John Peel was the very definition of a tastemaker. During his 35-year career in radio, few people rivalled him for the championing of emergent talents, and he did most of it operating during the undesirable slot of 10pm to midnight on Radio One. However, he made this space a home for the demimonde, and in the process, espoused the glory of the likes of The Fall, David Bowie, Ramones and Joy Division, all of which would’ve suffered a dearth of acclaim if it wasn’t for the humble hero that Peel was.
A vast swathe of musicians felt indebted when he sadly passed away in 2004, with many recalling the golden moment that they first tuned in to hear their own songs grace the airwaves as Peel curated another cracking show. Thus, there is no shortage of knowledge surrounding the acts that Peel heralded highest, but in 1997, he kindly picked 20 records for the Guardian that he could happily call his favourites, or at least on that particular day.
One of the albums he chose is the ultimate eclectic indicator, none other than Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica. To some, the madness of the record gets too manic, but for others, Peel included, it is a work of genius. As Peel declared in 1995: “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.”
One of the more accessible albums that nonetheless typify his ahead of the curve ways is The Velvet Underground and Nico. Peel was famously one of the first to champion the band, and as such, one of the only ones during their actual time as a band. It was on Peel’s show that the likes of Brian Eno first heard the proto-indie group and described this album in a show as “superb”, which is more than most people ever said about it in 1967.
Another of Peel’s credits is as a spearhead of the UK punk explosion. He might not look like the sort of mohawk sporting type, but his early love of the Ramones introduced a generation of youth to punk. As the Undertones’ Bill Doherty recalls: “He played the full side of the first Ramones record – we suddenly felt we weren’t alone. We may have been stuck in Derry with seemingly no future (man!) but the world suddenly got smaller, friendlier and full of possibilities.”
Adding in sincerely thankful fashion: “That’s what music does for you and that was exactly what it continually did for John Peel. He recognised that the essential ingredient of the best music, and in particular to the best rock and roll, is passion.”
However, not everything was a game-changing American import with Peel, quite the contrary, in fact. He was a DJ who celebrated music from all corners and was always right behind the best of British. He even gave Pulp their very first session on the radio in 1981 when Jarvis Cocker was still a schoolboy. And when Britpop finally bloomed, it was Different Class that he celebrated the most.
Jarvis Cocker would later return the favour when he eulogised Peel himself in an Observer obituary that read: “No matter how far-out and downright scary some of the music was, The Voice was always there to let you know everything was all right. ‘Hey,’ it seemed to be saying, ‘just let it happen. You don’t have to like all of this: just give it a chance.'” Which is a notion that brings to mind the DJ’s very singular way of dropping a record like ‘Venus in Furs’ back in 1967 and as the screeching avant-garde epic came to an end, famously uttering: “I went up during that record to have a look at the night, which incidentally is very beautiful.”
Adding: “So if you’re anywhere near a window, go out and look at it and breathe and perhaps say ‘I love you’ into the night again. It’ll make you feel great.”
You can check out his full ordered list of 20 below.
John Peel’s 20 favourite records of all time:
- Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
- The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet Underground
- Ramones by the Ramones
- Different Class by Pulp
- Live at Counter Eurovision by Misty in Roots
- Nevermind by Nirvana
- The Smiths by The Smiths
- Arc Weld by Neil Young
- Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Wawali Bonane by Enenze
- Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd
- Second Light by Deadzone
- Makorokoto by The Four Brothers
- Dave Clarke Archive 1 by Dave Clarke
- Songs About Fucking by Big Black
- Dry by PJ Harvey
- I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson
- Elastica by Elastica
- Live Through This by Hole
- The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones
(As some of the albums above are not available on Spotify they have been omitted from the playlist.)