Project X Gets Festive With The Legacy Of John Peel

Michaelangelo Matos | February 26, 2008 10:00 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 Idolator Critics’ Poll editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he looks at the legacy of British broadcaster John Peel’s annual Festive 50 countdown, and how Peel’s fans are continuing the tradition, for better or worse:

Last May, I wrote a column about the Top 10 of John Peel’s 1990 Festive 50. Last week, Tom Ewing’s Pitchfork column offered a broader, smarter, and better-written piece focusing on the Festive 50, the British radio icon’s annual year-end countdown, as a whole. My remit was narrower for good reason: I don’t have anywhere near Ewing’s deep background in listening to Peel. I’ve noted elsewhere (scroll down here) that I came to Peel the broadcaster late, long after falling for Peel the icon. Ewing’s column is valuable for the way it specifies the differences between the two, and for noting that they don’t cancel each another out–they make him more three-dimensional. And I’m especially intrigued by Ewing’s conclusion, because its implications go far beyond broadcasting:

If John Peel were starting a career now, as a DJ or perhaps an mp3 blogger, it wouldn’t just be marketers that would stop him finding an audience. The digital culture of personalization–your own station, your own tailored recommendations, your own Festive Fifties every day of every year–makes the idea of “education” by tastemakers like Peel seem even more antiquated. The sudden left turns and infuriating inconsistencies his shows offered would as likely be resented as embraced. It’s probably easier to admire John Peel than it sometimes was to listen to him. But if he was sometimes disappointed in his audience–and if he often baffled them in turn–it was because he respected their intelligence rather than pampering their tastes. The renegotiation of that contract is what stands in the way of his successors.

It’s the “left turns and inconsistencies” that were Peel’s real hallmark–his inimitable thumbprint on the works he played. He sounded for all his fluffs and miscues like a man who knew exactly who he was and why he played what he did. His integrity had little to do with specific musical tastes and everything to do with being open to possibility. A good critic, as much as a good broadcaster, aspires to communicating the pleasures to be had beyond that which she encounters regularly, be it singer-songwriters or teen-pop or horrible noise, and that pleasure leads to knowledge, or at least more pleasure.

And sometimes pleasure can be a box. Ewing’s column reminded me that Dandelion Radio, an online station devoted to Peel’s memory, puts together its own Festive 50 each year from listener votes. Here’s the Top 10 of Dandelion Radio’s 2007 Festive 50:

1. Battles, “Atlas” (Warp) 2. Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip, “Thou Shalt Always Kill” (Speech Development) 3. Bearsuit, “Foxy Boxer” (Fantastic Plastic) 4. Beatnik Filmstars, “Curious Role Model” (The International Lo-Fi Underground) 5. Paul Rooney, “Lucy Over Lancashire” (SueMi) 6. Beatnik Filmstars, “Life in the Country AKA This Civil War” (The International Lo-Fi Underground) 7. The Fall, “Reformation” (Narnack) 8. Beatnik Filmstars, “Inside the Mind of Sam (Breakfast Serial Killer)” (The International Lo-Fi Underground) 9. Von Südenfed, “The Rhinohead” (Domino) 10. Von Südenfed, “Fledermaus (Can’t Get It)” (Domino)

Is this list reassuring or just kind of creepy? For me, it’s a little of both. Peel fans remain Peel fans, meaning they’re still voting the exact same kinds of records into the Festive 50’s upper deck: an annoying piss-take on current pop (No. 2), three by all-time Peel favorite Mark E. Smith, three from another longtime favorite (Beatnik Filmstars recorded five Peel sessions) that remain suitably obscure for F50 voters to get behind, C86-style indie-pop at No. 3… change the names and titles and this could have been the same Top 10 of nearly any preceding Festive 50. For sheer stick-to-itiveness, this list might as well be rockabilly revivalism, a.k.a. the all-time gold standard of dead-end nostalgia.

But I can’t dismiss the list entirely. I recently attended (and thoroughly enjoyed) “Noir City,” a weeklong film noir festival in Seattle, whose curator, the San Francisco movie historian Eddie Muller, bills himself as “the czar of noir,” a nickname at least as silly as Slim Jim Phantom’s. Obviously, analogies are always inexact, and the formal scales of movies and music are too disparate for any parallel to work entirely. But how different, really, was “Noir City” from Dandelion Radio’s Festive 50–or any of Peel’s, once his audience’s tastes had more or less hardened into place, even if Peel’s tastes hadn’t? There’s a thin line between a lost cause and emergent classicism. Would I have the same problem if Eddie Muller programmed “Noir City” with all present-day films? I’d hope not, because to become too stubbornly attached to the digital culture of personalization to want to find out is to become a lot poorer for it.