“I’m the one who comes on Radio 1 late at nights and plays records made by sulky Belgian art students dying of tuberculosis.” — John Peel
This was how John Peel introduced himself to a family audience, on one of his occasional forays into British television. He can’t always have been graying, or bearded, or balding, but this is how most people continue to visualize him. He seemed, to those of us who listened to him, to have been born avuncular. For nearly four decades, until his death in 2004, Peel shared his musical enthusiasms with the ever-changing audience of his late-night show on BBC Radio 1 and made his personal collection into a truly representative historical document, like a latter-day Alan Lomax. Except that in this case, the field came to him: homemade cassette recordings sent from across Britain, and beyond, to Peel’s door. This didn’t mean that no hard work was involved. Peel listened to them all, working through an avalanche of audio slush, with a heroic commitment to the aesthetically new.
Now, though not for long, we can experience the chaotic variety of Peel’s taste. Over the course of the next four months, the first hundred records for each letter of Peel’s alphabetized and rigorously ordered collection of 26,000 are to be presented online, replete with their owner’s personally devised catalogue number and, occasionally, remarks. The John Peel Archive has been supported by the Arts Council and curated with the assistance of Sheila Ravenscroft, Peel’s wife. For each letter, Ravenscroft has selected an artist of special significance to Peel, such as Dick Dale or Fairport Convention, and hosted a short corresponding film. There are links to Spotify as well as to short films, video footage, and audio files from the famous sessions recorded for his show, including an early performance by David Bowie.
Peel resisted fashions, even as he shaped them. While looking out for world-music records—things like David Lewiston’s Balinese gamelan anthology, Music from the Morning of the World—I found a surprising number of albums from some geezer called J.S. Bach. There were no apparent rules governing the content of the show. Actually, there was one rule, but it could never be mentioned. In Suffolk Comforts, a fiftieth-birthday tribute film, Peel squirms while trying to describe his taste: “At the heart of anything good there should be a kernel of something undefinable, and if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then, in a sense, you’ve missed the point.” Undeterred by the Pavlovian associations that make country, punk, rockabilly, reggae, prog, folk, rave, hip-hop, indie pop, dubstep, grime and grunge all mutually unacceptable subcultural experiences, he prepared playlists that were guaranteed to offend, enlighten, and satisfy in drunken disproportion.