This weekend marks 10 years since one of radio’s best ever DJ’s passed away. John Peel is best-known for his ‘Peel Sessions’ that pretty much dominated early radio broadcasting. He is described as a “maverick” and the go-to man for aspiring bands to send demo tapes to – one of those aspiring bands being The Undertones, 5 kids form Northern Ireland who eventually wrote Peel’s favourite song of all time – ‘Teenage Kicks’, he once played it twice in succession on air.
Peel was born John Robert Ravenscroft in Heswall on Merseyside, and was recognised as a massive Liverpool FC fan, in fact, he named three of his children ‘Anfield’, and the other ‘Shankly’. In 1960, he moved to the United States to chase a career in radio, after the death of John F. Kennedy, he passed himself off as a reporter for the Liverpool Echo to be present during the arraignment of Lee Harvey Oswald, the sniper who assassinated JFK.
He moved back to the UK in 1967 and worked for the offshore pirate radio station, Radio London, before joining the BBC’s brand new music station; Radio 1. Peel was the first radio broadcaster to range from psychedelic rock to African drum music, and his unpredictable method of presenting brought a freshness to the industry in a time where pop music was rising in popularity, and music producers began to favour it entirely. It was his enthusiasm for non-mainstream music that often landed him in trouble with the BBC and its’ listeners. In a 1990 interview, he is quoted as saying:
“I played 5 or 6 tracks [of The Ramones first album] and received mail from people demanding I never play stuff like that ever again. Whenever that happens, I always go in the other direction, so I played it more and more and it was great! It was a classic case of changing courses in mid-stream and in a month the average age of the audience dropped by 10 years and the whole social class changed — which I was very pleased about.”
As for ‘The Peel Sessions’, over 4000 sessions, generally of 4 tracks, were recorded by over 2000 artists. Some of the best sessions, the general public have often voted, have been Bob Marley and The Wailers, The Smiths, and later, The White Stripes. The BBC have archived this list of the best 125 Peel Sessions ever: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/johnpeel/sessions/top125/
Upon his death Since his death various parties have recognised Peel’s influence. A stage for new bands at Glastonbury, was renamed “The John Peel Stage” in 2005. Locally, in his Heswall birthplace, a pub named The Ravenscroft was opened in his honour and in 2008, Merseyrail named one of their 507020 range trains, “John Peel”, which operates on the Wirral Line to this day. His wife Sheila said, “John would have been thrilled and emotional to have a train named after him in Liverpool, his favourite city.” Peel has also been awarded an honorary degree by several universities including the University of Liverpool, and a fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.
So whether its a ride on the train named after him, or a listen to one of his sessions, there are hundreds on YouTube, be sure to mark National John Peel Day on Saturday 25th October.