Short, fat, inept - and a hero for our times

The untimely death of John Peel has robbed the nation of one of its most influential moral and musical figureheads. Robert Hanks celebrates his extraordinary legacy
Click to follow

The grief that many people will feel today about the death of John Peel has a personal dimension usually absent from the deaths of public figures. Though his eclecticism and devotion to beating the bounds of popular music - not to mention some cautious scheduling - meant that his Radio 1 show never attracted vast audiences, those who did listen loved him dearly.

A great deal has been said over the years, and will now be said again, about the bands he championed and his influence on the shape of popular music. Rather less has been said about what he would have been horrified to think of as his moral influence.

But over at least three decades he mattered to his listeners not only because of the records he played, but because of the way he talked between the records (it is important that for Peel it always was between records: it would have struck him as a gross discourtesy, to band and listener, to talk over the music).

He had a dry, slightly hesitant delivery, as if he half-expected any second to be pulled up and told off for talking nonsense.

He mocked himself constantly - for being short, fat and bald, for being unreasonably enthusiastic about Liverpool FC and The Fall, for supposed incompetence as disc jockey, husband and father. He seemed baffled that anybody would think he was worth listening to, and perpetually grateful. People who spent their adolescence tuned into Peel's Radio 1 show received an extensive education in modesty, kindness and gentle sarcasm, and learned that an appreciation of the music of rebellion and hate doesn't necessarily preclude grace of manner and tolerance: that being nice was kind of cool.

Or perhaps it worked the other way around: that only nice people were attracted by him in the first place.

The fact is, I have never met a regular John Peel Show listener I didn't like. (I was only ever an irregular myself.) His sly, undercutting wit allowed him to get away with things that in other DJs might have been rebarbative. He lent credibility, through his voiceovers, to dozens of so-so television documentaries and commercials (though it was reported that he wouldn't advertise any product he didn't use).

In later years, as a grateful nation showered honours on him - OBEs, Sony awards, the NME Godlike Genius award - he showed himself a sentimentalist of almost Dickensian proportions, bursting into tears at the drop of a statuette; but nobody minded.

His devotion to hearth and family, and particularly to his wife Sheila, "the Pig", was a running theme.

It was Sheila who, in 2001, insisted he have a blood test after years of feeling unwell, only for him to discover he had Type 2 diabetes. He had put down the classic signs of the disease - tiredness, a constant need to urinate and blurred vision, to ageing. He said that he was relieved at the diagnosis.

And, after years of being the music fan's friend, he found a new outlet for the more homely side of his nature in a Radio Times column in the early 1990s, John Peel's Family Album, in which he rambled amusingly about his four children, and the friendly contempt with which they treated him.

Although the column ran for several years, the Family Album tag was dropped - apparently at his children's behest - and he rambled amusingly about anything that caught his attention.

It was a logical progression from this to presenting Home Truths, the Radio 4 show in which ordinary people tell the nation the stories they usually save for the pub or the family. Peel had to link material that was sometimes banal, sometimes excruciatingly intimate.

Listening to him delivering his scripts, with a fluency strangely unlike his Radio 1 manner, it sounded as if some stopcock had been released, as if he had been waiting all his life to give free rein to his domestic side. For some fans, it seemed like a comedown - what was the man who discovered the Undertones and Pulp doing introducing an anecdote about parrots from Doris of Bexley Heath? But other fans, who had left him behind to discover the delights of domesticity on their own account, were delighted to encounter him again, and he gained a whole new fan base.

It is worth remembering all these people when Peel is referred to as a "cult" DJ. Take into account, too, the length of his career- people who started listening to him in their teens now have teenage grandchildren.

Now try to reckon up the numbers of listeners who will be mourning him today. Such widespread affection made him unsackable; but over the years, Radio 1 kept nibbling away at his slot.

Peel is gone, but his influence will live on - for, you hope, a very long time.

Tributes to a legend

Andy Parfitt

Radio 1 controller

John Peel was a broadcasting legend. I am deeply saddened by his death as are all who work at Radio 1. John's influence has towered over the development of popular music for nearly four decades and his contribution to modern music and music culture is immeasurable.

Jarvis Cocker


It would be absolutely impossible to write a history of the past 40 years of British music without mentioning John Peel's name. He was one of those few people about whom you could truly say that the world would have been a much different place without him.

Feargal Sharkey

The Undertones

In the autumn of 1978, something happened that was to change my life forever; John Peel played "Teenage Kicks" on the radio for the very first time. Today, it just changed again, forever. We have just lost the single most important broadcaster we have ever known.

Jo Whiley

Radio 1 DJ

John was simply one of my favourite men in the whole world; as a music fan and presenter he was simply an inspiration.

Damon Albarn


John Peel's patronage was for me, like countless other musicians, one of the most significant things that happened to us in our careers. The world is going to be a poorer place with his sudden departure. I will miss him deeply. I want to send my heartfelt sympathy to his lovely family.

Gaz Coombes


I was fortunate enough to meet him and play a session at his home. I remember we had a great conversation about Elvis that day. He was the first to play our debut single "Caught By The Fuzz" on radio, which I know brought us to people's attention. He was a big influence to so many.

Alexei Sayle


It was always great to listen to John. He was a crucial figure for music and he often thought that the BBC were trying to sideline him. The station went through various controllers who were not always keen on having an individual, distinctive voice, which John Peel was.

Bernard Sumner

Joy Division/New Order

If it wasn't for John Peel, there would be no Joy Division and no New Order. He was one of the few people to give bands that played alternative music a chance to get heard, and he continued to be a champion of cutting-edge music. Our thoughts are with his family.

Janice Long

Former Radio 1 DJ

I just can't believe it. You never thought John Peel was going to die. He made an incredible contribution to British music. When I arrived at Radio 1, he took me under his wing. He was totally passionate. He was passionate about football and music. More, he was passionate about his family.

Tommy Smith

Liverpool FC

He was an avid supporter, and was very passionate about football. I met him once and he talked about nothing else but the team. Liverpool people are proud people and we feel connected to those who go on to become famous. He will be missed.

Michael Eavis

Glastonbury founder

He was at Glastonbury as a kid in 1971. He had this incredible ability to pick bands that would succeed, and in a funny sort of way, he made them succeed. In 1983, The Smiths were his choice of band and nobody had heard of them. I went off to hear them and he was right

Elvis Costello


Like many others, I felt I knew him from his voice on the radio. He was the contradiction of every bad thing you could say about the radio. He had an open mind about all types of music. He was a great man, a fabulous curmudgeon, and he was as rare as the music that he loved.


1 Joy Division, Atmosphere

2 The Undertones, Teenage Kicks

3 Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart

4 Sex Pistols, Anarchy In The UK

5 The Clash, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

6 New Order, Blue Monday

7 The Smiths, How Soon Is Now?

8 Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

9 The Smiths, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

10 This Mortal Coil, Song To The Siren

11 Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding

12 Pulp, Common People

13 Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Big Eyed Beans From Venus

14 Dead Kennedys, Holiday In Cambodia

15 Joy Division, New Dawn Fades

16 My Bloody Valentine, Soon

17 New Order, Ceremony

18 The Only Ones, Another Girl, Another Planet

19 New Order, Temptation

20 Joy Division, She's Lost Control

21 Wedding Present, Brassneck

22 The Smiths, This Charming Man

23 Sugarcubes, Birthday

24 The Fall, How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'

25 The Wedding Present, My Favourite Dress

26 Delgados, Pull The Wires From the Wall

27 My Bloody Valentine, You Made Me Realise

28 Joy Division, Transmission

29 Sex Pistols, Pretty Vacant

30 Pixies, Debaser

31 Belle & Sebastian, Lazy Line Painter Jane

32 New Order, True Faith

33 The Clash, Complete Control

34 The Fall, Totally Wired

35 The Jam, Going Underground

36 Stereolab, French Disko

37 Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along The Watchtower

38 The Fall, The Classical

39 The Damned, New Rose

40 Tim Buckley, Song To The Siren

41 Beach Boys, God Only Knows

42 Velvet Underground, Heroin

43 Nick Drake, Northern Sky

44 Bob Dylan, Visions Of Johanna

45 The Beatles, I Am The Walrus

46 Beach Boys, Good Vibrations

47 The Sundays, Can't Be Sure

48 Culture, Lion Rock

49 P J Harvey, Sheela-na-gig

50 Pavement, Here