'He was the most important person in British music since the birth of rock 'n' roll'

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It was like I had been hit by a hammer. Jenny Abramsky, the BBC's controller of network radio, called me and said: "I've got some bad news for you, and I think you ought to sit down." As soon as she said that, my mind just raced and in a flash, before she had said it, I thought "Peel's dead".

John had died of a heart attack, in Peru, aged 65. It was like being thumped. If I were a 16-year-old kid tonight in a band, dreaming of making it big, I would be thinking my chances were far less than they were yesterday. This is a huge cultural loss. John Peel was the most important figure in British music since the birth of rock'n'roll. Full stop. He is more important than any artist because he was the enthusiast who discovered so many of those whom we think of as the big figures of pop over the past 40 years.

Everyone was talking yesterday about how John was the only surviving member of the original Radio1 line-up. His legacy is far bigger than just having been a veteran DJ. It's not the longevity - it's what he did. He was forever championing bands and being ridiculed for being weird. Those bands became mainstream, from Pink Floyd to The Clash.

I consider myself lucky to have known him and to have been his friend. But I was also hugely fortunate, right at the start of my career, to have been put in an office with him and John Walters. What better education? What better comrades when you are starting out?

Since my early teens, John Peel had been my great musical influence. He shaped my tastes as a kid, giving me a breadth of enthusiasms. Then suddenly, blow me, I was sharing his 10ft by 10ft office space, having to sit on an upturned litter bin as there wasn't a third chair. It was the summer of 1985 and I had arrived at Radio 1 as a rather wild young thing. At first, I think Peel saw me as some kind of threat.

Once he realised I was a huge admirer and that we shared many of the same tastes, we became big pals. We had a lot in common. We enjoyed a breadth in music that covered everything from punk to country, reggae to African.

We used to go together to Stern's African record shop, just behind Broadcasting House in London, and buy piles and piles of records on spec. We'd come back to the office and have a wonderful afternoon finding out what we'd bought, like a couple of kids in the playground swapping bubble-gum cards - even though there was a 20-year age gap between us.

We would go to the TT races in the Isle of Man together. I remember John stood in the drizzle with an Eccles cake in one hand and a cup of red wine in the other. He was like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, stood behind a dry-stone wall in the corner of a field.

John was immensely good company. He was avuncular and protective. He was also the most natural broadcaster I have known and he taught me to talk to listeners as though you're talking to one person.

The last time I saw him he looked absolutely worn out. We went to a café near Radio 1 and I said: "John, you look terrible." He said: "They've moved me from 11pm to one at night and the combination of that and Home Truths (his Radio 4 show) is killing me." He felt he had been marginalised.

Since we heard the news, people have asked me: "What was John Peel like away from the microphone?" I'll tell you. He was exactly the same as he was when he was in front of it.

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