This feature was recently highlighted on the Yahoo Peel group, and I find it thought-provoking and worth reprinting here (even if I do not entirely agree with all the writer’s points). Tom Ewing takes a balanced and measured approach in his retrospective on the Festive Fifties, and it’s a damn sight better than that load of fucking crap Michael Henderson foisted on us.
I love polls. I tell myself– sometimes it’s even true– that I love the conversations they start more, but polls and surveys fascinate me: the hard currencies of percentages and decimal points; the nuances of rankings, rises and falls; the tempting, treacherous way an aggregate opinion emerges from a datamass. Growing up I even had a favorite poll– and I didn’t feel like a lunatic, because it was a lot of other people’s favorite poll, too: John Peel’s annual Festive Fifty countdown.The Festive Fifty was a listener survey– you sent in your three favorite tracks, Peel totted up the results, and he played the songs on the radio in order, during his end-of-year shows. As a kid getting into indie I played my C90s of the 1988 countdown until they snapped– my first time hearing the Fall, Sonic Youth, the Wedding Present, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine [see below-SIG]. As a grown-up, with a job in market research and this music long sunk into the grain of my life, what amazed me looking at the Festive Fifty was how transparent it was as a poll, how open to fluke and freak results: Peel’s whims and personal favorites would bubble up high on the list, next to popular records he’d probably never played. On the 1992 list, for instance, his introduction to Suede’s The Drowners was tinged with faint disapproval, while spiky Welsh-language group Datblygu met with undisguised delight.
Recently I found a torrent of every Festive Fifty from the first, in 1976, to 1991: sometimes just the records, but mostly broadcasts taken from old tapes like mine. Of course, the first one I played was 1988, and then I remembered how Peel himself had been more worried about what hadn’t got in:
“I think you’d have to agree with me really that it’s an ultra conservative Festive Fifty…I mean it’s been mainly, kind of, young lads strumming guitars. A lot of good tunes, I don’t deny that, but as I say– conservative. The only black records to get into there are Number 50, Public Enemy; Number 37, Shalawambe from Zambia, and number 28, Overlord X.”
This wasn’t the first or last time Peel said similar things, but when I heard that at the time, I took it very seriously. Peel’s strength as a broadcaster, and one reason the Festive Fifty was so popular, was that you wanted his approval, and the disappointment in his voice here was obvious. Would his audience listen? The next year I winced slightly as only one “black record”– by De La Soul– made it into the chart.
Peel’s argument looks somewhat shopworn now– it resurfaces almost every time connoisseur tastes find a collective voice, and reliably pushes buttons, as the subject of taste diversity is more than a little touchy. But the key word in Peel’s complaint isn’t “black,” it’s “conservative.” Peel wasn’t simply wringing his hands, he was annoyed at his listeners for ignoring much of the music that he himself had been playing them: His late-80s shows were full of hip-hop, African pop, and house music. His comment is a window on the frustrating relationship between a tastemaker and their audience. To understand the complaint, and the nature of that relationship, we need to look back to the early Festive Fifty polls.
The first Fifty, in 1976, simply asked listeners to choose their all-time favorite tracks. With Led Zeppelin on top, and Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd in the top five, it’s a solid celebration of classic rock virtues, skewing a little to the thoughtful: Fond of visionaries, rewarding long songs and Y chromosomes. A closer look suggests a more varied audience: The crossover between Poco and Beefheart surely wasn’t huge. But generally Peel’s listeners in 1976 were a serious-minded bunch with an appreciation of rock’s recent history and progression.
And then the meteor struck. Peel kept running the Festive Fifty as an all-time list between 1978 and 1982, but that 1982 poll is strikingly different from the 76 one: Not one single track survives from the earlier list. If you want evidence as to punk’s “scorched-earth” effect in the UK, here it is. From a researcher’s perspective, for an apparently settled list of preferences to change absolutely in six years would be astonishing in an individual; in a group it’s unprecedented.
If, of course, it was the same group. Did Peel convert his listeners to punk, or build a new audience? He was already playing punk in 1976, though it doesn’t show up on the first Festive Fifty– the hour-long special he devoted to it that December (also floating around on P2P) saw him embrace it fully, but by that time those first votes were in. The beloved Floyd and Zep tracks from the ’76 poll slip gradually from the chart over the next few years: other shows on the BBC’s Radio 1 network covered rock, and Peel was the place to go for punk, so this gradual churn makes sense.
At any rate, by conversion or recruitment he had created a new audience, just as he’d created one for the hippy rock and folk he’d played on early 70s radio. Was the problem that he couldn’t keep on creating audiences, or that he kept moving while they stood still? Peel’s own excitement over punk, after all, was one out of many excitements: He found himself won over successively by rap, grindcore, techno, drum’n’bass, happy hardcore, and a multitude of global pop musics. But as his 1988 comment shows, precious little of it made any impact on the Festive Fifty, our only record of his audience’s collective tastes.
Why couldn’t he take his audience with him? First of all, for many people, he did. Few Peel listeners got into everything the man liked, but most of them were won over by something: In my case I’d have been a much later convert to electronic music without hearing the Orb on his show. Quantitative polls, even very interesting ones, often confuse “what people have in common” with “what people think”: Guitar bands were the center of Peel’s audience’s taste but they weren’t the totality.
Also punk, and the indie label movement it led to, needed Peel in a way the other musics he championed never did: Peel’s shows were a litany of label names, contact addresses, and other details that helped give a scene its nervous system. Those networks were already in place for African music, or dance music– they had their own gatekeepers. One of the few African records that did make it into the Festive Fifty was the Bhundu Boys’ “My Foolish Heart”, from their fine 1987 album True Jit: Recorded with Western producers, it won Peel’s sympathetic ear, but the existing “world music” fanbase despised its apparent commerciality and the group fragmented into failure and personal tragedy.
I wonder too if Peel underestimated how strong punk was: Its canon formation happened very quickly, and stuck. On the 1980 rundown there’s a certain sardonic weariness in Peel’s voice as he recites the consistent top five positions for (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais, and the reason he stopped the all-time polls in 1982 was fairly obvious: He would otherwise be playing the same records forever.
It’s crucial to point out, though, that Peel never showed the slightest sign of disliking his audience, even if he was sometimes wearied by their choices. The last Festive Fifty I downloaded is from 1991, and is unusual in that it was never broadcast as a whole: Peel’s discontent peaked and he refused to run the “predictable,” Nirvana-topped chart. I remember being immensely disappointed, even hurt, and I doubt I was alone: The Festive Fifty was back the next year, and the listeners showed their thanks by voting Bang Bang Machine’s Geek Love— fearfully obscure and a firm Peel favorite– as number one.
The incident had shown the limits of Peel’s patience, but also of his wrath. Peel in his later years was more like the conscience of British indie fandom than its guide: He played more electronica, metal, and worldpop than ever; his audience listened, and voted for Camera Obscura and Ballboy. Both sides seemed happy.
In British broadcasting culture this role might be described as “Reithian”– after the founder of the BBC, who believed broadcasting had a mission to “educate, inform, entertain”: To bring people what they ought to know about, as well as what they wanted, in order that the one would gradually become the other. Reithian values are often now associated with a class-based cultural elitism, and are rather out of favor in a broadcasting environment that’s both more market-driven and better attuned to niche and popular culture. Peel could plainly be seen as Reithian, but strongly rejected the idea that he was an elitist.
He certainly wasn’t a populist– it’s a myth that Peel’s tastes were omnivorous, and he generally treated commercial pop as a circus, or a broad joke he could play straight man for. But for him elitism was a matter of perspective and style rather than taste: Reading his interviews, what he abhorred was the idea that taste could be a mark of superiority as well as individuality. As for style, Peel’s grew into a shambolic friendliness, embracing his mistakes and emphasizing his lovable domestic side– if he was an elitist, he was never condescending.
After Peel’s death there was a general assumption– not much discouraged by the BBC– that there could never be another broadcaster like him. His unassuming style, pretty much unique among British DJs, is surely part of the reason, but it’s also true that the wideband license Peel had to play anything he fancied was increasingly out of place on radio even before he died. The idea of Peel as unique, an inimitably great and generous public servant, keeps his memory alive but does his legacy no favors by suggesting his Reithian project can’t be continued.
The enemies of that project are easy to finger: They include marketers and pollsters like me, keen to help the BBC and its commercial competitors segment and identify sustainable audience subgroups. But that’s not the whole story: 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 last.fm 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. [From here]
As far as I’m concerned, it’s true that Peel’s unlimited remit would mean little to us today, but, at the time, he was everything to a lot of us. Moreover, I would contest the notion that he himself was difficult to listen to…just some of the stuff he played. But challenge he did, and I believe it’s not impossible for us to be challenged again in the same way.
Your comments, as always, are welcome. As fitting accompaniment, here’s proof in the pudding (at least partly) of what you’ve just read: My Bloody Valentine, To Here Knows When (FF 1991, #37).