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John Peel's American Connection

John Peel in the studio at the BBC in 1972. Len Trievnor/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Len Trievnor/Getty Images

John Peel in the studio at the BBC in 1972.

Len Trievnor/Getty Images

When John Peel died in October 2004 at age 65, the British radio host was known as one of the most voracious listeners in the world. But it was hard to know him well in the U.S. Tapes of his BBC broadcasts made their way to collectors hooked on his crisp, wry, delighted intros and outros and his boundless enthusiasm for all kinds of music. Peel's role in boosting young talents that became global superstars — the short list includes Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, Joy Division, New Order, The Jam, The Smiths, Nirvana and The White Stripes — gave him a certain instant iconic tinge as well, and fans of bands like Wire and Gang of Four often preferred the raw, quick recordings they did for Peel's show to the studio versions. But tracking his impact in day-to-day terms has been much more catch-as-catch-can for a Yank.

That's why David Cavanagh's Good Night and Good Riddance is a gift. A history of Peel's career as a BBC Radio 1 DJ through the lens of 265 shows he hosted between 1967 and 2003, the book's format allows Cavanagh — the author of My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For the Prize, an enormous history of Creation Records, the U.K. label that brought us Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Oasis — to be encyclopedic and marginal in the same entry, and it gives the book an enormous speed that belies its size (over 600 pages). It functions not only as the story of one DJ's amazing career, but that of the wide-open but punk-galvanized sensibility Peel epitomized.

Though he began his BBC career playing hippie-era rock — like the late-sixties freeform U.S. stations taking root around the time he began broadcasting on U.K. pirate radio — by the early eighties he was, Cavanagh writes, "the acknowledged champion of all new music" for whom "genre juxtaposition was a prerequisite, a sine qua non and a flat-out non-negotiable imperative. You like [Merseyside absurdists] Half Man Half Biscuit? Then here's some Goa trance. You collect singles on the [twee indie-pop] Sarah label? Then you're sure to love these fiddle players from Alabama."

This is the part of Peel's history, and appeal, that largely eludes Americans — as does Peel generally. He'd long been a cult favorite of anglophiles and punk fans, thanks in large part to the Peel Sessions — four-hour BBC studio tapings made by a plethora of bands for broadcast on his show, recordings of which regularly traded hands prior to 1991, the year the U.K. label Strange Fruit began issuing official EPs and albums of the in-studio sessions by The Smiths, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure, for starters.

The same year another of Peel's pet sounds broke through, big-time and unexpectedly, in the U.S. By June 1989, Cavanagh writes, "There are nights when a soldier listening to John Peel's Music on BFBS [British Forces Broadcasting Service] is as well-informed about the Seattle sound as any reader of the weekly music papers."

After Nevermind's September 1991 release, grunge was no longer a specialist style. But Peel's early championing boosted his visibility Stateside; in 1993, he gamely hosted a short-lived U.S. syndicated college-radio show, Peel Out in the States, whose twenty-four episodes can be found in better dollar-CD bins, two half-hours per disc. While acknowledging that Peel would be playing "alternative music such as grindcore, acid house, rap, and world music," a Billboard story about the show's launch emphasized his connection with "alternative" in the U.S. marketing sense — not to mention demonstrating the American information gap about Peel by referring to his BBC show as Top Gear, a title he'd abandoned in 1975.

Peel Out lasted only a year — as Cavanagh notes, there was something halfhearted about it. Even though Peel had formed much of his initial style in the States, Americans didn't figure into his thinking as a broadcaster. He was English to his whiskers; that's what people liked about him, there and here. Not to mention that "alternative" as a marketing term was beginning to become formularized. Peel was too adventurous for a format growing ever more rigid, even at only thirty minutes a week.

Peel began his career in America, by accident. The son of a well-off cotton dealer, he was born John Ravenscroft, and in 1960, at twenty years old, his father sent him to the U.S. to learn the family trade. Instead, John ping-ponged between fruitless jobs until he offered a Dallas radio DJ some rare records to play on his blues show. Playing on his Liverpool background, Peel fibbed that he knew The Beatles; soon he was hosting his own programs, first in Texas, then Oklahoma. By mid-decade Peel was in California, managing rock bands as well as hosting a radio show, as well as meeting The Byrds, whose thrusting ambition and snide demeanor put him off American rock stars-qua-stars on the whole.

When Peel returned to England in early 1967, his Top 40 training put him in good position to join the U.K. pirate Radio London, which broadcast from an offshore ship and operated on the same sharply-focused, jingle-driven, pop-manic principle. (The Who Sell Out, from that year, is a direct tribute.) But Peel was ahead of the game: His late-night show, The Perfumed Garden, was more along the lines of the emerging American freeform FM style, full of stoned raps and entire album sides. By 1968, Radio London was shut down by authorities and Peel, among other pirate DJs, was brought onto the BBC's new pop station, Radio 1, where he began hosting Top Gear.

This is when the Peel Sessions began. Back then, the BBC had a limit on how much airtime could be given to commercially released music, so bands would come into the studio and lay down a handful of tracks in a short time, generally three or four hours. The sessions allowed Peel to spotlight up-and-coming acts before they signed label deals. One was David Bowie, who testified for Peel's appearance on This Is Your Life: "I remember around 1965 I did an audition for the BBC and I failed, and the report said, 'This vocalist is devoid of personality and sings all the wrong notes.' So in your inimitable manner and with tremendous enthusiasm you got me back on for another audition, which I passed the second time around, which gave me freewheeling access to a lifetime of singing all the wrong notes."

For his first decade at the BBC, Peel more or less toed the rock and roll party line — though he had little taste for arena prog-rock like Yes and ELP (loved Genesis, though) and in an early sign of his taste for terminal novelty he programmed lots of Sha Na Na's godawful fifties-nostalgia shtick, he gave most of the era's classic-rock dinosaurs ample airtime. One week in mid-1975 yielded playlists that included Elvin Bishop, Peter Frampton, Steve Miller and Eagles. But Cavanagh also notes signs of restlessness. As time went on, Peel played more and more fifties and sixties sides, and in 1972, he immediately began airing tracks from Lenny Kaye's epochal garage-rock compilation Nuggets, complaining a year later, writes Cavanagh, "of 'the hideous people' who are 'busy working on their fifth and sixth LPs', oblivious to the fact that they should have vacated the stage after their first or second."

So Peel was right there and ready for punk rock — jumping on the first Ramones album, inviting several of the early U.K. punk bands to record sessions (not The Clash or Sex Pistols, alas; a selection can be heard on EMI's superb 2011 double-CD Movement: BBC Radio 1 Peel Sessions, 1977-1979), and declaring The Undertones' 1978 "Teenage Kicks" — a song the Irish band first recorded at a Peel Session — the greatest record ever made.

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Moreover, the punk insurgency led to scads of DIY activity that, in turn, made Peel recalibrate his programming. He began airing new bands' demos — The Undertones' had been one of the first — and by the summer of 1979 had a shelf of 1,500 yet-to-be-played tapes. As Ken Garner, author of the book The Peel Sessions, put it: "[T]he Peel Sessions of 1978-1981 permanently changed bands' perspective on worthwhile musical ambitions. From now on, a Peel Session became as much a career ambition in itself as a means to advancement." Many of these came from bands in small towns; by late 1978, Cavanagh writes, Peel had the power to "spark an entire regional scene merely by playing one song."

This approach couldn't have been further from typical American rock radio of the period, which was mired in torpor, with AOR stations growing increasingly narrower in scope: "Heartland rockers" like Boston and Journey, stuff the British largely made fun of, was the staple diet, while punk or new wave, aside from Blondie or The Pretenders, was ignored. In 1983, the program director for WPLJ-FM, New York City's biggest FM rock station in the 1970s, explained on-air that three years earlier, "something called new wave began to happen." Peel would have had a good chuckle at that one — and gasped when the PD admitted that until recently, the average year of release for a track on the station's playlist was 1971.

Peel had many affinities with punk music, but he differed sharply from punk orthodoxy — he loved bands like The Motors, who were, writes Cavanagh, "seen by some critics as uninvited guests at the 1977 party, more of a souped-up new-wave band than a true punk one ... Peel is largely unaffected by any concerns of hipness, though he's usually conscious of the latest trends." Not to mention well ahead of them: In March 1980, he played The Cure's "A Forest," which "graduate[d] with honors" to Top of the Pops, BBC-TV's weekly chart show, a month later.

Punk loosened Peel's relationship with not just rock but also with all music outside the mainstream. By early 1982, writes Cavanagh, Peel's shows began to "have an urgent wanderlust, jetting off from Britain (which has been his primary focus for the last four years) to different parts of America, to Africa, to Australia and New Zealand, to West Germany, Belgium and Holland. Peel is no longer a post-punk DJ, unless you accept that 'post-punk' is a temporal term, not a musical one, and includes anything new happening in any part of the globe."

That spirit led Peel to expect a similarly widescreen appreciation from his listeners — and to his on-air irritation when they didn't, which was most of the time. Nowhere was this more manifest than Peel's annual Festive 50, for which listeners sent the DJ postcards with their three favorite songs of the year. Peel found the 1991 edition so dispiritingly predictable (number one was Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit") that he refused to air it, finally playing one track per week in 1993. Such context flew right by Americans who knew him more from his rock-based legend than his everything else-based current playlists.

And as Cavanagh points out, Peel's bellyaching over his listeners' predilection for white-dude guitar bands came in large part from Peel's own relentless programming of them. His two favorite bands were The Fall and the Wedding Present. Peel championed The Smiths so early and ardently (he'd played the session version of "This Charming Man" three time before the commercial recording was issued) that he became central to the band's narrative. In 2000, while at a Holland music festival, he purchased a White Stripes LP on a hunch — "I just liked the look of it," he would later explain — and became their loudest early champion, eventually cultivating a friendship with Jack White.

Peel's plaintive, don't-let-me-be-misunderstood quality and his insistence that appreciating indie guitar rock meant more in concert with African music, hip-hop (Peel was as likely to play something from Def Jam in the late eighties as he was Sub Pop) and the plethora of post-rave dance styles, would eventually make him the BBC's beloved elder-in-chief, hosting the family show Home Truths starting in 1998 and staying on-air until his death.

This makes the week Peel filled in for afternoon host Jakki Brambles in April 1993 the most telling, and painful, re-listening of Cavanagh's book. Peel's loose, unformatted style contrasted sharply with his surroundings and the daytime listenership: "Peel's album chart countdown ('At number 5, Unplugged, Eric Clapton – if only') risks riling people who don't see Clapton as a villain, and his comment about throwing a Chris Isaak CD across the studio ... will simply bewilder pop fans who don't understand why a man they don't know is getting so wound up about music." Maybe it was, however well hidden, a sense of propriety. Cavanagh makes a strong case that Peel's impact is so widespread that modern pop would be impossible without him.

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