Thirty-eight years ago this fall (less than a week after I was born, in fact), BBC Radio 1 went on the air in Great Britain. One of the disk jockeys on the new station was John Peel. One year ago today, John Peel did his last show on Radio 1, though he didn’t know it at the time. He died of a heart attack less than two weeks later in Peru, where he was on a working vacation, looking, as always, for new music. And to commemorate that last show, today is (or was, since it’s now Friday in Great Britain) John Peel Day.
If anyone in the realm of media and popular culture warrants commemoration, it’s John Peel. In his time at Radio 1, he proved incredibly influential, giving early exposure to every new musical movement as it arose, from reggae to punk to hip hop. He was instrumental to the early success of many, many artists, including The Smiths and The White Stripes. And the Peel Sessions archives he left behind provide an unparalleled look at countless artists at work. But more than any of that, what made him so memorable was his overwhelming love of music. You couldn’t listen to even a few minutes of his show without being infected by his obsession. His love of music, though powerful and remarkably wide-ranging, was still informed by a remarkable discernment. And unlike most other media figures of his import and notoriety, he seems by all accounts to have been a truly generous and gentle man. That, like his love of music, was clear from listening to his show, where he often struggled helplessly with the technology of a modern radio program without ever giving in to pique or vitriol.
This week’s episode of the Radio Clash podcast offers a very fitting tribute to John Peel. It’s not a recounting of his life or his work. Instead, it’s an evocation of him and the music he loved (including a killer mash-up of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” which is said to have been his favorite song).