How John Peel created our musical world

David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Roxy Music, New Order … all owe their emergence in large part to one DJ. From psychedelia to drum’n’bass, and over 35 years, he shaped a nation’s – and the world’s – taste in music

It was 27 July 2012, the night of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The Queen got into a helicopter. Men with top hats walked on Glastonbury Tor. The Queen jumped out of a helicopter. Danny Boyle’s pageant in Stratford took Britain on a journey through the centuries, from prehistoric settlements to James Bond films, and the miracle of satellite bounced it all into hundreds of millions of homes around the world.

Seasoned watchers of stadium-sized spectaculars would have noticed that the music in Boyle’s ceremony – which included Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot”, snatches of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, and jittery patterns of drum’n’bass – was quite different from the MOR singalongs that usually grace these occasions. Did anyone subconsciously get the connection between the disparate musical elements? If they didn’t, it was there in black and white the following morning, when newspapers printed the ceremony’s running order.

Oldfield. Led Zep. John Lydon. High Contrast. All four had been championed early in their careers by John Peel. Drum’n’bass DJ High Contrast, who assembled the soundtrack to the athletes’ parade, had appeared on The John Peel Show with his very first single, released on a small south London label in 2001. As for Oldfield, his multimillion-selling Tubular Bells franchise might have died at birth, had it not been for Peel’s enthusiastic support in 1973. He called it the best album he’d heard since Sgt Pepper and the ball started rolling.

The list continued. Happy Mondays. The Specials. Pink Floyd. New Order. The common factor was Peel. Pink Floyd were virtually the house band on his progressive rock show, Top Gear, in the late 1960s. New Order, emerging hesitantly from the ashes of Joy Division, have admitted they owe their existence to Peel. David Bowie. Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. All brought to Radio 1 – and to public attention – by Peel. For Bowie, this meant valuable airplay on Top Gear in 1967–68 at a time when all he had to show for his efforts was a flop single about gnomes. For Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it meant an invitation to perform onstage – in their bondage gear and G-strings – when Peel’s travelling DJ roadshow entertained students at North Cheshire College in Warrington on a December night in 1982. “Relax” was still a year away.

We’re all, in a sense, living in Peel’s world today. Stroll down any high street and you’ll see a Ramones or a Nirvana T-shirt coming towards you. The person wearing it may know nothing of how those names entered the culture, but neither of them would have got very far without Peel. He first played Nirvana in January 1989, almost three years before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released. His tireless promotion of the Ramones in May–June 1976 quite simply began a revolution.

Eleven years after his death, Peel still hovers above our record collections, silently guiding the opinions and judgments of the generations who grew up listening to him. When Brian Eno gives the BBC Music John Peel lecture at the British Library on 27 September, he’ll doubtless begin by citing the importance of Peel in his own life. It would be good to hear him talk about The Perfumed Garden, Peel’s psychedelic fantasia on the late-night airwaves of the pirate station Radio London, where teenagers in 1967 were introduced to the avant-garde sounds of the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention. Eno will surely mention Roxy Music’s session for the strangely named Friday Night Is Boogie Night in January 1972 – it was their radio debut – which Peel offered them before they had a manager, a record deal or more than a handful of fans. And if Eno’s speech flags a little and he needs a laugh from the audience, all he has to do is recall the night in December 1973 when Peel played a reel-to-reel tape of the new Fripp & Eno album (No Pussyfooting), backwards without noticing. All 39 minutes of it.

Fripp & Eno (No Pussyfooting)

We can see, if we know where to look, how decisions taken by Peel in one decade could affect the lives of countless musicians in the decades that followed. His 1972 Roxy Music session kick-started a three-year whirlwind of momentum that took Bryan Ferry and his band to Wembley Empire Pool for sellout concerts in 1975.

There, during an intermission, Susan Ballion, a girl from south-east London, met Steven Bailey, a boy from a neighbouring suburb. The band they formed in 1976 – Siouxsie and the Banshees – burst on to the John Peel Show in 1977, influencing the music of the Cure, the Cocteau Twins, Altered Images, My Bloody Valentine and many others in the 80s and 90s. Even the narratives of Banshees-inspired bands of the 21st century – Savages, Yeah Yeah Yeahs – can be traced back to the decision made by Peel when he caught, in 1971, a gig by the unknown art-rock group Roxy Music.

But not only did he promote the music that shaped the playlists of the future, he also had a lasting impact on the way his listeners saw and heard the world. Many, as I did, tuned in to his programmes several nights a week for six or seven years. Think of all those brains vibrating to Peel’s rhythm. Think of the absorption, the osmosis, the diffusion. To paraphrase the Jesuits, “Give me a Peel listener for seven years and I will give you the man.”

Peel’s influence on those generations of listeners – students, workers, dropouts, benefit claimants, even criminals detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure – is incalculable. Talk to them today and they would probably say he represented an alternative to the bland confections dominating the commercial world. He did more than anyone in the British media, I would argue, to get a nation of young minds interested in the idea of mistrusting the mainstream and investigating the unfamiliar. While Radio 1’s daytime DJs focused on around 3% of the annual recorded output – a frothy blend of Top 40 hits and oldies – Peel’s domain was the other 97%. It was a daunting remit, and much of his research was unseen and unpaid.

The Fall, photographed in 1977 with Mark E Smith front right, were one of Peel's favourite bands.
The Fall, photographed in 1977 with Mark E Smith front right, were one of Peel’s favourite bands. Photograph: Kevin Cummins/Getty Images

Year after year, he opened the doors of Radio 1 to artists who were uncommercial, under-financed, under the radar or just downright undescribable. As an ever-curious advocate of new directions in music, he represented almost the entire underground for three decades.

Peel kept most of the musicians he championed at arm’s length, preferring to stay in the shadows. Mark E Smith, the singer in his favourite band the Fall – they recorded 24 sessions for him between 1978 and 2004 – claims he met the DJ on only two or three occasions. What’s more, having a 10pm time slot prevented Peel from attending as many gigs as he would have liked. To his regret, he never saw the Smiths – whose brilliant debut session he broadcast in June 1983 – or Joy Division, but he made an exception for the Bhundu Boys, from Zimbabwe, sounding close to tears as he described the euphoric effect their music had on him. For many indie-loving Peel listeners of the 80s, the Bhundus were their first exposure to the sounds of Africa. But their Top Gear forebears of the 70s could have told them that Peel had played records from Nigeria – by Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé and others – as early as 1973. That was on top of all the reggae, folk, blues and Krautrock. Peel didn’t observe barriers between genres, and he didn’t expect his listeners to either.

Not everyone was grateful to him: Peel’s verdict on a record or a demo tape effectively decided whether a certain kind of young band had a career or not. In April 1980 it all got too much for one angry listener and musician in the Midlands. Peel hadn’t played his single yet – despite being sent a copy weeks before – and 300 unsold seven-inches of his previous single were gathering dust underneath his bed. “You can’t imagine what it’s like,” he complained in a letter that Peel read out, “listening from 10 till 12, Monday to Thursday, hoping that your latest release will be played.” The writer of the letter was Lawrence from Felt. “The reason Felt didn’t make it,” he would later lament in a 2011 documentary film Lawrence of Belgravia, “is because John Peel didn’t like us.”

For those who got Peel’s nod of approval, though, the results could be life-changing. While Bowie was generally dismissed as a one-hit wonder following his 1969 hit “Space Oddity”, Peel stayed crucially loyal between 1970 and 1972. The journey to Ziggy Stardust was conceived not in a distant galaxy, nor even in a wardrobe, but on Peel’s Top Gear, Peel’s In Concert and Peel’s Friday Night Is Boogie Night. This genesis of Ziggy is just one strand in a 35-year pop radio legacy. But it helps to explain why, on a summer’s night in east London three years ago, when Britain bared its cultural soul to the rest of the world, 900 million TV viewers heard a John Peel show, whether they knew it or not.

Goodnight and Good Riddance by David Cavanagh (Faber & Faber, £20). To order a copy for £16, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

David Cavanagh

The GuardianTramp

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