Last week, The Space—a “freely-available digital arts service developed by Arts Council England in partnership with the BBC”—unveiled the first part of its massive John Peel project. Peel, who passed away in 2004 and whom you may know from his legendary Peel Sessions, early support of Napalm Death or writing the introduction to a book by some guy we happen to know, amassed a mind boggling collection of music over the years: 25,000 LPs, 40,000 singles and thousands of CDs. The Space has set out to share that wealth of tuneage with the world wide web by turning Peel’s one-of-a-kind stockpile into an interactive online museum.
The virtual exhibition, however, won’t contain every piece of plastic. Instead, each Tuesday, it will “only” display 100 records of bands whose names begin with that week’s letter of the alphabet, or a total of roughly 10% of his LPs by the time everyone’s favorite letter “Z” hits. At a minimum, each selection features an image of the front and back of the album sleeve along with Peel’s hand-typed card catalog entry. Some entries also include multimedia links to watch videos or listen to an albums on services like Soundcloud, Spotify or iTunes, or other assorted materials like handwritten notes to the DJ.
Given John’s eclectic music tastes and support of the music we love, we perused the “A” and “B” entries to point out some selections that may be of interest. “A” bands (albums) include Aardvark (Aardvark), The Abused (Songs Of Sex And Not Of Wars), Accidental Suicide (Deceased), The Accused (The Return of Martha Splatterhead; More Fun Than An Open Casket Funeral; Martha Splatterhead’s Maddest Stories Ever Told), Acid (Shock Troop), Acid Reign (Moshkinstein) and Active Minds (Welcome To The Slaughterhouse). “B” ballots include Belching Penguin (Draft Beer…Not Me), The Babies Three (A Hole Where My Heart Should Be), Babyland (You Suck Crap), Bad Beach (Cornucopia), Bad Brains (I Against I; Quickness; Black Dots) and Badgewearer (F.T.Q.; A Toy Gun In Safe Hands). There is a ton of other cool, perhaps non-Decibel-related, stuff in there as well. In fact, since much of Peel’s collection has been long forgotten, the whole experience reminded me of scouring Scott Seward’s similarly situated “Filthy 50″ list back in 2007.
In addition to virtually browsing his shelves, the archive also includes a small video and photo library, some sound clips related to his radio shows and links to listen to a plethora of Peel Session music. But most intriguing is a weekly documentary that covers a hand-picked artist from its respective alphabetic grouping. So far, each video (Mike Absalom and Babes In Toyland) has featured an introduction from John’s widow, Sheila Ravenscroft, and artist interviews. While we’d hope that the “N” choice is obvious, other possible extreme entries could include Carcass, The Jesus Lizard and Mogwai, each of which played at least two Peel Sessions back in the day.
Sure, the enterprise is not without flaws. Given copyright, licensing and bandwidth issues, it can’t simply record, upload and stream each record. The streaming services that the collection links to simply don’t have many of the chosen albums, and even when they do, some aren’t available in the United States. And background information about each artist and album is rather sparse, which makes sense since the obscurity of some picks renders even Google impotent.
But its perhaps that last weakness that is also the archive’s strong point. After all, it harkens back to the pre-internet days, where finding new music could be challenging and artist information was often limited to what could derive from sources like liner notes and print interviews. It also evokes the now extinct experience of going to a record store and flipping through albums. You may not know anything about Acid Mothers Today or Bachdenkel, but just their album covers might make you curious.
Yes, we’re being nostalgic and a bit crotchety, but given the overwhelming amount of information that’s now available at our fingertips, it’s refreshing to put a little work into finding an undiscovered treasure. He may have passed in an untimely and sudden manner, but nearly a decade later, this little corner of the internet makes clear that John Peel’s influence will not do the same.