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BBC's John Peel Put His Own Spin On Rock Music

By Andrew Beaujon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; Page C01

You could trust John Peel. The longtime British Broadcasting Corporation DJ, who died Monday at 65, earned his audience's respect by disregarding playlists and charts and instead playing only things he liked. That was as radical a concept in 1967, when Peel helped launch the BBC's rock station, Radio 1, as it is in today's bleak radio landscape.

That's why for many young rock groups, Peel's endorsement was tantamount to being a top pick in Consumer Reports. The Undertones' Damian O'Neill remembers feeling "a mixture of disbelief, total excitement and, of course, a large dose of trepidation" when Peel first played his group's single, "Teenage Kicks," on his show in 1978.

Gaining approval from the BBC's John Peel was a boost to the confidence -- and sales -- of many rock groups. (1998 Photo Michael Stephens -- AP)

For American music obsessives, catching Peel's BBC World Service show on shortwave was often the only way to experience records they'd only read about. But you didn't need to have spent your adolescence hiding under your covers with a flashlight and a copy of Goldmine magazine to appreciate Peel's influence. Just tune your radio to any rock station, where you'll hear bands he relentlessly championed -- the Smiths, Joy Division and Nirvana, to name but three -- as well as innumerable artists influenced by such groups: Dashboard Confessional, Interpol and most of WHFS's regular rotation, respectively.

Then there were the Peel cult faves, groups such as the Fall, the Wedding Present and Pulp, who parlayed his approval into long careers outside the mainstream.

A "Peel Session" -- four or five songs recorded in a BBC studio at Peel's invitation -- was as much a status symbol for one of these groups as it was an act of largesse for struggling U.S. bands touring Europe, since the Beeb paid artists a fairly generous sum to be featured.

The sessions, many of which were released as records, were sometimes classic (New Order, the Cure, the Damned), sometimes forgettable (the June Brides? Half Man Half Biscuit?), but they came around like clockwork every week, as did Peel's yearly "Festive 50" roundup of his favorite records of the year.

For a man so influential, Peel was surprisingly accessible -- basically, if you wrote him, he'd send you a postcard back, often with his phone number, sometimes "signed" with a rubber stamp that read "John Peel, The World's Most Boring Man." It was the only image he ever courted: a bearded, bald music geek who only occasionally turned up at music festivals, usually in baggy shorts and a floppy hat, looking as if he'd mistakenly wandered off course during a butterfly-collecting outing.

He spent as little time in London as possible, preferring to be at home at "Peel Acres" in Suffolk with his wife Sheila, known to his listeners as "Pig" for her laugh. He reveled in raising his children, telling the Times of London once that he firmly believed that Elvis could have been sorted out by a couple weeks of accompanying Peel to the grocery store and picking the kids up from school.

Indeed, Peel never pursued celebrity, though he was one of the most famous people in Britain -- possibly the only member of the Order of the British Empire to flog an Extreme Noise Terror record on-air. He counted the late Marc Bolan from T-Rex as one of his few famous friends, and had only a nodding relationship with Mark E. Smith, with whose band the Fall he is inextricably linked, having invited the group to do some 20 "Peel Sessions" and relentlessly plugging its records.

Peel mostly stuck to radio, with brief forays into TV -- "presenting" the chart show "Top of the Pops" in the late '70s and early '80s -- and had recently signed a $2.8 million deal to write his autobiography. "He'd started it," says the Undertones' Mickey Bradley, "but knowing John Peel, it would have taken a while." Peel's folksy weekly column for the BBC's Radio Times magazine was a reliable delight, as was his most recent show, "Home Truths," a sort of "This American Life" for, you know, British people. It tackled subjects such as which English prep school had the longest-standing foreign exchange program with Germany.

All these endeavors were distractions for Peel, though, whose greatest delight was wallowing in new music, searching for gems. His most recent World Service show boasted a playlist that would drive a Clear Channel executive insane just by being read aloud: "Get Down With It" by the Woggles, "Tomorrow Morning" by someone named Chris T-T and "Fear on a Bridge" by 3 Inches of Blood.

And incidentally, the Undertones' O'Neill needn't have worried. In later years, Peel repeatedly named "Teenage Kicks" his favorite song of all time, often expressing a desire to have its first lines -- "Teenage kicks / So hard to beat" -- inscribed on his tombstone. It's hard to imagine that won't be the case, but just to be safe, a fitting tribute would be to fire the song up yourself. Then go hit a record store and look for the next great song.

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