Death of a broadcasting icon

JOHN Peel shaped the listening tastes of two generations of music lovers. In recent years he also became a favourite on Radio Four with his Home Truths series.

JOHN Peel shaped the listening tastes of two generations of music lovers. In recent years he also became a favourite on Radio Four with his Home Truths series. EADT arts editor Andrew Clarke offers a tribute to a broadcaster with an almost missionary zeal for originality and innovation.

It is so true that it is almost a cliché that John Peel was a broadcasting legend. He was the only DJ who joined Radio One in 1967 from pirate radio who actually stayed the course. There have been purges and firings aplenty over the years, but there was always one constant - John Peel.

The reason for his survival was that he loved music - he was passionate about music. His body may have been 65, officially a pensioner, but inside he was still a teenager and as enthusiastic about music as he had been 50 years earlier.

Unlike many of us, who as we get older cling desperately to the music of our youth, John Peel was always seeking out originality and innovation - new bands and new sounds.

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He was a champion for those bands without a record deal and his late-night sessions became a highly sought-after prize for struggling musicians trying to gain exposure in a world increasingly controlled by playlists and worldwide music corporations.

Despite his dry sense of humour and his laid-back, unhurried, almost monotone delivery on air, John Peel was one of life's true enthusiasts and was passionate about everything he did - whether it was his beloved Liverpool football club, The Archers or his passion for motorbikes and racing cars.

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His love affair with music started in 1956 when he first heard Elvis Presley at Shrewsbury public school and it continued until the day he died.

In the early days he was the first DJ to give airtime to the eccentric Captain Beefheart and superstar-in-waiting David Bowie.

Then while his colleagues in the mid-1970s were playing Abba and Supertramp, John Peel was the first to champion punk rock, launching Sex Pistols and The Clash before discovering Joy Division and The Undertones - Teenage Kicks by The Undertones was his favourite record of all time.

He said: “I just mark with an asterisk those tracks that I want to play on the radio. One asterisk means might play, two means should play and three asterisks means must play.

“I try and restrict myself to three asterisks, but if I get very enthusiastic I put four or even more. The Undertones' Teenage Kicks got something like 28 asterisks, but that was just a fit of madness.”

His home near Stowmarket was filled with more than 10,000 albums and CDs. The ceiling was decorated with hundreds of overlapping 45s so that it resembled an eccentric, surreal, upside down version of the TARDIS.

John Peel was happy to let the majority of young bands sail happily on their way to fame and fortune after he had given them their initial push.

But some artists continually found a special place in his heart - Morrissey and The Fall always had a home on his thrice weekly, late-night Radio One show.

John Peel made no differentiation between rock, rap or world music. He played it all because either he liked it or thought his listeners would like it. Such was his respect for music that he would always play a record from beginning to end, without interruption. His comments between tracks were always informative and amusing.

He loved the music he played and wanted to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with his audience who were some of the most loyal radio listeners in the world.

John Peel also became a cult hero of virtually every university student in the country. He had an affinity with this rootless, hard-up section of the population that was formed through the type of music he played and through his avuncular microphone style.

His early life was the subject of an Anglia TV programme in 2002 called Going Home in which John Peel and his wife Sheila - affectionately known to his radio listeners as Pig - returned to his family home in Cheshire.

When interviewed, he said: “It wasn't a particularly happy place. I hadn't been back there since 1955 and every time I had passed it since, I suppose you could say that I had been haunted by it.”

John Peel was born John Robert Ravenscroft in Heswall, near Liverpool. He was the son of a cotton mill owner, but rarely saw his father and was brought up by a nanny.

These were very unhappy times and he told the East Anglian Daily Times that he spent most of his time in the garden before he was pushed off to public school, which was immediately followed by National Service.

After a life lived with stifling rules and regulations John Peel decided to cut loose and head off to America in 1962, where he became a DJ for WRR in Dallas.

When Beatlemania was in full swing, he capitalised on his Liverpool connections to become the Americans' connection to the sound of the Merseybeat.

This meant he was much in demand and travelled across the states working for such stations as KOMA in Oklahoma City and KMEN outside Los Angeles.

Then in 1967, John Peel returned to Britain to join the pirate radio station, Radio London, before being headhunted to join the opening line-up of Radio One alongside Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Young, Kenny Everett, Ed Stewart, Bob Holness, Terry Wogan and Keith Skues.

Although John Peel is famed for his Radio One show, his longevity in a business where you are past it at the age of 30 and his eclectic taste, in recent years he had began to branch out into other areas of broadcasting.

His Saturday morning Radio Four show Home Truths gained a following almost as ardent as for his Radio One show.

It was his down-to-earth style that managed to elicit some heart-rending stories from people, as well as some lighter moments that were made more amusing by his laconic delivery.

For all his years in the rock 'n' roll business, his home life and his family were all important to him. He would frequently greet interviewers clad in a baggy jumper, battered jeans and carpet slippers.

John Peel experienced his own Home Truth moment in 1997 when his beloved wife Sheila suffered a brain haemorrhage.

He was at the Isle of Man TT races with close friend and fellow DJ, Andy Kershaw, when he got a call from daughter, Alexandra, urging him to return home with the alarming plea “you've got to come now, Mum's dying”.

He recalled: “At TT racing time, the Isle of Man is almost impossible to get off. Fortunately, I was with Andy Kershaw, who can be a very stroppy lad. He got me sorted and stayed with me all the way back to Addenbrooke's.”

John Peel remained haunted by the fact that his wife could have died on the journey back and he admitted: “I am perhaps too dependent on her emotionally.”

The couple moved to Suffolk in the early 1970s because they were desperate to get out of London.

They chose Suffolk because the location was great and the houses were cheap, and remained in the same house, adding extensions to accommodate their growing family and his expanding record collection.

In recent years, John Peel installed his own studio so he could record his Radio One show from home.

He had a room that was crammed full of tapes, demos and CDs sent to him from hopeful bands. He felt a strong responsibility towards the people who entrust him with their demos, but there was no way he could listen to them all. “This is my guilt room,” he said, referring to the storage room attached to the studio, “There are people's life's work in these boxes. I just don't have time to listen to them all. But I couldn't ever throw them away.”

In 2001, John Peel announced he had been diagnosed as suffering from diabetes and became a tireless champion for people suffering from the condition.

He maintained with the right diet and lifestyle changes, sufferers could live an almost normal life - and it certainly did not slow him down, who was by now also writing a much-read column for the Radio Times.

John Peel became a national institution by being himself. He was a man of the people, he was not one for showbiz parties full of air-kissing celebrities. Apart from fellow Suffolk resident Griff Rhys Jones, he did not have any close showbiz pals.

He was a man of integrity, who loved what he did. As much as he would have hated it - John Peel was never one for self promotion - he will remain a broadcasting icon and his untimely death will do nothing to undermine his reputation.

John Peel leaves a wife, Sheila, four children, William, Alexandra, Tom and Florence, and a grandson, Archie.

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