Just as the digital television revolution hit the UK years after the notion of multiple channels had virtually drowned the American public in an avalanche of options, so radio has been much slower in its propagation on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, while the US had almost 700 commercial stations as early as the mid-1920s, Britain had but one publicly-funded wireless service as late as 1971. That said, while the BBC was the only body allowed to provide broadcast services for the first half-century of UK radio, the station did, by the end of the 1960s, have four separate networks: the imaginatively named Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. It was in fact in 1967 that Radio 1, the Beeb’s first pop station, made its belated debut.
Until then, popular music had been regarded with a good deal of disdain by the broadcasting authorities. Although there was a show called Saturday Club on the Light Programme, and the Top 20 enjoyed a weekly rundown on the same network, the powers-that-be regarded rock’n'roll and its various subsidiaries as a nuisance they would tolerate only briefly each week. Thus, popular music followers and there were millions of baby boom teenagers in the UK by the time the Beatles began to make waves from 1962 were essentially marginalised at a time when Britain was beginning to make its global mark in a field which America had, until then, utterly dominated.
It soon became clear that if the government and its broadcasting authority would not meet the needs of those younger listeners, then someone else would try to. The result was that a series of illegal operators endeavoured to fill the musical vacuum, providing so-called pirate radio to British audiences during the middle years of that revolutionary decade. Broadcasts were made from small boats in coastal waters just outside the UK’s control. With their antennae pointed in the right direction, the pirates could reach radio sets in the South East of Britain, principally London and surrounding counties. Radio London and Radio Caroline, replete with advertisements, became the flagships of this new service, bringing the sounds of the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds and the Supremes to a young constituency that was hungry to consume the wide range of transatlantic sounds.
After legal bids to ban this illicit trade proved largely fruitless, the Labour administration of the day changed tack. It decided to beat the pirates by providing a sanctioned pop station instead. A reorganised radio service saw the old Light Programme become Radio 2 and home to light music and comedy, Radio 3, once the Third Programme, took on classical music and Radio 4, formerly the Home Service, became a serious speech-based station. Radio 1 was therefore the only genuine newcomer, given a brief to serve a burgeoning audience that had already seen TV shows like Top of the Pops and Ready, Steady, Go present the plethora of new singers and groups but had had little opportunity to enjoy them on their transistor sets.
The DJs engaged to give Radio 1 a credible image were chiefly drawn from the outlawed pirate networks. Among them was an individual who had already chalked up an eclectic CV by the time the BBC added him to the roster. John Ravenscroft, soon to be John Peel, had escaped the chill austerity of early ‘60s Britain to work in the US, returning later to clinch a role with Radio London. While in the States, he had secured radio work in Dallas, when, by assuming a more extreme version of the Merseyside accent which his private schooling had essentially erased, he gained a regular role as a Beatles expert, just as the Fab Four were casting their spell on the breadth of the US.
When he headed back to the UK, his knowledge of American rock was second to none among British radio presenters and, by the time Radio 1 employed him, he was perfectly placed to knowledgably promote the mysteries of psychedelia to his avid listeners. His show, Top Gear, quickly found its idiosyncratic style, blending the best of new US music with the rising progressive movement in the UK. Thus the Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa were introduced to British audiences, alongside homegrown talent. Unknown artists, soon to become huge stars, found sanctuary on Peel’s programme. Tyrannosaurus Rex, David Bowie, and Rod Stewart were among the early causes he espoused.
But if Peel proved an effective spotter of talent and a shining beacon to the hippie long-hairs who regarded his show as their musical Bible, he speedily proved that he was more interested in seeking out new bands and fresh talents rather than sticking rigidly to the records his audience expected him to play. When punk ignited in the mid-‘70s, Peel virtually cast aside mellow psychedelia and extended drum solos overnight. This allegiance to a younger generation of music-makers, determined to over-turn the remnants of the past, endeared him to rising teenagers but alienated him from his original fans. Yet the strategy proved to be his blueprint: while he retained a fondness for music of all periods. The unearthing of undiscovered performers and undersung genres appeared to be his unceasing motivation.
In the process, he not only gave platforms to bands like the Fall and Joy Division, the Smiths and Pulp, but he also provided a window of opportunity to hundreds of other young and unsigned acts who were introduced via the demos they sent him or the recording sessions Peel oversaw and insisted were a contracted part of his mission. Along the way, he also ensured that little-heard styles, from reggae to techno, hip hop to death metal, and music from other corners of the world Africa and the Far East, Europe and South America, gained an airing alongside the more predictable diet of Anglo-American rock.
By the end of the millennium, Peel was a British institution, still employed by Radio 1 but also now branching out to cover the domestic minutiae of British life in his often entertaining Radio 4 slot entitled “Home Truths”. In doing so, he became as popular with senior citizens as he did with 16-year-old fans of the White Stripes. It was a staggering and unique achievement and, when the shocking news of his demise reached us in late October, following a heart attack while on holiday in Peru, it was a staggering blow to several generations of radio addicts. As the facts about his life filtered through, that he was 65-years-old when he died generated an almost paradoxical response: while he was a relatively young man in Western terms, he was extraordinarily old to be still playing new music for teen audiences.
The term “irreplaceable” is over-used, but not in this case. As galleries of British rock musicians the Undertones and the Fall, Radiohead and Brian Eno rallied to pay tribute, there was a genuine sense that an era in popular music had come to a clattering close. Several described Peel as the most important figure in UK rock history and, post-Lennon and McCartney, it would be hard to argue with such a verdict. The US has paid credit to its renowned pop radio personalities Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack and the Murray the K, to name but a few but, in many ways, John Peel, in Britain at least, is far and away the giant of the DJ’s art. He not only produced a broadcasting portfolio that was warm, witty, gentle and revelatory, but he created that body of work that also extended over nearly 40 years.
If he had only spun intriguing records and related engaging anecdotes over that period, he would have been fondly recalled by millions. But for anybody brought up in the years that followed the Beatles, he was also the talent-finder general, decade after decade, making his achievement all the more incredible. His death leaves an unfillable hole in British radio and British music and his silence could prove a long one for those musicians and music-lovers who strive to break the rock’n'roll mold rather than merely sustain it.