As a radio DJ myself (host of MondoRadio on Milwaukee’s community-powered Frontier Radio station, WMSE, in case you were wondering), John Peel is obviously something of an inspiration. Of course there’ve been plenty of influential, even historically important, voices on the airwaves over the years, but while others can claim to have had some part in molding a particular scene or sound, who else can be said to have consistently helped shape alternative music for nearly 4 decades? Already an experienced DJ by the time he landed at BBC Radio 1 in 1967, he would remain a fixture at the station until his death in 2004, but it wasn’t just longevity that make career so enviable; a quick-witted, daring and uncompromising selector, he helped build an audience for countless outsider genres, from psychedelic rock to punk, techno and grindcore, while (eventually) living out a happy, quiet rural life with his wife and kids. But in the end Peel is more than a legendary broadcaster and tastemaker, he’s also an example of how music, and the love of it, can be a transformative force in the world, even if you never pick up an instrument.
Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in the small town of Heswall, England in 1939, Peel’s relationship with his parents was distant at best, which didn’t improve when he was shipped off to the prestigious Shrewsbury boarding school in Shropshire. Painfully shy and obsessed with music, whether it came in the form of records procured from a local shop or transmissions from the American Forces Network (where he first heard Elvis Presley) and Radio Luxembourg, he retreated only further due to vicious bullying by his classmates. Though his housemaster, R. H. J. Brooke, tried to protect the boy, even allowing him to listen to his "very noisy records in the study next door to the library”, Peel was an incurable misfit, who dealt with his uptight, uncaring environment by shutting down completely, even neglecting to take his final exams, which saved him from facing more of the same at a fancy university, but also left him eligible for Britain’s now defunct National Service program, meaning a compulsory three year stint in the army.
Even stricter and more regimented than the boarding school he had tried so hard to drop out from, Peel predictably failed to flourish in the military. He later remembered, “The Army said afterwards, 'At no time has he shown any sign of adapting to the military way of life.' I took it as a compliment." Completely adrift when his service ended, he accepted when his father offered to get him a job at a cotton company in Dallas, Texas, after which he bounced between professions while carrying on a regrettable series of affairs with some teenage girls, one of whom, 15-year-old Shirley Anne Milburn, became his wife, though Peel referred to his union with the troubled young woman not as a marriage but as a “mutual-defense pact”. During this time, he got his first experience in radio, presenting the second hour of a rhythm & blues show, Kat’s Karavan on Dallas’ WRRR. Hired in part for his musical knowledge and in part for his exotic accent, the gig was unpaid, but led to bigger things, including a job at KLIF (as “Official Beatles Correspondent”) and, eventually, shows on KOMA in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino, California’s KMEN.
Returning to London in 1967 with Milburn in tow, where their unhealthy relationship finally imploded (she later took her own life), Peel began spinning electric blues, folk and early psych for the pirate station, Radio London, which broadcast qausi-legally from a ship anchored three-and-a-half miles out into the North Sea. Shortly thereafter, a new law effectively shut the off-shore pirates down, but Peel landed on his feet at the BBC’s new pop outlet, Radio 1. Whether he knew it or not, it would be his home for the rest of his life, (he would move to his other permanent home, the quiet Suffolk cottage at “Peel Acres”, with his new wife Sheila Gilhooly in the early 1970s) though, mostly due to administrators who didn’t understand his affinity for the underground, the esoteric and the just plain weird, he often felt as though his head was on the chopping block. Never one for engaging with the higher ups at the Beeb, it often fell to his longtime friend and tenacious producer John Walters to argue for Peel’s job, especially during the years when playing punk was all but taboo. “Once [Radio 1 Controller] Derek Chinnery called Walters into his office after he had read something in the papers about singers with spiky hair who were spat on by their adoring audience,” Peel later recalled, “He said something like, ‘We’re not playing any of this punk rock are we?’ and Walters gleefully replied that the last four programs had consisted of nothing but.”
As the years went by, his eclectic ear led him to champion countless new sounds that his peers wouldn’t dare touch (“I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before” he often said), which turned off many a once loyal listener, but Peel was unconcerned, and in fact relished getting angry mail from shocked squares who couldn’t keep up. He always believed in boosting the underdog, playing unsigned unknowns and, most significantly, inviting his favorite underground acts to record special sessions for the show. Beginning with the psychedelic rock band Tomorrow shortly after he accepted the job in 1967, a staggering number of amazing bands have had the honor of recording “Peel Sessions”, including such diverse artists as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Joy Division, Gary Numan, the Pixies, Nirvana, and the White Stripes, to name just a few of the over 2,000 artists represented by over 4,000 sessions. One of Peel’s personal favorites, The Fall, recorded for his show 32 times, but other artists who appealed to be included were flatly refused simply because Peel or Walters didn’t feel they were a good fit for the program, with the list of notable rejects populated by the likes of U2, Dire Straits and the Police.
There’s no denying that artists who received Peel’s stamp of approval were endowed with instant credibility, of the sort no other DJ had the power to give, but he never saw himself as a king maker or tried to leverage the exposure he could grant a band simply by including them in his playlist. He was just doing what he loved, sharing the music that moved him with as many people as possible. The pure joy he took from it is probably best represented by the enormous record collection he left behind after suffering a sudden heart attack while on a working holiday in Peru on October 25, 2004, made up of some 26,000 LPs and 40,000 singles, each with typewritten notes. Since his passing, Sheila Peel has not only promised to keep the collection intact, she’s started a non-profit organization, the John Peel Center for Creative Arts, to help share it digitally, bit by bit, via an interactive website called The Space. Peel once remarked late in his life, “Sometimes kids write in and say, ‘I was listening to your programme in my bedroom the other night when I was doing my homework, and my mum came in and said, “What are you listening to?’ ‘I said, “John Peel,”’ and she said, ‘Oh, I used to listen to him when I was your age.’ It’s nice being woven into people’s lives in that way.” Imagine what he’d say if he knew that, thanks to the continuing efforts of his family, friends and fans (and the magic of the internet), his unique voice and limitless passion is going to be part of the fabric of people’s lives for generations to come.