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(Related page: Kmentertainer)
John Peel worked at KMEN, a radio station in San Bernardino, California, from January or February 1966 until February 1967. He later believed he had spent eighteen months there; apart from brief references in a 1972 article in Oz magazine, he never got round to writing about this period, but Sheila Ravenscroft (Margrave Of The Marshes, p.224) writes that "John's recollections of his life at KMEN were scattered, to say the least." Like most US pop music stations of the time, it followed a chart-based format and employed a small team of disc-jockeys who hosted daily three-hour shows. Peel, working under the name John Ravencroft, became the station's breakfast DJ, with a daily show between 6 a.m and 9 a.m.; he also presented a weekend show featuring the current British charts. Peel later claimed he manipulated these to include favourite records of his own - although available KMEN charts provide little evidence of this until December 1966, when "Parchman Farm/Key To Love" by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. the "Ready, Steady, Who" EP and the Creation's "Painter Man", none of them Top 10 entries in the UK, feature in the listing.
As in his future positions on Radio London and BBC Radio One, he was keen to be regarded as one of the station's "team" of DJs, taking part in promotional activities and making public appearances at events organised by KMEN, including a chaotic Rolling Stones concert and a performance by the Byrds, who offended Peel/Ravencroft by refusing to speak to him. (According to a gig listing, this concert took place at the Swing Auditorium, National Orange Showgrounds on April 15, 1966, with the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Dillards and Elysium Senate.) At the same time he asserted his individuality by promoting music he approved of. On KMEN, this included early singles by Love, The Doors and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, tracks by British groups like The Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and blues artists such as Lightnin' Hopkins and Jimmy Reed who were not normally featured on US pop radio. It was during his time in San Bernardino that he discovered, and was deeply impressed by, The Misunderstood, a band who hailed from the neighbouring town of Riverside. (Their first single, "I Can Take You To The Sun", appeared in the KMEN playlist, even though it was only available as a British import). He still maintained his connections with Britain and Liverpool, contributing an impressionistic account of a holiday in the UK to the KMENtertainer, the station's newspaper, with mentions of his family and references to Anfield and Scotland Road which must have puzzled his Californian readers .
In 1966 the hippy counter-culture was emerging in California, and Peel took to it enthusiastically, living in a communal arrangement with his first wife Shirley and a group of friends, smoking marijuana and listening to the new music of bands like Love, The Doors and Buffalo Springfield - both on record and live, at the clubs along Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. His lifestyle began to influence his radio work; recalling his California times in 1971 he told Melody Maker's Michael Watts of the strain he had felt at having to present a fast-paced breakfast show after an evening's dope-smoking:
"I was always stoned. I lived in the San Bernardino Valley by an orange grove, with lots of other kids, and we’d get out of our heads. The trouble was that I had this radio programme at 6am on KMEN. We’d all be out of our heads by two in the morning, but while they’d be going to sleep, I’d have to get up and go to work.....I’d be asleep over the controls and have to wake up to put on the next record. It was horrifying, because you have to talk with this smile in your voice. My style on Perfumed Garden was a reaction to all that.”
By early 1967 he had been moved to the station's early evening show, which ran from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.. With his colleague Johnny Darin he suggested to KMEN's programme director that the station's chart format could be adapted to include more album tracks and B-sides. Their proposal was rejected but soon afterwards a similar idea was successfully implemented by San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue and subsequently copied by many American FM rock stations. On his return to Britain Peel was able to put his idea into practice on Radio London's late-night show London After Midnight, which evolved into the Perfumed Garden.
In the TV film John Peel's Record Box, John Darin described Peel's position on KMEN:
I think it was a delicate balance for John and the station in that he was very popular, he had a big audience in his evening time period, the sponsors loved him, and so there was always this kind of argument - do we try to keep John disciplined to the format or do we let him go and hope that the response is such that the station gets ratings and makes money, so they were always kind of playing their game with John while the rest of us were just restricted to playing the top 40 hits and finding other ways to enjoy ourselves on the air.
Peel also published his first pieces of journalism while at KMEN, becoming steadily more involved with the station newspaper as the number of pages grew. His articles for the Kmentertainer were often whimsically humorous but increasingly reflected the influence of what would later be called "flower power" - particularly an article on The Misunderstood in which the group are portrayed as "prophets of the new order, harbingers of a brilliant, soft and alive dawn for mankind". Later, this kind of imagery was typical of his early Perfumed Garden columns for International Times in 1967-68.
But his attempt to live out the hippy dream ran into difficulties. Southern California was less welcoming to the new youth culture than San Francisco, Los Angeles and its environs being far more conservative, socially and culturally, than the traditionally tolerant San Francisco Bay Area, with its beatnik heritage, student radicalism in Berkeley and peaceful hippy gatherings in Golden Gate Park. Los Angeles, already troubled by race riots in the black suburb of Watts, became notorious for the Sunset Strip riots of 1966, in which police attempted to clear the Strip of young people who were said by residents and businessmen to be having a negative effect on the area. Peel sympathised with the youth, referring in one KMENtertainer editorial to "the denial of basic civil rights to those under the age of 21" as a topic the paper might cover. The events inspired the Buffalo Springfield's song "For What It's Worth" and among the clubs on the Strip which attracted police attention was Pandora's Box, which was where The Misunderstood played what Peel often described as one of the most unforgettable gigs he ever saw. The LA police gained an unenviable reputation for violence and intolerance; in a 1968 International Times column Peel, reviewing an album by the band Fraternity of Man, wrote "As a fellow-sufferer I appreciated their 'Just doin' our job' which is about the neo-Nazi Los Angeles police".
In small-town San Bernardino, Peel came under suspicion as an Englishman who displayed hippyish tendencies. The local sheriff's department pursued him and he was accused of drug use and of having sex with under-age girls (the Californian "groupies" of the time were often very young). Under pressure from these allegations, Peel decided to return to the UK - an abrupt end to his US career - taking the time out to permanently borrow a copy of the Turtles LP It Ain't Me Babe from the KMEN library (12 October 1999). (He may have left this, together with most of his record collection behind, in his haste to get out of California; in a 1969 Top Gear he mentions that he was due to be reunited with the collection, which was being held in Customs.) Peel later described the situation which led him to leave San Bernardino in a letter to International Times. The exact date of his departure is not known, but he was still contributing a column on the British pop scene to the KMEN station newspaper on 28 January 1967. He is still listed as host of the 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. show, so he may have compiled the column from reports he had read in the British pop weeklies. The last issue of the KMENtertainer in which he appears is dated 18 February 1967; later issues no longer include the British top ten. On his return to the UK Peel began the next stage of his career, as a DJ on the pirate ship Radio London, in early March.