Annie Nightingale: You couldn’t fool John Peel, he had the greatest bulls**t detector ever

How John Peel Changed My Life: BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale reveals what her friend and musical maestro was really like

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In some ways it feels like it was only yesterday. In others it feels like a long time ago. The death of John Peel, the towering icon of broadcasting, was ten years ago (25 October 2004). Such was his influence, it took an entire new national radio network, BBC 6 Music, to extol fully the musical genres he launched. A great gesture. And John’s son, Tom Ravenscroft, takes to the microphone there very ably every Friday night. But no one broadcaster could or would try to step into John’s shoes.

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No one else would play Extreme Noise Terror next to Rachmaninoff. No one else would have superstar guitarist Jack White playing live in their living room. No one else would play reggae next to death metal, Roy Orbison, and happy hardcore followed by a drum ’n’ bass session.

Just no one on this earth has John’s breadth of taste, or judgement about what’s plain and honest in music. He was like that with people too. You couldn’t fool him. He had the greatest in-built bulls**t detector ever.

No one else had his dry wit, or his devotion to Liverpool Football Club either… “I would not have an Arsenal supporter in the house,” he once said to me. Possibly not entirely seriously… Another of his quirks was to take the long way home commuting from London to Suffolk. He wouldn’t motor through Essex. “Don’t like their driving,” was his explanation. Tailgating was anathema to him.

John played music for 37 years from the beginning of Radio 1 till his death at the age of 65 while on holiday in Peru. But it was a working holiday, he was writing about Machu Picchu. He didn’t like holidays because they took him away from music, and there was always so much new material to listen to, he was afraid he’d never catch up. He might miss an “astonishing” (one of his favourite words) new song, singer or musician.

“Yes I suppose he was a workaholic,” says his widow, Sheila. “But he was just doing what he loved. He didn’t think of it as work.”

Sounds like a dream existence. But because he played such an odd and sometimes decidedly discomfiting selection of music, always breaking new boundaries, taking risks, he was worried – though it was unfounded – he would be taken off air. That his contract wouldn’t be renewed… Concerned if his show would be moved to a later slot. Those were the days before the BBC iPlayer where you could listen to any programme at any time. But John Peel was an appointment to listen live. Four decades’ worth of youngsters would tune in only to him. Whole swathes of students grew up and took on his accent, copy- ing the cadences of his speech patterns, trying to replicate his wit. I judged many student radio DJ competitions, and every male entrant mimicked John Peel.

He changed people’s lives all over the world. Patrick Oliver first heard John Peel as a teenager in his native New Zealand. “We were on the other side of the world, hearing the only person anywhere playing the Buzzcocks, the Gang of Four, the Undertones – all the punk music. I came to London because of him. I wanted to see this music culture at first hand. That was 25 years ago. I’ve been here ever since. It’s almost entirely because of John Peel.”

Sometimes his radio show was, in parts, unlistenable. There were times when you literally couldn’t listen to it. Sheila remembers the uproar when he broadcast a chunk of silence, honouring Yoko Ono’s unborn baby, when Lennon and Ono visited his radio show.

He used to call himself “the world’s most boring man”, presumably over his obsession with music, but that wasn’t accurate at all. He was more like “the world’s nicest man”, the tag usually attributed to Michael Palin. Both alumni of Shrewsbury public school.

John, real surname Ravenscroft, had started with the other British pirate radio DJs. He also had a spell of working in Dallas, Texas and was singled out for a chat on a walkabout by the then Senator John F Kennedy. After JFK was assassinated, John Peel rushed to the scene, and was filmed in the same police press room as Jack Ruby during Lee Harvey Oswald’s arraignment. John had blagged his way in, saying that he represented the Liverpool Echo. “I’ve told the story so many times that it’s hard to believe it really happened,” he reflected. John had wished to become a jour- nalist as well as a DJ – and he became a columnist for Radio Times.

Broadcasts that touched so many more millions of listeners came during the “second reel” of his career, as host of Radio 4’s Home Truths. By now John and Sheila had reared a family of four; they lived in a thatched house in Suffolk and he broadcast every week from his home studio to the millions listening all over the world. Now it was true-life stories that connected John to a new audience. It ran on Saturday mornings for six years. But Home Truths was abandoned after he died. It just wouldn’t work without him. 

Louise Kattenhorn was John’s producer on Radio 1 for the last few years of his life. “What you heard on air was his real life,” she says. “I used to stay the night at his house, Peel Acres [the name another example of his sideswipe, debunk- ing humour]. I’d assist with cooking food for the bands that came to play at his house. Help Sheila chop salad or put pizzas in the oven. He never stopped listening to music. If he had people round for a social evening, he would be in his special listening room, just off the kitchen. John would be playing new music all the time. Suddenly he’d leap out and say: ‘Listen to this!’ and then that same record would be broadcast on his show, from the house, the same evening.”

His way with words between the records was unique. Louise says: “He loved crosswords. So did his daughter Flossie. Sometimes she’d call him up and just say: ‘Writing desk, ten letters,’ and he’d reply immediately,

‘Escritoire,’ and put the phone down. They had that kind of relationship to be able to do that.”

When I first met John, it was to interview him at his then home in London’s Notting Hill. “I suppose you’ve come here driving some ridiculously expensive, flash foreign sports car,” was how he greeted me, suspiciously. “No, no, I got here on the Tube,” I replied, desperate to earn his approval. 

It took several years before I felt fully accepted by Peely – and in the latter days at Radio 1, he would greet me as “Sista”. And as the DJ line-up at Radio 1 changed, John and I were the only two left from the early days of the station. I felt closer and closer to him. I could confide in him, and he’d always speak the truth.

He would drive me sometimes across the site at Glastonbury Festival. Once the music fans recognised him, they would surge around, surrounding his car, banging on the roof, the windows and the windscreen, shouting his name. It was done in excited recognition and appreciation, but it was very scary experiencing him being mobbed like that. There is now a permanent John Peel Stage at Glastonbury Festival. His family are invited every year and camp just behind the stage. 

Since John’s death in 2004, Radio 1 has moved into the billion-pound headquarters of New Broadcasting house on the site of a former Radio 1 base, Egton house. It’s called, informally, the Peel Wing. Yet perhaps the streams of future visitors to NBH won’t know exactly why. Because two and a half years since the then BBC director-general Mark Thompson announced that the building would be renamed after John, no name has been etched onto the walls.

“It would be good to have a plaque there to commemorate him,” says Sheila. But although he accepted the OBE, John Peel loathed being described as a “national treasure” or “national institution” – “Makes me sound like a ruined building covered in ivy.”

It might be best to remember Peely for the music he championed. And ten years on, some of the new names and genres he launched then are just experiencing success now. But then again, a plaque wouldn’t do any harm, either. 

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Annie Nightingale joins Phil Taggart, Rob da Bank, Annie Mac and Huw Stephens to discuss John Peel’s legacy in BBC Radio 1’s Stories: How John Peel Changed My Life, Tonight (Tuesday) at 9pm on Radio 1