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John Peel

Date of birth : 1939-08-30
Date of death : 2004-10-25
Birthplace : Heswall, England
Nationality : English
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2012-01-09

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, known professionally as John Peel, was an English disc jockey, radio presenter, record producer and journalist. He was the longest-serving of the original BBC Radio 1 DJs, broadcasting regularly from 1967 until his death in 2004. He was known for his eclectic taste in music and his honest and warm broadcasting style.

Through four decades, BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Radio 1 "presenter" (the Brits' genteel term for a radio personality) John Peel has made a career as champion, mentor, and impresario for musicians who are ahead of their times in terms of mass acceptance or sales. Peel was the first to bring punk rock to British radio in the 1970s and still aggressively seeks new and obscure sounds that barely register a blip on the radar screen of mainstream pop culture. The BBC's Radio 1 has the highest percentage of listeners in the United Kingdom under the age of 16. Yet someone first tuning in (or listening via the Internet) to a John Peel radio program on BBC might never guess that they're hearing a 60-ish family man who humbly described himself to Rolling Stone as "a little fat chap that plays records on the radio." He is considered something of a national treasure in his own country. He also has a loyal, if cult-like international following among pop music culture-vultures, who know him as a steadfast champion of cutting-edge rock music.

Peel is perhaps best-known as the host of over 100 "Peel Sessions" CDs, which offer samplings of new or lesser-known artists who recorded live in the BBC studios over Peel's years as radio host. For relatively new artists, such as American alt-country singer Neko Case, an invitation to record in the BBC studios provides entrée to a global audience of listeners. A Peel Session release serves as a sort of hip seal of approval for any musician's own discography. And for that ever-changing "one to watch" act, the commercial release of a Peel Session on CD might best be compared to the good fortune of an unknown novelist appearing on Oprah's list of popular fiction.

Throughout his career Peel has happily witnessed, celebrated, and popularized the work of performers ranging from pre-Beatles skiffle inventor Lonnie Donegan to Detroit's White Stripes to British techno wizards Orbital. His eclecticism and catholic tastes--as sampled through any of his published playlists--can take the curious listener on a rambling, circuitous road trip of pop music from American R&B to post-punk and hip-hop, with stopovers in psychedelia, rockabilly, punk, folk-rock, reggae, and trance.

Growing up in wartime England, Peel liked to listen to programs on Armed Forces Radio Network and Radio Luxembourg. "[A]s I had records and no one to play them to," Peel said in an interview with the British edition of Reader's Digest, "I thought playing them on the radio would be wonderful. It is."
Peel was especially taken with the rockabilly sounds of Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent, who appeared at venues like the Liverpool Empire theater near his hometown. He was also keenly struck by his first exposure to Elvis Presley. As he told Michael Azerrad of Rolling Stone, "I've had my life transformed by hearing Elvis Presley. I can still remember how startled and alarmed I was when I first heard him coming out of the radio."

For his first radio job in 1961, Peel did the announcing for Kats Karavan, an R&B program for WRR in Dallas, Texas. He felt he was qualified as a deejay for his knowledge of music and his rare European recordings of blues and R&B. But later--with the onset of Beatlemania and the British Invasion--he found himself in demand more for his British accent.

Later Peel went on to work in Oklahoma City for KOMA and to San Bernadino, California, for station KMEN. While in San Francisco in 1967, Peel got to hear innovative American acts like the Captain Beefheart, the Mothers of Invention, and Jefferson Airplane. In the spring of 1967 Peel returned to England to work for offshore pirate station Radio London with a midnight program called the Perfumed Garden. At Radio London, he introduced British audiences to an early brand of "alternative" American music--psychedelic rock, from the likes of the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa. The program lasted only three months before British authorities closed it down. Soon afterwards the BBC launched Radio 1, where Peel launched another late night program called Top Gear.

At Radio 1, Peel's broadcasts helped nurture British vanguard musicians of the 1960s and 1970s like Marc Bolan (of T-Rex), Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull. In the early 1970s, along with Clive Selwood, Peel formed his own record label called Dandelion, which published from 1968 to 1972. Among record collectors and pop music trivia hounds, tracks from the Dandelion label achieved cult status.

On early British radio, stations required a certain balance of live broadcasting versus recorded entertainment. The system, known as "needletime", restricted the amount of music that could be played from records. According to Ken Garner, author of the book In Session Tonight, "so limited was the amount granted in 1967 that the new Radios 1 and 2 went on air with only seven hours' total needletime a day. Radio 1 had just three hours of this for its own peak-time programmes: at breakfast, midday and early evening. For the rest of the day it shared programmes with Radio 2, which consisted mostly, if not entirely, of BBC-originated music sessions."

Peel chose to turn the regulation into an opportunity for new musicians who might not have recorded before, and to bring together different or unusual combinations of musicians. The result was thousands of sessions in which a band or musician performed a few songs solely for broadcast on BBC. Beginning in 1986, these sessions became the source for a series of commercial recordings (published under a variety of labels) that document more than three decades of Peel's varying musical passions.
After Peel negotiated unsuccessfully with BBC executives to release the sessions as commercial discs under the BBC Enterprise label, the first Peel Sessions recordings were published on EP and LP formats on the Strange Fruit label, which Peel founded with Clive Selwood, his friend from the days of Dandelion Records. Strange Fruit remains a vital publishing label, also featuring in-studio sessions hosted by longtime Radio 1 deejays Andy Kershaw and Janice Long.

Over the decades the phrase "Peel Sessions" has served as a sort of an underground brand name--recognized internationally, but without a permanent label. As various punk revival or retro New Wave trends emerge, and as bands Peel hosted become more widely recognized, new releases and compilation discs are sure to become commercially available from the piles of sessions stored in the BBC vaults.

In late 2002 Fabric Records (named for a popular London nightclub where deejays spin techno mixes for dancing) released a compilation record of Peel's favorites titled FabricLive.07. Some have called this recording Peel's "first mix CD," as previous releases on the label were mix CDs, with the deejay's hand in manipulating the sounds of previous recordings to create new ones. In a feature piece for the Guardian, Peel was keen to correct this misunderstanding. He described the Fabric disc as a sort of outgrowth of what he called "The John Peel Roadshow--A Man and a Box of Records." For his road shows, Peel would travel to colleges across Britain, spinning discs, often between live bands, for "resentful students who wanted chart hits and beer-drinking competitions."

Peel unabashedly admits to being a devoted family man, having always preferred the comforts of home over making the scene in fashionable London nightlife. He lives in Stowmarket, in rural England, with his wife and four children. This mellow side is reflected in a side project, launched in 1998, a family-oriented magazine-style talk program titled Home Truths on BBC Radio 4. The program invites listeners to discuss their family lives and where he also shares humorous and bittersweet details of his own personal life.

The listening audience of Radio 4 is considerably older than that of Radio 1, and Peel has taken some flak for his homespun style on this program. While Radio 1 colleague Andy Kershaw criticized Home Truths for being "cloying, sentimental and indulgent," Peel himself seems to think of it as the natural outgrowth for a man who simply knows himself. As he told Reader's Digest, "perhaps the reason young people put up with me is that I don't pretend to be anything other than what I am, an overweight 61-year-old with four children and a sore back."

In 2001 Peel revealed that he had developed diabetes, something he characteristically took in stride, stating that hearing the news was a relief after suffering for years from fatigue without knowing the cause. He spoke about his illness in a documentary for British television in 2002 and also launched a mobile diabetic eye-screening service for rural West Suffolk. Peel spoke out against war with Iraq at the massive anti-war rally in February of 2003 in London's Hyde Park, joining other famous Brits Harold Pinter, Billy Bragg, and Ms. Dynamite.

In an online chat with Radio 4 listeners, Peel said "I still regard radio, unfashionably, as the senior service, and always have done." When asked about his longevity as a radio personality, he added "there are two ways of looking at it. One, I'm the embodiment of ... devotion to public service broadcasting. Or, my career has indicated a shocking lack of ambition!" In a time when the domination of mass-marketed American pop culture is at its height, the lifework of John Peel bears witness to some of the most important, though lesser-known creators of popular music of the times.

Peel died suddenly at the age of 65 from a heart attack on 25 October 2004, on a working holiday in the Inca city of Cusco in Peru.

Selected discography
Peel Sessions:
-The Cure , Dutch East, 1988; reissued, 1991.
-Colorblind James Experience , Dutch East, 1989.
-The Slits , Strange Fruit, 1989; reissued, 1999.
-New Order , Strange Fruit, 1990; reissued, 2000.
-The Jam , Dutch East, 1990.
-The Fall , Strange Fruit, 1993.
-Plaid , Nothing Records, 1999.
-Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (1979-83), EMI International, 2000.
-Stiff Little Fingers , Import, 2002.
-FabricLive.07 (compilation), Fabric, 2002.


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