When I first started listening to the John Peel Show on Radio 1, I joined a massive club of people who are obsessed by music and desperate to find the Next Big Thing.
In 1977, there were amazing punk bands who hadn’t released any vinyl and John Peel gave them their first national publicity. Two bands in particular, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Slits had massive live followings but had been unsuccessful in getting recording deals like their male counterparts. ‘SIGN SIOUXSIE NOW’ was spray painted on record company walls, as at least five companies had turned them down. Thanks to the attention from John Peel and a growing fan network, the Banshees eventually gained the recognition they deserved.
The Slits also had their first Peel session two years before their debut album was released. I don’t remember him making any of those comments about them being girls or an all-female band; he just seemed to talk matter-of-factly about all bands, whatever their composition.
When he admired an artist – namely The Fall or The Undertones – Peel seemed to talk as a keen fan with great reverence. His success over many years came from his true love of diverse music forms and his down-to-earth connection with his listeners
“Peel was vociferous in his rejection of the glamour, unmerited privilege and self-obsession of the pop world. His general avoidance of friendships or association with celebrities let alone the musicians he championed was a consistent feature of his life. As Mark E. Smith said: ‘Me and John had an agreement, you know, we never were friends or anything like that, you know… this is what Iadmired about him, he was always objective – people forget that’” Paul Long
At the time of John Peel’s death, his personal record collection was estimated at 26,000 vinyl albums, 40,000 7” singles and 40,000 CDs: all card-indexed of course. In the linked academic article above, Paul Long recounts how Peel had visited Dave Lee Travis’s house (another Radio 1 DJ) and been horrified to discover that DLT did not have any records at all.
When rumours and then the full truth of the Jimmy Saville child sex abuse case came to light, the whole nature of the BBC and its history were examined. Like a lot of organsations, sexism, inappropriate behaviour and exploitation appeared to have been commonplace in the 1960s and ’70s. Radio 1 DJ Liz Kershaw was groped by unnamed DJs:
“When I walked into Radio 1 it was a culture I have never encountered before…. I have always said it was like walking into a rugby club locker room and it was very intimidating for a young woman.” Liz Kershaw
Aged 26, John Peel had married a 15-year old girl whilst working in the U.S. and had allegedly had to leave the country because of his sexual involvement with numerous underage girls. In his posthumously-published autobiography, Peel revealed that he had been raped at boarding school.
Leading the anti-John Peel faction has been Julie Burchill, whose Guardian article in 1999 didn’t hold back:
“I hated him in the Seventies, too, because he liked punk, long after punk – the whitest, malest, most asexual music ever – should have been left to die an unnatural death. I’d been a punk, and knew that the whole thing was, frankly, shit in safety pins. We came to bury the music industry; we ended up giving it one almighty shot in the arm.” Julie Burchill
As a listener, I did wonder about some of the female musicians that John Peel seemed to have a liking for, but Clare Grogan seems to consider him an important positive influence:
.“I remember John Peel saying to me when I was really young ‘If people want you, go’. And I just always thought that was a nice way of doing it – if the demand is there, turn up – and I’ve lived by that. And although I never set out to become a presenter or write books, I’ve had amazing adventures because of it.” Clare Grogan
So, as things stand, we’re generally for John Peel. But maybe we’re biased because both our bands, The Popinjays and PO! have done Peel sessions!