Readers of my blog (all five or six of you) know what the Festive 50 was: but there may be some people stumbling on this who do not know what I’m talking about. Well, John Peel, the seminal DJ who gave exposure to types of music which might never have been heard and career boosts to bands who might never have been recorded, began a countdown every December of tracks voted for by his listeners: this annual trackfest began in 1976. They were required to choose three from that year, and on occasion from all time (although JP confessed to being unable to choose less than 250 when he tried the same exercise). Peel himself gave a concise account of the genesis of it in The Times:
The Festive 50 dates back to what was doubtless a crisp September morning in the early-to-mid Seventies, when John Walters and I were musing on life in his uniquely squalid office. In our waggish way, we decided to mock the enthusiasm of the Radio 1 management of the time for programmes with alliterative titles. Content, we felt, was of less importance than a snappy Radio Times billing. In the course of our historic meeting we had, I imagine, some fine reasons for dismissing the idea of a Festive 40 and going instead for a Festive 50, a decision that was to ruin my Decembers for years to come, condemning me to night after night at home with a ledger, when I could have been out and about having fun, fun, fun.
At least one site on the Net claims that Peel ‘always hated doing the Festive 50’. Listening to the few extant recordings of the shows themselves, I cannot agree. In 1983, for example, he said on the show that he genuinely enjoyed doing it. Moreover, there are only two occasions when he actively ‘sabotaged’ the list. In 1991, the so-called ‘Phantom Fifty’ was never broadcast at the time, since the listeners did not vote for any of the dance tracks that Peel had been espousing and instead wanted ‘white boys with guitars’ (JP’s oft-quoted assessment of how the chart had deteriorated). He chose instead to play the tracks once a week two years later: punishment or concession to the listeners? Sadly, he is no longer around to answer that, so we have to guess.
Then there was the 1997 ‘Pretty Festive Fifty’: only 31 tracks were broadcast. This in fact had nothing to do with the content but rather with the lack of airtime the BBC had given him (in the broadcast, Peel suggests that his family problems were in part responsible). The fact that there was a FF at all was due to listener demand, and was compiled from emails. telephone calls and letters.
Nevertheless, these two episodes of JP stamping his feet and bringing his listeners to heel are the exception rather than the rule. He dismissed accusations that the charts were fixed so that his favorite music gained prominence: he quoted his ‘workmanlike brain’ as proof that he could not fix the chart even if he wanted to, rather writing down each vote in a ledger and then destroying the original communication. The shows are peppered with quotes like, ‘if it had been up to me, this would have been number one’, and occasional vilification of stuff that he truly disliked. In fact, the only recorded instance of JP choosing his own chart was in 1977: the complete list has now been put together and first saw the light of day in Ken Garner’s book about the Peel sessions.
The last chart that Peel had any influence over was in 2004: it included tracks that he had played before his death in the autumn of that year. In the event, the presenter was Rob Bank, and, fittingly, his favourite band The Fall made the top spot. Since then, the chart has been hosted once by Radio 1, and once by Dandelion Radio: but, due to the fact that JP no longer has any influence himself over what makes it to that chart, they are outside the scope of this blog (well, with 29 charts and over 1400 tracks to feature, one has to draw the line somewhere).
So what do we have? ‘Your Festive Fifty’ (1990 show: his emphasis, not mine), which John frequently lamented as being ‘conservative and nostalgic…faintly ridiculous’ (JP’s comments on the 1986 chart), but which comes over nonetheless as
a chart lovingly handcrafted from the votes of my Radio 1 listeners for their three favourite tracks of the year (Observer, 1987),
and which he continued to do without a break until his untimely end. By way of postscript, I feature, without exposition, three tracks which are surely some kind of proof that the charts were not fixed in any way. The first (Cocteau Twins, Carolyn’s Fingers) made the 1988 FF at #28, despite the fact that JP had never actually played it before the voting took place: and the next (The Cure, The Love Cats, FF 1983 #15) he admitted thinking was ‘complete rubbish’ when he first heard it, but had since learned to live with it. And finally, the No. 1 hit from 1991 (and All-Time FF 2000 #8) that caused John to despair of ever educating his listeners: Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit.
£: Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll