He was one of the first broadcasters to play psychedelic rock and progressive rock records on British radio, and he is widely acknowledged for promoting artists working in various genres, including pop, dub reggae, indie rock, post-punk, electronic music, punk, hardcore punk, breakcore, grindcore, death metal, British hip hop, jungle and dance music. Fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini described Peel as "the most important man in music for about a dozen years". In 2012 he was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
Peel's Radio 1 shows were notable for the regular "Peel sessions", which usually consisted of four songs recorded by an artist live in the BBC's studios, and which often provided the first major national coverage to bands that would later achieve great fame. Another popular feature of his shows was the annual Festive Fifty countdown of his listeners' favourite records of the year.
Peel appeared occasionally on British television as one of the presenters of Top of the Pops in the 1980s, and he provided voice-over commentary for a number of BBC programmes. He became popular with the audience of BBC Radio 4 for his Home Truths programme, which ran from the 1990s, featuring unusual stories from listeners' domestic lives.
John Peel was born in Heswall Cottage Hospital in Heswall on the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool, and grew up in the nearby village of Burton. His father was an upper middle-class cotton merchant, and he was sent away to be educated as a boarder at Shrewsbury School, where one of his contemporaries was future Monty Python member Michael Palin.
The solitary Peel was an avid radio listener and record collector from an early age, cutting his teeth on fare offered by the American Forces Network and Radio Luxembourg. He later recalled an early desire to host a radio programme of his own "so that I could play music that I heard and wanted others to hear."