“Then they go to Rough Trade
To buy Siouxsie & The Banshees
They heard John Peel play it
Just the other night.”
-Part Time Punks
The Television Personalities
As a young, budding music fanatic, John Peel was always a bit of an anomaly to me. When I first started venturing out to buy music on my own, I would take the bus clear across town to where the cool used record stores were. Wrex Records, The Toxic Ranch, Zips and Bookmans all had a second-hand section, and my meager allowance would only allow me to purchase a few used cassettes, a slice of pizza and a Coke, and bus fare to and from. This is where Peel comes in. I noticed a few of the artists I was getting into at that point all had these strange cassette releases called “The Peel Sessions”. The covers were always a grey background with a slab of black text on the front, a list of all the bands who had partaken in these sessions, a who’s who of the mostly English punk and post-punk bands that were essential listening for any young skate-punk such as myself. The fact that there were usually only four or five songs on each tape drove the price down, insuring a more bang-for-your-buck policy I could definitely live with. But what were these Peel Sessions? Who or what was a Peel? Why had all these amazing and influential bands done them? Where they essential for every band across the pond to do? Not knowing a whole lot about radio standards and procedures in England I thought maybe this was some strange socialist rite that artists had to do in order to secure a recording contract, and as it turns out I was actually kind of close. I would find out a lot more about the sessions, and the man behind them, in due time.
John Peel was born near Liverpool in 1939, and it was his city of birth that would ultimately get him his lifetime gig as a radio DJ. And oddly enough, it started in Dallas, Texas. Follow me? Peel had gone stateside in the early 1960s, working at odd jobs which eventually led him to Dallas. The fateful afternoon that JFK was assassinated at Dealey Plaza, Peel was in town. With sheer youthful panache, he passed himself off as a Liverpool reporter in order to get close to the arraignment of Lee Harvey Oswald, therefore placing himself at the center of the universe that mournful November day. A similar trick worked with the local radio station too. When the four young mop-topped lads from Liverpool were whipping the youth of the world into a frenzy, Peel convinced the station since he too was from the same stomping grounds he should become Dallas’s premier Beatlemania correspondent. The ruse worked!
After a few radio gigs across the U.S., and after indulging in the hedonistic rewards that came with the job, Peel moved back to England in 1967. He divorced his young wife and set upon procuring work on the British airwaves. He found himself behind the mic at one of the many pirate stations gaining steam at the time and Peel used his time slots to broadcast the finest and the most colorful of the day’s rock music. Psychedelic British bands got equal airtime with the folk and blues bands of the states. From there he found himself at the Beeb - BBC Radio 1. His show, Night Ride, was extremely popular with the restless English youth. The music he played, the guests he had on, and his own frank talk resonated well with the anti-establishment pathos of the day. Sometimes playing songs at the wrong speed he would have a laugh and say “a killer song either way.” His personal life was was stabilizing as well, settling down and marrying his wife of 30 years, Sheila Gilhooly, whom he affectionately called “Pig.”
More than anything else, Peel was a music fan and a champion of new music. When punk rock hit in the mid to late 70s, Peel was ecstatic. Almost every pissed-off, sullen, safety-pinned, ripped clothes wearin’ malcontent that had a band got live airplay on Peel’s show, which would beget the legendary and essential Peel Sessions recordings. It’s no big secret or unfounded opinion that some of these recordings are actually better than the official studio releases. Take for instance, Stiff Little Fingers. Their 1979 appearance on Peel’s show coincided with the release of their amazing and powerful debut, Inflammable Material. However, the cuts off the Peel Sessions are far superior, especially their militant take on Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was.” The Peel Sessions version is so raw and untamed you think lead singer Jake Burns is going to cough blood through your speakers at any given moment. Some bands, like Wire or The Fall, used the sessions to work out material they haven’t wholly figured out which direction they were taking. One listen to the sessions version of Wire’s “The Other Window,” compared to the official version off of their third album, 154, confirms this.
Bands from almost every era, every style and every background made the pilgrimage to Peel’s studio. In his later years, he would broadcast regularly from his own house, and his wife and children were frequently mentioned if not outright special guests. He continued to broadcast and support many an unsigned artist. It’s no surprise that his favorite song was “Teenage Kicks” by Irish baby-faced band The Undertones. He might have been 65 when he passed away, but he had a teenagers eternal excitement about the arts every moment of his life. He sadly passed away in October 2004, an event felt so hard in England the Evening Standard in London declared it “the day the music died.” Engraved on his tombstone? “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat” - lyrics from his favorite song.
ROBERTS, GLENYS. "John Peel, Champion of Rock Who Became a Stalwart of Middle England." Daily Mail: 10. Oct 27 2004. The Advocate (Stamford); Baltimore Sun; Greenwich Time; Hartford Courant; Los Angeles Times; Morning Call; Newsday; Orlando Sentinel; ProQuest Newsstand; Sun Sentinel.