1967 Part One - London calling
"I had been working on radio in America since 1961. I came back here in '67 and was by and large unemployable at the time. I hadn't anything to come home to. Just luck really, being in the right place at the right time: music lovers might argue the wrong place at the wrong time."
The Britain John returned to when he flew back from the States was a far cry from the one he'd left behind seven years ago. John may have been hanging out with The Doors in LA and enjoying the 'summer of love' in San Francisco, but Britain was also undergoing a mad metamorphosis, and the swinging Sixties were well and truly raging. The Beatles were hanging out with hippies and the Rolling Stones were telling people to "get off their cloud". Radio broadcasters had to admit that "the times, they were a changin".
The days of stuffy BBC presenters with cut glass accents and double-barrelled surnames were numbered. Despite the cultural revolution going on, the BBC found it tough to move with the times. The relatively new rock 'n' roll phenomenon meant that kids just wanted to hear more and more records. But the state-run BBC had to continue to play live dance-hall bands, more familiar to the 1940s and 50s, to tie in with the mainstream tastes of UK audiences. The BBC also had to play a certain amount of live music, according to the Musicians' Union, to ensure that performing musicians could make a living. This was called the 'Needle Time' restriction.
But the teenagers were screaming for rock 'n' roll and psychedelic grooves. If they couldn't find them on the BBC they'd get their kicks elsewhere. John Peel was just the man for the job. As he couldn't find work as a radio presenter on British soil, his first broadcast in the UK actually took place on a boat at sea! Pirate radio was born and John Peel was captain of the good ship Radio London where the 'Needle Time' restriction was non-existent and playlists were thrown out of the window.
John signed up for Radio London in March 1967, broadcasting during the week from midnight until 2am. Wonderful Radio London - or The Big L - was also where John went through his second, and permanent, name change. Working for an illegal station demanded that he protect his identity. At the station's on-shore offices, on Mayfair's Curzon Street, a secretary suggested he drop Ravencroft in favour of a more listener-friendly moniker.
John Peel the broadcaster was born.
John named his programme The Perfumed Garden, taking its title from a notorious book of the time - an erotic novel not dissimilar to the Karma Sutra, which was perfect considering the swinging times in which it was being broadcast!
The Perfumed Garden blossomed and celebrated the weird and the obscure. John refused to play hit lists and top 40s, preferring to concentrate on underground acts such as Tyrannosaurus Rex, Captain Beefheart, John Fahey and Fairport Convention. He also played albums in their entirety, which was considered to be crazy at the time and would never have been allowed at the BBC. If there was a rule in radio, then Peel took great delight in breaking it. He also read out poetry and articles from radical street press publications such as Oz, and he'd discuss politics. All of which made for compulsive listening.
During his six months at sea, aboard the good ship Wonderful Radio London, he really honed his skill as a DJ. In stark contrast to other DJs, such as Kenny Everett and Tony Blackburn, who were loud and 'crazy', John was softly spoken, and he developed a self-effacing delivery that created an intimacy with his listeners. He encouraged them to write letters or phone in to share their views - he made people feel like he was talking to them and them alone.
John told Listener magazine:
"You had a remarkable two-way dialogue with the audience which is not possible to simulate on land. You put the show out completely on your own in the bowels of a rotten ship three miles out at sea. You knew the audience felt a little bit daring listening to you."
Eventually the law caught up with the pirates and Radio London closed on August 14, 1967. The BBC had plans to launch its own pop station, and John, yet again, was at the right place at the right time. He joined the BBC's new music station, Radio 1, which went on air the following month.