John Peel was a living legend. A key figure in British rock music for almost 40 years, with his infamous Peel Sessions on BBC Radio One, he promoted bands and artists from almost all musical horizons, and helped thousands of young talented musicians. He was a passionate man, who broadcasted the music he believed in, not the one requested by the music industry and the majors.
Peel (whose real name was John Robert Parker Ravenscroft) was born near Chester, in Heswall, on August 30 1939. He became a DJ in the 60s in the USA - in Texas and later in California. He came back to the UK in 1967 and quickly joined the BBC. He always refused to talk over the top of records or play just the hits of the moment and follow the mainstream. He played records of then-unknowns like David Bowie, T-Rex, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Van der Graaf Generator, Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols and other punk groups, many new-wave bands, including Joy Division and later New Order, but also reggae, hip-hop, etc. To make it short, he aired almost all important british acts of the last decades, when they were still little known. That would not mean he would not invite them again once they had become famous!
He regularly topped music paper Best DJ polls and won an "Order of the British Empire" for his work. Through the CD collection of the "Peel Sessions", he won international fame and influenced other DJs, like french DJ Bernard Lenoir.
I learned of his death via Peter Hammill, who as many other artists, has paid his tribute to him. Here are some of the reactions to his demise:
"The news has just come in of the death (by heart attack) of John Peel. The name may not be familiar to those outside the UK, but - believe me - you
still owe the man a lot.
For instance, VdGG would probably not have had a toe in the door in the first place without his early commendation. He was a one man A&R department of the wheat from the chaff variety. That's not to say that his taste was perfect - in his time he went for some execrable stuff - but he was always looking for people trying to do good things, rather than trying to be stars. The failures were far outbalanced by the successes.
For what it's worth...if John had not stuck to his guerilla sniper position for all these years then probably nothing of value would be left in or of the British Music Industry.
This flag's at half-mast to honour him."
"It was funny because he actually helped our career from nothing."
"We didn't meet him for a long, long time and one of our warmest memories is that he was just as nervous as we were about meeting him and as soon as you got together it was like meeting old friends."
"I mean the guy really was somebody who looked after you - he had a love of music and helped people who made music."
"He was the only support we had in the beginning - they were very cold and lonely days, and I've got an awful feeling that there'll be a lot of very lonely, cold, days without him."
"It's a really sad moment - for music, for radio, for groups in general. I'd hate to be in a new group starting out without John Peel."
"The news of Peel's death is a dreadful shock."
"If it wasn't for John Peel, there would be no Joy Division and no New Order. He will be missed by millions."
"He was one of the few people to give bands that played alternative music a chance to get heard, and he continued to be a champion of cutting-edge music throughout his life."
"I was terribly sad to hear the news, even though I hardly knew the man. Like many others, I felt I knew him from his voice on the radio."
Andy McCluskey (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark):
"Many musicians out there today feel a debt of gratitude to John Peel. I am certainly one of them."
"The first thought I had when I heard that John Peel had died was that it was like your favourite footballer, favourite musician, favourite comedian
and favourite uncle all dying at the same time."
"Something I wanted to say to him because without his voice, his taste, and his curiosity, I would never have discovered the music I discovered, and developed such a love for the strange, the dark and the beautiful. [...] I have to take this opportunity to write those words that I wanted to say to his face: Thank you."
RHJ Brooke (his housemaster, 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."
John Peel was also known for his sense of humour:
"I'd quite like to die on the air, but not in a melodramatic way. I would prefer to go during a long track. Then a continuity announcer would come on, trying to stay calm, saying, 'John seems to have been taken ill. We will take you over to Radio 2.' Then you would hear the sound of my heels being dragged down the steps and that will be that."
The last six photos courtesy of Hermeet & the rest of the Peel team from Radio 1 archive.