"At least half of every programme I do should be filled by reggae records.." (Peel, 27 October 1980)
"Life would be even more of a bleak business than it is already without the Regs." (1980)
Peel and Reggae
John Peel had a profound love of reggae and was one of the foremost promoters of black music throughout the majority of his Radio 1 career, despite erroneous claims to the contrary by Julie Burchill  among others. Many discovered Bob Marley, Culture, Misty, Steel Pulse, Dr Alimantado, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Scientist, and The Mad Professor through John, not forgetting Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, the late Michael Smith and so many more. Peel played some of his favourite reggae tunes when co-hosting with Ranking Miss P in 1986 on the one-off BBC Radio One show Caribbean Celebration. In 2002, Ranking Miss P narrated the BBC TV documentary series Reggae: The Story Of Jamaican Music, which on the first episode featured Peel talking about the BBC's initial reluctance in playing reggae music and the controversial lyrics of Max Romeo's Wet Dream song.
It may be hard to determine exactly when Peel played his first reggae record, but it would have been in 1967, on the pirate station Radio London, which included ska, blue-beat and reggae records in its daytime playlists, including hits like Prince Buster's "Al Capone" and Desmond Dekker's "007". Peel would have played tracks like these when he covered for other DJs during the day, but he didn't play any Jamaican music on his Perfumed Garden show. It seems beyond reasonable dispute that his fascination with the genre really started at the end of the 1960s, after he had settled in London and was working for the BBC. At that time London's main hippy area was Notting Hill, the district where Peel's mother lived, which was also known for its Afro-Caribbean population. Interaction between the underground and some members of the West Indian community was facilitated by their common love of dope-smoking and mistrust of the police, and during 1967-68 the controversial black community leader Michael X was featured in International Times.
Peel would no doubt have been aware of the growing popularity of reggae in this period. Record companies which specialised in reggae began to issue music Peel played on his show. Island transformed itself from a small distributor of Caribbean music into a major rock label, while Trojan Records' subsidiary label B&C ("Beat and Commercial") issued albums by Peel favourites such as Steeleye Span and Atomic Rooster, creating an overlap between the reggae and rock worlds. As a keen radio listener, Peel would have heard BBC local radio programmes for the Caribbean communities in London, Birmingham and elsewhere, such as Steve Barnard's Reggae Time for BBC Radio London, which gave airplay to reggae in the early 1970s. We know that Peel owned some early reggae; during the Two Tone boom of the late 70s, he regularly played Prince Buster as well as other vintage ska and bluebeat, while in the course of his Little Richard Cover Search in the early 90s, he rediscovered and played Walking The Dead by Carl Bryan from 1969 (see 03 April 1992).
During the 04 October 2001 show, Peel was somewhat miffed by inaccuracies in a new book on reggae he had just received, which, apart from calling him an "ageing ex-hippy" with an "abrasively left of centre programme", minimises his playing of reggae in the punk era. Peel reminds the author, amongst other things, that he began to promote reggae on his show Top Gear in 1969, and proudly spins the first one he played, Popatop by Andy Capp:
- "There haven't been many better records than that, in fact."
As Peel had earlier recalled to John Walters, the record actually came into his possession by chance at a time when the primary audience for reggae in Britain outside the Caribbean community were skinheads, and playing it on Top Gear had been viewed as a kind of betrayal by some of the programme's listeners as some skinheads tended to punch hippies at this time:
- "I think it was actually sent to someone else to be perfectly honest with you ... and it slipped by mistake into my record collection. ... I remember taking it home and playing it to my wife, and we both thought really, 'This is just such a wonderful record.' And I played it on the radio – and the response was not very positive. I mean, people wrote in letters ... "Why have you turned your back on us' after all these years, or after all this year, or however long it was. Because people saw this as being the enemy’s music being played within their little sacrosanct area."
Peel was not alone in this: some rock critics in the underground press and in magazines like Cream and Let It Rock began to pay attention to reggae in the early 1970s, before Island Records decided to market Bob Marley and the Wailers to a rock audience. Peel's championing of the music was criticised by listeners who read "progressive rock"-oriented music papers such as Melody Maker and Sounds, and later in that decade by some punks. By 1975 he was featuring new reggae releases in his playlists, and the first of his 1975 Rock Week shows, on 4 January, featured some pre-release reggae records obtained from specialist shops in London. Yet the more hostile the reaction to reggae, the more Peel would play it, and the juxtaposition of different genres of music on his show reflected the interest of punk in Roots Reggae and the willingness of some groups such as the Clash, the Ruts and the Slits to experiment with crossover sounds. In fact, JP's somewhat bullish attitude to the genre is comparable with his adoration for the Fall, in that he could not understand why some people did not like it.
Peel's Reggae Sessions
(Main article: Reggae Sessions)
Peel's first reggae session, broadcast on 26 December 1970, was by the Rudies. Although this wasn't viewed by Peel and Walters as a great success, it was followed by many others, from Bob Marley & The Wailers to Dreadzone, including nine from Misty In Roots.
Misty and British Reggae
In The Peel Detective, an article in The Guardian (October 12, 2005), Jon Dennis reprints a list of twenty albums formerly chosen by Peel as being his favourites (see also Top 20 Albums). The majestic Misty in Roots are number 5 with Live At Counter Eurovision:
"Misty were not even popular among some reggae purists, as they were based in Britain and not Jamaica. A quote from Live at the Counter Eurovision was included on the order of service at Peel's funeral: 'When we trod this land, we walk for one reason ... to try to help another man think for himself. The music of our hearts is roots music, music which recalls history, because without the knowledge of your history, you cannot turn in your destiny: the music about the present, because if you are not conscious about the present, you're like a cabbage in this society'."
The track also appears among the eight choices on John's Desert Island Discs. Introducing it, Peel said:
"The start of this sums up, I like to think anyway, if there is an ethic of anything we do on the Radio One programme, this describes it."
In fact John was a great fan of British reggae - Misty, Aswad, Steel Pulse, Matumbi, Basement 5, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Talisman, Black Roots and UB40 were all played regularly and many did sessions. There were more, including Carnastoan, Reggae Regular, Capital Letters and Icarus, whose contribution has been less noted.
For a while punk and reggae were locked in unity on the Frontline. The Clash owed a great debt to their roots in Notting Hill squatting movement and Don Letts influence was strong as a DJ at early punk gigs. The story goes as no punk was available on vinyl they had to play reggae. The Slits and The Ruts were as reggae as punk got. 'Punky Reggae Party' was as punky as reggae got. It is arguable that his consistent playing of the genre alongside punk that paved the way for the blue beat / ska revival of the late 70s. Many 2-Tone groups such as the Specials, Selecter and Beat recorded sessions.The Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism united punks and rastas in anti-fascism and drove the Nazis off the streets of England. Then punk and reggae was the soundtrack to the riots of angry youth in Brixton, Toxteth and St Pauls. LKJ added the commentary. Also combining reggae and punk was the work of producer Adrian Sherwood and his On-U Sound label, taking in Prince Far I, Creation Rebel, the New Age Steppers, Mark Stewart and African Head Charge, among others.
Later Peel championed the fusion of dub with other traditions - Black Star Liner, Zion Train, Asian Dub Foundation and Dreadzone. He was also keen on crossover and when UK reggae hit the mainstream seemed to like helping hits on their way - playing Eddy Grant, Laurel and Hardy, Musical Youth, UB40, Smiley Culture, and Apache Indian. He was also pleased when Jamaican reggae was top of the pops - he was over the moon when Althea and Donna took Up Town Top Ranking to the top and when Sugar Minott had an unexpected hit with Good Thing Going in the early 80s.
Peel was quoted as saying: "If anyone tells you that there is no such thing as good British reggae, first tell them that they are a herbert and then listen to Black Roots." 
The 1977 Festive Fifty, chosen by Peel himself, featured many reggae tracks from the previous year: Althea and Donna with crossover hit Uptown Top Ranking at number 2; Culture, Marley, Marlene Webber, Peter Tosh, and Jah Woosh were also present. King Short Shirt represented the calypso sound also popular in Jamaica at the time.
Moreover, at Number 13 was the mysterious J.Ayes and Rankin Trevor with Truly. There seems to be some confusion surround the actual name of the artists behind this classic Reggae track. Original scans of an early 1977 releases of the vinyl show the artist as being "J. Ayes and Ranking Trevor", but a more official 1978 release of the song lists the artist as "JAYES". Despite this evidence to the contrary, it seems as though the popular Jamaican trio The Jays were actually behind the song. Documented as working on the song with Ranking Trevor, the song appears on many compilation albums along with another popular collaboration Ya Ho. It seems highly likely that the early pressings of Truly contained a simple misprint that even survived attempts to correct it, providing more confusion for collectors.
Subsequent entries in the charts were sporadic, notable exceptions being the Nautral Ites' Picture On The Wall (1983 Festive Fifty), several by Dreadzone in the 1995 Festive Fifty and Culture's Lion Rock, taken from one of their Peel sessions (2000 Festive Fifty, All-Time).
Popatop is there in the Peelenium for 1969. Then from 1973 to 1979 there is a reggae track featured almost every year: The Wailers with Duppy Conqueror in 1973, Burning Spear with Slavery Days in 1975, Croaking Lizard by The Upsetters in 1976, Shoplifting by Slits in 1977 [reggae or not? discuss!], See Them A-Come - Culture in 1978, and Mankind by Misty in 1979. Then its Culture with Lion Rock in 1982, and their Capture Rasta in 1986. The Wayne Wonder & Cutty Ranks version of Lambada, frequently played by Peel at live events, was selected for 1991. Dreadzone feature with Zion Youth in 1995.
Home Truths and Reggae
Dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah stood in for John on Home Truths and one of his recurring themes on that programme were stories about sightings of Haile Selassie, Ras Ta Fari, whilst he lived in exile in England.
Reggae in the Record Box
John Peel's Record Box of 142 singles contained several Lee 'Scratch' Perry productions from the 70s. It also had a copy of Popatop. The Yami Bolo record was based on the Them song 'Richard Cory'.
- Andy Capp / Reco: Popatop / The Lion Speaks (7") Treasure Island (1969)
- Izzy Royal (aka I-Royals): Coronation St / Coronation Dub (7") WEA (1983)
- Lee Perry: Bafflin' Smoke Signal / Black Smoke Signal (7") Black Ark (1978)
- Max Romeo: Sipple Out Deh' / Revelation (7") Upsetters (1976)
- Paul Blake & The Blood Fire Posse: Every Posse Get Flat / Flat out (7") Studio Works (1984)
- Upsetters: Bucky Skank / Yucky Skank (7") Down Town (1973)
- Upsetters: Key Card / Domino Game (7") DL International (1975)
- Versalites / Lee Perry & The Upsetters: Cutting Razor / Black Belt Jones (7") DL International (1974)
- Yami Bolo: Richer Than Cory / Richer Than Cory (version) (7") Jamaica International (1998)
Keith was a friend who is mentioned in some shows as providing a constant stream of Reggae and in particular imports with off centre holes and dodgy pressings that improved the wobble. He must have been someone trusted to pass on the tracks that caught his hear and then Peel gave them an outing. This may well be Keith Stone who opened Daddy Kool records with Steve Barrow in the mid 1970s. Many remain obscure Jamaican imports and appear to be lost to the internet but have been saved for posterity by this wiki. A listing of people's favourites and locations on this site may point people in the right direction for some hidden gems. For instance, on 01 December 1991 Peel played two tracks by Gospel Fish called 'Give Me Pass' and 'Ten'. The former does not appear to be listed in any discographies.
- ↑ The book was Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King by Lloyd Bradley, which despite this inaccuracy is well worth a read.