Tag Archives: John Peel

John Peel’s Shed at The Junction, Cambridge 24/2/12

John Peel’s Shed is an hour long presentation currently being toured by writer and broadcaster John Osborne, whose all-absorbing passion for radio paid off in 2002 when he won a box of records in a competition to devise a slogan for Peel’s Radio 1 show. The simplicity of his winning entry – “Records you want to hear, played by a man who wants you to hear them” – demonstrates how in tune Osborne was with Peel’s ethos of paying as little attention as possible to fashion-driven trends, hype and commercial pressures in favour of devoting his energies to unearthing truly original sounds and artists, and Osborne’s sweet and engaging talk is a fitting tribute to the spirit of the great man.

Now, John Peel is pretty close to being my all-time favourite human being, friends and family excepted, and while it was certainly tremendously touching to be part of the great outpouring of affection that was unleashed in the wake of his death it was also mildly irritating to witness his career and accomplishments being regularly boiled down to T Rex/Teenage Kicks/The Fall/Home Truths. Peel’s tastes were genuinely eclectic and unpredictable, and while it would be churlish to criticise the goodwill and effort that was expended to curate the various programmes and schedules that were broadcast in his honour I felt at the time that many of the musical choices were a tad safe and acceptably mainstream – wouldn’t it have been more fitting to play a few long and unlistenable hardcore techno tracks, interspersed with some terrifying Scandinavian death metal and some joyous, if not necessarily comprehensible, African gospel? Thankfully Osborne avoids this establishment reduction of what made Peel such a one-off: firstly, the records that he draws from his prize box to play between sections of his talk are pleasingly obscure and appropriately non-commercial (Atom and His Package, anyone? What about Oizone? As in Boyzone songs played by an Oi band) and secondly, he doesn’t feel the need to dwell on Peel at all when recounting his formative musical memories – his working assumption is that his audience doesn’t need any further summaries of the man, leaving him free to talk more about radio in general, and his relationship with it.

Osborne loves radio and has a rare curiosity about it, to the extent that he’s prepared to spend months making sure he’s managed to spend a full day listening to every single station available to him. His accounts of the esoteric delights put out by small community stations are hilarious, but somehow life-affirming (I particularly liked the idea of the programme consisting of nothing but the sounds picked up by a microphone left on a living room floor for half an hour) and his gradual coming to terms with the blandness of modern day Radio 1 when forced to listen to it all day during a spell working in a warehouse casts light on the resilience of the human spirit. He’s an open, almost naively positive, presenter with a generous and winning manner – I think Peel would have approved. Podcasts featuring some of the records in the box are available from www.johnpeelsshed.com.

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Another best record ever made (1990s division)

It’s a bit surprising in these enlightened digital times to realise that there are still some records (and not particularly ancient ones at that) that are not officially available for purchase. The common assumption with music now is that everything’s instantly accessible: think of a song when you’re walking down the street and you can probably just pluck it out of the ether direct to your phone. This ease of access was certainly not the case in my formative years. Back in the day I seemed to spend most of the free time I had (when I wasn’t playing guitars badly in cellars or making compilation tapes for people who probably wouldn’t ever be bothered to listen to them) wandering around record shops and sometimes record fairs in search of rare stuff. By which I don’t mean bootlegs or live recordings or anything non-official and almost certainly not sanctioned by the artist – what I was looking for were, for the main part, albums and singles that had been released by properly legal record companies but had since been deleted from their catalogues, normally because they hadn’t sold well enough to justify a re-pressing.

So, to get to the case in point. My favourite single of the 1990s, with the possible exception of Common People, is Geek Love by the singularly unpromisingly named Bang Bang Machine. While this is not a very, or even moderately, well known track (it certainly wasn’t a hit), it’s also not barrel-scrapingly obscure – it was after all voted the best song of 1992 by listeners of the John Peel radio show, and he must have had a few hundred thousand listeners at the time. The great man himself was a fan, and a quick look on Wikipedia turns up his effusive tribute: “Even if they never made another record, they’ll have achieved more than most of us do in our entire lives.” I heard the song at the time, but it didn’t really register until a chance hearing about three years ago transfixed me and sent me straight to Amazon and iTunes – it was absent from the latter, and there were only secondhand copies of the 12 inch and CD single available from the former at tea-splutteringly ridiculous prices. Ditto eBay, and everywhere else I looked. I ended up downloading an MP3 from somebody’s blog, which made me feel perversely guilty for some reason as I was hardly depriving the artists of revenue when the work in question is no longer in catalogue, but there you go.

Geek Love exists as a number of different mixes and edits but it’s fair to say that the definitive version is the one that takes up one side of the 12 inch single which has the overall title The Geek. It’s one of those relatively rare long, luxuriantly unfolding tracks that really requires the extra space a 12 inch provides, as opposed to the much more common pointlessly extended versions of perfectly adequate three or four minute songs that abounded in the 80s and 90s. Other examples of 12 inch perfection would include Bela Lugosi’s Dead, and Blue Monday, and How Soon Is Now? If forced to locate this track within a style you’d have to say that it fits closest within the curiously limp and bloodless genre known as “shoegazing”, which involved serious and pale groups of youths with complicated effects pedals and shuffly dance beats you couldn’t actually dance to, and was briefly prevalent in indie circles before Nirvana unleashed Nevermind and gave young people license to both rock out and whinge a lot. Rest assured, this single sure as hell transcends the collected works of the barely remembered Chapterhouse, Slowdive and Curve.

Geek Love starts quietly, with a gentle and mildly accented beat underpinning a stately cycle of chord changes before a lead guitar enters to pick out a nagging but elegantly simple riff. Eventually a high ethereal female vocal reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins comes in, and while you’re pretty sure the lyric is made up of English words it’s hard to make many of them out beyond the opening “float around her” – the effect is however beguiling. The song pulses along dreamily for two minutes or more, and seems as though it may be on the verge of winding down with the vocal dropping out and the instruments sounding more muted when the killer punch arrives: suddenly a full band weighs in, with multiple chunky guitar overdubs and full drums, and the vocal comes back and verily soars. This time the words couldn’t be clearer: “to love/but never to be in love/never to be in love” repeated and taken higher over a haunting and somehow incredibly affecting melody. Samples of dialogue start appearing in the mix, and when you find out where they’re from it makes the track even more powerful – Geek Love is inspired by the 1932 movie Freaks, about a group of deformed circus performers doomed never to forge conventional human relationships. The track surges on, still cycling around the same chords but using them as a base for developing melodic and dynamic ideas, with occasional returns and variations on the refrain. If it didn’t elicit such an emotional response you could even call it prog rock. After nine and a half minutes the track fades out, which sounds like a long time but there’s no doubt the unusual length is justified.

I did manage to get hold of a copy of Geek Love in the end, via Amazon Marketplace, though it took a while before someone was selling one for a reasonable price. I still think it’s a bit of a disgrace that no-one’s ever re-issued it (or even included it on a film soundtrack, where you could imagine it could work very well in the right circumstances). Maybe in the future every piece of music ever recorded, or even thought of, will be immediately available via some Apple or Sky device, but until then…

The best record ever made

One of my regular internet haunts is The Word magazine blog, which is basically a fairly standard music, film and TV forum, except that the people who post on it tend to be unusually well-informed, articulate and polite. Without wanting to generalise, there seem to be a lot of music-obsessed males in their 40s and 50s, and topics discussed are typically things like comparisons of Richard Thompson albums and how it’s impossible to have a good time at gigs these days because the music’s too loud and there are too many people talking and flashing mobile phones around. Every now and then someone posts a question to try and achieve consensus on a particular question (such as “what’s the best Beatles album?” or “what’s the best year for music?”), with predictable but still enjoyable lack of success – ask the same question to 100 musos and you’re going to get 100 different opinions back.

This week, someone was brave and foolhardy enough to go for the big one: what’s your all-time favourite track, asked in the hope of eventually being able to compile some kind of chart. This is of course an inherently ridiculous question, and to be fair, the poster was quite aware of this and that the joy of the thread was always going to be in the debate it stimulated rather than the definitive establishing of the best record ever made. I, like rather a lot of the other regular frequenters of The Word blog I suspect, have a stock answer to this question, as I have to the other chestnuts like favourite album, favourite film and favourite book (not Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I should point out, despite some of the resonances with my life I found in it*). I therefore posted up my answer – (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash – expecting this to be the only vote for this truly magnificent but not overly well-known record. I was truly surprised to come back later to find a fair amount of other posters agreeing with me. At the time of writing it seems it might even win the poll.

To be honest, I can’t remember when I first heard (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, but I do remember getting obsessed with it round about Summer 1985 after hearing it a few times on tapes of old John Peel shows. Despite an evidently raw and unvarnished production it didn’t sound much like your standard three chord punk thrash (not fast enough, too considered), and despite the rhythm guitar chopping out a pronounced backbeat and the spare, dub-influenced bass it’s not really reggae either (too stiff, too, well, white). It’s catchy, but has no chorus or any repeated verses, and it’s structurally weird, with the middle bridging bit coming between the first and second verses, rather than between the third and fourth as you might expect. It’s jaunty and uplifting, but you’d be hard pressed to dance to it. There are classic Mick Jones weedy backing vocals, and some tastefully restrained lead guitar and harmonica fills, and there’s a great spontaneous feel to the recording, as though this is the first take of the song immediately after the band finished working out the arrangement. But what really lifts this song up into greatness is Joe Strummer’s vocal and, particularly, his lyric.

The song starts out by describing Strummer’s experience as the only white man in the audience at a reggae gig at the Palais. He’s initially thrilled at what he hopes will be an inspiring experience, but gradually realises that the groups he’s listening to are playing essentially pretty conservative music and are going through the motions for the sake of appearing cool. The scope of the song then widens to take in youth culture in general and the stagnant state of politics, and Strummer muses on the dangers of complacency (“if Adolf Hitler flew in today/they’d send a limousine anyway”). At the same time, he’s also amused and self-deprecatory, which helps to stave off any potential preachiness. The dominant emotion conveyed is disappointment, but the lyric never lapses into cheap cynicism, and I can’t think of any other pop song that achieves a similar mix of social concern, wit and passion with such subtlety.

Strummer may be the very worst singer ever to front a stadium-level band if you’re going to apply strictly technical criteria, but the success of his vocal performance here is nothing to do with formal virtuosity. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else attempting this song and sounding convincing. He’s singing from life experience and his character shines through – at the line “they’ve got Burton suits/you think it’s funny” he even breaks out into an unmistakably natural laugh.

I’ve probably listened to (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais through choice more often than any other piece of music, and it’s still utterly beguiling. I’m still waiting to see if it is officially the best record ever made, and won’t be too heartbroken if it isn’t, honest – I’m just glad I’m not the only person who still appreciates it.

* Nick Hornby once worked in the same independent record shop that I did (though not at the same time), and the bits in High Fidelity that take place in the main character’s own shop seemed uncannily familiar to me when I read the book.