Right Time, Right Place, Wrong Speed
The life of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft
Disc jockey, broadcaster, journalist
Although better known under his assumed name of 'John Peel', he was born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft on the 30th August 1939 at the Heswall Cottage Hospital in Heswall, which is to be found on the side of the Wirrall peninsula facing Wales. His father Robert Ravenscroft was a Liverpool cotton broker with the family firm of Strauss & Co, although during John's early childhood he was away serving as a captain in the Royal Artillery for the duration of World War II which, of course, started on the day following John's birth.
At the age of seven John was sent as a boarder to the Woodlands School in Deganwy followed by Shrewsbury School1. He does not appear to have enjoyed his schooldays. Firstly, he appears to have been an unwilling scholar who was described as "cheerfully incompetent" and secondly, he was rather perplexed by the plethora of bizarre rules that characterise the English public school system. It was at Shrewsbury that he had to face the bullying that had long been a traditional feature of the Shrewsbury educational experience and was later to recount how he was required to provide manual relief to the school prefects and was once forcibly buggered by an older boy at the public lavatories attached to Shrewsbury Cemetery.
It was perhaps to escape the dreariness of life at Shrewsbury that John sought consolation in music. It was at the age of seventeen in 1956 that he first heard Heartbreak Hotel played on Two-Way Family Favourites and brought the record the very next day. As he later explained, "Everything changed when I heard Elvis. Where there had been nothing there was suddenly something". He was soon listening to the likes of Fats Domino and Little Richard and expanded his tastes to include the blues and R&B music that had inspired this new rock n' roll. Michael Palin (one of his contemporaries at Shrewsbury) was later to describe how he would often find John stretched out on the floor of his room listening to music, behaviour that was regarded as decidedly odd in the context of life at Shrewsbury.
John showed no desire to go to university (which he feared would be just like Shrewsbury School but on a larger scale) and after a brief stint as an office boy in a Liverpool cotton mill, decided to get his National Service over with. He signed up for the Royal Artillery and after basic training in Oswestry, he was sent to Salisbury camp. There John found it difficult to fit in with the predominantly macho culture but managed to get himself transferred to the Ty Groes camp in Anglesey. There he rose to the status of B2 radar operator and worked on the experimental 'Yellow Peril' weapons guidance system, which eventually spectacularly failed to guide anything at all during an official NATO demonstration at Manorbier.
John Ravenscroft in America
After completing his National Service in 1959 he spent six months working at the Townhead Mill in Rochdale. However his father had decided that it would be a good idea if his son spent some time working in the United States learning the cotton business. Thus in the spring of 1960 John climbed on board the SS Eugene Lykes bound for Houston, Texas. From Houston he caught a train to Dallas, where he worked for a firm at the Cotton Exchange. However despite his father's original intention, no one at the company seemed much interested in teaching John about the business, which appeared to suit young John as he was more interested in touring the local clubs and in losing his virginity. (Duly accomplished in the usual unspectacular fashion with a "slightly unkempt woman of indeterminate age" identified only as "Myrna's friend".)
At this time the 1960 Presidential election was in full swing and
for reasons best known to himself he took the opportunity to make the acquaintance of both the leading contenders and shook the hand of both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy (and even spoke to the latter). He soon left the Cotton Exchange to join the firm of K.T. Martin where he sold crop-hail insurance, and in 1963 was working for Republic National Life Insurance where he spend his time filing punched cards for their IBM 1400.
It was as a result of these circumstances that John found himself in Dallas on the 22nd November 1963 on the day that John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. For some reason John felt the compulsion to visit the scene of his namesake's assassination and dashed across to Dealey Plaza. When faced with the police barrier, he simply claimed that he was a reporter from the Liverpool Echo, and duly gained admittance. He later used the same ruse to gain access to the press conference that paraded the recently arrested Lee Harvey Oswald. (As strange as it may seem, all this is true, as archive footage of the press conference shows John and his friend Bob Cook standing just five feet away from Oswald.)
This, as John himself was later to explain, was his "brief brush with history". He phoned in the story to the Liverpool Echo and even offered his services as their Dallas correspondent. Although they declined to employ him they did run a brief story under the headline 'Heswall Man in Dallas'.
John breaks into the music business
Having arrived in the US with his record collection, he was in possession of many blues and R&B records that had only been released in Britain and the Netherlands. He used these records as leverage to win himself a spot on the local Dallas radio station WRR whose Kat's Karavan show played largely black music. This was however unpaid and the minute he asked to be paid he was dropped from the show. This might well have been the end of his DJ career were it not for the fact that 1963 was also the year that Beatlemania struck the United States. The Texans naturally assumed that since John was an Englishman from the Liverpool area that he was already personally acquainted with all four members of The Beatles and thus qualified to speak with some authority on the subject. He thus found himself hired as the Beatles Correspondent for KLIF in Dallas.
Although John made no specific claim to have any close relationship with The Beatles, neither did he do anything to disabuse the locals of any misconceptions they might have formed. It also has to be said that John took full advantage of this perceived connection, as during a notable period of some four months he bedded a succession of high school girls whose infatuation with the Fab Four was such that they were prepared to surrender themselves to anyone with a faintly Liverpudlian accent. John subsequently decided to abandon this habit when one of the fathers appeared at his house and questioned him at gunpoint for an hour. Nevertheless John ended up marrying one of these infatuated youngsters in the form of Shirley Anne Milburn, despite the fact that she was only fifteen at the time.2
The now married John Ravenscroft soon left KLIF and went to Oklahoma City where he was co-presenter of The Paul and John Show on KOMA with fellow DJ Paul Miller. Although this show was initially very successful, it was whilst he was at KOMA that his stock rather declined when he was forced to admit that he hadn't actually met the Beatles. Within eighteen months or so he left KOMA and in 1965 joined KMEM San Bernardino where he presided over the morning show.
(Although I can find no confirmation of this, it was always my understanding that John left the USA in 1967 when he was threatened by prosecution under the Mann Act for transporting a minor (i.e. his wife) over a state line for immoral purposes.)
John Peel in Britain
Together with his wife John returned to Britain in 1967 and thanks to his prior radio experience in the USA was hired by the pirate radio station Radio London3. It was at Radio London that the managers decided that John Ravenscroft, or indeed Ravencroft without the 's', as he had became known as at KMEM, was too much of a mouthful for its listeners and requested something shorter. John Peel, apparently the suggestion of one of the secretaries at the station, was duly adopted as his new radio name.
John was given the job of presenting the 'London After Midnight' show which ran from midnight till two o'clock in the morning, making his first broadcast on the 8th March 1967. As John himself was later to explain, "realising that nobody on the shift was listening to this and that probably nobody in the Radio London office was listening either, I changed the whole program around, stopped running the ads and the news and the weather and just started playing some of the records that I'd brought back from California" 4. In this manner the British public was introduced to the music of the emerging US west coast scene and heard the likes of The Byrds, Country Joe and The Fish, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors as well the talents of Captain Beefheart and Jimi Hendrix. In May of that year John re-christened his show The Perfumed Garden (apparently unaware of the reputation of the original novel) which during its brief existence it attracted a considerable reputation. But thanks to the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act 1967, Radio London's days were numbered, and it shut down at 3pm on the 14th August 1967 before the Act became law at midnight.
However the success of pirate radio in attracting listeners had convinced the BBC that it was time to launch its own 'pop' radio station. Thus on the 30th September 1967 Radio 1 was born and to staff its new station the BBC turned to the former employees of the pirate radio stations. Or as John himself later explained, the BBC "had no real idea what they were doing so they had to take people off the pirate ships because there wasn't anybody else". John Peel duly made his first appearance on Radio 1 on the 1st October 1967 when he presented the Top Gear show. Initially he was only one of a rota of presenters assigned to the show but by the 4th February 1968 he had become the sole presenter, largely because he had attracted the favour of the show's producer Bernie Andrews.
At this time BBC Radio was subject to what was known as the Needle Time system which restricted the number of records that could be played each day 5. John decided to turn necessity into virtue and quickly saw that "we could get people in to record for the program who might not even have recording contracts". Thus were born the John Peel Sessions which remained a feature of his radio shows for the remainder of his career, generally recorded at the Maida Vale Studios in London, although frequently in his later years recorded at his own home at Stowmarket in Suffolk.
On Top Gear soon John Peel continued the same policy that he had adopted on The Perfumed Garden which was, and as he himself later explained, consisted of simply playing "the things I liked listening to". He also had the habit of not talking over the records he was playing and simply played each song without interruption, (to the delight of those listeners armed with radio cassette recorders). Perhaps one of the few DJs who displayed a genuine interest in music his stated objective was one of "turning y'all onto some musicks that you might not otherwise investigate". Thus he began playing music by emerging but otherwise little known British artists such as David Bowie and Tyranosaurus Rex (later T-Rex), as well as providing airtime for such notable eccentrics as Vivian Stanshall and Ivor Cutler.
He dabbled (unsuccessfully it must be said) with music management but nevertheless remained friendly with the musicians whose music he like to play on his shows. Indeed, he came to be regarded as an easy touch for a 'loan' by impecunious musicians, so much so that his agent cut off John's access to his own money. (David Bowie apparently still owes him fifty quid.) John developed a particularly close friendship with Marc Bolan (they both shared a passion for Scaletrix amongst other things) but was later disappointed that Bolan failed to maintain the relationship when he later found success. (But then Marc never forgave John for not playing 'Hot Love'.) It was a similar story with Bowie, whose minders bluntly refused John any access to the great man. These disappointments appear to have coloured John's later approach to relations with subsequent generations of would be stars; he became somewhat reluctant to get too friendly with musicians for fear of the inevitable disappointment to come.
At this time his status as a leading figure in the counter-culture naturally drew the attention of the police. His London home was raided by the Drug Squad in 1969, a fruitless exercise from the police point of view as it turned out, as John was never particularly interested in drugs, but it afterwards became a frequent experience for John and his friends to find themselves stopped and searched by the police on their return from a visit to the supermarket. Characteristically John never complained of this harassment.
His musical reputation was further enhanced by the John Peel Roadshow, otherwise known as "John Peel and two boxes of records ... (one with the broken handle)", which during the late 60s and early 70s toured the further educational establishments of the UK, further spreading the gospel according to John. Other ventures were however not to successful. In 1969 in conjunction with Clive and Shirley Selwood he formed Dandelion Records and Biscuit Music. Dandelion, as John himself admitted at the time, "makes nice records that no-one buys much" and released recordings by such artists as Gene Vincent, Kevin Coyne, Bridget St John, Beau, Medicine Head as well as the intriguingly named Principal Edward's Magic Theatre and the Occasional Word Ensemble. The results were however uniformly "economically disastrous" and the label eventual folded after consistently making losses. Which sadly meant that John never raised the money necessary to finance his pet project, the 101 Sharons, where it was his intention to gather together 101 women named Sharon and lock them in a studio until they made an album.
He later achieved greater success in the record business when he again joined up with Clive Selwood during the 1980s to form Strange Fruit records in order to release material recorded by the BBC for the Peel Sessions.
John goes Punk
Having largely established his reputation by playing what was regarded as 'progressive music', by the mid seventies he began to express his own frustration at how dull music was becoming. These where the days of The Carpenters, when the concept album was king and the world was being sold the line that Bruce Springsteen was 'The Future Of Rock 'n' Roll'.6
What might be described as the apotheosis of John Peel took place in 1976, more specifically on the 19th May 1976 when he played a record entitled 'Judy is a Punk' by a little known American group, The Ramones. John, who likened the experience of listening to their first album to that of hearing Little Richard for the first time, soon came to believe that this 'new wave' of popular music, otherwise known as punk rock was the most significant musical development of the time.
On the 26th October he played the first British punk release New Rose by The Damned, and in the following month gave airtime to the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK, despite the BBC's refusal to accommodate the record in their daytime schedules. (It was the same story with the Pistols' God Save The Queen, released in the following May, which the BBC had crossed of its playlist for "gross bad taste"). He ignored the many letters of complaint and on the 10th December devoted his entire show to punk and its predecessors, becoming almost the only British DJ who was prepared to play such records on the radio.
In the following year his playlist was similarly dominated by punk rock and whilst the movement lost something of its momentum in 1978, it became a particularly significant year for John. This was the year that he first came across The Fall, a group held them in such esteem that their records had their own special section in his immense record collection, and which he favoured with a total of twenty-four separate John Peel session spread over twenty-six years. It was also the year that The Undertones released their True Confessions EP which contained the song Teenage Kicks, introduced by John with the words "isn't that the most wonderful record that you've heard".
As punk petered out and/or became mainstream John turned his attention to the Two-Tone phenomenon; a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next few years, as he embraced whatever new sound was emerging and gave it air time. Thus he became the first British radio DJ to play hip-hop, despite the admonishment he received for playing the "music of black criminals". Indeed it should be remembered that ever since 1968, when he had first played 'Pop A Top' by the Jamaican artist Andy Capp, John had always shown a greater willingness than his contemporaries to play records by black artists. His championing of such groups as Culture and Misty in Roots was to be responsible for the arrival of the occasional death threat at Broadcasting House. (John always claimed that he paid no heed to the race, religion or culture of any performer and that his only prejudice was against musicians whom he suspected of supporting either Everton or Arsenal.)
Along the way the 'Top Gear' name was dropped and it simply became the John Peel show, not that this made any difference to the music that he played as John was sure to take to whatever new musical trend that emerged with enthusiasm. In the same way as he championed Punk, Two-Tone and Hip-Hop he similarly adopted jungle, grindcore, happy hardcore, or whatever new musical trend that appeared outside the mainstream.
Of course that fact that he would play the records that no one else would play, made him the prime target for every aspiring musician desirous of receiving some publicity for their work. Indeed he hardly walk down the street without someone pressing a demo tape into his hand and the volume of such material that he received was far beyond the capacity of any one man to listen to. Many and varied therefore were the methods adopted by would be rock n' roll stars to bring their music to John's attention. One group by the name of Que Bono decided on the tactic of sending their demo to Kenny Dalglish (then manager of Liverpool FC) and asking him to forward it to John, whilst in 1983 the musician Billy Bragg received his big break by personally delivering a mushroom biryani to Broadcasting House when John announced on air that he was hungry.
He survived the Radio 1 Clearout of 1993, when the new controller, Matthew Bannister decided it was time to rid the station of much of its dead wood. But despite the fact that the new management policy appeared to be more in tune with John's own views, on the 25th January 1996 he felt sufficiently annoyed to write to Bannister to complain that his show had been cut back by a hour. The problem was that the 'new' Radio 1, with its specialist shows devoted to reggae and hip-hop, now felt less need of John's particular brand of programming. He thus felt obliged to defend his work to Bannister with the words, "Think of my programmes as your research department. Noisy, smelly but occasionally coming up with the formulae you can subsequently market".
John Peel on television
John first hosted Top of the Pops (TOTP) in 1968 when he fluffed the introduction to Amen Corner's latest hit and was informed by the programme's producer "I'll make sure you never work on television again". Indeed, although he did appear on the programme in 1971 when he 'played' the mandolin as The Faces performed 'Maggie May', it was many years before John was permitted to show his face on screen again. It was not until the February 1982 that he returned to TOTP when the producer at the time decided that John was just the person to introduce some much needed irreverence to the programme. It was at this time that he formed a partnership with Kid Jensen known as the Rhythm Pals which specialised in "extravagant costumes and dodgy gags" and mocked the happy-clappy atmosphere that tended to prevail on TOTP at the time.
His appearances on TOTP gave him a greater opportunity to exercise his dry wit as he was confronted with the kind of music that he quietly loathed. Forced to endure Aretha Franklin and George Michael duetting on I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, he remarked "Aretha Franklin - that woman could make any old rubbish sound good. And I think she just has". Or who can forget the quiet look of despair he gave to camera whilst uttering the words "isn't it great that Billy Joel has two records in the top ten", although a personal favourite is the time when Janice Long remarked on David Cassidy "Ooh, I used to have him on my bedroom wall", to which John replied "That was very athletic of you Janice".
John Peel, journalist, broadcaster
Of course, had the Liverpool Echo accepted John's offer in 1963, his life might well have quite different, but although he never made the move into newspaper journalism, from the time of his return to Britain in 1967 he supplemented his income by occasional writing, initially for such counter-cultural magazines as International Times and OZ (For whom he appeared as defence witness in the infamous Schoolkids issue trial in 1971), later becoming a columnist for Disc and Music Echo and later still the weekly Sounds magazine. In later life he graduated to writing columns for more mainstream newspapers such as The Independent and The Observer.
He also diversified his radio career into more mainstream channels. Between 1995 and 1997 he presented a series called Offspring on Radio 4 concerned with the joys (or lack thereof) of parenting, and in 1998 began presenting Home Truths, a modernised version of Down Your Way, which largely consisted of interviews with assorted nutcases and eccentrics from across the country and which became something of a genteel cult success.
Neither was his career as a radio DJ confined to Radio 1. John briefly hosted a show on Radio Luxembourg in the late 60s (being perhaps the only DJ to have simultaneously broadcast on both stations)
and for many years recorded a show for the British Forces Broadcasting Service(BFBS). Although intended for the entertainment of the British forces in Germany, the audience for the BFBS show was composed largely of German teenagers, which led to John being voted the best radio DJ in Germany despite his inability to speak a single word of the language. There was even talk at one time of syndicating his programmes in the United States, a project that seems to have floundered once his potential American backers actually heard his programmes.
On Thursday October 14th 2004 John was presenting his final radio show before disappearing on his annual holiday. After playing the song Time 4 Change by Klute, he signed off saying that he would be back in November.
During his childhood John had formed the ambition to visit four specific places in the world. He had by now visited three of these sites, the Victoria Falls, the Taj Mahal, and the Pyramids. Now it was the turn of the fourth and last of the quartet, the ancient city of Machu Picchu. It was for this reason that John had decided to visit Peru in the autumn of 2004 and it was thus at Cuzco on the 25th October 2004 that he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of sixty-five.
Although his first wife Shirley Anne Milburn returned with him to Britain their marriage continued to be troubled, and ended in divorce in 1973. On the 31st August 1974, John subsequently married Sheila Gilhooly, otherwise affectionately known as 'the Pig' after her snorting laugh, with whom he had four children William, Alexandra, Thomas and Florence.
During his life he was regularly voted top DJ in the various annual reader polls conducted by the British music press, and derived some personal satisfaction from the fact that he appeared as No 43 in the BBC's list of the 100 Greatest Britons and that he was the subject of the BBC's This Is Your Life in 1996. He was awarded an OBE in 1998 for his services to British music and inducted into The Radio Academy Hall of Fame in December 2003. Since his death the BBC announced that the 13th October 2005 would be celebrated as John Peel Day and indicated that they had plans to make it an annual event.
I don't think it was on the 19th May 1976, but sometime later that month, that I heard John play three tracks by The Ramones in succession. Previously fed a diet of Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes, it was as if someone had dropped a brick on my head. For some reason I was motivated to write to John to express my enthusiasm and the surprising thing (to me at the time) was that he wrote back, thanking me kindly for my interest. The thing is that there is nothing particularly unusual in this experience. Over the years thousands of British teenagers have experienced that same moment when they first heard The Fall, Sonic Youth or the White Stripes or whoever played by John Peel and count that experience as something important in their lives.
Of course by the time John suffered his fatal heart attack it had been many years since I'd listened to his show. But that is how it should be, his programme was never intended to be listened to by boring old farts and John was himself always proud of the fact that, despite his advancing years, his programmes attracted the highest percentage of listeners under the age of sixteen of any Radio 1 show.
Reviewing the above, I realise that there is much that has been left unsaid. John's long standing producer John Walters isn't mentioned, little reference is made to John's lucrative trade in recording voice overs for television commercials, his obsession with Liverpool FC and the Archers, his long association with the Great Finsborough International Airport (the local youth club), or indeed his strange enthusiasm for the Eurovision Song Contest and the music of Sheena Easton, and probably much else besides. Doubtless John would not mind that much, and claim that all he had ever really done was play some records on the radio.
"the programmes on which I have worked ... have contributed to the enduring health of British music and the capacity of that music to reinvent itself"
John Peel (1939-2004)
1 Despite its arcane rules Shrewsbury School in the late fifties produced a long list of notable old boys including Richard Ingrams, Christopher Booker, Paul Foot and Willy Rushton who all later went on to found Private Eye. Shrewsbury's most famous old boy is of course, one Charles Darwin.
2 John always claimed to have been ignorant of her true age, and that Shirley and her parents had conspired to keep him in said state of ignorance.
3 Being a pirate radio station 'Wonderful' Radio London wasn't actually located anywhere near London but rather in a ship anchored off Felixstowe.
4 The management at Radio London only became aware of what was going on when Brian Epstein phoned the station manager to thank them for broadcasting this show, by which time it was too late for them to do anything about it.
5 This was as a result of an agreement between the Musicians Union and the BBC that restricted Radio One to playing seven hours of records every day; the idea being to compel the BBC to employ live musicians. Thus radio listeners were subjected to the phenomenon of the Northern Dance Orchestra rendering its version of 'Purple Haze' amongst other delights.
6 Peel himself was quick to realise that Springsteen's music was more redolent of the past than the future and once (rather charitably) described his efforts as "powerfully average".
Largely sourced from The Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft, (Bantam Press, 2005) John's proposed autobiography. Sadly he only reached about 1964 before he died, and although his wife Sheila has appended her memoir of John's life form 1967 to 2004 the world has been denied John's account of his hilarious meeting with the King and Queen of Belgium and a precise explanation as to why Kylie Minogue was better than Dire Straits.
Other information was drawn from two transcripts of interviews with John Peel found at;
as well further biographical material found at;