Project X: Getting Festive With John Peel

May 30th, 2007 // 14 Comments

peelpic.jpgAs part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, his take on one of John Peel’s most famous efforts.

Project X No. 9: Top 10 of John Peel’s Festive 50, 1990

In 1976, John Peel began the Festive 50 (or F50), an annual listener poll in which fans of Peel’s BBC Radio 1 program could write in their Top 3 tracks–initially of all time, more or less, and then, beginning in 1982, of the year. Peel continued the tally up through 2003; following his October 2004 death, it has continued in other hands, most recently via the Web station Dandelion Radio.

There are two things to keep in mind looking at the contents of the Festive 50s, all of which are viewable at Julian White’s long-running Rocklist site: one, Peel’s tastes cannot be summarized neatly; and two, they don’t matter much because he didn’t make the lists. Reading them is an education, but only up to a point. Many of the DJ’s eulogies memorialized him as indie rock’s best friend. This loses sight of Peel’s ardent championing of everything from African guitar pop to drum & bass to the vintage 78s introduced by his wife, Sheila.

It also ignores the fact that he was as prone to mocking his stereotypical guitar-loving sad-boy collegiate listeners as he was to giving them what they wanted. A 1987 Observer article by Peel refers to the previous year’s list as “faintly ridiculous” thanks to the extreme repetition of selections by the Smiths, Fall, and Wedding Present, and in 1991 he found the Nirvana-dominated F50 so depressingly predictable that he didn’t air it until 1993, one selection per week for a year. There’s certainly repetition and predictability a-go-go in the Top 10 of Peel’s 1990 Festive 50, a year before his self-imposed embargo:

1. The Fall, “Bill Is Dead” (Phonogram)
2. My Bloody Valentine, “Soon” (Creation)
3. Ride, “Dreams Burn Down” (Creation)
4. Ride, “Like a Daydream” (Creation)
5. Sonic Youth, “Tunic (Song For Karen)” (DGC)
6. Paris Angels, “(All on You) Perfume” (Sheer Joy)
7. The Wedding Present, “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” (BMG)
8. Happy Mondays, “Step On” (Factory)
9. The Wedding Present, “Corduroy” (RCA)
10. The Orb, “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld (Loving You) (Peel Session)” (Strange Fruit)

This Top 10 is archetypal in its narrowness, its Englishness, its indieness, and its being “Peel-like” in terms of what his listeners stuck by no matter what the DJ actually championed. If ever a list could be anthropomorphized into a pasty zit farm with a floppy bowl-cut and ragged striped pullover, it’s this one. That in itself makes it definitive. So is the fact that it’s the only Peel-compiled F50 ever won by his favorite band, the Fall (who won 2004′s edition, presented on air by Rob Da Bank, with “Theme From Sparta F.C. Pt. 2″), and that there are two selections by the Wedding Present, who along with leader David Gedge’s other group, Cinerama, recorded the second-largest number of Peel Sessions.

The Paris Angels track sounds enough like New Order to pass in an off year for that band. (That’s how it felt then, anyway.) My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth feature guitars whose immersive quality remains just the thing for intense young men who tend to express themselves via such pursuits as sitting in their rooms and not talking to other people. Ride’s two selections display the band’s full range: dour, loud, melodic, and slow on the one hand, dour, loud, melodic, and medium-tempo on the other. One of the two “dance” selections is by a rock band, and the other is a wavering mosey through a collection of sound-effects records that induces more wooze than SY and MBV’s guitars combined. The version chosen, of course, was the one recorded specially for Peel’s show. This is not indie how?

In his Pitchfork review of the Wedding Present’s Complete Peel Sessions box set, Nitsuh Abebe wrote, “These Leeds guys were never really among the pathbreakers, innovators, or celebrated stars of British indie; they were the workhorse and the house band.” That principle applies to the basic sound on display here as well: solid, dependable, just different enough for its parts to distinguish themselves and, lord knows, similar enough for everything to mesh. It’s no surprise that compiled together, the Top 10 moves like a good mixtape–the kind that’s forever identified with what we think of as “indie.”

Which brings us to the real question: what is indie? In 1990, you could have presented this list with a small nod and gone on your way, case essentially made. (The only band central to Peel-rock mythology that was making waves that year that’s missing here is the Pixies, who in the 1990 F50 placed cuts at Nos. 24, 31, and 48.) It’s definitively “indie” as the term was understood before Nirvana–which is why it’s also probably the last year a lineup like this one could be thought of as ahead of the pop zeitgeist instead of right in line with or hopelessly behind it.

Zeitgeists are often overrated, I agree. But Nirvana placed typically indie values in the middle of the mainstream, placing the off-the-map sense of escapism inherent in these selections on the map. The results of that little historical accident don’t need another rehash here, and the sonic values of this Top 10 have been the F50′s sole fallback for longer than they’ve demonstrated similar levels of inspiration. But this one still sounds like an eternal autumn–a great place to visit, if not live in.

  1. pimpmyPR

    jackin’ – fantastic reprise of my favorite Peel time of the year. I tuned out of him after I hit 16 (couldn’t stand The Fall) but always came back to see what was on offer over the Xmas season. Great days indeed.

  2. Ned Raggett

    But it’s so beautiful in autumn! Oh wait.

    I remember that year Melody Maker’s writers had their number one single be “Groove Is In the Heart” by Deee-Lite, which beats out everything on that list other than “Soon” in my head. And I say that as a Fall freak who loved early Ride and Weddoes and the Orb as well.

  3. Matos W.K.

    fwiw, “Groove Is in the Heart” finished 44th in 1990′s F50.

  4. Wicked Zoot

    Spot-freakin’-on. His regular show was always generally amazing and the festive 50 was often a bit of a disappointment.

  5. Ned Raggett

    @Matos W.K.: 37 spots behind a Steve Harley cover? Yeeps.

  6. Breliant

    I always suspected that the majority of people who voted in the F50 weren’t listening to the show.
    Peel was like a teacher, disappointed that the kids hadn’t learned a damn thing.

  7. Chris Molanphy

    Hey Matos W.K.: Did Peel-heads give a toss about rap back in 1990? I ask ‘cuz that’s also the year of Fear of a Black Planet, and I’d be interested to see if, say, “911 Is a Joke” placed anywhere on the list.

  8. Matos W.K.

    The list (all the lists) are linked in the second graf of the piece. P.E. placed three times total: twice in 1987 (“Rebel without a Pause” No. 14; “You’re Gonna Get Yours” No. 38) and once in 1988 (“Night of the Living Baseheads” No. 50).

  9. Breliant

    @Matos W.K.: It should be remembered that a hip-hop war was raging in the pages of the NME.
    The long and short of it was putting Public Enemy on the cover was bad for business; Dele Fadele quit as a staff writer over what he saw as marginalizing a popular form of music (it was the same with dance music). My memory of this time is kind of fuzzy but they did publish Fadele’s resignation letter and he still reviewed for them.
    Fear of A Black Planet is essentially the decade’s What’s Going On, tokenism. There’d be the occasional Ice Cube interview and they defended Ice T but they never really went any further. It’s probably what’s held back a lot of British hip hop.

  10. Matos W.K.

    That’s interesting background. My sense is that Melody Maker was a lot more into hip-hop and non-rock stuff (Stubbs, Reynolds, etc.)–is that right?

  11. katieee

    I too am a Fall freak, and I have to say that “Bill Is Dead” is one of the cheesiest, most un-Fall-like songs they ever recorded. I can’t believe it’s number one!

    A couple of years ago, either Mojo or Q released a “John Peel’s Festive 15″ freebie that was supposedly the best of the best. There was plenty of top-shelf indie (Field Mice, House of Love), but also featured Shipbuilding by Robert Wyatt and Eat Yourself Fitter by the Fall, a far superior number.

    I’m done dorking out now…

  12. Breliant

    I was never a regular reader of the Melody Maker but they seemed to divide the paper up more equally; so mental, dance and hip hop received better coverage.

    I’m sure that they scooped the NME on Nirvana (Everett True) and then spent a decade searching for the next big thing.

  13. mrpiffin

    Re Nirvana thing – Wasn’t Sounds the first paper to cover the (quote from BBC4 prog New York Rockers last night) ‘Masters of Grunge’ Nirvana, either way they were definitely the first (and last) to put Tad Doyle on the cover, whilst the other two had an all consuming obsession with The Happy Mondays.

    Whilst I’m here another nuggets from the tv show last night, Nirvana were apparently ‘heavily influenced’ by Sonic Youth, who in turn were ‘heavily influenced’ by the Stooges, wasn’t there a guy called Glenn Branca in there who learned them to detune their guitars, apparently not, their sound is so similar to the Stooges I’m surprised I haven’t noticed it before.

  14. Breliant

    @mrpiffin: Yeah, you are probably right, but Everett True seems to be the journalist that takes credit for in it, in the same way Jo Whiley takes credit for playing them first and Paul Ross for booking them on The Word.

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