John Peel (born John Ravenscroft in 1939) cut his teeth as a DJ in the USA, working on stations in Dallas, Oklahoma and San Bernadino, California.
He covered the assassination of President John F Kennedy before the advent of Beatlemania encouraged radio programmers to make greater use of his Liverpudlian accent.
In 1967 he returned home to Britain to host his much-loved pirate Radio London show, The Perfumed Garden, which introduced British listeners to the latest American underground acts.
Later that year he transferred to the new Radio 1 at its launch and is credited as being the first UK DJ to give airtime to punk, reggae, hip-hop and rap, long before any of it crossed into the mainstream.
Though Peel’s lugubrious tones and dry wit were the antitheses of the station’s vacuous, fast-moving approach, his relationship with Radio 1 endured for nearly 40 years.
His eclectic, almost indiscriminate tastes and enthusiasm for new sounds occasionally provoked controversy, particularly in the late 70s, when his existing progressive playlist was replaced almost overnight by punk.
But he launched or aided innumerable careers, including those of T. Rex, Captain Beefheart, The Fall (his favourites), The Undertones and The Smiths.
‘The Peel Sessions’ (music recorded specifically for his show) provided new, often unrecorded, young bands with invaluable exposure, and between 1967 and 2004, he invited more than 2,000 artists to record sessions for his legendary Radio 1 show.
Although he prepared his radio shows meticulously, he loved carelessness – in performance and in attitude to posterity.
He found beauty in music with friction between its components, and he loved music that unsettled. No wonder The Fall were his dream act.
‘Kats Karavan’ was the name of Peel’s very first radio show in the USA.
Thereafter he wrote it on the top of all log-sheets regardless of the actual name of the radio show he was working on. Part superstition, part OCD impulse, part fuck-you – a typical Peel quirk.
Peel’s dedication to underexposed, unconventional music – whether reggae, dub, electronica, death metal or unnamed sub-genres – made him the DJ of choice for several generations of listeners.
A lifelong fan of The Archers and a dedicated follower of Liverpool football club, he lived in Suffolk with his wife Sheila, affectionately known as “The Pig”.
His death on 26 October 2004 from a heart attack left a gaping hole in British broadcasting.
Around the first anniversary of John’s death, a wooden box was found, containing 142 singles that he kept close to him. According to his son, Tom Ravenscroft, these were some of his favourites.
The box contained records by (amongst others) The Alan Price Set, Status Quo, The Undertones (three copies of their Teenage Kicks EP), The Beatles, MC5, The Yardbirds, Medicine Head, Harry Nilsson, Buzzcocks, Sheena Easton, Aussie new wavers XL Capris and rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers.
“Most of the records I play I don’t know anything about. I know that I like ’em so I stick them on the radio, but I don’t know the people involved. I don’t “hang out”, as it were. People are always disappointed by this because they think you’ll be able to tell them lots of interesting stories about famous people but I don’t know them. I’m an old bloke, I live in the country and they don’t come and visit”.
John Peel. 2002