Life and career
John Peel was born in Heswall Cottage Hospital in Heswall on the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool. His father was an upper middle-class cotton merchant, and he grew up in the nearby village of Burton. He was educated as a boarder at Shrewsbury School, where one of his contemporaries was future Monty Python member Michael Palin.
The solitary Peel was an avid radio listener and record collector from an early age, cutting his teeth on fare offered by the American Forces Network and Radio Luxembourg. He later recalled an early desire to host a radio programme of his own "so that I could play music that I heard and wanted others to hear."
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 said 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 Rochdale and travelled home each weekend to Heswall on a scooter borrowed from his sister. Whilst in Rochdale during the week, he stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in the area of Milkstone Road and Drake Street and would develop long-term associations with the town as the years progressed.
In 1960, aged 21, he went to the United States to work for a cotton producer who had business dealings with his father. Once this job finished, he took a number of others, including working as a travelling insurance salesman. While in Dallas, Texas, where the insurance company he worked for was based, he conversed with the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and his running mate Lyndon B. Johnson, who were touring the city during the 1960 election campaign, and took photographs of them.
Following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Peel 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 22/23 November midnight press conference at Dallas Police Department when Oswald was paraded before the media. He later phoned in the story to the Liverpool Echo.
While working for the insurance company, Peel wrote programs for punched card entry for an IBM 1410 computer (which led to his entry in Who's Who noting him as a former computer programmer), and he got his first radio job, albeit unpaid, working for WRR (AM) in Dallas. There, he presented the second hour of the Monday night programme Kat's Karavan, which was primarily hosted by the American singer and radio personality Jim Lowe. Following this, and as Beatlemania hit the United States, Peel got a job with the Dallas radio station KLIF as the official Beatles correspondent on the strength of his connection to Liverpool. He later worked for KOMA in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, until 1965 when he moved to KMEN in San Bernardino, California, using the name John Ravencroft to present the breakfast show.
While in Dallas, in 1965, he married his first wife, Shirley Anne Milburn, then aged 15, in what Peel later described as a "mutual defence pact". The marriage was never happy and although she accompanied Peel back to Britain in 1967, they were soon separated. The divorce became final in 1973. Milburn later took her own life.
Return to Britain
Peel returned to England 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.
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.
In 1969, after hosting a trailer for a BBC programme on VD on his Night Ride programme, Peel received significant media attention because he divulged on air that he had 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 Archive; 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 his 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, 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 that 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 Park, 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. Rod Stewart and Graham Chapman attended.
Peel's enthusiasm for music outside the mainstream occasionally brought him into conflict with the Radio 1 hierarchy. On one occasion, the then-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 of which he disapproved. Chinnery was evidently somewhat surprised by Walters' reply that in recent weeks they had been playing little else.
In a 1990 interview, Peel recalled his 1976 discovery of the first album by New York punk band the Ramones as a seminal event:
"At that time almost all the new bands comprised of [sic] people who had previously been in successful bands who had broken up then reformed.... Well I played the first Ramones LP — it was identical to the first time I had heard Little Richard — the intensity was frightening! So I played five or six tracks on the next show and immediately I received mail from people demanding that I never play stuff like that again. Whenever that happens I always go in the opposite direction, so I played 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."
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 number 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. In 1983 Alan Melina and Jeff Chegwin, the music publishers for then-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 launched Billy Bragg's career.
In the 1970s Peel and Sheila moved to a thatched cottage in the village of Great Finborough near Stowmarket 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 Anfield, 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 Studios in West London, but occasionally in the Peel Acres living-room.
In addition to his Radio 1 show, Peel broadcast as a disc jockey on the BBC World Service, on the British Forces Broadcasting Service (John Peel's Music on BFBS) for 30 years, VPRO Radio3 in the Netherlands, YLE Radio Mafia in Finland, Ö3 in Austria (Nachtexpress), and on Radio 4U, Radio Eins (Peel ...), Radio Bremen (Ritz) and some independent radio stations around FSK Hamburg in Germany. 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 BBC1 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 the Glastonbury Festival.
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 appearances in an acting role in film or television were in Harry Enfield's Smashie and Nicey: The End of an Era as John Past Bedtime, and in 1999 as a "grumpy old man who catalogues records" in the film Five Seconds to Spare. However, 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), and presented the 1997 Channel 4 series Classic Trains. He was also in demand as a voice-over artist for television documentaries, such as BBC One's A Life of Grime.
At the age of 62 he was diagnosed with diabetes, following many years of fatigue.
In April 2003, the publishers Transworld successfully wooed Peel with a package worth £1.5 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.
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 Cusco in Peru. Shortly after the announcement of his death, tributes began to arrive from fans and supporters both in public and private life. On 26 October 2004 BBC Radio 1 cleared its schedules to broadcast a day of tributes. London's Evening Standard boards that afternoon read "the day the music died", quoting Don McLean's hit "American Pie".
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 would 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".
On his Home Truths BBC radio show John once commented about his own death: "I definitely want to be buried, although not yet. I'm 61 on Wednesday—just a working day for me, I'm afraid—so actually I should have a mile or two left in me, but I do want the children to be able to stand solemnly at my graveside and think lovely thoughts along the lines of 'Get out of that one, you swine', which they won't be able to do if I've been cremated. I think I want 'Teenage dreams, so hard to beat' on my gravestone and every night at dusk the trumpeters of the 5th Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry to play Misty in Roots' 'Mankind' over the grave. Lovely."
Peel's funeral, on 12 November 2004, in Bury St Edmunds, 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 featuring the lyrics was placed at his grave in 2008. Peel's body was buried in the graveyard of St Andrew's Church in the village of Great Finborough, Suffolk.