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John Peel

John Peel: Peeling back the layers of a historical radio DJ

There are few names in British broadcasting history that have the same impact as John Peel. 

Along with icons like Kenny Everett, John Peel is regarded to be one of the founding fathers of radio, and someone who helped to shape the music industry as we know it today.

Peel is regarded by some radio enthusiasts to be one of the most important men that the global musical culture has ever encountered.

However, there’s more to Peel’s story than meets the eye. Peel was a man with his finger on the pulse of the musical scene, but he was also someone with a somewhat disturbing personal background. The John Peel controversy that has emerged after his death has left countless radio fans wondering whether Peel should be celebrated or forgotten.

Here at Radio Fidelity, we believe in sharing the whole history when it comes to something as important and iconic as radio. That’s why we’re going to give you this behind-the-scenes look at everything you need to know about John Peel, from his world-famous “Sessions”, to the arguments that arose after his untimely demise.

Let’s peel back the curtains.

Where was John Peel born? A brief history

John Robert Parker Ravenscroft was born on the 30th of August 1939, in a town called Heswall, near Liverpool. Peel was the third child of a successful cotton merchant named Robert Leslie Ravenscroft, and Joan Mary (his wife). Educated at boarding school, John was a solitary child, and an avid record collector. He loved listening to the sounds of the American Forces Network, and even pirate stations like Radio Luxembourg.

In his youth, Peel dreamed of hosting a station of his own, where he could share the music that he believed the world should hear. Though John didn’t talk much about his childhood in his life, his posthumously published autobiography revealed dark moments from his youth. The John Peel autobiography reveals that John was raped by an older student during his time at Shrewsbury School.

Following his time in school, Peel joined the National Service as a B2 radar operator. Following that, Peel was a mill operative at Townhead Mill in Rochdale. By the age of 21, John moved to the United States to work for a cotton producer who dealt with his father. Once his job with the producer finished, he took on numerous other roles, including a brief position as a travelling salesman, until he came back to the UK in 1967, and found a role with the Pirate Radio station, Radio London.

John’s time with Radio London was his first chance to explore his dreams of becoming a radio jockey. Peel’s 2-hour shift between midnight and 2am gradually developed into the John Peel Perfumed Garden show. It was also on Big L that John eventually took on the name of “John Peel” – his distinctive radio identity.

John Peel’s perfumed garden: What kind of music did Peel play?

The John Peel radio show on Radio London quickly became a celebration of the underground scene in the UK. Peel played a wide selection of folk music, blues, psychedelic rock, and more. Rather than just playing the standard content that everyone else was exploring on the radio at the time, Peel was careful to make his show stand out. He was one of the first broadcasters to play progressive rock records on British radio. What’s more, John is widely acknowledged for being responsible for the rise of various bands in a multitude of genres.

Paul Gambaccini, another famous disk jockey of the time, described John as one of the most important men in music for around “a dozen years”.

It wasn’t just the music that made the John Peel radio show special, but the personal and often intimate tone of Peel’s presentation. John spent his time at underground events in the UK music scene when he was on “shore leave” from his pirate radio station. His experiences with celebrities, drug busts and more were often discussed at length between records, although much of the conversation was cut out of Radio London’s daytime broadcast.

Listeners gradually formed a connection with Peel, sending him poems, records, and letters so that his show began to take on a two-way style of communication. By the time he was in his last week with Radio London, Peel was receiving more content from fans than any other DJ for the station.

However, the pirate radio revolution in the UK couldn’t last forever. When Radio London shut down in 1967, Peel needed to find a new way to share his thoughts and music with the world. This started with the arrival of a new column written for the International Times, named “The Perfumed Garden“. A mailing list was established by a group of Peel fans too.

John, like many DJs forced out of pirate radio at the time, also took on a new role with the new pop music station created by the BBC. BBC Radio 1 started broadcasting almost immediately after the closure of Radio London. Peel once said in an interview that Radio 1 had no idea what it was doing, which was why they decided to take people off pirate ships to help them.

The life of John Peel: John Peel radio shows and sessions

John Peel’s position as a UK icon continued to grow over the years, particularly as he settled into his new role with the BBC. Though in a new environment, some of names that often appear in answer to the question: “Which bands did John Peel discover” include David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and even Marc Bolan.

Peel continued to keep his ear to the underground of the music industry, playing records from unknown acts at the time, like the Sex Pistols, and the Smiths. Gradually, Peel gathered more and more famous names to add to his roster.

Throughout the years, Peel experimented frequently with music and occasionally appeared on television as a presenter of shows like Top of the Pops. John also provided some basic voice-over commentary for BBC programs too, becoming popular with the BBC Radio 4 audience for his “Home Truths” show, which featured unusual stories from the domestic world.

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of John’s life on the airwaves were the “John Peel Sessions”, which began in 1992. These sessions offered an opportunity for bands to come in and record exclusive tracks within the BBC studios. Almost every influential band you can think of from the UK and US over the last dozen years has their own Peel Session, from Blur, to Nirvana, and countless others.

The John Peel sessions were more than just a gimmick for Peel. They were an opportunity for him to follow his dreams of sharing the music that he loved with the world. The sessions actually began as a response to the restrictions that the BBC were constantly battling against from the Musician’s Union and the Phonographic Performance Limited groups. The limitations of the era left the BBC hiring orchestras and bands so that they could render cover versions of the music that listeners wanted to hear.

The John Peel sessions allowed the BBC and Peel to avoid the rules and regulations that had previously sent radio stations into the water as broadcasting pirates. Each of the sessions were recorded and mixed within a single day, which made them feel rough, raw, and a lot more “live” than the music we hear today. During the 37 years that John Peel spent with Radio 1, he helped to record more than 4,000 sessions, with over 2,000 artists. There are even classic Peel sessions available on record from the “Strange Fruit” label.

What happened to John Peel? The death of an icon

Peel spent a lot of his career moving through the various genres of British entertainment throughout the years. Alongside the Radio 1 John Peel Show, Peel could also be found broadcasting on the BBC World Service, and as part of the British Forces Broadcasting Service from time-to-time. Peel also guest-starred on a number of important shows over the years, including the Radio 4 favourite – Desert Island Discs. John Peel’s Desert Island Discs included:

  • Misty in Roots – Live at the Counter Eurovision
  • George Frederic Handel – Zadok the Priest
  • Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2 (C Minor)
  • The Undertones – Teenage kicks
  • Jimmy Reed – Too Much
  • The Four Brothers – Pasi Pano Pane Zviedzo
  • The Fall – Eat Yerself Fitter
  • Roy Orbison – It’s over

Following an incredible impact on the radio industry, Peel died from a heart attack on October the 25th in 2004. The event happened when John was in the middle of a working holiday in Peru. When his death was announced, fans began sending tributes to Radio 1, and the BBC cleared Radio 1’s schedule for October 26 to broadcast a full day of tributes.

Buy Guesswork by Lloyd Cole

The funeral held for John Peel in Suffolk on the 12th of November 2004 was visited by more than a thousand people, including many of the artists that Peel had helped to earn attention for over the years. The service also ended with the song “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones. Peel had long had a deep connection with that song and had written that he wanted the words to Teenage Kicks included on his gravestone when he died.

Since John Peel’s death, the BBC has marked the 25th of October as “Peel day”, regularly playing special tribute sessions and broadcasting performances from some of the artists that Peel was so closely connected with. However, this process has fallen somewhat to the wayside over the years, perhaps due to the controversy that emerged after Peel passed away.

John Peel controversy: Is he really a radio hero?

While it’s hard to deny that the John Peel show, his music discovery sessions and more have had a huge impact on the UK music industry, some still refuse to acknowledge Peel’s status as a “legend”. The BBC largely regards John as a major figure in the history of the broadcasting landscape, but even they have started to cut some of their ties with Peels over the years.

For instance, in 2012, the BBC chose to rename a wing at the Broadcasting House after Peel. However, while the organisation was preparing to nail a plaque to the wall in Peel’s honour, an allegation was made against him. A story was quickly revealed, suggesting that Peel had had sexual relations with an underage girl numerous times within the BBC premises. The BBC decided to forget about renaming the wing for the time, but very little else came from the issue.

As information began pouring out about Peel’s alleged affairs, some people began to speak up against the BBC, suggesting that they should have recognised his sexual issues in the past.

During his early years, John Peel worked at a local radio station in Texas, something that he frequently spoke about during his BBC sessions, and in conversations with friends. Peel once said that young girls, often as young as 13 used to queue up outside of his radio station hoping to be “abused sexually”. John noted that he was “only too happy” to oblige the girls, who would do anything with him but full intercourse.

When he was 26 years old, Peel married an American girl, aged 15 called Shirley Milburn. He claimed that she and her family had lied about her age later, and the couple divorced around 8 years later. After Milburn returned to the US, she committed suicide.

During the mid-70s, Peel wrote for a column in a weekly rock music magazine called “Sounds”, where he mentioned that he preferred the company of girls dressed as schoolgirls. While that itself might not be evidence of wrongdoing, some publications have pointed to it as a sign that the BBC should have known that something was wrong with their beloved DJ.

In 2012, Jane Nevin announced that she had been part of a three-month affair with Peel when he was 30 and she was 15. Nevin became pregnant at the age of 16 and had a “traumatic abortion” according to her story. Because the allegations made against Peel came to light after his death, it has been impossible to investigate the matter any further.

The complicated character of John Peel

Unfortunately, like any historical figure in the annals of radio history, Peel suffers from an inability to speak out about the allegations that have been made against him following his death. It’s difficult for anyone to say for certain whether he’s a radio hero, or just another monster revealed as the entertainment industry gradually stops protecting its stars.

If it’s possible to ignore Peel’s personal life entirely and think of him as nothing but a radio DJ, then it’s easy to see why so many people still hold this man in high regard today. Regardless of what happened outside of the DJ booth, the John Peel show, and John Peel sessions that transformed Radio 1 shaped the tastes of various generations of music lovers over the years.

The John Peel Perfumed Garden introduced hippies to the Summer of Love with the help of a little pirate radio ingenuity. Peel also helped to lead the way for the biggest bands of the UK, changing the music industry as we know it by championing artists like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd. By the time the 70s arrived, Peel and his co-producers were recording and sharing sessions by The Wailers, Queen, and Roxy Music, while still somehow placating the Musician’s Union.

In 1976, John Peel was also one of the men who helped to introduce the UK to punk, when he obtained an import copy of the eponymous debut album from The Ramones. Throughout 1977 and for years onwards, many of the John Peel Sessions recorded on BBC Radio 1 were all about the UK punk and post-punk genre, with bands like the Banshees, Joy Division, and The Cure.

It was Peel’s enthusiasm for new sounds and bands, and his willingness to help struggling artists find their way that made him so influential in the music industry. Not only that, but Peel seemed to have an impressive knowledge of virtually every music genre. He was there to introduce the UK to new musical experiences, whether they liked it or not, and that was something that many listeners loved about him.

According to Radio 1 controller, Andy Parfitt, Peel was a joy to work with, and a true storyteller, capable of inspiring the other disk jockeys that came to work at the company. Parfitt noted that John was completely dedicated to his music. Often, he would seek out the most obscure things he could find and play it, just to get involved in a conversation. The first song played after Peel’s death on Radio 1 was “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones – which was one of his favourite songs of all time.

A DJ with his finger on the pulse

Whatever your personal feelings might be about John Peel, and regardless of what you believe about his personal life, it’s difficult to overlook the impact that he had on the radio industry. Many people were shocked and saddened by Peel’s death because of the work he had done to bring music to the masses. Over almost four decades, Peel had helped to break bands and artists like the Undertones, Billy Bragg, the Banshees, and many more into the spotlight. His open-minded approach to music and his remarkable rapport with listeners made him an unforgettable character.

Going forward, however, it’s difficult to know for certain whether the BBC and other musical groups will continue to celebrate John Peel and his history or not.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether this radio icon deserves a spot in history for his work with music, or whether he’s just another piece of evidence to show that people in the music industry have frequently gotten away with things that they never should have.

Tell us what you think in the comments below or join the conversation on social media.

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