There are few people to have had as big a hand in the alternative British music scene than John Peel. The famed Radio 1 DJ operated outside the parameters of what was expected for disc jockeys at the time and was always a champion of new and experimental music.
Below, we’ve brought together 10 bands who you probably wouldn’t have heard of if it wasn’t for John Peel. That’s not to say that the bands on offer relied solely on Peel, chances are many of them would have made it one way or another. That said, there’s no doubting that Peel brought them into the mainstream and made them household names.
That’s because, during his 35-year career, there were few people as highly credible as John Peel. Operating within the 10pm to midnight slot on Radio 1 could have deterred a lot of people, but Peel used the comparatively undesirable slot to showcase the best of Britain’s unsung heroes and champion them.
Whether it was on the pirate radio station Radio London or indeed in his more natural spot on BBC Radio 1, Peel made sure that he brought the weird and the wonderful to the airwaves. While most of the radio focused on around 5% of the songs being put out, Peel focused on the other 95% and made sure he gave it exposure.
Without John Peel, it is safe to say, the bands in the list below would be nowhere near the legends they are today.
Before Nevermind and its lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ confirmed Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl as the saviours of American rock, John Peel was already championing a little known band from Seattle.
The DJ found spots on his late-night show to showcase the band’s emerging talent as well as giving them a Peel session after hearing their first album Bleach. “I got to hear Nirvana I suspect before most other people in this country. And their first LP, it only cost something like 600 dollars to make and it was just a storming record,” said Peel.
His love of the band helped to give Nirvana a solid footing when they arrived on British shores and while it’s likely that eventually, the band would have pushed through the noise, it’s safe to say that Peel helped them achieve mainstream success, on this side of the pond, at least.
While Nirvana were already making some waves before Peel got involved, one can say he had a larger hand in Pink Floyd’s wild and experimental music coming into the mainstream. After Peel had returned to London from his stint in California in 1967, Pink Floyd were beginning to find a crowd, though it must be said, a relatively small one.
The music elite of London were all chirping with the new psychedelic band Pink Floyd but outside of a small circle, the group were somewhat unknowns. He gave them a spot on his show Top Gear and even made them the house band for a short while.
It seems that one performance confirmed Peel’s obsession with Pink Floyd. In 1968 when he saw the band perform in London’s Hyde Park, Peel remembered: “I hired a boat and rowed out, and I lay on the bottom of the boat, in the way that we hippies did, in the middle of the Serpentine, and just listened to the band play, and their music then, as I think, suited the open-air perfectly.
“It was like a religious experience, it was marvellous. They played ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ and things… they just seemed to fill the whole sky and everything y’know. And to coincide perfectly with the water and the lapping of the water and the trees and everything.”
John Peel is a loyal man. When David Bowie first arrived on the music scene he did so with a collection of songs that could easily be identified as novelty records. “We kept Bowie alive for a couple of years,” remembered the DJ. “He went through a bad patch of not getting very much work and people not paying a great deal of attention to him. He did a lot of sessions during that time.”
Bowie too remembered Peel’s influence on his work, “I remember around 1965 I did an audition for the BBC and I failed, and the report said, ‘This vocalist is devoid of personality and sings all the wrong notes.’ So in your inimitable manner and with tremendous enthusiasm, you got me back on for another audition, which I passed the second time around, which gave me freewheeling access to a lifetime of singing all the wrong notes.”
Without a shadow of a doubt, if we didn’t have John Peel there’s a very good chance that we wouldn’t have had the incredible career of David Bowie.
Originally known as the Coventry Automatics. The Specials arguably changed the face of not just music but pop culture in Britain during the late-seventies. As punk’s fervour began to subside, the presence of ska and two-tone reared its head ready to dance. The leaders of that pack were The Specials.
It was a movement which had grabbed Peel’s attention and made him want to get behind the group with all he had.
Peel was desperate to see the band perform live and eventually got his wish as The Specials, plus Madness and Selecter, finally came together and got the Peel seal of approval.
Back in 1976, before the word punk was known by 99% of the globe, there was one man who was playing Ramones records on the biggest radio station in Britain. Of course, that man was John Peel. His discovery of the band came after he had been given license to take a few records home form the Virgin record shop in Marble Arch.
“I took out about ten or twelve records, one of which was the first LP by the Ramones,” recalled Peel. “Now I liked several things about it. One, I liked the simplicity of the name really and the fact that it had an implication of that Spanish New York thing, which seemed quite romantic, and also because it was a monochrome sleeve as well. So I took all of these things back and I put the record on. And initially, because of all the kind of aggression and the brevity of the numbers, I was slightly taken aback by it, but sufficiently excited I always think anyway that I in that particular programme I put some five or six tracks into that night’s programme and rewrote the running order and everything.”
He played ‘Judy Is A Punk’ in May 1976 and it may well be the first punk song to ever be played on mainstream radio. For that moment alone, John Peel is a legend.
One band who had a habit of causing controversy wherever they went was the Shaun Ryder-fronted project Happy Mondays. Built on beer, bellyaches and of course just about any narcotic they could get their hands on, the band would have struggled for real airplay without John Peel.
The DJ discovered the band through one of his favourite labels, Factory, and was quick to get behind them. He saw them live plenty of times and even when the group had found success, Peel sarcastically played their older material so that people could pretend they had liked them from the beginning.
The group would go on to give two John Peel Session performances but this one from 1989 is our favourite by far.
Another Factory stalwart, and arguably the band that gave Anthony Wilson a label in the first place, was Joy Division. The group had made their name in Manchester quite quickly but it would take John Peel’s adoration of the group to bring them into the mainstream, even years after Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide.
The first of the post-punk bands did seem to be coming out of Manchester, which is something I deeply resented,” remembered Peel. “I didn’t at the time think that Joy Division were a band that I was going to prefer above any other…they were just one of a whole handful of bands whose work I was quite enjoying at that time.”
The group though would go on to define Peel as a DJ. Never afraid to push the boundaries of commercial radio, Peel was more than happy to play songs like ‘New Dawn Fades’ and ‘Decades’ for the Radio 1 audience.
The Johnny Rotten led punks, the Sex Pistols, may not have dramatically changed music with their actual instrumentation but their attitude was undeniable. While the group were adept at gaining attention all by themselves and had Bill Grundy to thank for launching them into the mainstream, Peel did have on vital contribution.
The band’s second single, ‘God Save The Queen’ recorded and released in the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee quickly gained infamy and was banned by the BBC across their channels.
That is, except for John Peel who refused to bow to pressures from the Beeb claiming it was a “fuss about nothing.” The single may have suspiciously been kept off the top of the charts but Peel’s refusal to adhere to the rules surely made him a punk ally at the very least.
Peel’s hand in the rise of the Sex Pistols may have been minimal but his devotion to Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music surely helped them to reach commercial and critical success. Ferry had actually managed to get the band played on Radio 1 through a landmark session before they had released their first record.
The group would go on to provide a host of sessions for Peel with the DJ certainly being one of their biggest fans at the early stage of their career. With hindsight Peel, unlike most other acts he championed, began to revise his comment son the band’s talent.
Between 1972 and 1976 there weren’t amnmy John Peel shows which didn’t feature Roxy Music, something which undoubtedly launched them into the stratosphere alongside other glam acts like David Bowie and Marc Bolan.
In the sixties the muso’s favourite band weren’t The Rolling Stones or The Beatles—they were the chart heroes—it was the Yardbirds. Peel had taken an interest in the group while living in America and after their disbandment, he followed the groups of the ex-members with equal interest, namely the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin.
Despite their name growing in America, Led Zeppelin struggled to find airplay on the BBC, “The BBC have effectively killed the progress of ‘underground’ music,” Jimmy Page once famously said. “It’s only John Peel and that other guy, Pete Drummond, who can play any of the good stuff.”
Peel was instrumental it getting the band noticed by the music scene, despite not feeling as though he had helped all that much. “A lot of people say – which you haven’t done, for which I’m grateful – ‘You’ve been kind of instrumental in the career of…’ They always mention Led Zeppelin for some reason, but I don’t think of it in those terms. I don’t do what I do either to win praise or fame for myself, but because I like doing it.”