Interview: John Peel

From the DJ History archives: One of the most influential UK radio DJs to ever grace the airwaves

It’s undeniable that John Peel’s career shadowed the unfolding of popular music. Born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, the radio wizard started his career in Dallas as rock took hold, taking an unpaid on-air gig at WRR AM. In the mid-’60s, he bounced around a few stations – KLIF in Dallas, KOMA in Oklahoma City, KMEN in San Bernadino – before returning back to the UK, where he worked in pirate radio and quickly became a figurehead in the underground music scene. But it was when he joined BBC Radio 1 in 1967 and then developed his Night Ride program that he grew his stature as a prominent voice in England, presenting on Top of the Pops and broadcasting on the BBC World Service.

Perhaps the most iconic facet of his shows on Radio 1 were the John Peel Sessions, where he had acts spanning Nirvana and David Bowie to Gang of Four and The Smiths play sets. His unique show outlasted several generations of lesser DJs, only ending with his untimely death in 2004. Constantly searching for music to make his hair stand on end, Peel epitomized the hunger of a true DJ. In partnership with DJ History, Peel spoke on his career in April 1999 to discuss how he became one of the most influential DJs of all time.

Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Did you go over to America as a DJ, or intending to become one, or what?

Oh good Lord, no. The DJ nearly didn’t exist, as such, when I went over there. I went over in 1960 and there were DJs on Luxembourg like Pete Murray, Alan Freeman, I guess, David Jacobs. Was he on [Radio] Luxembourg? I had in the back of my mind that it was something I’d like to do. But I went over there really to... because my dad dared me to. It’s like my son now, it’s a vengeance... karma. He hasn’t got anything to do. I don’t know what to do with him. In the same way my dad didn’t know what to do with me. So my dad said “I’ll send you to America if you’ll go.” So I went.

After I’d been on there about a year, I got on to a radio station in Dallas playing R&B stuff, because I had records they didn’t have. So I did that for a few months. Then, having experienced that I was rather excited by it all, I didn’t manage to get back on the radio until the Beatles came along and it became fashionable to be from the Liverpool area. So I was a Beatle expert for KLIF in Dallas and then I got my first full time DJ job at a radio station in Oklahoma City: KOMA. End of ’64? I’m bad on dates. I did it for 18 months, and I did 18 months immediately after that in California, in San Bernadino, then came back in the spring of 1967.

Were you playing album tracks at San Bernadino?

Well, we did actually. Mainly because I had to do a six hour programme at the weekend in order to get a day off. It was actually quite hard work. You didn’t just do a short programme and go home and hang out with your famous pop star friends. You had to man the news cruiser, or go to some kind of promotion the station was doing.

Myself and a fellow called Johnny Darren, who ended up as musical director of KRLA, I think, in Los Angeles, went to the station’s management and suggested we ought to have a much more varied format; you know, get away from just playing the platters that mattered. Play a few LP tracks. They turned us down. If they’d let us go ahead, we would have been people who introduced what subsequently became FM radio in the States.

Wasn’t Tom Donahue the first one to do that?

Yeah, he was. We were about six to nine months ahead if we’d been allowed to do it. As it was, in the six hour programme I used to do an entirely fraudulent British chart, which involved LP tracks. But I’m not trying to claim credit for it or anything...

What was it you played on the Brit chart? Brit boom stuff of the period?

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers - Crawling Up a Hill

Tracks like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ first LP. A track by the Yardbirds called “The Naz Are Blue,” which never was released as a single, but nevertheless did extremely well in my fraudulent British chart.

When did you come back to UK?

In spring 1967.

So you must’ve been on London almost immediately. How did you get the gig?

My mum lived in Notting Hill and next to her there was a chap that did advertising with Radio London, so he suggested I went to see Alan Key, who was the station manager. Purely on the strength of having recently worked in California, and fortunately they didn’t ask for an audition. They must’ve known they only had a limited time left. So they said, “Yeah, off you go.” I went down to the ship and started broadcasting.

I had to do a regular daytime programme, but also somebody had to do the late night shift, the midnight to two shift. I quickly realised that no one on the ship listened to it and started playing the sort of things I wanted to play in California. And got away with it. I dispensed with the format. I didn’t run any ads. I didn’t run news. I didn’t do the weather. I just played lots of records, really.

Do you think you were able to get away with it because, relatively speaking, not many people were listening?

Read a feature devoted to Keith Skues and the beginning years of pirate radio here

Well, the audience liked it. There was an extraordinary response from the audience. Like the last couple of months of London, I used to get – Keith Skues would confirm this – a prodigious amount of mail. Seven or eight times as much mail as everyone at the station put together. At a time when flower power, hippies and everything were happening in London, well all over the place, it was their radio programme. It was called Perfumed Garden. I didn’t know there was a saucy book with the same name.

Where did the name come from then?

Daft idea that came into my head.

What type of records were you playing on there?

Well a lot of stuff I’d brought back from California. And then almost the entire output of Elektra Records: Love, Doors, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Incredible String Band, Judy Collins. And then people like Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream.

Was Joe Boyd living in London then?

He must’ve been because I met him. I was amazingly naive. I like to think I still am really. But, er, very naive. I was terrifically excited at being able to get into things for nothing, which I rarely managed to do. But at the same time you felt that you were playing a part in something bigger than just doing a radio programme. It was an exciting time, really.

Watch a in-depth conversation with Joe Boyd above

Were you doing club gigs as well?

I did do a few actually. There was a notorious club on Oxford Street called Tiles...

Where Jeff Dexter played?

That’s right, yeah. I did the last night in Tiles. Notorious.

A drugs den.

It was certainly not the kind of place where they wanted to hear what I was doing. And there were waves of irate customers coming up over the footlights to try and persuade me to play whatever it was they wanted me to play. Which certainly wasn’t the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish or whatever I was playing. They didn’t like me at all. Then there was another club somewhere, where I played the closing down night. For a while there, I seemed to feel that where my future lay was in finishing places off. [laughter] Administering the coup de grace.

Did you play UFO?

Do you know, I don’t know. I used to go there.

What was it like?

Well, it was really good. The only time I took acid deliberately was at UFO because I felt I was kind of safe and I’d be kind of okay. It wasn’t like clubbing these days. Rather than dancing around, you... obviously some people danced about in a fairly idiotic manner… but mostly you just lay on the floor and passed out really. [laughter] It sounds like fun, doesn’t it? It was okay. You’d get people like the Soft Machine and Arthur Brown, Pink Floyd and so on playing there. I think anybody, at any stage of their life, it’s important for them, particularly if they come from a solitary background, it’s quite nice to go somewhere where you feel that the other people there have essentially the same interests as you do. That’s what I felt about UFO.

I was very star-struck. And again, still am in a way. People’d say, “Of course, you know Brian Jones is here.” And I got to know Brian Jones a bit. I was quite awestruck that I knew a Rolling Stone well enough to have his home phone number. I didn’t know many famous people. I knew the drummer out of Pink Floyd. I did a lot of gigs with these people. I did several gigs with Hendrix. I did one with Cream at the Saville Theatre, where Ginger Baker played a 20 minute drum solo and I thought I was going to have to drag him off the stage it was so boring. Aggressive man. He was a surprisingly hostile man.

It was all about bending the regulations.

What about Middle Earth? Jeff Dexter said he played with you a few times there.

I think we kind of alternated. I was the radio man, he was the live DJ. He always did the Roundhouse. Lots of Creedence Clearwater Revival records. I did Middle Earth a few times certainly, which meant you were in a box under the stage all night. Which was hard going. Certainly couldn’t do it now, and I could barely do it then. But Middle Earth was pretty neat. But it wasn’t UFO.

What was the composition of people at UFO?

Well, I don’t know... I can’t remember that I ever spoke to anybody there. I used to go there on my own and stand there looking probably rather pathetic, I’d have thought. But I certainly wasn’t alone in doing that, though. It was like people going to festivals now; the sense of community was as important as anything. Even if you’re not actually communing, you know. [laughs] Just the feeling that the other people feel the same as you.

How did they use the music there? Was it as part of the ambiance?

Er. Golly. It was the link. It was the most obvious element that people had in common I guess. They weren’t the sort of gigs you’d get people coming in casually off the street for. If you did, they’d very quickly leave again. It was a unifying factor. The cement in the lifestyle. I suppose a lot of people, me included, the following morning they’d be different people. They hadn’t got the courage to go through the streets full time in beads and bells and expensive hippie gear. Well, I didn’t have expensive hippie gear, I just had an awful kaftan that was made from a bedspread, that I paid an insane amount of money for in Carnaby Street. And a pair of appalling trousers that I never had the courage to wear in public. They just hung in a cupboard.

Back to pirate stations. Were the people who ran the station simply in favour of free market capitalism, or was there a more benign agenda?

I don’t think there was benign agenda at all. Radio London, as far as I know, was run by Texan businessmen. It was just a money-making operation as far as they were concerned. Caroline sort of affected a slightly more idealistic reason for existing. For them too, though, it was a business. Caroline, you used to have to pay to get records played. Pay for play. Radio London didn’t do that. It was all about bending the regulations. We were all paid out of the Cayman Islands, so we didn’t have to pay tax in this country.

What about the attitude of the DJs? Did they have a different agenda?

Not at all, no. They were either Americans that hadn’t been able to make it in America or thought it might be amusing. Or people who saw it as a means of getting into another career, possibly getting into television. This is one of the things that bedevilled Radio One when it first started. I suppose, in a way, it’s in the back of people’s minds now that it is a device by which you can procure a very remunerative outside living. You can do gigs. You can get onto television. Start your own record label. Whatever.

In the early days of Radio One it was seen as a bit of a disadvantage to take an interest in music. It really was. It sounds like the sort of thing you say for effect, but it was genuinely the case. It was very odd to be interested in music because the BBC believed it made you susceptible to influence from record companies; you know, pluggers and that sort of thing.

Is that why they had a lot of bands playing?

No, that was all to do with needle-time. Which was the amount of time during the day to play records. The arrangement they had with the Musicians Union before Radio One was allowed to go on the air, was about seven hours of needle-time a day. The idea was it compelled the BBC to employ live musicians. But as you say, that would mean the Northern Dance Orchestra, they would do cover versions of the big hits of the day.

We used to climb down the side and gaze out to sea and think beautiful thoughts.

Is it true they did a version of “Purple Haze”?

The Northern Dance Orchestra did a version of “Purple Haze,” which I should love to have had on tape in any medium known to man. It was a very strange system. But the BBC had no choice.

What was it like living on a boat?

You’d do two weeks on and a week off. I quite liked it. I was coming to the end of a very unhappy first marriage. So being away from London for two weeks was pretty neat, really. It was an entirely male establishment. You had a little cabin. I think I shared with Mark Roman when I first went on there.

Where was it moored?

Off Felixstowe. And Caroline was within view and I remember Johnnie Walker and some other geezer rowing over from Caroline to see us every once in a while, which was the buccaneering spirit. Most of the time I just sat there, or got slightly stoned, or listened to music. I was relatively content on there. Watched TV a lot.

Were there any incidents involving being boarded?

Not while I was there, certainly not, no. It was a very ordered kind of existence. A little boat would come out of Felixstowe with the new record releases.

What was it like working with Kenny Everett and co.?

He was a very funny bloke. And clever. I hated the stuff he did on TV. But he was very good on the radio. He was actually quite good company. Keith Skues, I liked. He was very helpful.

You said it was a disadvantage if you had an interest in music at Radio One. Was it the same scenario there?

They thought it was a bit odd.

Were you the only one?

Well, Kenny was very much into Beatles predominantly. Beatlesy Revolver-era Beatles. Tony Blackburn was into Tamla and stuff.

Were the programmes boring during the day?

No, they weren’t boring, they were exciting daytime programmes. Certainly set against what people were used to. They were boring in comparison with what we’d been doing in California, but in comparison with what people had been doing hitherto, they were really exciting. They played a lot of records. A lot of rather good records, too. There was a feeling that something was going on. There was a definite excitement in the air, even on the most boring days.

I only wish I could remember more about it, to be honest. It wasn’t that I was out of my head most of the time, I don’t have a terribly good memory. I was lucky that the weather was never truly dreadful when I was on there. We used to climb down the side and sit on the tyres that were hanging on the side of the boat. We’d sit down and gaze out to sea and think beautiful thoughts. There were several people who liked things that I liked. They weren’t on-air staff, they were engineers. For some reason they had women’s names. There was a large bloke called Hermione who was an engineer.

How many people were on there at a time?

17 or 18. But then you had the crew, who you had very little communication with. They were Dutch.

Was it moored permanently?

It never moved while I was there.

And how did you get out there?

On this little tender, tug boat thing. You’d be picked up at the quayside at Felixstowe. It also went back and forwards each day picking up the mail and provisions, replacement DJs.

How did you get on to Radio One?

Obviously when we knew Radio One was starting and Radio London was closing down, we knew they would have to find their DJs from the pirate stations, so we all wrote greasy job applications, I suppose. For a while I used to believe I hadn’t done that and then somebody presented me with the oleaginous letter that I’d written so I could no longer pretend to myself that I hadn’t written such a letter. I was only hired initially for six weeks. In competition with Tommy Vance, Pete Drummond and others.

This was Top Gear?

Yeah. You knew eventually someone was going to be the sole presenter. Fortunately, I had the inside track because Bernie Andrews, the producer, wanted me to do it. I have to say in the teeth of opposition from middle management. Much of what went on in the early days of Radio One was due to Bernie and a fellow called Bev Phillips, his right hand man and engineer. Pete Ritsima too.

I’m entirely without ambitions, beyond doing what I do now.

Was Top Gear taking what you’d done with Perfumed Garden a step further?

Well, it was a step back in a way. It was that, but with certain restrictions placed on it by the BBC. And by Bernie. Bernie was very unenthusiastic about playing anything that was more than five or six minutes long. Of course in hippie days that eliminated a lot of stuff. You had to worry about the peculiar sensitivities of the audience, or the imagined sensitivities. So anything that could be possibly presented as a drug song, you had to be wary of that. They did ban quite a few records. There was a certain narrowing of focus. But then you were doing it for a national station.

How do you see your role at the BBC over the years? Are you their safety valve?

Well, it’s possible to see that that was the function in the early days certainly. If anybody phoned up to complain about the general blandness in those days, they could say, “Well, you can always listen to John Peel and his sort of music.” Not the case now, I don’t think. There are just so many programmes that are devoted to music rather than to personality.

What changes have you seen? Has it got better?

I think it has. The great beauty of things there is that they’ve always left me to get on with it – you know, once they’ve accepted that I know what I’m doing and people quite like it. No interference at all. It’s extraordinary and I can’t imagine that I’d have had that kind of freedom anywhere else.

That’s the paradox of the BBC, though, isn’t it? Innately conservative, but yet freed from the constraints of competition.

That’s true. You’ve got these two great forces pulling against each other at Radio One. The need to maximise audiences and have high profile presenters. Originally Tony Blackburn, now Zoë Ball. Also this public service remit, where they do have programmes more to do with music than anything.

Has it taken pressure off you, having these specialist shows on air? 20 years ago, it was the only place you could hear hip hop, electronic music, punk, all sorts.

Yes, it was and I was always aware of that. It wasn’t a situation I liked much either. It put a lot of pressure on me that I didn’t want. I’d like there to be more programmes like mine, so I’d have something to listen to myself. There are programmes I listen to on Radio One, but these days they tend to be, by comparison with the station output, quite liberal, but within their own terms, quite conservative.

Having started as a DJ so long ago, DJing has got an awful lot more respect now than it had 20 or even ten years ago...

It certainly has.

How do you feel about the changes that have happened over the last 15 years?

Well, I don’t think about them much at all. I don’t devote much of my time to, you know, self-analysis or trying to discern my position in society. I don’t have time. There’s too much to do. I just get on doing what I do. I know that’s not a very adequate answer. In fact, it’s no answer at all, but it is the truth.

Do you ever think that the status of the DJ has been overblown, now that he’s venerated as a pop star, when he’s basically a bloke playing records?

Well, again, there’s never been anybody who’s been as big as Noel Edmonds, who’s achieved the extraordinary status of being famous for being famous. Obviously, he’s built a career on it. And good luck to him. If someone said to you what does Noel Edmonds actually do, you’d have to say, “Fucked if I know.” You know, he’s confident and wears brightly coloured clothes. But there’s a lot of people like that.

In a way, I think DJs tend to be more obscure now than when Radio One started. Somebody like Tony Blackburn or Jimmy Young and the audiences they had, a gigantic number of people listened to their programmes. Obviously, Zoë Ball has a much higher profile but she came to radio from television. According to the publicity, everyone in the country – or the world – wants to shag her, although I have to admit I’m not one of those people. They’re perhaps better known within their own little community.

Do you think the DJ’s role is the same now as it was when it started?

I don’t know. You tell me!

Okay. [Long theory about DJs acting as filters.]

Well, there are more of them, but there are more radio stations. Unfortunately, a lot of them seem to reflect the worst rather than the best aspects of Radio One. A lot of them seem to have eliminated all specialist programmes apart from dance music. The DJs just seem to be happy to do what the station wants them to do: supervise idiotic competitions, talk a lot, you know what I mean? It’s all rather predictable and dull, frankly.

How do you feel about having influenced DJs and producers like Dave Clarke?

You’re influenced by such a lot of stuff that happens to you, and being part of that influence is kind of... you just feel as though you’ve helped to feed back into the musical community whatever you’ve taken from it in a way. You’re aware of being part of a vaguely circular motion. What goes around comes around. So if people like Dave Clarke say they were influenced by listening to my programme, then I’m very flattered and if it helped and encouraged them to do what they now do, then I see that as being quite a useful function.

What do you see your personal role as a DJ?

I don’t really view it as anything! I suppose you could sum it up by saying all I wanted to do from the very start and all I want to do now is going on doing what I’m already doing. I’m entirely without ambitions, beyond doing what I do now.

And what do you see what you do now as?

Living out in the country, hearing music that I like and playing it to other people. Now I do one show a week from my home and that represents for me an achievement because that’s what I wanted to do when I was 12: sit at home and play records I liked for other people to listen to. The fact that they’re not in the house is probably a good thing, since it’s not a very big house. [returns wave to passing man] I hope that bloke was waving at me, because it’s always embarrassing when you wave back to them and they were waving to somebody else...

This interview was conducted in London in April 1999. ©

By Bill Brewster on December 1, 2016

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