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John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, OBE (30 August 1939 – 25 October 2004), known professionally as John Peel, was an Englishmarker disc jockey, radio presenter and journalist. He was the longest-serving of the original BBC Radio 1 DJs, broadcasting regularly from 1967 until his death in 2004. He was known for his eclectic taste in music and his honest and warm broadcasting style. He was one of the first broadcasters to play psychedelic rock, reggae and punk records on British radio, and he is widely acknowledged for promoting artists in various styles including alternative rock, indie rock, pop, hardcore punk, death metal, British hip hop and dance music.

Peel's Radio 1 shows were notable for the regular 'Peel sessions', which usually consisted of four songs recorded by an artist live in the BBC's studios, and which often provided the first major national coverage to bands that later would achieve great fame. Another popular feature of his shows was the annual Festive Fifty countdown of his listeners' favourite records of the year. Peel appeared frequently on British television as one of the presenters of Top of the Pops in the 1980s, and he provided voice-over commentary for a number of BBC programmes. He became popular with the audience of BBC Radio 4 for his Home Truths programme which ran from the 1990s, featuring unusual stories from listeners' domestic lives.

Biography

Early life

Peel was born in Heswall Cottage Hospital in Heswallmarker on the Wirral Peninsulamarker, near Liverpoolmarker, and grew up in the nearby village of Burtonmarker. His father was an upper middle class cotton merchant, and he was sent away to be educated as a boarder at Shrewsbury Schoolmarker. His housemaster, R H J Brooke, whom Peel described as "extraordinarily eccentric" and "amazingly perceptive", wrote on one of his school reports, "Perhaps it's possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays." In his posthumously published autobiography, Peel revealed that he had been raped by an older pupil while at Shrewsbury.

After finishing his National Service in 1959 in the Royal Artillery as a B2 Radar Operator, he worked as a mill operative at Townhead Mill in Rochdalemarker and travelled home each weekend to Heswall on a scooter borrowed from his sister. Whilst in Rochdale Monday to Friday he stayed in a bed and breakfast in the Milkstone Road/Drake Street area.

United States

In 1960, he went to the United Statesmarker to work for a cotton producer who had business dealings with his father. Once this job had finished, he took a number of others, including working as a travelling insurance salesman, remaining in the United States until 1967. While in Dallas, he spoke to John F. Kennedy as the presidential candidate and Lyndon B. Johnson toured the city during the 1960 election campaign. Following Kennedy's assassination, he passed himself off as a reporter for the Liverpool Echo in order to attend the arraignment of Lee Harvey Oswald and he and a friend can be seen in the footage of the press conference shortly before Oswald's assassination. He later phoned in the story to the Liverpool Echo.

While working for an insurance company based in Dallas, Texasmarker, filing card programs for an early IBM 1410 computer (which led to his entry in Who's Who noting him as a former computer programmer), he got his first radio job, albeit unpaid, working for WRRmarker Radio in Dallas. There, he presented the second hour of the Monday night programme Kat's Karavan. Following this, and as Beatlemania hit the United States, Peel got a job as the official Beatles correspondent with the Dallasmarker radio station KLIF due to his connection to Liverpool. He later worked for KOMA in Oklahoma City, Oklahomamarker until 1965 when he moved to KMENmarker in San Bernardino, Californiamarker, using the name John Ravencroft to present the breakfast show.

While in Dallas in 1965, he married his first wife, Shirley Anne Milburn, in what Peel later described as a "mutual defence pact". She was only 15 at the time, a fact she successfully concealed from Peel, and both her parents had recently died. The marriage was never happy and although Shirley accompanied Peel back to Britainmarker in 1967, they were soon separated. The divorce became final in 1973. She later committed suicide.

Return to Britain

Peel returned to Englandmarker in early 1967 and found work with the offshore pirate radio station Radio London. He was offered the midnight-to-two shift, which gradually developed into a programme called The Perfumed Garden (some thought it was named after an erotic book famous at the time - which Peel claimed never to have read). It was on "Big L" that he first adopted the name John Peel (the name was suggested by a Radio London secretary) and established himself as a distinctive radio voice.

Peel's show was an outlet for the music of the UK underground scene. He played classic blues, folk music and psychedelic rock, with an emphasis on the new music emerging from Los Angeles and San Francisco. As important as the musical content of the programme was the personal—sometimes confessional—tone of Peel's presentation, and the listener participation it engendered. Underground events he had attended during his periods of shore leave, like the UFO Club and "The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream", together with causes célèbres like the drug "busts" of the Rolling Stones and John "Hoppy" Hopkins, were discussed between records. All this was far removed from Radio London's daytime format. Listeners sent Peel letters, poems, and records from their own collections, so that the programme became a vehicle for two-way communication; by the final week of Radio London he was receiving far more mail than any other DJ on the station.

After the closure of Radio London in 1967 Peel wrote a column under the title The Perfumed Garden for the underground newspaper the International Times (from autumn 1967 to mid-1969), in which he showed himself to be a committed, if critical, supporter of the ideals of the underground. A Perfumed Garden mailing list was set up by a group of keen listeners, which facilitated contacts and gave rise to numerous small-scale, local arts projects typical of the time, including the poetry magazine Sol.

BBC career

Peel in a studio in Broadcasting House
When Radio London closed down on 14 August 1967, John Peel joined the BBC's new pop music station, BBC Radio 1, which began broadcasting the following month. Unlike Big L, Radio 1 was not a full-time station, but a hybrid of recorded music and live studio orchestras. Peel recalled, "I was one of the first lot on Radio 1 and I think it was mainly because ... Radio 1 had no real idea what they were doing so they had to take people off the pirate ships because there wasn't anybody else." Peel presented a programme called Top Gear. At first he was obliged to share presentation duties with other DJs (Pete Drummond and Tommy Vance were among his co-hosts) but in February 1968 he was given sole charge of Top Gear; he continued to present the show until it ended in 1975. Peel played an eclectic mix of the music that caught his attention, which he would continue to do throughout his career.

During 1969, after hosting a trailer for a BBC programme on VD on his Night Ride programme, Peel received significant media attention because of admitting on air to having suffered from a sexually transmitted disease earlier that year. This admission was later used in an attempt to discredit him when he appeared as a defence witness in the 1971 Oz obscenity trial.

The Night Ride programme, advertised by the BBC as an exploration of words and music, seemed to take up from where The Perfumed Garden had left off. It featured rock, folk, blues, classical and electronic music. A unique feature of the programme was the inclusion of tracks, mostly of exotic non-Western music, drawn from the BBC Sound Archives; the most popular of these were gathered on a BBC Records LP, John Peel's Archive Things (1970). Night Ride also featured poetry readings and numerous interviews with a wide range of guests, including personal friends Marc Bolan, journalist and musician Mick Farren, poet Pete Roche, and singer-songwriter Bridget St. John and stars such as the Byrds, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The programme captured much of the creative activity of the underground scene. Its anti-establishment stance and unpredictability did not find approval with the BBC hierarchy, however, and it ended in September 1969 after 18 months. In his sleeve notes to the Archive Things LP Peel calls the free-form nature of Night Ride his preferred radio format. His subsequent shows featured a mixture of records and live sessions, a format which would characterise his Radio 1 programmes for the rest of his career.

After separation from his first wife, Peel's personal life began to stabilise, as he found friendship and support from new Top Gear producer John Walters - and from his girlfriend Sheila Gilhooly, whom he identified on-air as "the Pig". Peel married Sheila on 31 August 1974. The reception was in London's Regent's Parkmarker, with Walters as best man. Peel wore Liverpool football colours (red) and walked down the aisle to the song "You'll Never Walk Alone". Their sheepdog, Woggle, served as a bridesmaid.

Peel's enthusiasm for music outside the mainstream occasionally brought him into conflict with the Radio 1 hierarchy. In early 1977 station controller Derek Chinnery contacted John Walters and asked him to confirm that the show was not playing any punk, which he (Chinnery) had read about in the press and disapproved of. Chinnery was evidently somewhat surprised by Walters' reply that in recent weeks they had been playing little else. In 1979 Peel stated: "They leave you to get on with it. I'm paid money by the BBC not to go off and work for a commercial radio station...I wouldn't want to go to one anyway, because they wouldn't let me do what the BBC let me do."

Peel's reputation as an important DJ breaking unsigned acts into the mainstream was such that young hopefuls sent him an enormous amount of records, CDs, and tapes. When he returned home from a three week holiday at the end of 1986 there were 173 LPs, 91 12"s and 179 7"s waiting for him.Another example in point is that in 1983 unsigned artist Billy Bragg drove to the Radio 1 studios with a mushroom biryani and a copy of his record after hearing Peel mention that he was hungry, the subsequent airplay launching his career.

Peel Acres
In the 1970s Peel and Sheila moved to a thatched cottage in the village of Great Finboroughmarker near Stowmarketmarker in Suffolk, nicknamed "Peel Acres". In later years Peel broadcast many of his shows from a studio in the house, with Sheila and their children often being involved or at least mentioned. Peel's passion for Liverpool F.C. was reflected in his children's names:William Robert Anfieldmarker, Alexandra Mary Anfield, Thomas James Dalglish and Florence Victoria Shankly. His later shows also regularly featured live performances (broadcast live, unlike the pre-recorded Peel sessions), mostly from BBC Maida Vale Studiosmarker in West London, but occasionally in the Peel Acres living room.

Studio at Peel Acres


In addition to his Radio 1 show, Peel broadcast as a disc jockey on the BBC World Service, 30 years on the British Forces Broadcasting Service BFBS (John Peel's Music on BFBS), VPRO Radio3 in the Netherlandsmarker, YLE Radio Mafia in Finlandmarker, Ö3 in Austria (Nachtexpress), and on Radio 4U, Radio Eins (Peel ...), Radio Bremen (Ritz) and some independent radio stations around FSK Hamburg in Germanymarker. As a result of his BFBS programme he was voted, in Germany, 'Top DJ in Europe'.

Peel was an occasional presenter of Top of the Pops on BBC 1 TV from the late 1960s until the 1990s, and in particular from 1982 to 1987 when he appeared regularly. In 1971 he appeared not as presenter but performer, alongside Rod Stewart and The Faces, pretending to play mandolin on "Maggie May". He often presented the BBC's television coverage of music events, notably Glastonbury Festivalmarker.

Later years

Between 1995 and 1997, Peel presented a show about children, called Offspring, on BBC Radio 4. In 1998, Offspring grew into the magazine-style documentary show Home Truths. When he took on the job presenting the programme, which was about everyday life in British families, Peel requested that it be free from celebrities, as he found real life stories more entertaining. Home Truths was described by occasional stand-in presenter John Walters as being "about people who had fridges called Renfrewshire". Peel also made regular contributions to BBC Two's humorous look at the irritations of modern life Grumpy Old Men. His only appearance in an acting role in film was in 1999 as a "grumpy old man who catalogues records" in Five Seconds to Spare[2203], although he had provided narration for others.

He appeared as a celebrity guest on a number of TV shows, including This Is Your Life (1996, BBC), Travels With My Camera (1996, Channel 4 TV), and Going Home (2002, ITV TV). He was also in demand as a voice-over artist for television documentaries, such as BBC One's A Life of Grime, and advertisements, though he reportedly refused to work on adverts for products that he didn't use himself. He once said that he hoped his voice-over for Andrex toilet tissue would "make people want to wipe their bottom".

In April 2003, the publishers Transworld successfully wooed Peel with a package worth up to £1.6 million for his autobiography, having placed an advert in a national newspaper aimed only at Peel. Unfinished at the time of his death it was completed by Sheila and journalist Ryan Gilbey. It was published in October 2005 under the title Margrave of the Marshes. A collection of Peel's miscellaneous writings, The Olivetti Chronicles, was published in 2008.

Death

Peel died suddenly at the age of 65 from a heart attack on 25 October 2004, on a working holiday in the Inca city of Cuzcomarker in Perumarker. Shortly after the announcement of his death, tributes began to arrive from fans and supporters both in and out of public life. On 26 October 2004 BBC Radio 1 cleared its schedules to broadcast a day of tributes.

Peel had often spoken wryly of his eventual death. He once said on the show Room 101, "I've always imagined I'd die by driving into the back of a truck while trying to read the name on a cassette and people would say, 'He would have wanted to go that way.' Well, I want them to know that I wouldn't."At one point, he said that if he died before his producer John Walters, he wanted the latter to play Roy Harper's "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease". Walters having died in 2001, it was left to Andy Kershaw to end his tribute programme to Peel on BBC Radio 3 with the song. Peel's stand-in on his Radio 1 slot, Rob da Bank, also played the song at the start of the final show before his funeral. Another time, Peel said he'd like to be remembered with a gospel song. He stated that the final record he would play would be the Rev C. L. Franklin's sermon "Dry Bones in The Valley".

Peel's funeral, on 12 November 2004, in Bury St Edmundsmarker, Suffolk, was attended by over a thousand people including many of the artists he had championed. Eulogies were read by his brother, Alan Ravenscroft, and DJ Paul Gambaccini. The service ended with clips of him talking about his life and his coffin was carried out to the accompaniment of his favourite song, The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks". Peel had written that, apart from his name, all he wanted on his gravestone were the words, "Teenage dreams, so hard to beat", from the lyrics of "Teenage Kicks". A headstone engraved in accordance with his wishes was placed at his grave in 2008.

Life in music

Peel sessions

A feature of Peel's BBC Radio 1 shows were the famous John Peel Sessions, which usually consisted of four pieces of music pre-recorded at the BBC's studios. The sessions originally came about due to restrictions imposed on the BBC by the Musicians' Union and Phonographic Performance Limited which represented the record companies dominated by the EMI cartel. Because of these restrictions the BBC had been forced to hire bands and orchestras to render cover versions of recorded music. The theory behind this device was that it would create employment and force people to buy records and not listen to them free of charge on the air. One of the reasons why all of the offshore broadcasting stations of the 1960s were called "pirates" was because they operated outside of British laws and were not bound by the needle time restriction on the number of records they could play on the air.

The BBC employed its own house bands and orchestras and it also engaged outside bands to record exclusive tracks for its programs in BBC studios. This was the reason why Peel was able to use "session men" in his own programs. Sessions were usually four tracks recorded and mixed in a single day; as such they often had a rough and ready, demo-like feel, somewhere between a live performance and a finished recording. Peel remained on BBC Radio 1 for 37 years, until his death in 2004. During that time over 4000 sessions were recorded by over 2000 artists. Many classic Peel Sessions have been released on record, particularly by the Strange Fruit label.

Festive Fifty

An annual tradition of Peel's Radio 1 show was the Festive Fifty—a countdown of the best tracks of the year as voted for by the listeners. Despite Peel's eclectic play list, the Festive Fifty tended to be composed largely of "white boys with guitars", as Peel complained in 1988. In 1991 the broadcast of the chart was cancelled due to a lack of votes, although many have speculated that it was because it didn't feature a single entry from the dance acts that Peel had been championing that year. Topped inevitably by Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", this Phantom Fifty was eventually broadcast at the rate of one track per programme in 1993. The 1997 chart was initially cancelled due to the lack of air-time Peel had been allocated for the period, but enough "spontaneous" votes were received over the phone that a Festive Thirty-One was compiled and broadcast.

Peel wrote that "The Festive 50 dates back to what was doubtless a crisp September morning in the early-to-mid Seventies, when John Walters and I were musing on life in his uniquely squalid office. In our waggish way, we decided to mock the enthusiasm of the Radio 1 management of the time for programmes with alliterative titles. Content, we felt, was of less importance than a snappy Radio Times billing. In the course of our historic meeting we had, I imagine, some fine reasons for dismissing the idea of a Festive 40 and going instead for a Festive 50, a decision that was to ruin my Decembers for years to come, condemning me to night after night at home with a ledger, when I could have been out and about having fun, fun, fun.

Dandelion Records and Strange Fruit

In 1969 Peel founded Dandelion Records (named after his pet hamster) so he could release the debut album by Bridget St John, which he also produced. The label released 27 albums by 18 different artists before folding in 1972. Of its albums, There is Some Fun Going Forward was a sampler intended to present its acts to a wide audience, however Dandelion was never a great success with only two releases charting in national charts: Medicine Head in the UK with "(And The) Pictures In The Sky" and Beau in Lebanonmarker with "1917 Revolution". In 1972, the second album for the label by Tractor reached number 18 in the Radio Luxembourg chart and number 30 in the Virgin Shops best selling album chart. Peel continued throughout his career to maintain a close link with Tractor and Rochdalemarker.

As Peel stated, "It was never a success financially. In fact, we lost money, if I remember correctly, on every single release bar one. I did quite like it but it was terribly indulgent. Not as indulgent as it would have been had I not had a business partner, admittedly... I liked having a label. It enabled you to put out stuff that you liked without, in those days, having to worry about whether it was going to work commercially. I've never been a good business man."

In the 1980s Peel set up the Strange Fruit record label with Clive Selwood to release material recorded by the BBC for Peel Sessions.

Favourite music

John Peel writes in his autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes, that the band of which he owns the most records is The Fall. Regulars in the Festive 50, and easily recognised by vocalist Mark E. Smith's distinctive delivery, The Fall became synonymous with Peel's Radio 1 show through the 1980s and 90s. Peel kept in contact with many of the artists he championed but only met Smith on two, apparently awkward, occasions.

The Misunderstood is the only band that Peel ever personally managed—he first met the band in Riverside, California in 1966 and convinced them to move to London. He championed their music throughout his career; in 1968, he described their 1966 single "I Can Take You to the Sun" as "the best popular record that's ever been recorded." and shortly before his death, he stated, "If I had to list the ten greatest performances I've seen in my life, one would be The Misunderstood at Pandora's Box, Hollywood, 1966 ... My god, they were a great band!"

His favourite single is widely known to have been "Teenage Kicks" by The Undertones; in an interview in 2001, he stated "There's nothing you could add to it or subtract from it that would improve it." In the same 2001 interview, he also listed "No More Ghettos in America" by Stanley Winston, "There Must Be Thousands" by The Quads and "Lonely Saturday Night" by Don French as being amongst his all-time favourites.

A longer list of his favourite singles was revealed in 2005 when the contents of a wooden box in which he stored the records that meant the most to him were made public. The box was the subject of a television documentary, John Peel's Record Box. In 1999 Peel presented a nightly segment on his programme titled the Peelennium, in which he played four recordings from each year of the 20th century.

Awards and honorary degrees

Peel was 11 times Melody Maker's DJ of the year, Sony Broadcaster of the Year in 1993, winner of the Godlike Genius Award from the NME in 1994, Sony Gold Award winner in 2002 and is a member of the Radio Academy Hall of Fame. At the NME awards in 2005 he was Hero of the Year and was posthumously given a special award for "Lifelong Service To Music". At the same event the "John Peel Award For Musical Innovation" was awarded to The Others.

He was awarded many honorary degrees including an MA from the University of East Angliamarker, doctorates (Anglia Polytechnic Universitymarker and Sheffield Hallam Universitymarker), various honorary degrees (University of Liverpoolmarker, Open Universitymarker, University of Portsmouth, University of Bradfordmarker) and a fellowship of Liverpool John Moores Universitymarker.

He was appointed an OBE in 1998, for his services to British music. In 2002, the BBC conducted a vote to discover the 100 Greatest Britons of all time, in which Peel was voted 43rd.

Legacy

Since his death various parties have recognised Peel's influence. A stage for new bands at the Glastonbury Festivalmarker, previously known simply as 'The New Bands Tent' was renamed 'The John Peel Stage' in 2005, while in 2008 Merseytravel announced they would be naming a train after him.In 2009 the first blue plaque to bear his name was unveiled in Heywood,part of Rochdale, Greater Manchester to recognise Peel's links to Rochdale and his influence on the local music industry by financing Tractor's recording studios, the plaque was unveiled by Peter Hook of Joy Division/ New Order and Chris Hewitt of Tractor /Ozit Records.

On 13 October 2005, the first "John Peel Day" was held to mark the anniversary of his last show. The BBC encouraged as many bands as possible to stage gigs on the 13th, and over 500 gigs took place in the UK and as far away as Canadamarker and New Zealandmarker, from bands ranging from Peel favourites New Order and The Fall, to many new and unsigned bands. A second John Peel day was held on 12 October 2006, and a third on 11 October 2007. The BBC had originally planned to hold a John Peel Day annually, however Radio 1 has not held any official commemoration of the event since 2007, though a number of gigs still take place around the country to mark the anniversary.

At the annual Gilles Peterson's World Wide Awards, an award has been named after the man himself called the "John Peel Play More Jazz Award".

A number of Peel-related compilation albums have been released since his death, including John Peel and Sheila: The Pig's Big 78s: A Beginner's Guide, a project Peel started with his wife that was left unfinished when he died. A sizable online community has also emerged dedicated to sharing recordings of his radio shows.

See also



Notes

  1. Heatley, p.11
  2. Heatley, p.12
  3. Heatley, p.17
  4. Heatley, p.25
  5. Heatley, p.26
  6. Heatley, pp.26–27
  7. Interview re Perfumed Garden
  8. Hepworth, David (1979) "Forty is More Fun: John Peel, Superfan, Talks to David Hepworth", Smash Hits, EMAP National Publications Ltd, 4-17 October 1979, p.15
  9. Andrew Collins, 2002. Still Suitable for Miners (Billy Bragg: The Official Biography). Virgin Books; ISBN 0-7535-0691-2 (Revised and Updated edition).
  10. "Keeping it Peel, BBC Radio 1 Broadcast 30 September 2007. IMDb reference (Retrieved 30 September 2007)
  11. "Memorial sees Peel try new tracks", BBC News, 20 October 2008
  12. BBC - Radio 1 - Keeping It Peel - Festive 50s
  13. Peel, J., "Bang Bang hits the tops", The Times (London) ISSN 0140-0460, 2 January 1993, Features section pg. SR.12.
  14. John Peel, Top Gear (BBC Radio 1), 8 November 1968.
  15. John Peel So hard to Beat, The Guardian, 2 November 2001. Accessed online 31 August 2006.
  16. John Peel Day 2008, BBC Radio Berkshire, 11 October 2008
  17. Pull Yourself Together presents... JOHN PEEL DAY 2009, listentomanchester.co.uk


References



Further reading

  • Margrave of the Marshes, Autobiography with Sheila Ravenscroft, Bantam Press, 2005. ISBN 0-593-05252-8
  • The Olivetti Chronicles. Articles for The Observer, Radio Times, The Guardian a.o., selected by his wife Sheila and their children. Bantam Press 2008. ISBN 9780593060612


External links




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