Updated: Jun 9, 2020
What if the world hadn’t known the punky energy of the Ramones, the steel twang of the Smiths, or the glamorous drive of T. Rex? *shudders* okay, yeah. I can’t even finish writing that hypothetical. It’s not a musical world I want to live in.
Thankfully, I don’t have to live without knowing those bands, and neither do you- all thanks to beloved British radio host and disc jockey John Peel. With a DJ career that lasted 37 years, he is one of the most underappreciated influences in catapulting new wave, glam rock, punk, and so much more into the mainstream radar. With a strong instinct for musical talent, Peel hosted BBC Radio 1 sessions where an up and coming artist would come into BBC studios and record four songs to be broadcasted live. 10,000 Maniacs, Bikini Kill, Nirvana, and Nico are just some of the artists who participated in these “Peel Sessions,” which shaped rock history more than anybody might know. He gave the Smiths, Pulp, and the White Stripes their big breaks and established them as household names in the world of alternative rock and beyond.
I spoke to Sophie Franks-Staub, a former music studio manager in New York, about the more direct impact of listening to Peel Sessions as a teenager in Northern England. When I asked her to describe the Peel sessions, she said “John Peel was like my music dad. Listening to him was like a musical adventure. The thing about growing up in a really small town is people had strong opinions about what music was good and what music was shit; it was very black and white. John Peel was not like that at all, he just liked what he liked! I live by that ethos today- don’t spoil your fun by being a snob!”
One of the things that I, a very young experimental musician appreciate about Peel is that he did not ask people to have faith in their good taste or their bad taste- there was just music. As a gen-zer living in America, it is so easy to find people who dismiss music as “good” or “bad” or “edgy” or “mainstream” instead of appreciating ear candy for the sake of ear candy. Nowadays, even in the basic process of music-making, there are limits placed by listeners and producers and record labels to do what is musically “right.” John Peel would roll in his grave knowing that this is the current standard. However, his legacy still remains in the studio environment. Speaking to John Peel’s impact on her experience working in the behind-the-scenes world of music, Franks-Staub says “the thing about running a studio is it's not opinion-based. You’re making music and it’s about the process. John Peel was full of curiosity- always perpetually curious, and there was always a sense of adventure. When you think about the extent of John Peel’s career from the 60s to the 2000s, he never honed himself in. He never defined the parameters of what was valid.”
Growing up in a generation without a John Peel- where music-on-demand apps like Spotify have replaced radio- means growing up in a generation where there is an enormous gap between the music on the Top 40 and the music beneath the surface of major public recognition. John Peel did not believe in factions like that when it came to music.
So how exactly did Peel break bands like the Smiths onto the charts? According to Franks-Staub, it was through Top of the Pops, a British music chart television program. “Everybody watched [Top of the Pops] except for those people who were sneeringly dismissive of music. But then John Peel would show up and host it, and he let the weird in and it was amazing. The same place where you would have ABBA, you’d have crazy shit like Kraftwerk and Blur; Constantly weird shit would show up on the pop charts.” It was through this platform that avant-garde and alternative rock groups not only relished in the spotlight but completely changed the culture of Britain.
Photo credit: Stephen Wright
That being said, another thing that Peel was really good at blending was conversational music, or music that everybody knew, with a personal connection to each individual listener. I asked Franks-Staub about the artists that captivated her most from the Peel sessions, and she said “I am who I am today because of Psychocandy by the Jesus and Mary Chain. It came out when I was thirteen, and I can’t tell you how my whole life since then was influenced by that. Hatful of Hollow was a shared experience, but Psychocandy was entirely personal, and it still is today. You can bond with Teenage Kicks by the Undertones with anyone, but the Jesus and Mary Chain was so personal. You didn’t want to dissipate its power by sharing it, even though music is fundamentally a shared experience.” Aside from making history by introducing new sounds to the world, Peel was the bridge between the singular listener and the masses.
John Peel had a massive collection of over 100,000 records and CDs, which included rare Bowie singles and Pink Floyd LPs recorded live in his studio. If you truly want to understand how massive this collection was, I would recommend checking out johnpeelarchive.com, where you can browse the full extent of Peel’s collection from Love to the Eagles.
If you want to hear some of my personal favorite Peel sessions and get a taste of the bands who he made famous, check out this playlist I made: