John Peel, the patron saint of rock and roll

Legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel died Monday of a heart attack while vacationing in Peru. He was 65. Since joining the BBC in 1967, Peel was responsible for exposing countless new musical acts to the radio station’s huge audience. His long-running program “Top Gear” forced non-mainstream music into the social consciousness and, despite the general conservativeness of the BBC, gave many listeners their first tastes of punk, hip-hop and reggae.

When the airwaves of the late ’60s were saturated with bland pop and The Beatles, Peel was blasting listeners with The Velvet Underground and T-Rex. Odds are, a lot of your favorite bands found their way to his studio at some point. Reading a list of Peel sessions is like reading a veritable “Who’s Who” of alternative music with Sonic Youth, Pixies, Ween, Bikini Kill, Sebadoh, Tad, Quasi, The White Stripes, Siouxsie and the Banshees and countless others having put in time in John’s booth.

Often, his blessing would be the push a band needed to cross over and make it big. Back in 1990, before anyone in the states had even heard of grunge, some no-names called Nirvana were busy cutting acetate with Peel, laying down tracks that would end up on their Incesticide album. The publicity that he gave this band, and countless others, was priceless as they often were unable to secure time on non-college radio in the U.S., and Peel’s choices often influenced the tastes of the music press on both sides of the pond. A spot on his annual “Festive 50” countdown of top singles was highly coveted by underground, indie or just lesser known bands.

Wary of trends, Peel always scouted out new and obscure sounds, open-mindedly championing music that might have otherwise passed under our collective radar. In 1998, he expanded his audience with the Radio 4 program “Home Truths” reaching middle England with telling and humorous commentary on family life. But, most importantly Peel was that rarest of things in the music industry: a true music lover. He rejected the mores and traditions of the industry and pursued his own uncompromising vision of music.

Instead of cutting up an album with commercials, he would elect to play it all the way through, and then give his own honest commentary. Although Peel’s distaste for mediocrity sometimes brought him in conflict with other elements of Radio 1, he still managed to win the respect and affection of many colleagues, listeners and musicians.

Those who knew him remember a man of warmth, humor, openness and passion. His sudden death leaves a void in the world of music, as it has lost one of its most freethinking and influential members. Without John Peel, I might not have been able to listen to Surfer Rosa on the bus this morning. For that, for every Peel session I have in my CD collection and for every band I love that he helped break, I owe him thanks. And you do too.