John Peel was the man. For the past 40 years he made sure that Britain didn’t just listen to over-produced throwaway one-hit-wonders. He made sure we sat down and listened to the likes of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, The Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, Joy Division, the Undertones, The Fall, The Smiths…. Need I really go on? And I haven’t even touched upon the sessions bands came to record for him.
John Ravenscroft was born near Liverpool in 1939 and thanks to Beatlemania and his Liverpudlian connections he managed to find work on WRR radio in Dallas after moving to the US in 1962. He returned to the UK in 1967 and joined the pirate radio station Radio London — basically a studio in a boat built in 1944 and anchored just outside the Thames Estuary. That same year pirate-Peel joined the staff of the new BBC national pop music station Radio 1. He was the last surviving member of the original line-up before his untimely death at 65 today at 4am on holiday in Peru.
This is going to sound like a cliché, but I do remember the first time I listened to John Peel on BBC Radio 1. I was 15 and he was playing “My Biggest Thrill” by The Mighty Lemon Drops. Okay, so the Wolverhampton lads weren’t the definitive band of a groundbreaking genre, but that night I decided to buy the album and indeed buy the all the records of all the artists he ever played. Needless to say I didn’t manage to stick to this task, but more than any band and indeed any other music journalist, he formed my musical taste through his wit-driven critiques and complete disregard of commercial trends and the Establishment, believing as he did musical experimentation is always good regardless of the occasional mistake. We could legitimately question whether punk, reggae or hip-hop would have crossed over into the UK mainstream if it weren’t for him.
John Peel said that everything changed for him when he first heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, adding “where there had been nothing there was suddenly something”. Well, for anyone seriously interested in popular music either side of the Atlantic, thanks to John Peel kicking open doors where there had been something, there was suddenly something more.
The man represented inclusion — as a fledgling band you knew that in John Peel you would always get a serious audience for your demo (even if it didn’t guarantee airplay), but as he demonstrated more recently with his BBC Radio 4 programme “Home Truths” (which proved that the mundane is never bland or boring by dealing with the very personal trials and tribulations of people’s every day lives simply through listening), he was also deeply humanely inclusive.
So, give thanks to this man and take five minutes out to listen to his favourite song, “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones. You may or may not have heard of him, but one thing is for sure your record collection has.