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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

John Peel: the campaign to stop him becoming a national treasure starts here

Another week, another John Peel music story. There's been a lot of coverage of the project to digitally represent JP’s records and home cataloguing system (plenty of media space for The Space) but to me, well, it's not much different to the usual half-baked fare.

We've had the obligatory references to The Fall, New Order and The White Stripes, with just The Four Brothers and the alphabetical oddity of Mike Absalom thrown in for variety. In fact, the Today programme decided that the best way to sum up Peel’s famously broad musical range was to stress that he also liked mainstream stuff such as Status Quo or Roy Orbison. Great. No need to mention the thousands of other artists that might be a little ... ooer ... unfamiliar.

So much for the media, which never departs very far from a tired posthumous Peel script (institution ... inspiration to millions ... Teenage Kicks ...).  But the archival effort itself sounds rather lacklustre too. It's apparently going to reproduce the album sleeves and the great man’s filing cards, starting with just 100 LPs and rising to 2,600 by the end of the Arts Council-funded life of the project. Hmm. They're saying Peel’s albums run to 25,000 in number (which itself sounds surprisingly low to me), so that means only about 10% of his collection will be included. And the 40,000 singles and thousands (presumably) of CDs (and let's not forget the lovely cassettes) are ... what? Sidelined? And anyway, we're not talking about recordings being digitised or downloadable or anything like that, just links to where you can listen to them. I dunno. Laudable it may be, but isn't it all slightly half-hearted, kinda pedestrian?

The thing about Peel, surely, is the scope of what he did, and I think efforts to tackle that themselves need to have a bit of madcap ambition. So, instead of trite media summaries about what he played we ought to be getting people bothering to check and reflect his shows more accurately (eg a random Peel tape from my shelves, 17/9/86: Timbuk Three, followed by The Railway Children, Robert Wyatt, Twang, Microdisney, Toxic Reasons ....). And instead of modest web archiving projects, maybe we could get ... er, actually I don't know, but something big, a British Library-type affair.

Home taping is not killing John Peel

Actually, maybe there’s already something approaching that in the form of existing JP sites like John Peel Everyday and Fades In Slowly. I particularly like the sites that are obsessively huge, with archived recordings of shows stretching back decades. Density and depth rather than the lightweight froth of “Peelie” tributes is, I reckon, what it’s all about. I can well do without anyone ever again mentioning Home Truths or that fact that Peel’s favourite song was a certain John O'Neill composition. On the other hand, I definitely don’t want to lose all that music or the ambition of his inclusive approach to playing it. So please, I implore you, will you support my campaign to stop John Peel being turned into a national treasure? No more tributes, just huge databases ... 

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