordeal made bearable when he first heard Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
“Everything changed when I heard Elvis Presley,” he said. “Where there had been nothing there was suddenly something.”
In 1959, after National Service, Peel moved to America where Beatlemania soon took hold. The Liverpool connection helped Peel land a spot as DJ on WRR radio in Dallas. He moved back to England in 1967, where he first joined Radio London, before moving to BBC Radio 1 for its launch. He was to remain with the station for the rest of his life, the only original DJ.
His style was immediately different to other presenters. He played the records from start to finish without interruption – which later became useful if you wanted to tape the tracks – providing an informative commentary for listeners. During his early period, Peel was a friend and supporter of some of the biggest names in rock. Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix all recorded Peel Sessions and Peel famously once showed up on Top Of The Pops miming mandolin for Ramones on the chart-topping‘Maggie May’.
As the 70s progressed, Peel’s tastes evolved. He was in the vanguard of punk, pushing the sounds of Clash, Undertones, Undertones, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols, then latterly Smiths. In the 80s, he kickstarted the careers of New Order, White Stripes, [/a] and any number of other acts you care to name. We would never have heard the [a] or Pulp or [a][/a] if it wasn’t for John Peel.
As the years rolled on, the scope of his radio show widened. He moved between gum-bleeding German techno, world music and the occasional Roy Orbison hit with ease – even if it was sometimes a little taxing for his legions of fans. Until recently, a place on his annual countdown of the best singles of the year – Peel’s Festive 50 – was a much sought-after berth for bands on independent labels.
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In recent years, Peel built a new army of fans. His award winning ‘Home Truths’ programme on BBC Radio Four grew into a must-hear for middle-aged listeners in middle England. And his spots on the BBC’s ‘Grumpy Old Men’ – a series featuring irritated men of a certain age riling against the things they found most absurd about modern life – were frequently the funniest and most telling.
Balding, a little plump, a devoted father, grandfather and husband not to mention a big fan of genteel radio series The Archers, Peel kicked open the door for people like Steve Lamacq and Zane Lowe, letting the mainstream programmers see that an audience existed for music that was not always a chart fixture.
His influence is immeasurable.
John Peel often told the story hearing ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the first time. He was driving in his car listening to the song on a demo tape. He was so overcome by the tune that he pulled onto the side of the road to have a cry.
There are thousands of people across Britain today who will have had a similar experience on hearing of his untimely death.
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