“We will celebrate the music of the century – starting on May 13th. Provided that we lose no programmes between that date and the end of the year, century, decade, etc.” (Peel’s note to his show script for 8 January 1999, as reported in Ken Garner’s ‘The Peel Sessions.’)
The needle hits the shellac, the soundclash between the surface and the metal produces the familiar hiss, crackle and spit of a lost generation or several. Until digital recording rid the world of surface noise for good, this is what we expected to hear as the background to our favourite music (unless you were a tape buff, and then you were enmeshed in a new world of wow, flutter, hiss and chew-ups). This sonic restriction becomes a familair friend on listening to John’s bold yet somewhat rash Peelenium project, which started on May 13 1999, eleven years ago now.
His intention was to distil each year, via a nominal four records and some historical context, into a fifteen-minute strand that was calculated to give listeners a new incentive to hear his show (as if any was needed), and which would ultimately give birth to that long-lasting matrimonial two-hander, the Pig’s Big 78.
Some argued that it was impossible to give an accurate portrait of certain years (i.e. 1976) from just four tracks, and yet I think he made a decent job of it. In fact, these recordings are some of the classics of British radio, reaching for the stars and failing, yet bringing incalculable illumination and enjoyment along the way.
Another niggle pointed out was that a true Peelenium would have started in the year 1000, but that missed the whole point. It was a bit of fun, a sprat to catch a mackerel, and above all it concentrated oin the originals, the recorded history of the century’s music, things which could still be heard today. And in the process (in which John was involved as much as we were, since a lot of the records he had never heard before), long forgotten voices made their presence felt once again.
The first Peelenium took us to a year in which the Labour party was fomed, the Second Boer War was raging, the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China, Queen Victoria was still on the throne (that was one bad case of diarrhoea), and the music reflected the preoccupations of the time. There were jingoistic calls to arms (Louis Bradfield’s ‘I Want To Be A Military Man’ and Arthur Christian’s ‘Soldiers Of The Queen’); typical music hall comedy (Gus Glen and ‘If It Wasn’t For The ‘Ouses In Between’, delivered in what must have been side-splittingly funny at the time Cockney badinage); and Peter Dawson’s sentimental ‘The Miner’s Dream Of Home’. As with all the items in this strand, Sheila (‘The Voice’) delivered the opening salvo in a strident Bradford twang, which mellowed as the series progressed, and JP read out the year’s headlines at the end.