So revered in the UK that he made the top 50 in a BBC poll of ‘Greatest Britons of all time,’ John Peel (1939-2004) shaped popular culture in ways that Americans may never know or understand. As a pirate radio deejay, a band manager, promoter and cheerleader, print journalist, BBC radio presenter, arranger of recording sessions, record label owner and all-around presence, Peel held the door for the progressive and idiosyncratic to enter rock & roll, be it psychedelia, garage rock, punk, prog rock, folk-rock, industrial, and post-rock. Richie Unterberger dug deep into the archives and talked to people who knew him to produce this captivating portrait of John Peel.
Fifteen years after his death, John Peel remains a British institution. Arguably no radio DJ (or presenter, to use the British term) anywhere had as big an impact on not just music, but also on popular culture.
From the late 1960s onward, his shows (principally on the BBC) helped launch countless artists, from psychedelia and prog to punk and post-punk. In his final decade he reached millions of listeners who couldn’t tell you the difference between Syd Barrett and Sid Vicious with the popular weekly documentary Home Truths, spotlighting the stories of everyday people and family life. He was even voted #43 in a 2002 BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time, outranking luminaries spanning Sir Francis Drake to Tony Blair.
Outside the UK, however, the breadth of his legacy’s hard to grasp, even if you’re the kind of music nerd who’s come across his name thousands of times in the British press. His programs were seldom heard by US listeners. If North Americans know his name, it’s more likely than not due to hundreds of “Peel Sessions,” as the BBC recordings bearing his name are dubbed on archival reissues. Who was John Peel, and why is he so revered?
That’s too big a topic to completely document in one article. Yet in this survey of sorts, his key contributions can at least be outlined and illuminated in several different eras and areas. Even before his voice was heard on the BBC, he’d carved a reputation as a maverick, going out on a limb to champion rock out of the mainstream. The mainstream acclaim that would eventually gain him an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) award for services to music was inconceivable.
The John Ravenscroft Years
Born and until 1967 known as John Ravenscroft, Peel backed into radio DJing by fortuitous accident. Working in Texas in the unlikely (at least in hindsight) occupation of insurance and starting in Dallas radio as a sideline, his British accent made him hot property after the Beatles took off in the US. That led to DJ stints in Oklahoma and then San Bernardino, about an hour’s drive inland from Los Angeles.
A January 1967 story in the San Bernardino Press-Enterprise gave notice that Ravenscroft was at the cutting edge of what was happening. The Mothers of Invention, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane, and (before they’d released their first album) the Grateful Dead were cited as his favorite groups. His slot had been switched from morning to evening, he explained, as “adults couldn’t put up with me in the morning when school was out.”
From October 1967 to October 2004, an astonishing number of live-in-the-studio sessions were featured on programs presented by John Peel on Radio One. There were nearly four and a half thousand such sessions, from some of the biggest superstars to a host of no-names.
Even by 1966, he’d expanded his sphere into promoting bands who’d barely recorded, let alone had hit records. In nearby Riverside, a blues-rock group called the Misunderstood was morphing into an astonishing psychedelic outfit. Using the Yardbirds’ innovations as a springboard for their own freaky effects (especially on Glenn Ross Campbell’s explosively amplified steel guitar) and inner space-directed lyrics, they caught John’s attention at a shopping mall appearance.
“It was like one of your St. Paul on the road to Damascus experiences, it was stunning,” he remembered in the liner notes to the Misunderstood’s Before the Dream Faded compilation, hailing them as “prophets of a new order” back in 1967 to the Press-Enterprise. Ravenscroft became their quasi-manager of sorts, pledging in his station’s newspaper KMEntertainer to “cause the Misunderstood to become the Understood.”
As Misunderstood singer Rick Brown explained to me, “John Peel had access to all kinds of music, being a DJ. He would give us Indian ragas and other weird stuff to play around with. He was really the sixth member of the band. He wanted so much for us to make it big. He loved us, and we loved him back. John convinced us that England, where all the progressive music is made, would be an open audience for us. Without John, we would never [have] had the guts to uproot and travel without visas to London. And John was exactly right. The Misunderstood becoming a legend is due almost entirely to John.”
Peel wasn’t the most organized of mentors, and had led the band to believe they could stay with his parents in London.
“We thought they were all informed and knew we were coming,” guitarist Glenn Ross Campbell told me. But when the band arrived in a taxi, “There’s nobody there. I mean, we’ve got a mountain of equipment—amps, drums, all in cardboard boxes. We’re sitting there, it starts raining on us, and we’re pulling out raincoats and putting it over the equipment and getting soaked. Pretty soon the neighbors get curious, ‘cause we’d been there overnight. They come the next morning and bring us cups of tea and more blankets. We’re all wrapped up like Indians on a reservation.
“We’re there, literally, for a couple of days. Finally, John’s parents come home. And they walked straight by us, didn’t even look at us. We went banging on the door and said, ‘Excuse us, but we’re the Misunderstood.’ And they go something like, ‘Yeah, we can believe it!’” The band had to wait yet another eight hours before Peel’s parents got hold of their son in the States to confirm the story and let the Californians enter.
John Peel talking about The Misunderstood, then playing “Children of the Sun” on the BBC:
The Misunderstood’s fascinating subsequent British adventures have been told elsewhere, though they only managed to release one single before breaking up in early 1967. (Fortunately they recorded six excellent psychedelic tracks in London in late 1966, all of which were made available in the early 1980s.) Ravenscroft would return to the UK himself in early 1967, too late to help the Misunderstood and perhaps on the run from his own troubles. According to his future business partner Clive Selwood’s memoir All the Moves:
“In California John met and married a young American girl called Shirley. So young, in fact, that crossing a state line with her—even as a wife—was considered a criminal offense. She had misled John about her age, which was discovered only at the ceremony. With the death threats and the prospect of prosecution John decided to return to the UK.” He’d never work in the US again. But shortly after coming back to his native country, a whole new and more exciting avenue opened that would launch his career as a national radio personality.
His first slot, aired on February 4, 1968, included Captain Beefheart, the Pretty Things, Phil Ochs, Albert King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Marc Bolan’s new act, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Even by early 1967, after the British Invasion had made the country a major center of rock innovation, above-ground opportunities for rock radio DJs were limited in the UK. The BBC had a firm grip on the national airwaves, and only a relatively small portion of their programming allowed for rock’n’roll. The situation wasn’t dire, however, since offshore pirate radio stations had seized the chance to draw large audiences by playing rock and pop around the clock. Ravenscroft was quickly able to get aboard Radio London, using a broadcast pseudonym, John Peel, that would stick with him for the rest of his career.
Peel’s late-night program, The Perfumed Garden, quickly established him as a major voice of the rock underground. Even by early FM underground rock radio standards, his playlists were adventurous, mixing leading US psych acts yet to gain a wide UK hearing (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Captain Beefheart, Love, a pre-Cheap Thrills Big Brother & the Holding Company) with emerging British psychsters (the Incredible String Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex), folkies (Tim Hardin, John Renbourn, Roy Harper), and his now disbanded-buddies the Misunderstood. He was also quite likely the first DJ to play the Velvet Underground on British radio, calling their debut LP “very, very impressive” on the air, at a time when the Velvets were having a hard time even getting spins in their New York hometown.
As producer Shel Talmy—famed for his work with the Who, Kinks, and Pentangle, among others, like Roy Harper—once told me, “John Peel’s sort of offbeat show is the kind of stuff that Roy Harper appealed to. I’m talking about the days when John Peel would only play really oddball stuff that nobody else would play.” Not that Talmy found that wholly to his liking, adding, “Which, quite frankly, doesn’t appeal to me on a regular basis. I can take some of it.”
Roy Harper performing “She’s The One” during a Top Gear/Peel Session in 1969:
When Peel got behind something, he really got behind it, to an extent extreme even for underground radio DJs. Clive Selwood first met Peel while working for Elektra Records and promoting the Incredible String Band’s second LP, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. “John was the only person on radio in the whole of Europe who was prepared to give it a listen,” wrote Selwood in All the Moves. “In fact, he loved it and played both sides of the album on his first show upon returning to the ship.”
Such freedom would have been inconceivable on the BBC, which might have never played any rock album in its entirety, even Sgt. Pepper. Yet within about half a year, Peel himself would be on the BBC, pirate radio stations shutting down in August 1967 after it became a criminal offense to broadcast or advertise on them. The BBC tried to soften the blow by starting a new pop music station, Radio One. To staff the new operation, they needed pop and rock DJs—including, despite some reservations, John Peel.
Peel on The BBC: The Psych/Prog Eras
Initially easing into the BBC’s format as a co-presenter of the Top Gear program in fall 1967, by February 1968 Peel was the show’s sole and permanent host. The music he offered changed little, if at all. His first slot, aired on February 4, 1968, included Captain Beefheart, the Pretty Things, Phil Ochs, Albert King, H.P. Lovecraft, and Marc Bolan’s new act, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
It’s likely he did have to modify his freewheeling persona at least a little. As David Cavanagh writes in his excellent survey Goodnight and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life, “Whereas surviving tapes of The Perfumed Garden are a bit like stumbling on recordings of a lost civilization, Peel on Top Gear sounds a lot more like a capable DJ from a world that looks quite similar to our own.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mick Houghton would get to know Peel as a British rock journalist and publicist, and indeed find Peel’s broadcasts vital to help breaking the acts with whom he worked, Back in the late ‘60s when he was just a young rock fan, he observes, “Peel’s BBC shows were crucial to breaking alternative/underground acts he championed, including Pink Floyd, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Fairport Convention, Family and the Faces. His Night Ride and Top Gear shows were where I heard all those people for the first time, or on his pre-Radio One Perfumed Garden show on Radio London.
“Nobody else was playing the Incredible String Band or the Liverpool poets. He really championed Elektra as well. People over here would only have heard Love, the Doors, Buckley and obviously non-Elektra acts like Jefferson Airplane, Beefheart, and Velvet Underground because of John Peel.
“For that I am indebted to him. I don’t think I would have followed the path I took but for Peel. He was the first person who somehow legitimized pop music for me – and for many others I’m sure. He made me realize that it was not just some fickle fad that you were supposed leave behind when you reached a certain age. It became my life and that was largely down to John Peel.”
The following year, he played the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” on four separate occasions, despite a BBC ban on the single.
Apart from inspiring and educating millions of fans (some, like Houghton, later to enter the rock media themselves), Peel chalked up a series of firsts that both bolstered many careers and had a substantial impact upon the British record industry itself. Joe Cocker’s first recording of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” for instance, was not the #1 UK single he had with his cover in late 1968, but a version recorded for a live session for Peel’s program in July of that year. Love Sculpture’s “Sabre Dance” wasn’t recorded for a Top Five single until after Peel had played the first-take “session” version not once, but twice on an October 1968 show.
He was also the first to play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on British radio, and span the whole first side of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells four days after its release. He was instrumental in making “Maggie May,” originally a B-side, a chart-topping hit for Rod Stewart after plugging the flip. In gratitude, the Faces put him onstage when they mimed to “Maggie May” on the TV show Top of the Pops, Peel gamely pretending to play the mandolin as the others larked around him.
And his “sessions,” eventually numbering in the thousands, were key to breaking emerging artists as well. Roxy Music’s first session, in January 1972, even predated their first album, with a lineup including original guitarist Davy O’List, who’d be replaced by the time they cut their debut LP. No one benefited more from Peel sessions than T. Rex; there were 38, by David Cavanagh’s count. John’s intros could be almost embarrassingly effusive, as when he hailed Family as “one group that I would travel continents to see.”
T. Rex, Peel Session, Oct. 26, 1970:
It wasn’t just future stars who got a boost from Peel broadcasts, either. Unsigned avant-rock mainstays Henry Cow got a session in spring 1971 by winning a contest for best demo tape, more than two years before their first album. Outside of the broadcast booth, he even helped out a young Fairport Convention by purchasing an electric autoharp for their first woman singer, Judy Dyble.
Although British rock historian Richard Morton Jack is too young to have heard Peel back in that particular day, as the publisher/editor of Flashback magazine and the 900-page British ‘60s/’70s psych/prog reference book Galactic Ramble, he’s about as well acquainted with the DJ’s impact as anyone. “My feeling is that he was the only truly independent broadcaster on the BBC right from the start, with a remit to champion whoever he wished,” he points out. “Hence his relentless support for Beefheart and the Misunderstood, and early airings of the VU and many others.
“His direct, languid style was also something of an antidote to most other mainstream broadcasters, who tended to have ghastly senses of humor and mainstream sensibilities – Dave Lee Travis, Noel Edmonds, Ed Stewart, Tony Blackburn, and numerous others. I don’t know what he made of Kenny Everett, but he is the only other truly distinctive early BBC 1 broadcaster that springs to mind.” He wasn’t beyond taking irreverent pokes at some of the icons on his playlists, once remarking of Peter Hammill: “As a vocalist, his principal influence seems to be Richard III.”
In gratitude, the Faces put him onstage when they mimed to “Maggie May” on the TV show Top of the Pops, Peel gamely pretending to play the mandolin as the others larked around him.
Peel wasn’t beyond screwing up on occasion. Upon receiving a copy of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s No Pussyfooting on reel-to-reel tape, he played the whole record backwards without him or anyone else noticing. After its conclusion, according to Cavanagh’s book, he “wholeheartedly recommend[ed] it to listeners (‘Magnificent…well worth having’) and compare[d] it favorably to the recent work of Tangerine Dream.”
Listening in his car, Eno did notice, pulling off the road to call the DJ. As BBC producer John Walters remembers in Ken Garner’s The Peel Sessions, Eno “said, ‘I must speak to John Peel, he’s playing my album backwards.’ ‘That’s what they all say, sir,’ said the switchboard, and refused to put him through.”
During this period, Peel also found time to write for British publications, ranging from the top underground paper of the era, IT (aka International Times), to BBC’s The Listener. His prose could be both astutely insightful and overenthusiastic, sometimes in the same piece. In his review of Quadrophenia for The Listener, for example, he found the Who’s rock opera “as much an advance over Tommy as Tommy was over the earlier (and much briefer) ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away.’ It’s not just the use of synthesizers and sound effects, although their use is telling and tasteful, nor is it the wider dynamic range of the music: what counts is the wider emotional range. … There’s so much energy thundering out of my speakers as I write that it’s difficult for me to keep my seat and plod on to some sort of fitting conclusion.”
Richard Morton Jack has one of the biggest collections of ‘60s/’70s British music press, and has read much of Peel’s early rock criticism. “A large part of his appeal as a broadcaster was his droll turn of phrase and deadpan delivery,” he notes. “As such, it’s not surprising to find that he had a naturally humorous writing style in his columns and in his reviews. I can’t pretend that I have read everything he wrote, or even that I can recollect what his particular likes and dislikes were. But he had an honest and supportive attitude, rather than the dismissive or surreal stance of some of his peers. Of course, his journalism isn’t investigative, but he had a likeable way of describing his ups and downs and conveying his enthusiasms with self-awareness (even at his most hippy-dippy circa 1967).
Eno “said, ‘I must speak to John Peel, he’s playing my album backwards.’ ‘That’s what they all say, sir,’ said the switchboard, and refused to put him through.”
“Quite apart from their literary merits, which I think are principally humorous, his columns cumulatively give an intriguing insight into the British underground scene almost from the start, with insights, facts and private reminiscences that have value.”
From his earliest years, Peel was supplementing his main gig as a radio DJ with work in other media, and not only music journalism. Given his much-lauded knack for sniffing out talents before they became famous, or even before they’d made records, it might seem natural for him to have branched into running a label for some of his pet artists. At the end of the ‘60s he took that leap, forming Dandelion Records with Clive Selwood. For the next three years, Dandelion put out albums by several underground British acts, gaining distribution from CBS in the UK and Elektra in the US.
“We want to record people whose songs and poems we like and whom we like as people,” wrote Peel in an advertisement at the time. “At the moment this means Bridget St. John, Beau, Principal Edward’s Magic Theatre and the Occasional Word Ensemble. If people like their records, and I honestly can’t think of any reason why they shouldn’t, then we’ll be able to record a host of other people you’ve probably never heard of either.”
Principal Edwards Magic Theatre performs “Ballad (of the big girl now and the mere boy)” on a Peel Session:
On paper this must have seemed like a promising setup for both Peel and the bigger companies with distribution pacts. In reality, Dandelion neither sold many records nor, perhaps more surprisingly, unearthed much first-rate talent. That’s not to say the Dandelion catalog is without merit. Intriguingly eccentric singer-songwriter Kevin Coyne made his first discs for Dandelion as part of the group Siren; David Bedford and Lol Coxhill were respected avant-gardists who dallied with the fringes of underground rock; husky-voiced folkie Bridget St. John has a cult following to this day; and rustic blues-folk-rockers Medicine Head landed Dandelion’s sole Top Thirty UK hit, “(And The) Pictures in the Sky.”
Yet much of Dandelion’s output housed second- or even third-tier British progressive or underground acts. Among them were names that have their devotees among some collectors, but are largely forgotten today, such as Beau, Stack Waddy, The Way We Live, Tractor, and Principal Edwards Magic Theatre. Gene Vincent isn’t forgotten, but was fading and near death when he cut his sole Dandelion LP. The better and more commercial alternative rockers—many of whom Peel zealously pushed on the BBC and elsewhere—were signing with major labels, or bigger companies with major label distribution, like Island.
Agrees Richard Morton Jack, “Dandelion had a noticeably weak roster, with only a handful of releases that have stood the test of time.”
Yet while Mick Houghton would “agree about the second- and third- tier acts that Dandelion largely released but that was what his show was about. Groups like Tractor and Stack Waddy, who I doubt anybody else would have released (or played), even Kevin Coyne. Peel certainly wasn’t organized and hard-headed, so I don’t think he saw himself as a Chris Blackwell,” who’d lead Island Records to immense success.
Maybe part of Dandelion’s relative failure could be attributed to Peel’s minimal production skills and experience. For all the sessions he’d broadcast, he wasn’t involved in their engineering and production, and indeed often wasn’t even in attendance when they were taped. Bridget St. John’s debut LP, Ask Me No Questions, was produced by Peel, but as she admitted to ZigZag, “Neither of us had the technical knowledge to make it a very wonderful record.” Added Selwood in All the Moves, “John Peel ‘produced’ her first album, which is to say that he was there at most of the sessions and made the occasional suggestion. This was not laziness. We had decided early on that we would only record acts that needed minimal production.”
In the same book, Selwood shouldered part of the responsibility for Dandelion’s minimal impact. “In hindsight, perhaps the apparent failure of Dandy could have been avoided if I had fought harder and spent more time and money on those acts with commercial potential,” he wrote. As an example, “We ‘discovered’ Roxy Music, who, after an initial encouraging meeting with me, became the subject of a full-page feature in the Melody Maker. This started a bidding war that was won by Island Records, which had deeper pockets than Dandy and could afford advances and the kinds of marketing campaigns we never could and so gave the band a better shot at hitting the big time.”
Dandelion also used Rod Stewart as a session singer on Python Lee Jackson’s “In a Broken Dream,” which they had to license to Young Blood Records after Dandelion’s usual distributors passed. The song eventually became a hit single when it was reissued after Stewart had become a star. But owing to a complicated business snafu, it took almost twenty years for Dandelion to make money off the deal.
Yet Dandelion did have an edge over their competition that other labels couldn’t buy, no matter what their advertising budget. Peel gave Dandelion artists lots of airplay. There were even four Bridget St. John tracks from Peel sessions on the BBC compilation LP John Peel Presents Top Gear. From a twenty-first century vantage point, this seems like a conflict of interest he shouldn’t have been allowed to get away with, though it could be argued that Dandelion’s commercial potential was so low that no amount of airplay could have made its roster stars.
Bridget St. John, Peel Session, 8/28/68:
“He did get away with playing an awful lot of Dandelion acts on his shows,” says Houghton. “Interestingly, Clive Selwood ran Dandelion and at the time was general manager for Elektra as well, and Peel was also still championing Elektra too. You can argue that he was taking advantage of the fact that he was almost above the law. But the other side of that argument was that Peel was only playing the sort of music he always played, and it was irrelevant that it was on his label.”
After Dandelion’s demise, Peel was back to playing the sort of music he always played, which happened to be the sort of music he liked most. As the mid-‘70s passed, however, he’d stop playing the sort music he’d always played, though he continued to play what he liked. What he now liked was not just very different from the psychedelic and progressive rock that had been his staples. It was so different that it would alienate much of his faithful audience—and gain him a whole new, perhaps even larger one.
The Punk and Post-Punk Eras
Peel might have seemed an unlikely ally at the onset of punk rock. Not only was he heavily identified with the psych/prog period punk purported to erase, but he was already in his late thirties. Yet more than any other media figure, he’d straddle the eras and the styles.
On his May 19, 1976 show, Peel played “Judy Is a Punk” off the Ramones’ debut album. On his next program, he aired three more tracks from the LP. “A lot of people phoned in,” Peel remembered in a 1990 interview with Radio Four’s Sue Lawley. “The switchboard was jammed, which as we know isn’t a difficult thing to happen to it, but people phoned in and said, ‘You must never do this again.’ And then they wrote in afterwards and said, ‘You must never play any of these records ever again.’ And of course I always find that very exciting and then played a great deal more of them.’”
By December 10, one show alone featured cuts by the Ramones, the Damned, Eddie & the Hot Rods, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Television, Pere Ubu, the Saints, and the Sex Pistols. The following year, he played the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” on four separate occasions, despite a BBC ban on the single. For one of those plays, he sneaked it onto his Festive Fifty favorite records of the year at #61. Another took place when he played Never Mind the Bollocks in its entirety.
He didn’t quite overhaul his playlists overnight. For a year or so you could still hear Gentle Giant, Jackson Browne, and Uriah Heep, even as he welcomed newcomers like the Clash. But as the new wave became a tidal wave, he later claimed (again in his interview with Sue Lawley), and quite possibly exaggerated, “The whole audience changed in the space of about a month. The average age of the audience dropped by about ten years.”
You can argue that he was taking advantage of the fact that he was almost above the law. But the other side of that argument was that Peel was only playing the sort of music he always played, and it was irrelevant that it was on his label.”
As a writer for the British music weekly Sounds at the time, Mick Houghton was well aware of both punk and Peel’s impact. As he sees it, both Peel and UK print outlets were crucial to popularizing the new music. “The difference between that ‘60s era and the punk and post-punk era was the music press, which had become more important and respected by the mid-‘70s,” he says. “You would only have read about those ‘60s acts [Peel often played] in underground magazines like IT, Oz etc. The music papers at that time were essentially pop papers (less so Melody Maker because it was the musician’s paper and it did cover jazz and folk). Front covers were more or less advertorial and that transition to a more independently minded, substantial music press didn’t come about till around 1972/3.
“By the punk era NME, MM, Sounds, and even Record Mirror to a degree were covering alternative music. So you could read about the CBGBs acts, for example, in NME in 1975, and probably ahead of Peel until they had records out.
“By the punk and post punk era” — as described in Houghton’s recent memoir Fried & Justified — “there was a process whereby alternative acts broke as a result of a combination of their singles being reviewed in the weeklies and played by Peel simultaneously. The progression in the music press from singles reviews, to live reviews, a first feature, was incremental with every single, and certainly once the debut album came out. The pinnacle was to get a front cover.
“Plays on Peel were always influential, but sessions became increasingly important. The combination of press and Peel support was how groups built up followings (of course there was a very healthy live circuit too). They all went hand in hand. And as far as radio goes, Peel was still the only person supporting alternative acts. They wouldn’t get any mainstream coverage till they started to make some impression in the charts and by then they’d probably be signed to a major label, so they’d have a plugger who’d be working all the other outlets.”
On his May 19, 1976 show, Peel played “Judy Is a Punk” off the Ramones’ debut album. On his next program, he aired three more tracks from the LP. “A lot of people phoned in,” Peel remembered in a 1990 interview with Radio Four’s Sue Lawley. “The switchboard was jammed, which as we know isn’t a difficult thing to happen to it, but people phoned in and said, ‘You must never do this again.’
If it sounds like a back-scratching music circle where everyone benefits, Houghton counters, “You couldn’t plug John Peel, that was the difference. He knew he was part of the process, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be compromised by a plugger in his ear telling him he should play this or that. In fact, by the time most acts reached that stage and were having regular hits, he would usually cool off on them because he was more interested in discovering something new, something nobody else had discovered yet. His job was done in a sense.”
Which sparks an observation that might be unpopular of someone as beloved as Peel. His eagerness to move on to the next big thing was so ravenous that he sometimes gave the impression the only music that mattered was what had been generated in the last couple months. With occasional exceptions, history, including his own, seemed to fly out the window. On a 1984 program he even proclaimed, “A lot of the records that I was playing on the radio ten years ago, by and large, they sound awful to me…I can’t believe I ever thought they were any good at all. I hope that’s always the case.”
Richard Morton Jack thinks Peel “was so focused on helping new artists get a foothold that he simply couldn’t make room for nostalgia or comparisons with acts from previous generations. I imagine, whether consciously or not, he saw his mission in life as being to help new bands get started, and a necessary part of that was not being fixated on old faves.”
Peel himself had been dumped by old faves he’d helped once they became big, most famously Marc Bolan, who’d refused to take a call from John after Peel made an uncomplimentary on-air comment about one of his hits. But as Houghton notes, there were exceptions. “I think the reason he stuck with the Undertones, the Wedding Present [both acts Houghton worked closely with as a publicist] and the Fall, even once they started having hits (OK the Fall didn’t), was because those groups didn’t change as people. They kept to their principles and maintained their values. Success didn’t go to their heads. Peel was always more loyal to groups who didn’t suddenly start taking on airs or behaving like stars.”
Indeed, Peel’s loyalty to the Undertones was so intense that he literally took them to his grave, as the “teenage dreams so hard to beat” lyric from their “Teenage Kicks” single is engraved on his tombstone.
“Teenage Kicks,” the Undertones:
Houghton sees it as a mixed blessing. “I feel for the Undertones because nobody wanted them to change and to grow up. They’ve almost been stranded in time. ‘Teenage Kicks’ being Peel’s all-time favorite record has worked against them in the long term. It’s all people know about them.
“Peel’s abandonment of artists I was involved with was never a frustration to me or any of the artists because we all accepted this about Peel,” adds Houghton, whose illustrious clients also included the Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, and KLF, among others. “Just as we accepted the nature of the music press whereby you took the rough with the smooth, the good reviews with the bad. It was the nature of the beast.”
Whether consciously or not, he saw his mission in life as being to help new bands get started, and a necessary part of that was not being fixated on old faves.”
Peel kept playing music on the BBC until his death in 2004, and his emphasis remained on the new and up-and-coming. While he never shied away from extreme noise bands that might have even alienated some punk fans, he did make room for some non-abrasive and even non-rock sounds. He had instrumental surf titan Dick Dale on for five sessions from 1995-2004. Zimbabwe group the Four Brothers were a particular favorite of Peel’s, and even played at his fiftieth birthday party.
Houghton, who organized the press for that party, nonetheless feels that Peel’s peak had passed by then. “Peel’s heyday was in the late ‘70s and much of the ‘80s, or at least that’s how it seems to me. There were rumblings that he’d lost the plot by the end, and his shows were becoming willful and contrary in what he was playing — almost for the sake of it. Peel’s listenership was very generational, and not just students in bedsits either. For the most part, once you reached a certain age you either stopped listening to music altogether or you had forged your own taste and, in a sense, you no longer needed to be guided by John Peel.”
You might not be able to hear Peel on the BBC now, but even if you never heard him, airchecks going back to the 1967 Perfumed Garden days circulate. Three hundred of his shows from 1967-2003 are minutely detailed in David Cavanagh’s Good Night and Good Riddance, which weaves in colorful details about Peel’s personal life and the rapidly changing music scene in general. The most tangible fruits of his legacy, however, might be thousands of recordings on which his voice isn’t even heard.
The Peel Sessions
From October 1967 to October 2004, an astonishing number of live-in-the-studio sessions were featured on programs presented by John Peel on Radio One. There were nearly four and a half thousand such sessions, from some of the biggest superstars to a host of no-names. Though many survive on tape, it’s unlikely all of them will be made officially available, and unlikely anyone would want to hear all of them, such is their scope. But many of have them have circulated, officially and unofficially, as testament both to Peel’s wide-ranging taste and the one-of-a-kind performances his shows broadcast.
The preponderance of Peel sessions are an outgrowth of an era when “needle time,” or airplay of actual vinyl records, was restricted so as not to take too much work away from musicians who were performing live. That’s a reason so many BBC sessions are available by ‘60s British rock groups, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones on down. These aren’t just valuable for a chance to hear versions that are different from those on their official studio discs. They also gave acts a chance to play songs that never came out on their records, whether covers or even original compositions.
Such rarities were a part of Peel sessions from his earliest days on the BBC. In late 1967, Pink Floyd did two chaotically fascinating Syd Barrett compositions, “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream,” that wouldn’t come out for half a century, though they were bootlegged long before that. Barrett himself did a solo session in 1970, including one song, the bouncy “Two of a Kind,” that’s unavailable elsewhere (and whose composition has been credited to Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright on some editions, and Barrett on others).
Peel’s loyalty to the Undertones was so intense that he literally took them to his grave, as the “teenage dreams so hard to beat” lyric from their “Teenage Kicks” single is engraved on his tombstone.
Likewise, on a visit from the US, Tim Buckley’s 1968 Peel session included one song, “Coming Home to You,” that wasn’t on his LPs. And some numbers aired on Peel sessions wouldn’t resurface until years later. Nico’s 1971 session, for instance, previewed “Secret Side,” which wouldn’t show up on her albums until 1974’s The End. The famously reclusive Nick Drake seldom performed live, but he did manage a Peel session in August 1969, which might be the closest we’ll come to a concert recording, as lo-fi as it is.
Nick Drake performing “Cello Song” live in BBC studio for a Peel Session:
Mick Houghton draws on his own expertise as a Sandy Denny biographer (in his fine book I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny) with more instances: “There are examples of Peel sessions bettering the finished recording, certainly in terms of rawness and energy and spontaneity. Funnily enough, there are a lot of Sandy Denny recordings where the Peel sessions (or her home demos) are far better because she too often over-embellished her songs on record. The vocals are often better because she was a brilliant one-take singer whereas in the studio she’d get nervous and end up doing multiple takes.”
For the bands, the sessions sometimes had value beyond publicity purposes. “A lot of acts used Peel sessions as virtual demos, or certainly a way of trying out new songs or a provisional recording of something they’d been playing live,” reveals Houghton. When Echo & the Bunnymen weren’t writing much, then-manager Bill Drummond, writes Mick in his memoir, forced them into action with his “usual fail-safe ploy of booking a new John Peel radio session and giving them a couple of days to come up with four new songs.”
The famously reclusive Nick Drake seldom performed live, but he did manage a Peel session in August 1969, which might be the closest we’ll come to a concert recording, as lo-fi as it is.
If that sounds like a harsh taskmaster, in Houghton’s view, “Bill’s approach probably wasn’t unique. The Bunnymen could be very lazy and hard to motivate. That particular session they only came up with three instead of the contracted four songs, but one of those was ‘Taking Advantage,’ which became ‘The Back of Love’, their first hit.”
You get a pretty good idea of Peel’s favorites from finding which acts did the most sessions. The Fall did twenty-four, with leader Mark E. Smith the only constant in their ever shifting lineup. German group F.S.K. had a standing invitation to appear on Peel’s show whenever they felt like it—an offer that, band member Thomas Meinecke told me, was shared only by the Fall. F.S.K. only did seven sessions, but that’s still a remarkable number for a band obscure even to much of the alternative rock underground.
Almost fifteen years after the demise of Dandelion Records, old pals Peel and Clive Selwood launched another label, Strange Fruit, that issued nearly a hundred discs in its Peel Sessions series. These included select pickings from icons like Syd Barrett, Nico, Robert Wyatt, the Damned, Gang of Four, the Undertones, the Slits, Joy Division, and the Jam. There were also acts whose appeal was pretty limited even to Peel listeners, whether Cud, Stump, Amayenge, or Bolt Thrower.
You get a pretty good idea of Peel’s favorites from finding which acts did the most sessions. The Fall did twenty-four, with leader Mark E. Smith the only constant in their ever shifting lineup.
As glad as many collectors were to have these available, they were also frustrated by their often short EP length, especially when some were known to have more sessions from which to draw.
Too, many artists famed and cult who did Peel sessions were not honored with a Peel Session disc, whether for contractual or other reasons. Quite a few other Peel sessions have shown up on releases outside of this series, like Pink Floyd’s huge The Early Years 1965-1972 box. Quite a few others, unfortunately, have yet to gain official release. Since most of the early session tapes were erased by the BBC, some don’t survive, and many wouldn’t if BBC producers hadn’t kept copies for themselves.
Of course, the very existence of so many Peel sessions testifies to the adventurous taste (as uneven as it often was) and perseverance of a man more responsible for giving this music a forum than anyone else. That he managed this while working for one of the biggest and, to some degree, most corporate media organizations in the world makes his achievements all the more remarkable.
“Peel was a pretty stubborn individual and enjoyed the position he was in, whereby he could challenge or ignore BBC rules and regulations and the establishment (which the BBC represented) that was by nature hidebound,” feels Houghton. “He believed his role was to bend or break the rules, take risks, buck trends, because for much of his career nobody else was doing that. He fed off that.”