The Peel Session:
Celebrating the Legendary Tastemaker
I am not the biggest authority when it comes to John Peel but felt…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty
it was only right acknowledging the master as his birthday approaches – 30th August would have been his seventy-eight birthday. It is a tragedy he is no longer with us – more on that later – but one has all those treasured memories and takeaways. Before I share my memories, and why he is such an important figure in music; an overview from Wikipedia:
“John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, OBE (30 August 1939 – 25 October 2004), known professionally as John Peel, was an English disc jockey, radio presenter, record producer and journalist. He was the longest serving of the original BBC Radio 1 DJs, broadcasting regularly from 1967 until his death in 2004.
He was one of the first broadcasters to play psychedelic rock and progressive rock records on British radio, and he is widely acknowledged for promoting artists working in various genres, including pop, reggae, indie pop, indie rock, alternative rock, punk, hardcore punk, breakcore, grindcore, death metal, British hip hop, electronic music, jungle and dance music. Fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini described Peel as "the most important man in music for about a dozen years". In 2012 he was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
Peel's Radio 1 shows were notable for the regular "Peel sessions", which usually consisted of four songs recorded by an artist live in the BBC's studios, and which often provided the first major national coverage to bands that would later achieve great fame. Another popular feature of his shows was the annual Festive Fifty countdown of his listeners' favourite records of the year.
Peel appeared occasionally on British television as one of the presenters of Top of the Pops in the 1980s, and he provided voice-overcommentary for a number of BBC programmes. He became popular with the audience of BBC Radio 4 for his Home Truths programme, which ran from the 1990s, featuring unusual stories from listeners' domestic lives”
My first exposure to John Peel was hearing my favourite artists performing the famous Peel Sessions. The idea was an act would come in and perform four songs for Peel. It was a pre-recorded show that meant you could edit and remove any swearing – it might be a risk doing it today, considering some of the acts he had performing for him. I have fond memories of everyone from The Smiths to Jack White. One can get a complete rundown of The Peel Sessions here (there is a complete playlist at the bottom of the piece) and, if you want NME’s consideration of the ten best Sessions – one can glean them here. The reason I wanted to start with this side of his career was the fact those Sessions, not only produced some fine performances and legendary recordings but allowed Peel to connect with an artist. I have been listening to PJ Harvey on BBC Radio 6 Music and, during the feature; there was a snippet of her speaking with John Peel and her career to that point. Peel always came across as someone who did not mince his words but had an affectionate and tender side. That blend of characteristics brought the best from his guests and, in the comfort of the recording space, one experienced tremendous and one-of-a-kind performances.
During the thirty-seven-years Peel was at the BBC; there was in excess of four-thousand sessions recorded by over two-thousand artists. That is extraordinary and one can argue it spearheaded similar live sessions like BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge and, in fact, every other live session on national radio. Every D.J., in a sense, wants to carry on Peel’s legacy and the way he connected with artists. I will come to his tastemaking legacy but, to show what exceptional taste the man had, a feature regarding his appearance on Desert Island Discs. It is no surprise seeing such an eclectic selection but even less of one finding The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks spoken about in such revered tones.
That is, as we know, Peel’s favourite song and a big reason it has been passed down to new generations. I must admit, the first time I heard the song, maybe in the 1990s, and it opened up my eyes to The Undertones and singer Feargal Sharkey. The next song I heard from Sharkey, conversely, was his cover of A Good Heart – songs that look at very different aspects to love! It is amazing how we discover older and rare musicians through contemporary D.J.s. One of the big reasons John Peel leaves such a vacuum in music is because of his endless passion and curiosity regarding music. A piece in Evening Standard, five years ago, looked at how Peel’s archives and records were being made available to the public:
“Music fans will be able to rifle through the contents of John Peel's record collection as the late DJ's huge archive begins to be opened to the public from today.
The Radio 1 presenter - who died in 2004 - amassed a colossal treasure trove of vinyl during his four decades as a champion of new music.
His collection is now being placed online with details of 100 albums being added in alphabetical order each week over the coming months as part of a digital arts project.
At one stage there was talk of Peel's collection being saved for the nation to give the public access to his records through the National Sound Archive.
IN THIS PHOTO: Peel Acres
But now it will be opened up through an online project The Space, which is being launched by Arts Council England and the BBC.
The first batch of albums - with artists beginning with the letter A - was being placed online today.
The list begins with Mike Absalom, who has called Peel "the musical Maypole around which we all danced".
Creators of the site say it will allow visitors to browse through the records and the DJ's index cards as well as letting them view personal notes, home movies - including footage from his 50th birthday - and archive performances.
Peel amassed more than 25,000 vinyl albums and 100 will be added weekly until October.
His widow, Sheila Ravenscroft, said: "We're very happy that we've finally found a way to make John's amazing collection available to his fans, as he would have wanted.
"This project is only the beginning of something very exciting."
Users of the site will see his collection includes releases by acts such as Philadelphia new wave band The A's and industrial electronic act AAAK.
The first batch of albums, for which Peel had typed out track listings to aid his cataloguing, also includes more mainstream selections. It features the first three albums by ABC - The Lexicon Of Love, Beauty Stab and How To Be A Zillionaire”.
There are features and programmes that have marked Peel’s death – and what his passing means to musicians and music-lovers alike – but every year we mark his life; there is a sadness, for sure. Whether marking his death or birthday, I feel there is endless currency when it comes to exploring Peel’s legacy. The reason I bring him up is because, in an age where so much of our music is digital and immune to promotion, his presence is needed more than ever. We have D.J.s and people promoting new songs but there are far less of it. So many of us discover music through sites like Spotify and YouTube. Social media plays a big part but the role of the D.J. is becoming less relevant.
IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes
The reason I listen to BBC Radio 6 Music is that they value the necessity to bring people the best new music on a one-on-one basis. They play the songs and talk about the artists: they do not provide links to Spotify and leave it there. One gets a very direct and passionate group of D.J.s bringing all the best sounds around. One of John Peel’s sons, Tom Ravenscroft, is a BBC Radio 6 Music D.J. and has the same hunger as his father – even if he hasn’t aged enough to have the same legacy. William, another son of Peel’s is a music journalist/broadcaster. Both seek out the best new talent around and have learned a lot from their father. Another radio titan, Terry Wogan, died a few years ago and was another incredible tastemaker.
He was considered, at one point, the most influential man in music and, on his BBC Radio 2 show, constantly had musicians perform for him. Both Wogan and Peel were both incredibly influential and have had an incredible effect on my generation. Another reason I miss John Peel is the way he pretty much broke The White Stripes in the U.K. It is no secret John Peel loved The White Stripes and it is debatable how many of us would have been aware of the American duo were it not for him. Afflicted by the quality and originality of their earliest recordings; he featured them on his show and had them play as part of his Peel Sessions. The duo was still in circulation when Peel died in 2004 but would have appreciated what he did for their careers. There is no telling how long it would have taken The White Stripes to be taken to heart in this country the way they were – it might never have happened, to be honest. They are not the only act that has Peel to thank for making them successful but they are the most famous.
John Peel left the world, as we know, in 2004 (aged sixty-five) and was on a working-holiday in Peru at the time. It was an immense shock and something we are still getting used to. Before I wrap this up; a little Wikipedia input regarding Peel’s legacy:
“Since his death various parties have recognised Peel's influence. A stage for new bands at the Glastonbury Festival, previously known as "The New Bands Tent" was renamed "The John Peel Stage" in 2005, while in 2008 Merseytravel announced they would be naming a train after him.
The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts opened in Stowmarket in early 2013. The main purposes of the centre is to serve as a live venue for music and performance and as a community meeting point.
In 2009 blue plaques bearing Peel's name were unveiled at two former recording studios in Rochdale – one at the site of Tractor Sound Studios in Heywood, the other at the site of Suite 16 Studios – to recognise Peel's contribution to the local music industry.
On 13 October 2005, the first "John Peel Day" was held to mark the anniversary of his last show. The BBC encouraged as many bands as possible to stage gigs on the 13th, and over 500 gigs took place in the UK and as far away as Canada and New Zealand, from bands ranging from Peel favourites New Order and The Fall, to many new and unsigned bands. A second John Peel day was held on 12 October 2006, and a third on 11 October 2007. The BBC had originally planned to hold a John Peel Day annually, but Radio 1 has not held any official commemoration of the event since 2007, though gigs still take place around the country to mark the anniversary.
At the annual Gilles Peterson's World Wide Awards, the "John Peel Play More Jazz Award" was named in his honour.
In Peel's hometown of Heswall, a pub was opened in his honour. Named The Ravenscroft, the pub was converted from the old Heswall Cottage Hospital, Peel's birthplace.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rex Features
Several Peel-related compilation albums have been released since his death, including John Peel and Sheila: The Pig's Big 78s: A Beginner's Guide, a project Peel started with his wife that was left unfinished when he died, and Kats Karavan: The History of John Peel on the Radio (2009), a 4 CD box set. Rock music critic Peter Paphides said in a review of the box set that "[s]ome artists remain forever associated with him", including ...And the Native Hipsters with "There Goes Concorde Again", and Ivor Cutler with "Jam". A sizable online community has also emerged dedicated to sharing recordings of his radio shows”.
In ten days, we will mark the seventy-eighth birthday of a hugely influential figure. Nobody since his death has managed to exert the same impact on modern music. There are some important tastemakers around but none that will have the relevance and legacy as John Peel. The number of vinyl the man left the world – one can imagine it filling an entire house – speaks volumes about his voracious passion for music. We need to remember John Peel even more at a time when people are discovering new music through streaming sites. I am not sure what he would make of the digitalisation of music but I am sure he would still be acting and one of the champions and bastions of the physical release – getting artists to perform and scouring crates for rare vinyl. It is sad realising he has been dead for thirteen years but his importance and legacy will never diminish. When his birthday does come, I feel we should make an extra-special effort to celebrate and commemorate one of music’s…