What a Pig of a Record!
Focusing on 78 rpm recordings specifically chosen by John Peel and wife Sheila Ravenscroft, this Trikont release is a very personal affair, crammed with sounds by turns whimsical, brash, deranged, silly, somber, sweet, bizarre, and bland—quality control guaranteed. In all likelihood, there isn’t a collection like this anywhere else on the planet. It comes nicely packaged with an explanatory booklet wherein the various artists and diverse styles are discussed; in the course of explaining why she and John chose them, Sheila shines a little light on their life together. The Pig’s Big 78s includes “Blue Tango” by Ray Martin & His Orchestra, an utterly nondescript instrumental now lent a measure of contextual immortality since it is revealed as the first record that Peel ever bought. This track is as far from the weird and wonderful sounds of the Fall, Native Hipsters, Captain Beefheart, Sudden Sway, Four Brothers, Ivor Cutler, King Tubby, and hundreds of other Peel favorites as can possibly be gauged. So far away in fact, that if Weird and Bland are opposite points on a circle, instead of a line, then “Blue Tango” currently resides near the suburbs of Radical, just west of Weird. Indeed, many decades after their release, all the tracks hold their own in the contrasting context of Peel’s show, sounding every bit as fresh as the latest sounds he was airing.
No record, nor any of the superlatives you’ve heard about him, can adequately put into context the effect John Peel had on the cultural landscape of post-war Britain or his contribution to widening the definition of popular music. Several generations, including my own, will be forever grateful for his efforts, and also mourn the loss of his personal broadcasting charm—the antithesis of the feeble talk of regular DJs. Peel conveyed genuine wit, authenticity, dignity, silliness, good humor, humble enthusiasm, childlike wonder and consistent passion. His passing marks the ending of a magical era of radio. As a resource for unsigned artists, Peel is probably unmatched in the history of world broadcasting. As you wonder about that claim, consider just one tiny example from thousands: he first played Pulp when Jarvis Cocker was still in high school, some 14 years before they had a hit. A myriad of bands testify that they owe him their careers and a book of his entire playlists and recorded sessions would make astonishing reading. Paradoxically, by having no truck with musical fashion or fad, his show maintained the youngest average listener age at BBC Radio One up until his death.
I first heard of John Peel in the early 1970’s at what was laughingly called the Buxton Pop Festival , an uncomfortable merging of hair, mud, denim, appalling toilet facilities, frost, drugs, mud, leather, acne, mud, and music—with food and women largely absent. As the man himself argued, medals should have been awarded for attendance. I agree, since even if more lives were lost at the Somme, it was surely better organized and doubtless enjoyed better weather. Chuck Berry was topping the bill, but long before his appearance, Hell’s Angels roamed and dominated the stage. Peel played records between the bands, announced the football results, and said things like “um, Willow, your friends are waiting for you near the beer tent” and “are you ready for Medicine Head?” Predictably, things deteriorated and eventually an Angel (who possibly went on enjoy a successful career in marketing) commandeered the microphone to relate that “Fucking Hell. John Peel has fucking fucked off. What a fucking wanker.” I later learned that the event was stage-managed by an amiable chap in black velvet jacket and bow tie, whose previous experience in “showbiz” was running a small disco in the nearby town of Derby. He presented Peel with a home stereo (complete with smoke-glass top) on which to play records! After being harangued at knifepoint by Angels (unsuccessfully) demanding that he play what they wanted to hear, our DJ eventually gave up and drove home in time to watch television: Association Football highlights on BBC’s Match of the Day. Berry eventually performed with twenty or so unwanted guests on stage with him. We never got our medals.
My faculties are somewhat disarmed by respect and, well, love for John Peel. So, while it’s fair to say that this record is a fabulous listen, I know that any of the tracks could sound better in a radio show surrounded by the devastating contrast of, say, drum & bass, guitar rawness, calypso, homemade experimentation, dub, country, grime, punk, or just plain genre-defying sounds. The Pig’s Big 78s doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a lovely and personal footnote, and a great way to hear a tiny fraction of the eclecticism that was a feature of Peel’s radio programs. This is wise, as it’s no exaggeration to say that a hundred-disc box set couldn’t do justice to the visceral, groundbreaking thrill of the majority of his airtime. Furthermore, any retrospective will miss the crucial essence of Peel: his belief that this year is always the best year for music, his passion for new discovery, and his obsessive desire to give the worthy efforts of the unheard band an audience.
Trikont is a most fitting label for The Pig’s Big 78s , as a glance at their amazing catalogue will reveal. No doubt Peel-related releases will continue to emerge; maybe Trikont will release more collections of 78s, and perhaps (though very improbably) the BBC will release all the Peel Session recordings. Since most releases will tend toward compilations of so-called greatest or favorite moments, the Peel-guaranteed equal measure of curiosity, revelation, un-listenable horror, and absolute gems will be absent. Anyway, he would probably prefer us to be applying as much gusto to searching for new things to hear, as living in the past. Even with a soundtrack as glorious as his.
Of the tracks, Ronnie Ronalde’s “The Yodeling Whistler” is as ludicrously brilliant as the tale of Peel and Sheila seeking him out while on holiday in New Zealand! Even though they are both great, there’s no explanation of why Albert Whelan gets two songs. No surprise that Earl Bostic is included; Peel often played his hot and brash saxophone records, and made reference to the fact that the jazz club members at his private school considered Bostic’s work unsophisticated and beneath their hip tastes! God knows how they reacted if they ever heard him play Half Man Half Biscuit.
“Bradford”, by Besses O’ Th’ Barn Band, represents the working class culture of the brass bands associated with mining, an industry single-handedly destroyed by the dread hand of Margaret Thatcher, and for political, rather than economic purposes. In typical Peel fashion, this aspect isn’t mentioned; listeners can draw their own conclusions. It therefore seems not at all contradictory that there is a great banjo version of a fox hunting tune included here, despite Peel’s personal opposition to hunting. So, it goes on, via a Newspaper quiz record, country blues, English Music Hall ditties, crooning, impressions of dogs and a car starting, and much more. Of particular interest is Albert Whelan’s original of “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies”, a comic tune covered by the Bonzo Dog Band (whose Vivian Stanshall, Peel rightly considered a very wayward genius and with the help of his brilliant and erudite producer John Walters, coaxed into the recordings that would eventually become the legendary spoken-word masterpiece Sir Henry at Rawlinson End). For more on Stanshall, proceed with much haste to Chris Welch’s Ginger Geezer). Read it and weep. Incidentally, a measure of the shared wit of Walters and Peel occurred when, upon the death of the former, Peel mentioned he had lost the person he had expected to deliver the eulogy at his funeral, likening their relationship to one as loyal and affectionate as that of a man and his dog, with both believing the other to be in the role of the dog!
In the main, The Pig’s Big 78s contains sounds simultaneously genteel and mind-blowing, all hinting at Peel’s upbeat taste toward the tangentially popular. Yes, the popular; John Peel never indulged in the willfully obscure, the elitist, or the purposefully difficult. For sure, he challenged listeners every time he was on the radio; sometimes it felt like punishment, but it seemed that he genuinely thought we might enjoy even the most brain-crunching din imaginable. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t, but we got the chance to listen and decide for ourselves, and learned that something incredible, and something different, would follow. He never let us down. I’ll never, ever, share his love for (perish the thought) Liverpool FC, but like all his regular listeners, I cherish the memory of his contribution to my cultural life. Thanks, John.