The word ‘legend’ is bandied about these days with alarming regularity, and it’s risible to imagine the word being used to describe a Radio 1 disc-jockey. Yet John Peel, who has died aged 65, was the one broadcaster who truly deserved that epitaph.
It’s impossible to overstate just how influential Peel was. In his time he broke a countless number of artists: names as diverse as The Faces, Elton John, The Smiths, Pulp, The Wedding Present and The White Stripes all could be said to owe their career to him. When they did become popular, he simply moved onto the next name – he’d done his work, they no longer needed him.
On his return to England he joined the pirate Radio London where he laid down the roots for his moved loved format with his show The Perfumed Garden, becoming the first DJ to play challenging, left-field oddities such as Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. He joined Radio 1 at its launch in 1967 and was the only DJ to stay with the station for over 35 years.
Peel was unique in that he was the epitome of that well-worn phrase ‘finger on the pulse’. He risked losing half of his listeners by introducing them to punk in 1976 – music that must have sounded totally alien to fans used to progressive rock. He was also the first DJ to play reggae and African music, and introduced people to the sounds of techno from New York City. There was also the little matter of first playing a then little-known band from Seattle called Nirvana.
As well as all his vast musical knowledge, it was Peel’s personality that was so special. His appearances on Top Of The Pops in the 1980s were legendarily grumpy, forming an unlikely double act with David Jensen. When Radio 1 took the inspired decision to let him sit in for one of the daytime DJs, it was required listening – especially his “obligatory daily PJ Harvey spot”. The sound of Harvey’s raw, coruscating version of Highway 61 Revisted on prime-time Radio 1 was a joy.
But there was sensitivity to Peel too – he was legendarily emotional, known to burst into tears at the sound of Teenage Kicks by The Undertones. I remember as a 15 year old boy in Liverpool listening to his show two days after the Hillsborough disaster. The fanatical Liverpool supporter Peel (a man who gave his children the middle names of Anfield, Shankley, and Daglish) opened his show with a beautiful gospel version of You’ll Never Walk Alone by Aretha Franklin. I’m not ashamed to admit I was in floods of tears for the rest of the night.
For moments like that, for the required listening of Peel’s Festive 50 every Christmas, and for introducing me to people such as Morrissey, David Gedge and Half Man Half Biscuit, thank you John Peel.