John Peel – A Tribute by Kevin Robinson

8 years ago today much loved DJ John Peel died while on holiday in Peru. Kevin Robinson was, like most of us, a huge fan of the man & here are a few of his personal favourite recollections of the DJ & journalist.

During a lunch break on 26th October 2004, I was browsing in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street when the instore radio station announced that John Peel had suffered a heart attack and died. I remember losing my grip on a CD, it subsequently crashing to the floor, and then walking back to the office stunned. I worked just down the road from Radio 1 and had seen him, as I often would, just weeks before on a record shopping expedition to Soho where he was speaking to someone with great enthusiasm about one-man band Jawbone. Before he’d gone on holiday to Peru, there were sessions already booked for Wolf Eyes, 65 Days Of Static, Sunn O))), Vitalic and Max Tundra. There seemed so much still to do.

I’d like you to believe I spent the 80’s huddled under a duvet with headphones listening to the first Smiths session by torchlight, battling to decipher the sounds through the intrusive Medium Wave interference. The disappointing reality is that my introduction to Peel was through his role as a slightly sinister-looking, occasional Top Of The Pops presenter who identified himself as “the one who comes on your radio late at night and plays lots of records by sulky Belgians.” He took the piss brilliantly when forced to introduce the banal, and this worked particularly well when paired with his nighttime radio cohorts, David Jensen (his “Rhythm Pal” with whom he often appeared in extravagant costume) and Janice Long.

“I’ll have you know that I had him on my bedroom wall,” enthused Long after 70’s heart-throb David Cassidy once performed.

“That’s very athletic of you Janice,” was Peel’s swift retort.

As one particularly gruelling live episode reached its climax with the inexorable Shakin’ Stevens announced as the nation’s best seller, Peel smirked menacingly into the camera.

“Next week’s Top Of The Pops will be presented by a couple more retards holding their stomachs in.”

The daytime output of Radio 1 in the early 90’s was one insurmountable wall of mediocrity, yet Peel was often integrated into its family friendly schedule, just as he would participate in the so-called “Fun” Days back when the DJ’s would descend on an unsuspecting town dressed in matching bomber jackets, and the enforced joviality could potentially result in DLT filling someone’s hotel bath with jam. Peel’s favourite of these was the infamous Mallory Park motor racing circuit incident, which resulted in thousands of miniature tartan-clad Bay City Rollers fans wading across a weed-filled lagoon to reach their idols, whilst the sound of screaming, helicopters and car noise filled the air and Tony Blackburn was ferried around on a speed boat piloted by a Womble.

For one glorious week during Easter 1993 though, John Peel was Jakki Brambles. Standing in on her lunchtime show, he was permitted to mix the playlist with his own selections. So, slotted in between the Whitney Houstons and Gloria Estefans, Peel proceeded to culturally enrich the daytime listener with blasts of Underground Resistance, The Fall and Diblo Dibala. Of course, it was exactly how radio should sound, particularly blasting out through the office in which I performed data entry as part of a civil service job that was destroying my soul. The randomness of this kind of programme was thrilling, except my colleagues didn’t quite agree, and the dial was promptly switched. Given the torrent of hate faxes which flooded in from distressed housewives and factory workers, the nation, it seemed, had done the same.

John Peel – A Tribute by Kevin RobinsonThroughout the 90’s when, despite the Smashie and Niceys being aggressively banished from the station, Peel’s shows were being shunted precariously around the weekend schedule, it’s fair to say that he not only widened my musical spectrum as I was introduced to Stereolab, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Man Or Astro Man?, Ivor Cutler, Dreadzone and Truman’s Water, but also the way in which I listened to music. From Ranking Trevor to Roy Orbison, The Ragga Twins to Roxanne Shanté, Dick Dale to DJ Rupture, Viv Stanshall to Venetian Snares, he was to provide millions with an education that money couldn’t buy. He’d follow PJ Harvey, who had released the primitive-sounding, blues influenced Rid Of Me, with a track from Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, in much the same way as he’d happily dig out his Gene Vincent and Lonnie Donegan 45’s whenever The White Stripes would visit. It was a “if you liked that, you might like this” philosophy unavailable elsewhere. His unwavering support for hardcore three piece Jacob’s Mouse from Bury St. Edmunds convinced many of us that they were East Anglia’s answer to Nirvana. And they probably were. Blagging myself a place on the bill as warm-up DJ when they played a Peterborough rock night, rather than stick to a rigidly metal formula, I filled my set with Sonic Youth and Mudhoney records in the hope that they might approve.

He was compere at the first Reading Festival I attended, and my friends were slightly alarmed to find him halt proceedings on the Saturday afternoon to read out the football results.

“Who’s your favourite then, Kylie or Jason?” he asked over the mic, cueing up their nauseating Christmas single Especially For You in between grunge bands. “Which bastard said Jason?”

However, one of my fondest memories was of seeing him was a family outing to a Babes In Toyland gig in Cambridge. He asked the people at the merchandise stand if he could borrow a stool, upon which was then placed the youngest of his excitable offspring so she could get a better view of the action.

During his final years he resumed gigging, primarily at dance events such as Tribal Gathering, Sónar and Fabric; incorporating into his sets his own interpretation of what constituted dance music, which would often include anything from some soukous to Status Quo.
But it was for those evening shows for which he will, quite rightly, be forever revered. That brilliantly insane outpouring of black metal, Drum & Bass, calypso, folk, old 78’s, happy hardcore, grindcore, Melt Banana, Xmal Deutschland, not to mention the bits he ballsed up.

John would never compromise or follow trends. He was happy to sacrifice the hostile and snobbish elements of his listenership when he started playing punk, take flack for playing reggae, and ignore stern warnings from bosses for playing hip-hop (“the music of black criminals”). Indeed, in Margrave Of The Marshes, Sheila recalled “the time when a box of turds arrived for John… from a listener outraged that his ears had been besmirched by black music.” And sure, he loved Pulp and Elastica, but if you tuned in to his shows at the height of Britpop you were more likely to hear Richie Hawtin or Xol Dog 400 than Blur or Oasis.

Never complacent, even at 60, he attracted a higher percentage of young listeners than any other programme on the network. It’s this intimate, warm, humorous and passionate style of presentation that is still missed after eight years. Plus the music, of course. Even at the wrong speed.

All words by Kevin Robinson. More articles by Kevin can be found here. You can also follow him on Twitter. Kevin also has his own radio show, Planet Of Sound, which you can find here. It’s full of tracks by all your favourite Louder Than War artists so load it up in a separate browser page & listen while you read us!

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Kevin Robinson gained a formidable reputation as a DJ in numerous indie club nights since the 90’s, and been a correspondent and reviewer for several music publications. He lives in London and currently presents new music programmes for the John Peel inspired Dandelion Radio, and Shoreditch Radio. Twitter: @kevinrobinsondj


  1. Lovely article.

    I was one that ‘did’ spend far too many nights, huddled under the bedclothes, headphones on with one arm hanging over the side of the bed where my radio-cassette waited with play, record and pause button down and waiting for the next track.
    In this modern age, where finding new music of any kind is a mouse click away, it’s almost impossible to get over to those who take it for granted, just how limited our access to music was in the mid to late 70’s. Outside of London there was no commercial radio. Radio One played pop and oldies with an a roster of DJs who were increasingly interested in radio as a stepping stone to tv and the sound of their own voices. You would read about bands in Sounds, Melody Maker and NME but never heard them because they didn’t get played on the radio and, at 15, buying an album was something that happened maybe a few times a year of you were lucky with birthday and Christmas money. If you were lucky, older kids might lend you an album or two.

    In early 1977, as the music press began to really cover the exploding scene, Peel was the only person playing the bands. It really was the only place you could hear it. My friends and I would all bid each other goodnight at 9.30 so we were all home by the radio for 10. On Friday nights my dad, who ran the local social club, would allow us to sit in the convert hall with a radio-cassette and a group of six or so of us would listen together, devouring every minute. And what an education. Peel opened up our ears to music we may have never come across anywhere else. I vividly remember him playing Prince Far-I’s No More War, the first heavy reggae track I ever heard and it sounded like it came from another planet but started a long love affair with dub that’s never waned.

    It wasn’t just that Peel played great music, he was passionate, enthusiastic and so funny. A genuine one off who I am convinced will never be bettered. We live in different times and his like will never happen again. I met him at Futurama ’80 and, as he took another scribbled note with a request from me I asked him what he’s thought of the headliner Siouxsie & The Banshees laser wreathed set. He replied after a pause, ”Nice show. No soul’ I replied that I thought it was shit and he laughed, ‘That too.’ Looking back, some 30 years on, I wish I’d had the foresight to just tell him how much he was loved but, at 19, being 50 is a thousand years away and you think you, and your favourite DJ will go on forever.

    Artists now hailed as legendary, Ramones, Clash, Joy Division, Banshees etc et al. Peel played them early and ‘only’ Peel played them.

    I parted ways with Peel’s show around 85 or so, marriage, bills, kids etc pulled me away as they do for so many but my respect and genuine affection for him remained.

    I was at work when I heard of his death on the office radio and I ended up having to take the rest of the afternoon off. I Just couldn’t believe the news, or how much it had upset me and felt maudlin for days afterwards. I’m sure that anyone who had their musical tastes shaped by John felt the same. And he was such a nice man. How could that happen to him while Chris Moyles still breathed? It was so unfair, so unexpected, so final.

    John Peel played a huge part in shaping the person I am, he was the one constant in my most formative years, as I know he was for thousands of young music fans.
    Fondly remembered and never forgotten. And he led me to The Fall and for that I’ll always be eternally grateful.

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