Musical Space: John Peel
Allow me to bring to your attention the British DJ John Peel, whose posthumous 80th birthday is this Friday. Peel worked for an offshore pirate station outside of London before moving in 1967 to the BBC, bringing with him an attitude of independence and iconoclasm. For 37 years he programmed music he thought people should hear, regardless of charts or market research, and in doing so defined what it means to be a music curator, and what can happen when a truly good one comes along.
The quantity and quality of music that John Peel discovered for his listeners is staggering. He always managed to find the bands that were inventing new genres. With Pink Floyd it was psychedelic rock; with T. Rex it was glam. When punk rock was just coming across the pond, he was the first to play The Clash on the BBC.
And in spite of a large number of complaints, John Peel was the one to introduce London to reggae and hip hop. To make his show even more relevant, he invited bands to play in the studio live — literally hundreds of these John Peel sessions ended up being released as albums.
It took dedication — Peel listened to every single demo tape he received — and the work paid off. No one else I can think of had more influence on post-war popular music.
Peel listening list:
The Pink Floyd, “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun,” (Live BBC Session, 1967). Played on Peel’s first BBC broadcast
T.Rex, “Jewel,” (Peel Session 1970)
Undertones, “Teenage Kicks,” (1978). His top “Desert Island Discs” selection, famously played this twice in a row on his show. Peel’s promotion promptly got The Undertones a contract with Sire records.
Misty In Roots, “Man Kind,” Live At The Counter Eurovision 79 (1979). Jamaican Reggae was already known in the U.K., but Peel brought it to a wide audience with this London band, even though it was hated by both the hippies and the punks.
Billy Bragg, “To Have and Have Not,” Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy, (1983). His first album.
The Fall, “L.A.,” (John Peel Session, 1985). Peel’s favorite band.
Credit to the Nation, “Call it What You Want,” take dis (1992). An example of the Golden-Age hip hop that Peel introduced. Credit to the Nation got a three-album contract within a week of him playing this single. Love the Nirvana sample.