John Peel’s Festive Fifty & Dandelion Radio

The death of John Peel in 2004 understandably hit all right-minded people hard. However, I’m probably in a very small minority in confessing to feeling more than a touch of annoyance, as well as an immeasurable sense of loss, at hearing the terrible news. Having discovered the joys of the BBC’s ‘Listen Again’ facility a few months earlier, it meant that I was once again tapping my toes to Japanese thrash and Belgian electro while at work.

I had been one of the multitude of ‘under the covers’ listeners to his shows in the late-seventies, progressing to become a ‘finger on the record-button’ regular, even catching him on World Service occasionally, but work and family had combined in recent years to downgrade me to the status of ‘very occasional listener’, not just to Peel but to new music in general. Having always intended to upgrade to more regular listening, my immense pleasure at returning to the fold was cut unsatisfactorily short. Having caught the bug again, I was then, like many others, left drifting in search of a reliable source of new music.

Up until music and I went our separate ways for a while, one of the highlights of my year was always the Festive Fifty; John Peel listeners’ annual chart of the year’s faves. The chart still went ahead that fateful year but it was all irritatingly wrong. Not only was Peel not there, obviously, but the stand-in presenter made the schoolboy error of announcing each record before it had been played; an absolute no-no for Peel. The following year, the BBC saw fit to ditch the chart and even their inevitably futile attempts at replacing the irreplaceable were abandoned.

It was some time later that I was Googling ‘Festive Fifty’ (as you do on a quiet day) when I made two fantastic discoveries. The first was a guy on eBay selling copies of every Festive Fifty, from the first to the last!

Three days later, two DVDs turned up with every track (bar one, which he couldn’t track down) from every chart (many of which were original recordings of John Peel shows). I spent an enjoyable few months catching up on music I’d missed out on during my hiatus and discovered some truly wonderful bands that had passed me by.

The second discovery was that something called ‘Dandelion Radio’ had been asked by the BBC to take over the Festive Fifty. Never having heard of it, I went to their website and started listening. Right from the start, it felt like coming home. Here were brand new bands playing weird and (sometimes) wonderful music. Here’s some hillbilly, some indie, some dub, some rave, some soul, some more indie, some noise, some blues, some reggae, some… actually, what the hell WAS that?!? Here were Northern middle-aged men enthusing over all types of music. Here also were old faves The Fall, Wedding Present, Half Man Half Biscuit and Melt Banana’s aforementioned Japanese thrash. Their ‘jingles’ (only used very sparingly so shows end on multiples of an hour) were by the likes of Ted Chippington, David Gedge and Bearsuit. There were even presenters who weren’t middle-aged or from the North and some who I strongly suspected weren’t even men and may or may not have had beards. It was wonderful. Well, some of it was. It really couldn’t live up to its claim of being ‘inspired by Peel’ without playing a fair amount of records that were probably best, to these ears, left unplayed.

A roster of DJs pre-record shows and these are looped so that it goes out continually. Each show has its own flavour, some of which I find more palatable than others. It’s taken a while but I can now get something from each of them, although some shows are definitely anticipated more than others…  Since discovering Dandelion, I always have a post-it next to me to jot down stuff that catches my ear. Being an old indie-kid, it’s often similar sounding records that make the list (there are a lot of groups that desperately want it to be 1986 again, which is fine with me) but I’ve been really surprised at how much other stuff I noted down that I wouldn’t have otherwise listened to.

Then again, that’s the true legacy of John Peel for me and I feel sure the old boy would approve wholeheartedly.

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