Peel’s impact upon British popular music of the last 30 years is simply immeasurable. In the 1960s he championed Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the psychedelic underground of Pink Floyd and Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. In the 1970s he was the only Radio 1 DJ brave enough to play The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” on air and became a fearless champion of punk rock. In the 1980s he proved crucial in furthering the careers of bands such as The Smiths, Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Jesus & Mary Chain and not least The Fall. Even into the ‘90s and beyond, he proved just as important in promoting hitherto unknown US groups such as Nirvana and The White Stripes.
Peel was born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft in Heartfield near Liverpool in 1939. In spite of his public schooling, Peel traded on his Scouse roots in the ‘60s by becoming a DJ in Dallas at the height of Beatlemania. During his time there, he was an eye witness to the JFK assassination. He resumed his broadcasting career in London when returning to the UK at the end of the ‘60s, presenting the BBC’s Top Gear and seminal hippy show The Perfumed Garden. By the mid ‘70s, John Peel had become a staple of night time Radio 1, breaking new groups and providing a platform for all manner of uncommercial esoterica deemed inappropriate for daytime schedulers. From reggae and punk to techno, world music and hardcore thrash metal, Peel never flinched at the shock of the new. Rather he championed it and introduced successive generations to the sounds that would, literally, shape their lives.
Among the thousands of musicians to benefit from Peel’s patronage is Mike Joyce, drummer with The Smiths who recorded 4 sessions for his programme between 1983 and ’86 and twice topped his annual listeners’ Festive 50 poll.
“Every band needs some form of stepping stone and Peel was ours,” says a devastated Joyce. “He was an intrinsic part of our success. I was only thinking about him yesterday because I found a sticker I’d kept from his surprise 50th birthday party in 1989. ‘He’s bald, he’s fat, he’s where it’s at!’. And he was. I used to feel literally humbled in his presence, one of the few people whom you felt literally lost for words. How many people must have walked up to him and said “John, if it wasn’t for you”? I mean without him, The Undertones, The Buzzcocks, every band I’ve ever liked. It’s unthinkable.”
“John Peel was timeless,” states Joyce. “All he was interested in was the music. I only listened to his show last week and he was playing some stuff that sounded like people fighting. I thought ‘what the hell is this?’. But you just know that to somebody, somewhere, they’re thinking ‘this is fantastic’. And that’s what was so great about him. He cared only about the music and he never stopped. The only thing that was ever going to stop him was the grave. He was unique, he was uncompromising and if it wasn’t for him, and his producer John Walters, bands like The Smiths would never have broken through. It’s not that he’ll be missed. He’ll just never be replaced.”
Someone else indebted to Peel is punk legend Siouxsie Sioux who only last week filled in for Peel as guest presenter on his programme. “This news is totally unexpected and devastating,” says Siouxsie. “John championed Siouxsie & The Banshees and many more when no-one else would, givingus our chance to discover what it was like to be in a studio with those early sessions. I know for a fact that those sessions were instrumental in getting us signed and releasing ‘Hong Kong Garden’ as our first single in 1978.”
“I can’t believe that it was only last week that I so enjoyed filling in for John whilst he was away,” adds Siouxsie. “I was looking forward to reading his anecdotes of Peru in the paper when he got back and maybe doing it again for any of his next trips. You always knew that John said and played what he wanted, not what he was told to or ought to. A unique maverick of the radio has been lost and I feel so sad.”