John Peel

BBC DJ who became the cultural arbiter of pop music
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The Independent Online

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft (John Peel), broadcaster and journalist: born Heswall, Cheshire 30 August 1939; OBE 1998; married 1965 Shirley Anne Milburn (deceased; marriage dissolved 1973), second 1974 Sheila Gilhooly (two sons, two daughters); died Cuzco, Peru 25 October 2004.

For over 35 years, the BBC disc jockey John Peel was committed both to the music he played and to promoting new talent.

He disliked the cult of the DJ whereby the DJ becomes more important than the records he plays, but his idiosyncratic personality and his deep, deadpan tones were copied by numerous broadcasters and impersonators. More significantly, he never wanted to be in the mainstream of popular music and he always favoured anything that was new and exciting. His manager and long-time friend Clive Selwood said, "He never compromised on his personal life or his musical tastes, and what you saw was what you got."

Peel was born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, the son of a well-to-do cotton broker, in Heswall, Cheshire, in 1939. When he was 13, he attended Shrewsbury School, failing more examinations than he passed (four O levels) but obtaining his house football colours. When he left school, he recalled, "My father shrewdly got me a job for one of his competitors." Ravenscroft developed a passion for music in 1956 when two records changed his life - Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line".

He was conscripted in the spring of 1958 to the Royal Artillery, working in radar and also playing goalkeeper for the hockey team. The young gunner was proud to be the only public schoolboy in his regiment not to be appointed an officer. In both that and his relative failure at school, there was a streak of rebellion.

Returning to private life, he worked in a cotton mill and was sent to the United States to learn the business. He struggled as a computer programmer before selling storm insurance to farmers in Dallas. In 1961, with an appearance on Radio WRR's Kats' Karavan, he discovered an aptitude for broadcasting.

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, Ravenscroft and a friend went to where the police were holding Lee Harvey Oswald, pretending that they worked for the Liverpool Echo. While he was there, Ravenscroft saw the club owner Jack Ruby shoot Oswald.

In Dallas, Ravenscroft found regular employment for WRR radio and, with the pandemonium following the success of the Beatles in 1964, cultivated a Liverpool accent and let people think he was a friend of the Fab Four: he was mobbed because of these tenuous connections. He also had success on KOMA in Oklahoma City and KMEN in Los Angeles. He was married in the mid-Sixties to the 15-year-old Shirley Anne Milburn, then discovered that crossing some state lines would be a criminal offence for him, as she was considered under-age in some states. They returned to the UK, to Fulham, in west London, but his wife did not settle and the marriage was soon over.

He joined the pirate station Radio London early in 1967 and it was here that he became John Peel, taking his name from the English folksong. He promoted the music of the burgeoning underground scene, such as Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, on his late-night programme, The Perfumed Garden. In true hippie fashion, he declared that the world was divided into two camps, Love and Hate, and that Love would eventually win.

In September that year, Peel joined the new BBC station Radio 1. He was part of the group photograph of founding presenters often reproduced with the comment that Peel (who is looking disconsolately away, and not parading his gleaming teeth) was the only one remaining with the station. A Daily Mail poll of DJs shortly after the station opened revealed that Peel was voted a respectable No 7.

He had been hired as a presenter on the Radio 1 music show Top Gear and he took over the following February. Top Gear was meant to look at the outskirts of rock music (although its first guest was Lulu) and among the underground bands featured was the whimsical acoustic band Tyrannosaurus Rex featuring Marc Bolan. The Controller of Radio 1 told Peel to stop playing Bolan's records as he sounded like Larry the Lamb. Peel championed Bolan, however, and he often compered university shows with Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Liverpool Scene, introducing both acts at the Isle of Wight Festival.

By 1970 Bolan had gone electric, changed the group's name to T.Rex and had hit singles. "John Peel thought we had sold out and I can see now that he was helping himself more than us," Bolan claimed in 1976:

He needed an obscure group he could use and we were that group. He didn't like "Ride a White Swan" at all and he was paranoid that we would do anything that was even remotely commercial. I haven't seen him since and he certainly never plays our records now.

After producing records for Liverpool Scene, Peel formed his own label, Dandelion, with Clive Selwood, the intention being to create a UK equivalent of Elektra Records. Their talent-spotting was fine - Clifford T. Ward, Bridget St John, Tractor, Mike Hart and a down-at-heel Gene Vincent - but Peel was forbidden to play his own releases on his BBC programmes and took little interest in the label's marketing plans. The label closed with considerable debts.

Peel gave numerous artists their first airplay, including Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, and the live performances he recorded with many bands led to a series of albums in the Eighties, The Peel Sessions. He promoted Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Lindisfarne who all presented traditional music in a rock setting.

In 1971 Rod Stewart invited Peel to pretend to play mandolin on a mimed performance of "Maggie May" for Top of the Pops. The Musicians' Union was enraged and insisted that Peel take no payment. By way of contrast, Peel once introduced Queen on Top of the Pops as "the boys from Sun City" as he disliked bands who appeared to support apartheid.

He was a stormy petrel at the BBC and no one was sure what he would next. In 1969, when he was hosting a discussion show, Night Ride, he admitted that he had once been to a VD clinic and described the procedures. The switchboard was said to be jammed by calls from angry listeners (more likely they were the angry parents of listeners). The BBC apologised to the Prime Minister, but within months Peel was hosting a discussion programme, Inquiry, on Radio 4.

In 1974 when he married Sheila Gilhooly they both wore red and white in honour of Liverpool Football Club and had "You'll Never Walk Alone" as their processional music. In an age before political correctness, he would refer to her on air as "The Pig" and he would often tell of life in Peel Acres. He later confessed to "making love to my wife during a long record whilst theoretically on air". Their children were all given names that celebrated the football team - two have Anfield, one Dalglish and one Shankly.

He would gratefully accept tapes from up-and-coming bands when he presented his road shows and he came to appreciate the groundswell that would lead to punk. Again, Peel was ahead of the game, introducing audiences to the Clash, the Sex Pistols and then his favourite group, the Undertones. His long-standing and equally renegade producer, John Walters, who died in 2001, once remarked, "If Peely ever reaches puberty, we're all in trouble."

For many years, Peel compered the Reading and Glastonbury Festivals but he developed a fear of crowds after being at the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985.

Peel became recognised as the most important music broadcaster in the UK. Generations of families have grown up listening to his show. Mike Read might have complained about Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" being on the Radio 1 playlist in 1983, but Peel had had the band for a live session of the song before the record was even made.

From time to time Peel was involved in mainstream broadcasting, notably when a stunt went wrong in The Late, Late Breakfast Show in 1983. "Most DJs have only seen Radio 1 as a stepping stone to hosting a quiz show on TV and, while John has been offered hundreds of quiz shows, he prefers to sit in a darkened studio, relating how he feels to the audience," Selwood remarked.

John Peel never became an anachronism, lasting because of his integrity, and he was keen to encourage others with the same quality, notably Andy Kershaw. Despite suffering from diabetes, Peel still maintained a heavy work schedule, presenting two Radio 1 programmes each week as well as Radio 4's sui generis Saturday-morning programme, the award-winning Home Truths.

Peel received many awards, notably becoming the National Broadcaster of the Year in Sony Radio Awards for 1993. He was appointed OBE in 1998 and acquired a host of honorary degrees. At the time of his death, he was working on his autobiography and he said recently in his usual pithy way, "I'd like to be a bit taller and thinner and have more hair and a bigger willy. But by and large, I am content."

Spencer Leigh

If John Peel seemed an ageless figure it was because, in the context of young person's music, he was always there - a fixed point in a world which seemed ready to dissolve and reconstitute itself at a moment's notice, writes D. J. Taylor.

To linger for only a moment or so amid the cluttered landscapes of 1970s rock and roll was to be made instantly aware of his presence: the four-nights-a-week stint on Radio 1; the column for Sounds; the afternoons off spent compering CND concerts; even, as the decade wore on, quasi-ironic appearances on Top of the Pops. Another man - certainly many another disc jockey - would have used this ubiquity to fashion a titanic vehicle for his own ego. Peel, on the other hand, was characterised by an almost pathological reserve. He combined omnipresence with deep reservoirs of personal diffidence, and his attitude to the music that occupied most of his waking hours got no further than simple fan-dom.

For all that he was a very powerful fan. In fact Peel's role as the impresario and talent-broker of a certain kind of alternative contemporary music can hardly be overstated. In the early days of punk and the "New Wave" movement of 1976-77, both of which had most of Radio 1 and the music press prostrate with rheumy-eyed disapproval, he was practically the only national DJ prepared to give needle-time to the raucous DIY offerings of bands such as the Damned and the Buzzcocks (the mother of the Damned's acne-casualty drummer, Rat Scabies, is supposed to have penned a respectful note thanking him for "helping Christopher with his career").

Later on there were half-a-dozen groups - the Fall, XTC, Joy Division, the Undertones - who more or less owed their careers to Peel and his unobtrusive sponsorship: a sponsorship, moreover, that was always conducted through the filtering medium of his producers. "A couple of manly pats on each other's shoulders" was the extent of his dealings with Mark E. Smith, the Fall's cantankerous frontman and a regular beneficiary of Peel largesse for over a quarter of a century.

At heart Peel was simply an enthusiast who, having made his way into national radio when enthusiasm was the only qualification needed, contrived to remain there for the best part of four decades. Periodic warnings of impending forced departure could always be ignored. The Dave Lee Travises and Noel Edmonds would come and go: Peel was inviolable. The Radio 1 apparatchiks knew that by removing him they would cut off the branch on which they sat: even in his sixties his programme attracted a higher proportion of mid-teen listeners than anything else on the station.

The enthusiasms were at once eclectic, far-reaching and charmingly localised. He championed reggae at a time when most British listeners were happy to write it off as jungle music. He was just as likely to be regaling his listeners with the industrial frenzy of teutonic experimentalists such as Einsturzende Neubaten as the latest Indie warblings from Salford. Monumental slabs of sonic weirdness - there was an odd mid-Eighties fixation on bands with names like "Bolt Thrower" whose selections tended to be called "No End to War" - descended on to his listeners' heads like so many paving stones.

He was a great supporter of movements in obscure places - almost single-handedly creating the Norwich music scene of 1983-84 (the Higsons, the Farmer's Boys, Serious Drinking) of which it was said that a local arcade busker could be certain of claiming his Peel session if he troubled to send in a cassette.

Despite the breadth of his professional interests, and the trackless hours spent trawling through piles of unsolicited tapes, he had a life outside music. Anthony Powell once wrote him a courteous letter expressing gratification at Peel's choice of A Dance to the Music of Time as his desert-island reading (his other literary interest was the work of Captain W.E. Johns, creator of "Biggles" and the pioneering aviatrix "Worralls").

Curiously enough, I found myself staring at him only the other night, on DVD, on an Old Grey Whistle Test show from the mid-1980s in which his producer, the late John Walters, had corralled various Radio 1 notables into an impromptu skiffle band. Thumping away on tea-chest bass, Peel has his usual look of shyly dogged semi-embarrassment (he described his relationship with Walters as "like a man and his dog - only each of us thinks the other is the dog").

From the wider angle of taste and influence, without ever coveting the role he was probably the greatest cultural arbiter pop music has ever known. From the narrower, personal compass he provided the soundtrack to a million adolescences - my own included.