When John Peel’s sad, sudden death at the age of 65 was announced today (October 26) BBC Radio 1, the station that had been his home for five decades, broke with programming and played Undertones ‘Teenage Kicks’ – his all-time favourite song.
It was a fitting tribute to a man whose dedication and unerring passion for all that was fresh and vital and youthful and vigorous about music saw him reject the dictats and mores of broadcasting to pursue a singular path launching the career of hundreds of bands, and soundtracking the youth of millions of music fans.
Born John Robert Parker Ravenscoft in Heswall, near Liverpool, in 1939, Peel was the son of the wealthy owner of a cotton mill. He was sent away to boarding school in Shrewsbury, which he hated, an ordeal made bearable when he first heard Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
"Everything changed when I heard Elvis," he said. "Where there had been nothing there was suddenly something."
In 1959, after National Service, Peel moved to America where Beatlemania soon took hold. The Liverpool connection helped Peel land a spot as DJ on WRR radio in Dallas. He moved back to England in 1967, where he first joined Radio London, before moving to BBC Radio 1 for its launch. He was to remain with the station for the rest of his life, the only original DJ.
His style was immediately different to other presenters. He played the records from start to finish without interruption – which later became useful if you wanted to tape the tracks - providing an informative commentary for listeners. During his early period, Peel was a friend and supporter of some of the biggest names in rock. Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix all recorded Peel Sessions and Peel famously once showed up on Top Of The Pops miming mandolin for Rod Stewart on the chart-topping‘Maggie May’.
As the 70s progressed, Peel’s tastes evolved. He was in the vanguard of punk, pushing the sounds of The Ramones, The Clash, The Undertones, The Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols, then latterly Joy Division. In the 80s, he kickstarted the careers of New Order, The Fall, Smiths and any number of other acts you care to name. We would never have heard the Pixies or Pulp or The White Stripes if it wasn’t for John Peel.
As the years rolled on, the scope of his radio show widened. He moved between gum-bleeding German techno, world music and the occasional Roy Orbison hit with ease – even if it was sometimes a little taxing for his legions of fans. Until recently, a place on his annual countdown of the best singles of the year – Peel’s Festive 50 – was a much sought-after berth for bands on independent labels.
In recent years, Peel built a new army of fans. His award winning ‘Home Truths’ programme on BBC Radio Four grew into a must-hear for middle-aged listeners in middle England. And his spots on the BBC’s ‘Grumpy Old Men’ – a series featuring irritated men of a certain age riling against the things they found most absurd about modern life – were frequently the funniest and most telling.
Balding, a little plump, a devoted father, grandfather and husband not to mention a big fan of genteel radio series The Archers, Peel kicked open the door for people like Steve Lamacq and Zane Lowe, letting the mainstream programmers see that an audience existed for music that was not always a chart fixture.
His influence is immeasurable.
John Peel often told the story hearing ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the first time. He was driving in his car listening to the song on a demo tape. He was so overcome by the tune that he pulled onto the side of the road to have a cry.
There are thousands of people across Britain today who will have had a similar experience on hearing of his untimely death.
Radiohead's Thom Yorke said that he’d been an “inspiration”.
He said: "Who am I going to listen to now? He's been my inspiration since I was 14. I'm thinking about you. Thanks John Peel."
Supergrass were also a band championed by Peel in the early days. Singer Gaz Coombes said: “I was fortunate enough to meet him & play a session at his home. I remember we had a great conversation about Elvis that day & when I saw his record collection, it blew me away. He was the first to play our debut single 'Caught By The Fuzz' on the radio which I know brought us to people's attention. He was a big influence to so many. We'll miss him."
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Tony Blair added: "John Peel was a genuine one-off, whether on Radio 1 or Radio 4. He was a unique voice in British broadcasting and used that voice to unearth new talent and different subjects and make them accessible to a much wider audience. The prime minister knows he will be missed by everyone."
Other musicians to speak out in honour of Peel include Manchester legends The Smiths and New Order.
Ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr told BBC News that their success was down to the DJ, adding "we would try out new songs on the sessions and these often were the definitive version. John Peel was always the best around."
Bernard Sumner from New Order simply said that without his influence, the bands he helped form wouldn’t exist. He said: "This is dreadful, shocking news. If it wasn't for John 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 throughout his life. He will be genuinely missed by millions of music fans all over the world, both in and outside the music industry. Our thoughts are with his family."