Peel In London
Peel first visited London in the 1950s, and later in his life fondly recalled attending a benefit concert at the Dominion Theatre for the American blues singer Big Bill Broonzy in 1958, featuring the trad jazz bands of Ken Colyer and Chris Barber and an appearance by his idol Lonnie Donegan. But he spent much of the 1960s in the USA before deciding to return home. He lived in London from 1967 to 1972.
Peel left America in March 1967 for London, bringing his first wife Shirley Anne Milburn with him. Peel and Shirley first stayed with Peel's mother, who lived in Jameson Street, Notting Hill (he occasionally mentioned the street name on the air on his early Radio London and BBC shows) but the couple soon moved into a flat "off the King's Road at the Fulham end" according to Andy Roberts (on his Peel tribute webpage), opposite the Royal Fulham Laundry, and Peel began looking for work. His first job was for the pirate station Radio London, where, on the advice of a secretary working at the station's offices in Curzon Street, he dropped his surname Ravenscroft and adopted the name Peel. During his periods of shore leave, Peel regularly attended the legendary underground UFO club, which had its best period in the summer of 1967 when its weekly events were held in the Blarney Club, Tottenham Court Road. Later it moved to the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, which, even after UFO closed in autumn 1967, remained a regular venue for many of the artists featured on Top Gear. In his hippy phase he enjoyed walking in parks, especially Regent's Park and Hyde Park, "thinking beautiful thoughts", observing sparrows and visiting London Zoo, especially the Small Mammal House which contained hamsters, gerbils and other small creatures which fascinated him then. He also attended the Hyde Park free concerts, from the small-scale events in 1968, featuring the likes of Pink Floyd to the much larger concert staged by the Rolling Stones in the summer of 1969.
After Radio London was closed by the Marine Offences Act in August 1967, Peel found work for the new BBC Radio One station in London a month later and debuted on 01 October 1967 with Pete Drummond. Peel worked for Radio One until his death in October 2004. During his time at Radio One, Peel would visit record shops and do many gigs in London. Yet because of what he described as his "provincial" roots and rural upbringing, he remained wary of the city. He had no interest in clothes fashions and therefore never felt at home in what was known as "Swinging London". He encouraged the hippy culture which became based around Notting Hill Gate and was one of its leading figures, contributing a regular column to the newspaper International Times, whose offices were in Southampton Row and later in Betterton Street. (On the Night Ride of 03 July 1968 he played a track "for all those working at 22 Betterton Street, WC2".) In his column in issue 53 of International Times (28 March 1969) he writes:
If you come to London from the blessed countryside walk slowly around in W.11 if you want to feel the best this town has to offer. Ignore the cinemas, theatres (except the Electric Cinema, of course) and enjoy the therapeutic atmosphere of kindly, loving humankind. It would be nice to live there instead of in the dour cold wind of NW1.
He was well aware that not all of London's inhabitants were sharing in the upsurge of prosperity which had made "Swinging London" and its youth cultures possible. He devotes one entire International Times column (in issue 43, 18 October 1968) to the plight of the old, poor and lonely, quoting from letters he had received from older listeners and describing what he had seen in Shepherd's Bush:
- Last Friday, during run throughs for How It Is, I went for a walk around Shepherd's Bush. I looked into people's faces and saw fear and anger, fear and loathing, fear and sadness, fear and shyness - but always fear....
He carries on by angrily attacking the indifference of his audience to this situation ("this column helps to sell the paper for all the wrong reasons"), so it is no surprise that after a time he grew increasingly weary of the cliquishness of the late 1960s London underground scene. He claimed that many of the participants were not interested in changing society but only in following fashion and wearing trendy clothes. Flared velvet trousers, fashionable at the time, were for him a sign of inauthenticity - in the IT 53 column quoted above he also writes of "the Velvet Trouser belt where IT is lying, unread, on scores of carefully casual tables.". As he commented in an interview in the underground paper Friends (issue 26, March 22, 1971, p.20):
One thing I remember from Friends is a piece by an American guy who said the only thing the British are into is clothes...it really hit me, because though we are all wage-slaves the kids in Northampton may have kicked that habit far more than the trendies in London. The Kings Road and Carnaby Street and the way fashions like hot pants spread in Britain is unique...
After living in flats in Regent's Park (Park Mews Crescent), Upper Harley Street and Notting Hill (St. Stephen's Gardens), and sometimes having their domestic life disrupted by musicians who took advantage of Peel's generosity and hospitality, he and Sheila were happy to leave the city for the peace of the Suffolk countryside in 1972. He commuted from his home to the BBC's London studios to present his programmes, but later, as his family grew, took to recording some shows in advance and eventually had a home studio installed, so that he could do his shows from Peel Acres and did not have to drive to London so often.
John Peel's London
- St Paul's church in Lorrimore Square SE17, where John and Sheila were married on 31 August 1974.
- The Holme in Regent's Park, where the wedding reception was held.
- Jameson Street, Notting Hill where Peel's mother Harriet Ravenscroft lived for many years until her death.
- Buckingham Palace, where Peel received his OBE in November 1998.
- The Serpentine, where JP listened to Pink Floyd from a rowing boat in 1968.
- BBC Yalding House, former home of Radio 1.
- BBC Maida Vale studios. Home to many a Peel session.
- Former BBC Television Centre in White City, home to Top Of The Pops until 1991. Closed March 2013.
- Former Middle Earth club, a regular venue for Peel as DJ in 1967-68.
- Former Roxy Club, London's first punk venue. Peel attended his first gig there on 29 January 1977.
- Former Vortex Club, where Peel saw the Slits play live on 15 August 1977.
- 100 Club on Oxford Street. Peel saw Son House play there and also attended two punk gigs in 1976.
- Former Subterranea club, where Peel's surprise 50th birthday celebrations were hosted.
- Former Speakeasy club, where Peel met Frank Zappa and saw Cream play in August 1967. He later saw Howlin' Wolf play there.
- Fabric club, where Peel performed his DJ set from 2002 onwards.
- Former Rainbow Theatre (1971-1981), where Peel saw the Prefects, but not the Clash, on 09 May 1977.
- Institute Of Contemporary Arts. In early October 1984, Peel chose all the bands for ICA Rock Week, which included a set by SPK that ended in a riot.
- Roundhouse, venue for many gigs attended by Peel in the Top Gear era.
- Electric Ballroom in Camden. Peel attended a gig by That Petrol Emotion there on 22 May 1986.
- Saville Theatre. Former music venue (1965-1970). Peel compered a Cream gig there in 1967.
- Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road. Peel saw Chris Barber and - more importantly - Lonnie Donegan play there, most likely in 1958.
- ABC Cinema on Fulham Road in Chelsea, where Peel saw at least one film (Superman in 1979).
- Southbank Centre which hosted the Peel-curated Meltdown festival in 1998.
- Former Rough Trade record shop. Original home of UK indie record shop chain and label.
- Former Sterns record shop. African music shop often visited by Peel and Andy Kershaw.
- Sounds of the Universe record shop in Soho, a favourite of Peel.
- Wembley Stadium. Peel saw Liverpool win the 1978 European Cup final at the original ground.
- Loftus Road. Peel attended the match between QPR and Liverpool on 23 November 1992.