Project X: Getting Festive With John Peel

Brian Raftery | May 30, 2007 3:32 am

As 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.