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"John (Walters)'s going to be producing the late night programmes when they start next Monday....don't you forget to be there on Monday night at 11 o'clock on Radio 1 and on VHF for the new Who LP, 'Who By Numbers.'" (JP's final words on the last Top Gear show, 25 September 1975.)

IntroductionEdit

Top Gear had run for eight years before a revamp (originally designed as a cost-saving exercise) saw it being dropped. Radio 1 merged with Radio 2 between 6-11 p.m. every night, and then the service returned for just one hour with a new Peel-presented show until midnight. This programme is generally referred to as the 'John Peel Show', although the Radio Times merely listed it as 'John Peel' and JP himself called it either "the John Peel wingding", "my domestic programmes" (on overseas stations such as BFBS), or, most significantly, "Kat's Karavan". [1] This was a programme (interestingly, broadcast on station WRR between 10 p.m.-12 a.m.) that he had become a fan of while working in Texas during the early 1960's, and on which he subsequently presented the second hour of that strand. (He was apparently sacked when he asked to be paid.) [2] The style of the programme undoubtedly influenced him: while the daytime stations were playing wall-to-wall pop, this show introduced him to the kind of material he wanted to play: it featured blues records interspersed with comedy recordings, showing that it was not inconceivable for different styles to co-exist with the same eclecticism apparent in his own record collection.

1975-6: From Prog To PunkEdit

JohnPeel 290975

Radio Times announces Peel's new show. (Thanks to Andy Warmsley for this scan.)

  • Producer: John Walters
  • High Points: The first Festive Fifty, starting a tradition that would continue throughout the show's run. Punk arrives with the Ramones' first play.
  • Low Point: While previewing a new LP, Peel takes off Dylan's 'Hurricane' in mid-play, a mistake he never lived down.
  • Defining Moment: 10 December 1976, the first punk special.

With the control allowed him by an ostensibly open-ended format, the first eight months of the programme's life showcased rock and folk giants and session recordings from stalwarts such as Loudon Wainwright III with more off-centre helpings from the likes of Ivor Cutler and Viv Stanshall, whose 'Rawlinson End' saga occupied a whole week leading up to Christmas 1975.

In its range of material, the show became even more eclectic than before, featuring new albums from a wide range of artists and genres, on occasion extending even to jazz (Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett) and contemporary classical music (Gavin Bryars). Peel was now the only "progressive" DJ left on Radio One and may have felt obliged to cater to the widest possible range of tastes. Furthermore, at a time when budget cutbacks were being felt across the networks, he now played longer extracts from new LPs; these counted as "review" plays and were exempt from needletime restrictions. The new theme tune, rather than being one specially composed for the purpose, was an instrumental by the little-known Grinderswitch called Pickin' The Blues that would top and tail his programming for 17 years (and continue to appear on the World Service after that).

The event that ostensibly changed the face of the show for good was the first play of a track by the Ramones, 'Judy Is A Punk', on 19 May 1976. The musical make-up of the programme did not immediately revolutionise, but in the summer John programmed a series of retrospective programmes that can now be seen as summing up life before punk. More and more of punk's first wave began to find its way onto the show, and October and December featured the first sessions by the Vibrators and the Damned respectively, the latter being first broadcast as part of the first punk special (10 December 1976). With 'Anarchy In The U.K.' already receiving regular airplay, it was clear that Peel's sympathies now lay in a different area, and the average listening age for his shows dropped dramatically.

JP later claimed that he wanted his audience to adapt stylistically with him. The former listeners who had followed him from the Perfumed Garden through Top Gear and into the first year of his new show had one last hurrah, however. The 1976 Festive Fifty, an all-time favourites listener chart dreamed up in the autumn by Peel and Walters and which would become a staple of his December programming to the very end, featured only two tracks from the previous year - and no punk.

1977-8: Complete ControlEdit

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If the rock audience who had reviled Peel for playing punk secretly hoped that this was a 'phase' he would soon discard, they were to be sorely disillusioned. The summer of punk was upon Kat's Karavan, and to celebrate its burgeoning young audience, it was now given an extra hour a night, and a successful year for the show was topped by Peel selecting his own (61 entry) chart in lieu of one chosen by listeners (1977 Festive Fifty). The premier punk album of the year, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, was played in its entirety by JP, and despite the fact that God Save The Queen was banned across the board in the wake of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, it continued to be played.

It is often cited that Kat's Karavan underwent a dramatic sea change as soon as John started playing punk, but a cursory listen to one of the few surviving shows from a little before the so-called "summer of punk", 05 April 1977, reveals that not only was John reluctant to label it punk (calling it "new wave rock" instead), but that he clearly saw it as a natural progression from the music he had championed hitherto. Eric Clapton was still "classic", Jimi Hendrix merited re-release, and rock still predominated. Stylistic shifts in the programme's repertoire happened gradually, not with the explosive force that has hitherto been suggested. For example, rap began to evolve during 1979 and in the form of the Sugarhill Gang hit the charts first, yet was not to gain preeminence on Peel's show until the mid-80s.

Nonetheless, John was not altogether happy with the direction the show had taken:

"It wasn’t a period that I particularly enjoyed in a way, as far as the radio went anyway, because the programme became given over almost entirely to punk records and punk-related stuff, with reggae included as well, but actually nothing else. And I think in retrospect that that was probably a mistake, because the programmes that we do now are much more broad – they cover a much wider range of stuff – and I think that is really the way it should be. But what happened, I suppose, to be perfectly honest, was that the programme became - as it has from time to time over the years – it became fleetingly fashionable." (Peeling Back The Years, Part 4.)

In fact, as Ken Garner notes in The Peel Sessions (p. 104), a plan was afoot to give David Jensen Peel's 10-12 slot (he was tried out for two weeks 'sitting in' for JP in March 1977) and move Kat's Karavan to the mid-evening, which would have lost the FM simulcast. However, Walters successfully argued with Radio 1 controller Derek Chinnery that he risked exposing bands with names such as the Molesters, Penetration and the Vibrators to a young audience before the watershed, and the plan was dropped.

The point John had made about the co-existence of reggae and punk was borne out by the fact that Steel Pulse and Aswad were being played as much as the Clash and the Jam. However, the show seemed to be trying to cover too many bases at once, and in November 1978, pursuant to Radio 1 moving from 247 metres to 275 and 285 in a blaze of publicity and an Elvis Costello jingle, it lost the Friday spot to JP's colleague Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show. JP was understandably upset at the thought of two hours of airtime being taken away from new bands and returned to the established rock acts he now despised, and made his feelings known on air, to which Vance responded:

"No matter what John Peel has to say on the air in terms of disparaging remarks with regard to the people who listen to the Friday Rock Show (as far as he thinks, you're all balding and got false teeth), I think it's safe to remember that Peely really was at the forefront of a lot of great music, and probably still is. Probably." [3]

However, at least this freed John from the responsibility of having to satisfy the old guard's appetite for rock. (It also marked the end of the best period of airtime he had ever enjoyed: he would never have ten hours a week again.) The 1978 Festive Fifty punctuated the change in musical fashion startlingly, as Peel reviewed the 1976 chart before playing the new one, and 'Anarchy In The U.K.' replaced 'Stairway To Heaven' at number 1. Moreover, the year had seen the emergence of two love affairs he would never turn his back on. The Fall did their first session in June, and September saw the first plays of the Undertones' Teenage Kicks.

1979-80: The New WaveEdit

  • Producer John Walters
  • High Point: His 40th birthday celebrations.
  • Low Points: Deaths of Ian Curtis and Malcom Owen.
  • Defining Moment: Gangsters shows that there is life after punk.

"The audience of two years ago was an audience growing old with me. My listeners were in their mid-to-late 20s, either students or ex-students. My existing audience did not come with me as I thought they would, and I developed a whole new audience. The audience is now a disenfranchised minority." (JP in Melody Maker, as quoted in The Peel Sessions, p. 104.)

The last year of the 1970s was a watershed in the UK's history, as a decade of Thatcherism loomed, and in music too it was time for another change. The rebels of 1977 were now turning into the old guard: the Pistols were no more, the Clash, Jam and Stranglers were modifying thier styles in order to maintain commercial momentum, and the tension generated from external pressures resulted in the formation of two very different musical scenes.

On the one hand, there was dark, neo-realistic electronica, represented by Joy Division (who recorded both of their sessions for Peel in 1979), the first recordings of Punishment Of Luxury and the Prefects (the first band of someone who would continue to appear on Kat's Karavan in a variety of guises, Robert Lloyd), and the growing success of the Factory label. On the other, the dance scene, which in the shape of funk and disco had virtually passed the programme by, made itself felt in the resurgence of the 60s genres of ska and bluebeat. Suddenly, the Beat, Selecter, Madness and Specials were all recording sessions and getting both show plays and chart success.

John celebrated his 40th birthday in August with two shows detailing the records he wanted played at the party, but in his eyes there was little to celebrate, what with a backlash against the 2-Tone label quick to appear and a festive chart that was virtually unchanged from the previous year's. His loss of the Friday night slot was somewhat compensated by the addition of an hour-long programme on Sundays (John Peel's Rock Requests), but one gets the impression that this was not what he wanted to do (this show only lasted nine months).

1980 was notable mainly for two high profile deaths, those of Malcolm Owen of the Ruts) and Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The latter band predictably gained several entries in the 1980 Festive Fifty whereas the previous year their music had been completely ignored by the voters. A signficant show was that of the 27 May 1980, an all-record celebration of independent labels which dramatically demonstrated that do-it-yourself rather than sign to a major label was still a valid option. And Wah!, who would reappear in one form or another for many years, were played very early in their career in a private recording from Eric's in Liverpool.

1981-2: "A Trough After A Peak"Edit

  • Producers: John Walters, Chris Lycett
  • High Point: New Order's classic first session. O Superman crosses over to the charts due to Peel's championship.
  • Low Point: Peel threatens to end the Festive Fifty after a dual chart.
  • Defining Moment: His first Top Of The Pops since 1968.
John Peel Interview Radio 1
1981 started promisingly, when an association that would continue throughout the rest of the programme's history was initiated. New Order had been formed following the aforementioned death of Ian Curtis, and, even though JP had never seen Joy Division live, the new band recorded their first session in January. 23 February 1981 saw the first play of their debut single 'Ceremony' (actually a JD composition that they had performed live), with John being so impressed he played both sides in succession, although he had not initially planned to do so. Nonetheless, there were now only two sessions a week being taped, and John Walters started a side project, Walters' Weekly, that took him away from Peel show production for two years, to be replaced by Chris Lycett (although he would continue to contribute a pre-recorded Wednesday show during this time, and stood in for JP for two weeks in June).

"Looking back, it does seem to be a very slack period. It seemed to be a million-and-one bands called 'Dance' something. Punk had become an historic thing. It was a trough after a peak." (John Walters, as quoted in The Peel Sessions, p. 110.)

Despite Walters' somewhat gloomy recollection, several notable musical highlights punctuated the show. In June, JP played Laurie Anderson's O Superman, gaining it exposure that would see it being played by Dave Lee Travis, amongst others, eventually reaching number 2 in the charts.[4] The Birthday Party, whose post-punk noise had been championed very early on in 1980, were to record two further sessions in 81 and a final one in 1982 before metamorphosing into Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. An unknown Sheffield band called Pulp were in the studios in November, but would take another twelve years to attain stardom.

One of the discoveries of that year were Altered Images, whose Happy Birthday entered the UK Top 10, but who had been Peel favourites since he heard a demo tape containing 'Dead Pop Stars' and given them a session in September 1980. Like his preoccupation with Sheena Easton's 'Nine To Five' 7 inch (what he called a "perfect pop single") the previous year, this was the betrayal of something approaching a mid-life crisis, as he declared Clare Grogan to be "the only person, apart of course from my wife, who could have persuaded me to go into a recording studio and sing."[5] The year was rounded out by the 1981 Festive Fifty, which for some reason actually had 60 places, presumably because JP wanted to see whether the lower rungs of the chart would provide more interesting fare than the by now traditional punk and post-punk fare of the top 20. This format was soon to see a radical change.

In August of 1981, JP had returned Walters' favour of standing in for him by starting a short but fondly remembered series called Peel's Pleasures, featuring rather more esotric fare than his regular show, which returned in July and August of 1982 to replace Walters' Weekly. Musically, the year was notable for giving first airings for many bands such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Sisters Of Mercy and the Associates who would go on to considerable fame. In July, the first Cocteau Twins session was broadcast. In February 1982, he resumed a long-interrupted relationship with Top Of The Pops that would continue until 1987. Indeed, he was now gaining more exposure than ever before: his night-time show, TV, and overseas programmes for the BBC World Service and BFBS meant that his reputation was becoming both visual and international. An early foray into outside broadcasting was made in April '82 when his shows were presented from Liverpool for a week, and this would play an increasing part in his shows in years to come. For his 43rd birthday in August, he typically mixed records with two Altered Images session repeats. To his relief, the 1982 Festive Fifty was the final gasp of the all-time favourites format (briefly to see a revival in 1999) as two charts, one presenting listeners' favourites of the current year only, were aired. In fact, Peel hinted that this may have been the end of the chart altogether, indicating a growing dissatisfaction with the listeners' choices, but happily this never materialised.

1983-4: The Smiths, Relax and less airtime....againEdit

  • Producers: Chris Lycett, Trevor Dann, John Walters
  • High Points: The Smiths' first two sessions.
  • Low Point: Peel loses his Thursday slot, again to a Tommy Vance show.
  • Defining Moment: He defies the Relax ban, as he did for God Save The Queen.
Peel 1983
Ostensibly, 1983 should have been a time for jubilation. Walters returned to the fold: Chris Lycett moved to producing The Breakfast Show in January, and Trevor Dann produced Kat's Karavan for a mere three months before landing an attachment to television. As soon as he came back, Walters made his mark by discovering the Smiths, booking them for two session that were broadcast in June and September and remain classics in a highly competitive field.

The first of those two sessions became embroiled in a controversy over the lyrics to 'Reel Around The Fountain', which The Sun claimed detailed a case of paedophilia. Indeed, within the year another controversy would hit the BBC when Mike Read refused to play Frankie Goes To Hollywood's debut single, a heady slice of punk disco named 'Relax'. This led to a blanket ban by the BBC, although Peel continued to play it, going out after the watershed as he did. In some respects, this recalled the furore over 'God Save The Queen', but by now the format of the show was so well established and JP seen so much as a staple of late-night fare that few feathers were ruffled.

However, there were elements in the BBC who seemed to feel that Peel was untroubled by further marginalisation and were still trying to move him out of the FM slot, [6] and in October 1984 his Thursday show was taken away to be replaced by his old colleague Tommy Vance with a melodic rock show called Into The Music, listening to which JP sneeringly suggested was like watching paint dry. [7]

In six years, John's weekly airtime had been slashed from ten hours to six, yet 1983 had brought listeners in contact with not only the Smiths, but Billy Bragg, Microdisney and the Farm, so John's glumness about the music of the year at the end of the 1983 Festive Fifty was not entirely founded. There had apparently been an (unsuccessful) attempt by listeners to keep New Order's 'Blue Monday' from reaching the FF number 1 spot, which could mark the beginning of the vote-rigging of the chart that would bedevil it until the end. This became even more prominent during the 1984 Festive Fifty,when JP suspected block voting had allowed the Membranes' 'Spike Milligan's Tape Recorder' to make number 6 in that chart. Nevertheless, the year belonged to a new genre called cowpunk, the Pogues made an inebriated session debut (and swore so much that one track was never broadcast), and the Jesus And Mary Chain rose from nowhere to rule Peel's playlists.

1985-6: In A RutEdit

John peel studio
Kershaw's arrival (October 1985) in the gap left by Vance's departure was shortly followed by the appointment of a new Radio 1 controller to replace the retiring Chinnery, Johnny Beerling. [8] He had, as Garner reports, been after removing Peel from his 10-12 slot for a long time, and according to some, wished he could get Peel off the station. Despite this, he never fired John and in fact renegotiated his contract to a bi-annual basis. When he started, JP had six hours a week and this was still the case when he left in 1993 (albeit differently arranged).

Kat's Karavan had existed for years in a kind of hermetically sealed environment on which the outside world did not impinge. The first intimations that this was to be shattered had already come about in 1982, when the nightly news reports of the Falklands War had left Peel dispirited that he had to present a show as normal while suffering in war (a thing he had always despised) carried on across the Atlantic Ocean. In the last week of May 1985, he went with Sheila to the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus: kershaw covered his shows while he was away. The Heysel Stadium disaster was described by Sheila as "one of the most terrifying and disturbing experiences either of us had ever had" [9] Those events disturbed the comfy world of his show to the extent that he refused to talk about it on air when he got back, and suffered nightmares for some time afterwards. [10]

Moreover, the show had settled into a kind of rut: two sessions per night, JP increasingly running the show and composing his own running orders (on his trusty Olivetti typewriter, as he would continue to do to the very end), with Walters listening to the show at home, the Wednesday show pre-recorded in order to allow John to spend an extra night with the family....Ken Garner adds that "character and surprise, shock even, was what was lacking at the end of 1986." [11]

1985 was, however, notable for the discovery of two bands who would continue to spend studio time for Peel and even become friends: the Wedding Present and Half Man Half Biscuit. The 1985 Festive Fifty was the first to have one band (Jesus And Mary Chain) taking the two top places, and the only one where John went beserk and extended it to 70 placings (and had even considered going on to 100). On the other hand, the following year's chart did little to allay John's fears that, once more, his listeners were becoming set in their ways....a bit like the show itself. Another sonic revolution was needed.

1987-8: Grindcore, African, House and Radio 1FMEdit

  • Producer: John Walters
  • High Point: The first plays of Napalm Death.
  • Low Point: The demise of the Smiths and their domination of the 1987 Festive Fifty.
  • Defining Moment: Amayenge record two sessions while on tour, cementing the influx of African music to the programme.

"Peel was the teacher for me...This guy played what he wanted to play and was a total outsider to the rest of them on Radio 1...Napalm Death came about at the end of 1985 and the first album came out in the middle of 1987 and Peel instantly picked it up! He was sent a copy from Earache and I think it was a Thursday night and we were down at Jimmy Ripcord's house....We went to his place and decided to check Peel's show out. He started by playing 'You Suffer' and he just laughed. He played it three or four times...He was just blown away, by the shortness of the songs, the ferocity and the extremity of it." (Mick Harris, interview with Dom Lawson, 2009. Reprinted in booklet to Grind Madness At The BBC (Earache)).

The Peel Sessions traces the beginning of John's fascination with extreme music (which attracted a variety of labels, including speedcore, death metal and so on over the years) to the debut session of the Stupids. The common factor that united them was a desire to reignite the spirit of punk, fuelled by the increased speed of US hardcore bands that Peel had continued to play throughout the 80s. Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death, Carcass and others would record their debut sessions during this time.

However, this was only one facet of the show's playlist in a turbulent period. African musicians were not only getting aired, but arriving on a regular basis for studio sessions, a golden period that did not last, including Amayenge (who were taped twice while on tour in the UK), the Four Brothers, Shalawambe and Stella Chiweshe were the shining examples.

The demise of the Smiths dominated the summer of 1987, and their fans publicly displayed their woe (and created an unbeaten record) by voting no less than 11 of the band's songs into the 1987 Festive Fifty, including all but three from the final LP, Strangeways Here We Come. (Just as predictably, a slew of Morrissey songs entered the following year's list.) Although understandable, this made for an unbalanced chart that nevertheless contained a key record pointing to the path that the programme was to take in the future. M/A/R/R/S' Pump Up The Volume, despite reaching a lowly 46 in the poll, contained a vast number of samples and a driving beat cribbed from the undercurrent of house tracks by now regularly getting airplay. Dance in one form or another would share airtime with the indie material until the very end of the show's existence.

Having previously shared FM transmitters with Radio 2, 1988 saw Radio 1 remake itself as Radio 1FM with its own transmitters. However, this was only gradually rolled out: initially only London, Central Scotland, the Midlands and Yorkshire were covered, meaning that a large percentage of the country could now no longer receive FM, thereby causing a howl of dismay from Peel's listeners who complained that they would no longer be able to hear him as they were not in the served areas. Additionally, the shows were moved forward to an 8.30-10.30 slot, since there was no longer seen to be a need to keep them at 10-12 to take advantage of the simulcast. Since JP seemed to be using the Festive 50 as a kind of barometer of how he influenced his listener's tastes, then the effect on his audience, if the 1988 Festive Fifty was anything to go by, would be negligible. Very few recordings of the black music he had relentlessly championed and a top 10 that could have been predicted by not even listening to his shows....thus the infamous "young boys strumming guitars" soundbite was born, and would reappear until the very last chart he presented.

1989-90: Move to the weekendEdit

John started the year by slating the 1988 Festive Fifty and its conservatism, but if he thought 1989 was going to bring anything more in the form of relief, he was to be sorely disappointed. The LP of the year for many was the Stone Roses' eponymous monster seller, which crossed over from indie to pop and spawned several big UK chart hits. In addition, five of the tracks entered the FF chart that year. This presumably irked the man because he had played their first release four years previously and felt that their sound did not compare to the other material he was championing then. Nevertheless, the show was ahead of its time by some way in getting Mudhoney and Nirvana into the studios when the Seattle sound was still nascent.[12]

Once again, Radio 1 felt the need to change his schedule: in April the shows were shortened by half an hour but gained an extra night, and his insurrectionist colleague Kershaw was moved to Sunday nights. Ken Garner argues [13] that this "undeniably brought Peel a higher profile, not just with a larger number of younger listeners.....but in wider media perceptions. Peel was visible and (fleetingly) fashionable once more...His 90-minute shows inevitably became even more high velocity, with minimal links...(and) just one session band per show," which moved effortlessly from the Pixies to the Four Brothers to the Ruthless Rap Assasins without missing a beat.

Tragically, this month also saw the Hillsborough Disaster, a human crush still recognised as the worst stadium disaster in British football history. It affected Peel so deeply that he broke down on air in his programme two days after the event and cried constantly for some time afterwards. In August, he went on holiday to Europe for two weeks and pre-recorded one of his most fondly-remembered strands. The Fall In August was a retrospective of the 80s and mixed tunes that John had fond memories of with a session repeat from the respective year by the Fall. Although this to some extent went against the grain, it was also a precursor of nostalgia fests such as the Peelenium and the Pig's Big 78.

Moreover, some kind of recognition of Peel's status was coming his way. At the end of August, a surprise party was held at Subterranea to celebrate his 50th birthday, featuring performances by the House Of Love, Wedding Present, and the Fall (who typically delivered a set of completely new material): and in January 1990 John was invited to be a guest on Desert Island Discs. (He would in later years regret that they did not ask him again, since he would have made up for omitting Captain Beefheart and would have included new choices.) It is no surprise that, as Garner points out [14], the punishing necessity of making it to London and back four nights a week was taking its toll on JP, and he asked Radio 1 for his show to be moved. The new timing (11 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday) started in September, and it immediately became apparent that the disadvantages of having to listen to the show at a graveyard shift time were more than outweighed by the fact that it gave John room to breathe, allowed two session bands a programme again, and gave him the freedom to spend the week with his family (and begin recording Kat's Karavan at home). Whatever his listeners felt about the move (and John's doubts as to whether anyone was actually listening to him at 1 a.m. on a Monday morning), the year was rounded out by a satisfying chart that finally saw his favourite band reach number one. But only just. The following year would see a change that would move the show into a new era altogether.

1991-2: End Of An EraEdit

  • Producers: John Walters, Mike Hawkes
  • High point: The Wedding Present finally achieve the popularity Peel had been forecasting for years.
  • Low point: Walters retires after 22 years with John. The Festive Fifty is cancelled for the first (and last) time.
  • Defining moment: David Gedge interviews JP, JP interviews Ian Rush. John appears on the Archers, and PJ Harvey provides a new obsession for him.

"I'm not going to make a long speech about it, because there's not really much more that I can say. I mean, people who've listened regularly to the programme will quite clearly know what a considerable debt we owe to him, and he's going to be very much missed. We've always tried to think of different ways of describing our relationship: quite clearly, the words that he uses are very different from the ones that I use, but the neatest way that I've managed to conjure it up anyway is to say that we're like a man and his dog, each imagining the other to be the dog, and I think that's not a million miles from the way that it's worked over the years." (30 June 1991)

John-Peel-with-his-record-008
John Walters had been planning to retire for some time, and in fact his involvement with Peel's show had been pared down to the minimum by the time John gave the above address. It coincided with a year in which every other band seemed to be either shoegaze or grunge: the LP of the year was Nirvana's Nevermind, and they predictably took top spot in the 1991 Festive Fifty. That chart was cancelled for the one and only time in the show's history, and it is still debatable as to why this happened. On the face of it, JP was unhappy with the lack of substantial votes, but it is also possible that he had had enough of the Festive Fifty itself, and in a year rich with good sessions from the likes of Hole and Babes In Toyland, he took the opportunity to play his own selection instead.

The year had not started well: constant coverage of the Iraq War meant news bulletins interrupting the flow of the show every 30 minutes. Mike Hawkes succeeded Walters as the show's producer but felt a certain lack of involvement due to the fact that he was already producing Kershaw, Pete Tong and The Man Ezeke: hence Peel made his own running orders with relatively little interference. [15] The resurgence of an early form of ragga (then known as 'fast reggae') gave him new inspiration, as did the first recordings and session by the firebrand waif PJ Harvey, who within a short space of time became an essential fixture of his playlists. Apart from the FF debacle, the man achieved a lifelong ambition in December by gaining a bit part on his favourite radio show The Archers, and in 1992 he relented not only on the appearance of the festive chart but also agreed to broadcast the 'Phantom 50' (as he had christened it) in 1993....at the rate of one record per show. If the previous year had been replete with great sessions, the new year topped that again. Peel's hero Diblo Dibala came into the studio while John was on holiday, there were notable debuts by the Verve and Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, and Abana Ba Nasary played live in the studio in a sprawling set straddling both his programme and Kershaw's.

In December, Radio 1 ran a series built around the idea that celebrities and DJs would interview their heroes and that interviewee then chaning roles for the next show), and this was kicked off by David Gedge interviewing John and steering clear of hero worship to an impressive degree (and JP ticking yet another wish off his list by interviewing Ian Rush). For Gedge, this satisfyingly rounded off a year which had seen the Wedding Present enter the UK charts by the crafty gimmick of releasing a new single every month, which would be deleted before the next came out, and consequently guaranteeing a healthy slew of entries for the 1992 Festive Fifty. That chart was one of the closest run ever, with the expected topper by Bang Bang Machine only just beating PJ Harvey (a situation she would have to get used to). It seemed that the show had finally found its groove, and that the new year would be elysian, but more surprises and shocks, one of which could never possibly have been forecast even by John himself, made it a surprising yet unsettling period.

1993-4: The Phantom Fifty, lunch and tea-time with PeelEdit

  • Producer: Mike Hawkes
  • High point: Peel hosts Jakki Brambles' lunchtime show for a week.
  • Low point: More airtime cuts and an unsuitable move to Saturday afternoons.
  • Defining moment: The Fall and Elastica record Christmas sessions to accompany the 1994 Festive Fifty.

"My wife's gone to the West Indies. Jamaica? I don't know, I'll ask her. Oh dear, I'll get a morning programme yet." (12 April 1973)
"(On being asked by Andy Peebles how he would feel about doing a breakfast show) I’d love to do it. I’d be knocked out, I really would. I’d be made up with that. I think I would do it very well to be honest....Obviously in the morning I would feel jollier as one by and large does. I think I’d do quite a good one." (My Top Ten)

A breakfast show it was not, but standing in for Jakki Brambles (as the result of a bet) at lunchtime in April was the nearest John got. It stands out as one of the most fondly-remembered oases in a period when John and the new management at Radio 1 were struggling to come to terms. Johnny Beerling left the station and his replacement, Matthew Bannister, instituted some of the most swingeing changes, aimed at making the station appeal to a younger audience, in the station's history. In rapid succession, Dave Lee Travis, Johnnie Walker, Tommy Vance and Simon Bates either left the station or were "retired." However, the Brambles week proved that JP could manage a high-speed, audience interaction-based setting with panache and considerable good humour (most of it at the expense of acts he despised).

At the beginning of the year, it was still business very much as usual. Peel was still doing his weekend jaunts, and finally kept his promise to play the abandoned 1991 Festive Fifty, albeit at a snail's pace of one record a show (and throwing the sequence out by leaving one of them at home). The result was an unsurprising chart that placed Nirvana at the top, although John steadfastly refused to jump on the backlash bandwagon by insisting that the fact that an LP was popular did not diminish its worth, and gave an unqualified welcome to their second LP in the autumn. The events of April 1994, however, brought one of rock's most thrilling episodes to an end, as Kurt Cobain was found dead following his suicide: this prompted repeats of all three of the band's sessions back to back, and brought a cycle that John had virtually started and nurtured to a melancholy close.

Cobain's widow Courtney Love recorded her second and final session with Hole in 1993, only one in a sparkling year for new acts, including Roovel Oobik, Here, Kanda Bongo Man, Tindersticks and Trumans Water. In an unprecedented move, a Fall session recorded for Mark Goodier's Evening Session was repeated on Kat's Karavan, in the same show that Prince Far I's 1978 session was rebroadcast for the first time in 16 years to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his murder. When the Fall recorded a Christmas session to tie in with a similar offering by Elastica for the 1994 Festive Fifty shows, it seemed right and fitting, yet it was the calm at the centre of a huge storm that had already erupted. After three years of stability, 1993 suddenly found John moved to a staggeringly unsuitable spot between 4.30 and 7 p.m. on Saturday (losing another 30 minutes and starting at 5 from November '94), although the Friday slot, 10 p.m.-1 a.m. (once more regained from the Friday Rock Show, which had plummeted in popularity since Tommy Vance's departure for Virgin Radio), at least resembled the programming from his classic period. As usual, John made the best of these alterations, and instituted an enjoyable strand on his Saturday afternoon shows. Since this was around the time when football matches ended, guest reviewers were invited to contribute match reports (one of which, by Craig Scanlon, ended up on a Fall LP). However, it implied a dumbing down of the show's importance, underlined by the 1993 Festive Fifty being broadcast in a massive block at the fag end of Christmas Day, a subdued postscript to what JP called "a depraved year," and one of the least memorable tracks ever to make the top was by Chumbawamba.

However, this was a period that also saw John travel around the continent in the Euro Action specials that took him to Germany, Hungary and Sweden, and 1994 saw memorable live relays from Glastonbury. The live studio set by Sharon Shannon was an idea resurrected from the Night Ride days, and Pulp's session that contained an early version of Common People made the FF on the strength of a single play. So Peel brought up the rearguard for Radio 1, yet was to continue to re-invent himself.

1995-6: High-speed Saturdays, low-key SundaysEdit

  • Producers: Mike Hawkes, Alison Howe
  • High point: The 1995 Festive Fifty finally resembles something Peel would have chosen himself.
  • Low points: Airtime is cut to just four hours a week. as Sheila suffers a potentially fatal brain haemorrhage.
  • Defining moments: The first Radio 1 programmes to be recorded at Peel Acres are broadcast, including a Pulp special.

The Bannister regime continued to aggressively refashion Radio 1: Trevor Dann, who had briefly produced Peel in 1983, became Head Of Production in January 1995, and the station began hiring new dance and R&B DJs and surrounded John with these. Mike Hawkes took early retirement in the spring and was replaced by Alison Howe, who revamped the Peel Show by putting John in the round with live acts at the Reading Festival and Sound City, amongst others. Drum and bass became the new law of the show, a genre JP enthusiastically challenged, and sets by DJs made their appearance in the session roster.

Moreover, shows started to be pre-recorded at Peel Acres, which allowed John for the first time to bring his family into the proceedings (although he had been doing this for other stations since 1989), and the entire 1995 Festive Fifty came from there. This was a joyous triumph for the man, as increasing variety in the acts polled meant it looked something like a chart he would have chosen himself, with dance making much more of a showing than hitherto, and Pulp (who had been featured in a special from Peel Acres), the kings of the Britpop genre (something which John was rather negative about), taking the top two spots. This had not happened since 1985, and their domination of the list, coupled with a triumphant Glastonbury appearance which the show faithfully documented, topped a triumphant year. To cap it all, John was asked to host Top Of The Pops for the first time in eight years, although in this case one swallow did not make a summer: it was a pretext to cover his appearance on This Is Your Life, which he claimed to be one of the greatest evenings of his life.

Then came the fall. In April, John lost his Friday slot once again and was moved to Sundays, 8-10 p.m.: he was now on air for merely four hours a week. In the middle of the year, when his wife Sheila suffered a potentially fatal brain haemorrhage while her husband John was at the TT Races with Kershaw, and the spectre of this haunted his show not just for that year but for many more to come. The Tribal Gathering and the Reading Festival notwithstanding, this is a year not remembered with great fondness, and the 1996 Festive Fifty frustratingly perpetrated the indie sensibility again. Things could only get better in the coming year, and they did.

1997-8: Weekday rebirthEdit

  • Producers: Alison Howe, Anita Kamath
  • High point: Peel is now back on during the week for the first time in seven years.
  • Low point: The 1997 Festive Fifty is reduced to just 31 placings.
  • Defining moments: Home Truths debuts on Radio 4. John curates the Meltdown Festival.
John Peel's Meltdown 1998 1
At last, John reaped his reward for years of unsuitable hours and graveyard shifts: from February 1997, the show moved to Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday for the first time since 1990, going out from 8.30 to 10.30 p.m. (although they were cut by 10 minutes in April for some unknown reason). The Coldcut session live from Maida Vale kicked off a renaissance of the show which would usher in a glorious Indian summer of discoveries. Radio 1 threw a surprise gig/party from ICA in October to celebrate thirty years of his being on Radio 1, and it seemed as if the future was rosy. The Peel Acres connection was strengthened by John being allowed to record his BFBS shows (and all subsequent foreign output) from there, beginning in August of 97.

Nonetheless, the events in the latter part of the year caused him to refer to this time in his life as "gothic." As if John's previous year had not been blighted enough by illness in the family, Sheila suffered problems with her eyesight and her mother fell seriously ill and subsequently died. The pressure put on the man meant that his BFBS schedule was disrupted, and he announced that the 1997 Festive Fifty would not take place. However, he relented after listener pressure and the chart went ahead, albeit reduced to 31 places (see the chart page for a discussion of this). Somewhat predictably, Cornershop took top spot, a much-delayed reward for JP who had been championing their music for four years.

1998 saw two remarkable events that gave pointers as to the direction the show would take in the final years. In 1995-6, John had hosted a family oriented show called Offspring, and Radio 4 now asked him to helm a similar series with a wider remit, Home Truths. Initially, this was unpopular with listeners, mocked and generally ignored by hardcore Peel fans, However, its garnering of a Sony Award in the following year proved that JP could handle even a scripted human interest show with style, and in a sense, since he had always regarded his audience as the real heroes of his shows, a satisfying full circle had been reached.

Secondly, he was asked to curate the Meltdown Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in mid summer, something that had not been an option since the disastrous days of the ICA Rock Week back in 1984. The event was a huge success, and following hot on the heels of three nights of Glastonbury recordings, featured such delights as old lags Sonic Youth, Jesus And Mary Chain and Culture mixed in with nascent stars such as the Delgados, Broadcast and Autechre.

There was a definite feeling of renaissance in the air. Alison Howe was rewarded for all her sterling work for the show with a move to television production, and Anita Kamath took the chair, presiding over a new golden age. From October, the shows moved back to the classic 10-12 p.m. spot, Tuesdays to Thursdays, and from December, live broadcasts from Peel Acres began. It would continue to hover around this spot for nearly six years, and finally listeners could feel as though John was back where he should be. Yet once again, chart-rigging raised its ugly head and the 1998 Festive Fifty featured a disproportionate amount of entries from one label, Pickled Egg. Nonetheless, a host of new acts made the chart, and it was topped by the Delgados with a song that had already charted once the previous year in the session version. It was now time for the final phase of the show to begin, and one that would look back as much as it did ahead.

1999-2000: The Peelenium and three Festive FiftiesEdit

  • Producer: Anita Kamath
  • High point: Peel's 60th birthday celebrations. The Pig's Big 78 begins.
  • Low point: Peel breaks down on air following the death of Teddy Warrick.
  • Defining moment: Live sets from Melt-Banana and Dave Clarke. Christmas carol concerts return for the first time in nineteen years.

"We will celebrate the music of the century - beginning on May 13th. Provided that we lose no programmes between that date and the end of the year, decade, century, etc." (Typed by John at the head of the running order for 06 January 1999, as quoted in The Peel Sessions, p.195.)

DJ John Peel during the 1999 Glastonbury Festival

John at the Glastonbury Festival, 1999

The Peelenium strand was a classic example of British radio and a typically fanciful idea dreamed up by John as his contribution towards Millenium fever. He lost no shows in 1999 as he had feared, although the strand spilled over into 2000 at any rate. The idea behind it was to showcase every year from 1900-2000 (the final year included as a fairly last-minute decision) but any pretensions towards academia were quickly brushed aside. Four records chosen pretty much at random and reflecting either aspects of the era or the compilers' tastes (especially from the 50s onwards) were supplemented by a few news articles. It hooked listeners in the way no other strand had done before, and led directly to the Pig's Big 78, since Sheila introduced every segment (sometimes over the phone, pre-recorded, or with others of the family).

The latter began in late 2000, and featured Sheila introducing a found 78 played using a turntable specially built into John's mixing desk at Peel Acres. Its popularity with listeners outshone even the Peelenium and led to a compilation CD in its own right (and prompted some touching reminiscences). It typified the return to former technology that ensured long-forgotten voices could be heard and appreciated once again, something that John felt could be passed over in his ceaseless quest for the new. More importantly, it finally allowed John to weave his family into the show's narrative in a conclusive way, as they all took part in some fashion and made it a unique show that contrasted vividly with the DJ culture espoused by his Radio 1 colleagues. It remains a combination that has never been equaled or emulated.

Pursuant to the Meltdown Festival the previous year, the 'Peel Sessions live' were an early highlight of this final year of the century, with Clinic, Coldcut and Orbital all being recorded and broadcast in short order from the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This also saw the Digital Hardcore Night, a celebration of a label frequently championed on air, and the amount of live (or nearly live) broadcasts was staggering, and included a blistering 30-minute set by Melt-Banana that left John struggling for superlatives.

Peel's 60th birthday was the springboard for the biggest celebrations yet for a man who was not initially expected to survive Radio 1's blandishments, including an entire evening of TV documentaries and a four-hour live set from Maida Vale, the broadcasts of which eventually spilled over into a three-night orgy. It was a far cry from the days when Peel was considered a minority entertainer, and the BBC ensured that a self-congratulatory glow suffused the whole proceedings.

As the Peelenium progressed, it became clear that, with the mounting frenzy of the end of decade celebrations, one Festive Fifty would not be enough: thus the second all-time chart since 1982 was born. It was originally intended to run in tandem with the yearly one, but as schedule changes made it impossible for the Peelenium to finish by year end, it was held over to the first month of 2000, and John decided in cavalier fashion to broadcast it in blocks of five, since it was ostensibly predictable yet included unforeseen surprises (for example, two entries by the Beach Boys). It was topped by Joy Division's Atmosphere and in a way rounded off a period in the chart's history, setting old warhorses to rest for the final time. However, the 1999 Festive Fifty garnered many more votes and set the seal on the year in far more satisfying fashion, allowing JP's long-championed Cuban Boys to vindicate his faith in them by taking the top spot.

08 December 1999 also saw the revival of a feature that had not been seen since 1970. Then, a group of John's cherished artists had gathered to perform carols (see Carol Concert) and Maida Vale saw this once more, as live sets (and of course the Peelenium) were interspersed with carols sung by all. A simple idea but one which took hold and became a fixture of the festive season throughout the final years. Some listeners caviled at the fact that someone who was quite clearly irreligious in the accepted sense appeared to be encouraging it, but JP held firm, countering that a few seasonal songs sung in a rough and slightly drunken fashion was unlikely to convert anybody.

However, the atmosphere of festivity took a severe blow as far as John was concerned on 15 December, when long-standing BBC management official and personal friend Teddy Warrick died suddenly, causing JP to break down on air the following night. It was the end of yet another era, as the man had supported Peel's shows through some of its most difficult and divisive periods. Yet the show had to go on, and go on it did in triumph and with brio.

2000 saw John's playlist veer more radically into the area of country, a genre he had long admired and flirted with, but which now took hold in the shape of artists such as Neko Case and Laura Cantrell, both of whom were to subsequently record Peel Sessions (the latter played at Peel Acres in July). It also saw the discovery of the White Stripes from an LP he picked up on spec on his first visit to Groningen since 1992. Dance was not neglected: Dave Clarke, whose work had been regularly featured by Peel since 1994, turned in two jaw-dropping live Maida Vale sessions, one a year. At Christmas, the Festive Fifty (the third one within a year) conceded the fact that the year had been dominated mainly by a few excellent LPs, but a special programme with a celebrity quiz commemorated 25 years of the chart helped to sweeten the aftertaste of familiarity. The coming year would see the show fnd a new groove and, sadly, bring one long association to a premature full stop.

2001-2: Illness, Death and the White StripesEdit

  • Producers: Anita Kamath, Louise Kattenhorn
  • High point: The White Stripes play two astonishing live sets, one at Peel Acres.
  • Low points: John Walters dies in his sleep. Peel is rushed to hospital with diabetes. The 2002 Festive Fifty is suspected of rigging on a hitherto unknown scale.
  • Defining moment: JP fulfills a promise made 14 years earlier by broadcasting a listener's bootleg of lost Captain Beefheart sessions.
John In Garden
In the final years of the show's life, it settled down to a homely regular 10 p.m.-12 midnight spot, with a visit to Peel Acres once a week, and seemed to have found a new groove. 2001 started with John fulfilling a promise he had made some fourteen years previously. A listener had written in claiming he had tapes of the two Captain Beefheart sessions and, since they appeared to have been wiped, Peel fervently wished he could get them rebroadcast, despite the low audio quality, and this happened on 06 March 2001 and 07 March 2001. It was no mean feat to make this happen: in those days, artist recordings had a life of about three months (the studio contract stipulated this) and were in many cases wiped to allow the expensive reels to be used for what the BBC considered more worthwhile programming (as John was fond of remarking sardonically, Gardener's Question Time). Add to this the BBC's previously intractable and threatening attitude towards illegal home taping and it now seems like a miracle that it happened at all.

More and more bands played at Maida Vale live for the show, including DJ Bone, Seedling, Super Furry Animals and Melys, and a long-held ambition to visit Finland finally came about in May when Radio Mafia, for many years a host to specially recorded hour-long Peel shows, linked with Radio 1 for a celebratory programme.

However, the 30th of July marked the end of a life that had sustained the programme through 22 years of ground-breaking music when John Walters finally succumbed to the illness that had been plaguing him for some time. Peel broadcast as normal the next day but succumbed to grief when playing When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, as Walters had promised to do for him in 1984. It seemed that he missed the man more now than he had done in life, and Sheila related that he talked about Walters half an hour before he died, regretting they had not spent more time together.

John, as usual, dealt with such traumatising events by burying himself in his work and in the summer played Sonar in the first of what would become regular visits to the music festival in Spain. Then the recently discovered White Stripes came to the UK and the show seized on this opportunity by firstly presenting them live at Maida Vale (which, unusually for a live set, was repeated in October due to listener requests), then by booking them for a visit to Peel Acres, thereby cementing John's opinion of them as a band rivalling Jimi Hendrix in importance.

With such a punishing work schedule, it was no surprise that Peel was almost permanently exhausted and took every opportunity to catch up on sleep. However, a routine visit to the doctor when this was happening more often than normal resulted in JP being rushed to hospital on September 11th, just as events in America affected the world, and being diagnosed with diabetes. Predictably, he was back to work after only a week of missed programmes and in October Radio 1 decided to honour what they claimed was the culmination of 40 years in broadcasting by hosting a special event from the King's College Student Union in London. Nick Cave, Billy Bragg and New Order were all involved in some way. An eventful and traumatic year closed with Melys taking the 2001 Festive Fifty top spot with Chinese Whispers, to John's undisguised delight.

2003-4: The EndEdit

  • Producer: Louise Kattenhorn
  • High points: The 2003 Festive Fifty caps a happy year for Peel.
  • Low points: Radio 1 perpetrates the ultimate insult by moving his show to almost a graveyard shift. Peel dies on October 25, 2004, thereby ending his show and prompting a plethora of tributes.
  • Defining moment: The Wedding Present reform, and John makes his final discovery in the form of grime.

ConclusionEdit

Although JP's over-arching dictum was that he wanted to hear something he had never heard before, he also reminded his listeners that in the headlong rush to hear new material, it was easy to forget how good the old records were, and this mixture of the old and new and a demonstration of how semingly polarised styles could co-exist in the same programme was a recurring strand of his playlists. It is notable that his favourite acts tended to be those where there was a strong, original and identifiable presence, whether it was the guttural singspiel of the Fall, the languid mocking commentary of Half Man Half Biscuit or the rapturous longing of Roy Orbison, he cherished the original yet familiar, and was not averse to playing currently unfashionable tracks by the likes of Status Quo and the Rolling Stones in his latter years, since he asserted (quite correctly) that his younger audiences may never have heard them.

His show contained a fair amount of crossover with his colleague Andy Kershaw, and they often followed one another on air. However, Kershaw's work has not inspired the kind of fanatical archiving and cataloguing that this site, amongst other places, inspired in Peel fans (even though most listeners seemed to enjoy both). What was missing from Kershaw was the ongoing sense of narrative that Peel injected into Kat's Karavan simply by talking about things that mattered to him and by including his own family in the proceedings. Hearing recordings of the shows in sequence gives a compulsive continuum and a thread to the ever-changing presentation of new artists that distinguishes the Peel show from the plethora of other DJs that Radio 1 gave air time to over the years, and will ensure their lasting popularity as long as there are PCs on the planet.

>work ongoing

Footnotes
  1. He wrote this name at the head of every running order.
  2. Margrave Of The Marshes, p. 250-1, Corgi edition.
  3. On air comment by Vance from Friday Rock Show, 1979-03-06.
  4. Peel was later to recall that Anderson visited London and never took the opportunity to thank him.
  5. See Peeling Back The Years 5 (Transcript).
  6. Ken Garner suggests this had been an ongoing process since 1977: see The Peel Sessions, p. 124. The rationale was that listeners would be put off by his choice of music and this would then lead to a loss of audience for the breakfast show.
  7. This show was axed after a year, thereby allowing an airtime slot for Andy Kershaw.
  8. The Peel Sessions, p. 125.
  9. Margrave Of The Marshes, p. 397 (Corgi).
  10. See Interview: On Liverpool FC, Heysel, Hillsborough.
  11. The Peel Sessions, p. 126.
  12. The Sub Pop records were sent to John Peel by Norman B a British DJ who lived in Seattle. He had a long-running show on KCMU (now KEXP FM), titled "Life Elsewhere"/.[1] The show had originated at legendary Seattle alternative station KRAB. Norman B continues to this day with a form of "Life Elsewhere". The first package Norman B sent to John Peel contained early releases from Tad, Green River, Fluid as well as Mudhoney and Nirvana. On receiving the package and playing most of them immediately on air, John called Norman B in Seattle to ask for more and information about what was going on there musically. Norman sent more packages to John including releases from Green Monkey, Engram and K Records (Olympia), plus samples from a variety of Seattle Bands from the 80's, including Three Swimmers, The Beakers, The Blackouts, Cinema 90, Beat Pagodas. Peel and Norman B continued to stay in contact, trading recommendations on music to look out for.
  13. The Peel Sessions, p. 136
  14. The Peel Sessions, p. 141.
  15. The Peel Sessions, p. 142.

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