Across his 40-year broadcasting career in the UK, Peel established himself as a champion of new musicians with a distinctive style of presenting and an ear for less ‘mainstream’ genres that he helped bring to a nationwide audience.
Born in 1939 near Liverpool as John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, but known professionally as John Peel, he developed an interest in music from a young age.
Following a stint in the army as part of his national service, Peel moved to the United States in 1960 at the age of 21. It was while he was in the US that he got his first taste of radio broadcasting. He worked as the presenter of a Monday-night show for the WRR station in Dallas, Texas. This was followed by a stint at another Dallas-based station named KLIF—where he worked as its official Beatles correspondent—and stations in Oklahoma and California.
Peel moved back to the UK in the early months of 1967 and joined an offshore pirate radio station named Radio London. It was with Radio London that Peel’s distinctive choices of music—which included the likes of blues, folk, experimental pop, and psychedelic rock—began to make themselves known.
Radio London closed in the middle of 1967 and Peel subsequently joined BBC Radio 1, which had only just been established. His hiring did not initially have the support of everyone at the BBC. Though listeners at Radio London had liked his informal and relaxed style of presenting, it was precisely those qualities that made some executives wary of employing him.
Peel, however, had two key supporters in the shape of Robin Scott, Radio 1’s first controller, and Bernie Andrews, a producer. He got the job and was a mainstay at the station until the turn of the millennium.
Like his days at Radio London, Peel’s Radio 1 career was characterised by his playing of new and ‘unusual’ music. His ‘Peel Sessions’—where musicians recorded sets lasting three to four songs—were fan favourites. They were partially the result of a rule established by the Musicians’ Union (later repealed) that prohibited radio stations from playing more than a certain amount of recorded music per show, to create more opportunities for live musicians. Among those who did take part in a Peel Session were Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. There were over 4,000 sessions by 2,000 artists in total between 1967 and 2004.
Alongside his main show, Peel occasionally presented the BBC 1 show Top of the Pops until the 1990s, and also fronted coverage of the Glastonbury Festival.
Peel stayed with Radio 1 as a DJ for several shows for 40 years, the longest-serving of the station’s original line-up. He passed away suddenly in October 2004 at the age of 65. The organisers of Glastonbury renamed their New Bands Stage as the John Peel Stage in his honour, a fitting tribute to his career-long commitment to giving a platform to emerging artists.