Peel’s very first Festive Fifty was intended to be an all-time chart, and would continue in this vein until the big changeover of 82. The first thing to note about it is that it is not representative of the year in question, as was amply demonstrated by the noble Adam on Fades In Slowly and his own chart for that year, which would possibly have included material by David Soul, ELO and Joan Armatrading if it had been a true reflection of what people really liked. John undoubtedly wanted his listeners to agree with him in that the best songs were being made here and now, not in a time frame stretching back to his first years on Radio London and then Radio 1. However, the simple fact of the matter is that, as Sheila, John’s widow, pointed out, his listeners were not quite ready to hack off their hair and burn all their old albums just yet (even Peel himself admitted it was all about the music and how ridiculous it would be for a 37 year-old man to follow that path of fashion), and probably felt, in a maternal way, that punk was a ‘phase’ John would grow out of, just as they no doubt did when he started to play reggae.
The other noteworthy misconception is that the chart included just one nod to punk in the shape of Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner (FF 1976 #33). I suspect that this idea came about as a result of the Sex Pistols’ shambolic cover version, a demo released three years after the fact, on The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle. If it was such a punk anthem, it seems incongruous that Rotten needed Steve Jones to shout the lyrics to him. The truth is that Richman was a rock’n’roll troubadour in the tradition first and foremost of Dylan, who to my mind was the one who proved you didn’t need to have the vocal talents of Mario Lanza to make great music that spoke to a wide audience. The other influence, of course, was the Velvets, and one can hear the two-chord spectre of three-chord Sister Ray in the background to this. But they were not punk: they were the dark flipside of psychedelica. Richman had seen them many times, and wrote Roadrunner as a homage to their soundworld in 1970. Getting John Cale to act on production two years later cemented the connection, but the song would not see the light for years to come.
Richman takes a rock cliche that would not have sounded out of place on a Bruce Springsteen album and invests it with a naive wonder that elevates the constant Boston area name-dropping above its rather mundane genesis. It is a paean to beauty found in the ordinary, and Jonathan’s subsequent work would elaborate on this. There was no subversiveness, no exhortation to anarchy, no desire to smash the system, merely a crystallisation of a moment or few in time, and the joy of being young, which is the fountainhead of rock’n’roll itself. For punks to find anything to ally themselves with in this was strange, but they did, and the song still bears comparison with anything from rock’s epochal past.
Jonathan Richman, Roadrunner