Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tribute to John Peel

These comments originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

John Peel, the disc jockey at the British Broadcasting Corporation who gave Led Zeppelin possibly its biggest break in the U.K. media, has died.

Principals of the music industry and fellow media moguls are currently paying tribute to Peel, who has been on the radio since the 1960s, most famously leading Top Gear, a BBC Radio 1 program that since 1967 has explored the far reaches of music's most experimental acts.

Jimmy Page had some unkind things to say about the BBC in 1969 because the government-controlled corporation running the airwaves left little room for any unconventional acts. "The BBC have effectively killed the progress of 'underground' music," Page said. But in the same breath, he did praise two particular DJs by name. "It's only John Peel and that other guy, Pete Drummond, who can play any of the good stuff," the guitarist commented.

And so it was fitting that when Led Zeppelin first agreed to appear on BBC radio, the maiden voyage to Maida Vale Studios in London was for John Peel's Top Gear. The trip to the studio came on March 3, 1969, just two months after the release of the group's debut album. Recall that Led Zeppelin insisted on not releasing singles in the United Kingdom. While a single of "Good Times Bad Times" backed with "Communication Breakdown" was released in the United States, Led Zeppelin performed neither of these songs on its initial BBC session. Instead, the group chose the six-and-a-half-minute opus "Dazed and Confused," complete with an instrumental break during which Page attacked and ground his guitar with a violin bow, plus takes of the blues songs "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby." During the latter, Robert Plant sang a verse from Muddy Waters' tune, "19 Years Old." Peel aired the exclusive in-studio takes of these songs 20 days later on "Top Gear," and the tracks now grace the beginning of Led Zeppelin's 2-CD set, BBC Sessions, released in 1997.

After a tour of North America in the spring of 1969, Led Zeppelin returned to England in June and included on its itinerary another stop in London for John Peel's Top Gear, among other programs. The June 24 recording session for Top Gear resulted in versions of "What Is and What Should Never Be," "Communication Breakdown," "Whole Lotta Love" and Led Zeppelin's only performance of "Travelling Riverside Blues," which was rooted in the music of Robert Johnson, who was king of the delta blues. These versions, which aired only five days later, are also available on BBC Sessions.

After an absence of two years from BBC appearances, Led Zeppelin returned on another program of John Peel's, BBC Rock Hour. The group was completing a "Return to the Clubs" tour throughout the United Kingdom, restoring Zeppelin to some of the smaller venues it had played on earlier outings as well as other pubs and clubs. The final date of this tour (originally scheduled for March 25, 1971, but rescheduled for one week later because Plant had been experiencing voice problems) was April 1, 1971, at the Paris Theater in London. Peel hosted the evening's event, recording it for the episode of BBC Rock Hour airing three days later. This, too, is available today on the BBC Sessions album.

Of Led Zeppelin's performances for the BBC, nobody was there for more of them than John Peel. He appreciated the fine nuances that made great music just off-course, compared to your everyday pop sensations who fit the mold. During his career, Peel gave voice to more than a generation of burgeoning musical acts that otherwise may have slipped into obscurity without a nod of appreciation. Peel had an ear for these artists, and he made many of them what they are.

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