10 Things We Learned From John Peel’s Online Record Collection

05/01/2012 2:30 PM |

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Today is the day that the English Arts Council’s The Space website began putting the historically epic record collection of late BBC DJ John Peel online for everyone to peruse. Slowly doled out from now until October, they will be putting up the first 100 records he’d filed under each letter of his alphabetical collection, with scanned album artwork, Peel’s personal file cards, and links to streaming music where available. Given that the entire collection includes over 25,000 vinyl LPs, 40,000 singles, and thousands of (presumably cracked-to-shit) CD jewel cases, this truncated taste is understandable. But even with only “A” available, and lots of supplementary goodies already embedded, we have already killed a frightening amount of time on it this morning and afternoon. Some initial impressions…

- This project is being carried out with the utmost integrity and respect.

From the heartfelt video intro by Peel’s widow Shelia Ravencroft to the web design emulating the shelf-browsing experience of every socially awkward record nerd at every party ever to the clickable front and back cover materials for each featured entry, every detail of this archiving is really top notch.

- The scope of this collection is pretty mind-boggling. (No doi.)

100 records into the “A” section only gets us to Adam Ant!

- The first 100 records of each letter limit is going to be kind of a bummer throughout the length of this project.

100 records into “A,” and seriously, we’re only at Adam Ant. How will I ever find out which Monochrome Set records he had???? While we understand and appreciate the time and care taken in digitizing just a fraction of these materials, we are human, and we can’t help hungering for more. Maybe just in text form?

- He was way more meticulously organized than you are.

iTunes does the majority of work alphabetizing and cross-referencing for most of you, but even those with vinyl collections outstripping the space available for them in a New York City apartment (you reach this limit within your first six months of record collecting, give or take) are probably not going to the trouble of hand-typing individual note cards to create a Dewey decimal for your discs, like Peel did. Alphabetical, sure. Cross referenced with a distinct catalog number? Bullshit. Prove it.

- An obsessive record collector’s work is never done.

Abyssinians – Arise is misfiled after Acceleradeck – Narcotic Beats. This is maybe the thing nagging him most in the afterlife?

- He actually wasn’t as much of a completist as you might have expected.

The only ABBA record he owned was Voulez-Vous? He didn’t make it to The Visitors, probably the weirdest, most Jon Peel-appropriate record they ever made??? Huh.

- Eclecticism in taste is not a post-Internet phenomenon.

From straight-up, three-chord punk to disco to blues to world music to Middle Eastern-inspired acid folk, Peel’s tastes were admirably varied in a time that was much more codified, much more Us. v. them. This will only become more apparent as more of the collection hits the web. (Grimes did not invent liking “everything.”)

- The well-organized links to the Peel Sessions recordings available on Spotify might be the site’s most valuable resource at this point.

All this spine browsing is fun, yeah, but Peel’s finest legacy is still probably the radio sessions he produced for decades’ worth of the best pop musicians in history. A lot of these have been released commercially (which is why they can be linked to streaming on Spotify), but a lot haven’t. There are blogs out there perpetually trying to get a handle on this stuff (here’s one), but nothing has come close to a categorical archive. The Space site doesn’t provide one yet either, but their limited attempt is lot easier to navigate and investigate as it’s set up than whatever a clumsy Spotify search for “Peel Sessions” will bring you. Which brings us to the next point…

- Spotify’s got a long way to go.

An informal tally finds 44 of these first 100 records with available links to streaming sites (mainly Spotify). Given the obscurity of much of this stuff, it’s fairly impressive, I guess. But it’s also a handy reminder of how far the service has to go before it’ll really be the one-stop repository for pop music that it’s already starting to have the reputation as.

It also highlights what a flawed vessel for discovery Spotify itself can be. It’s now only as good as the curiosity of its listener, or as good as another person’s recommendation to them. There aren’t enough, or sophisticated enough, means within the site itself at this point to truly guide listeners towards things they wouldn’t know to search out. The authority given to a forgotten band by their place among Peel’s record sleeves will probably spur more shot-in-the-dark listens than even a playlist sent by a close pal? (Taking matters into their own hands, the Peel Archive uploaded Mike Absalom’s bizarre 1969 folk album Save the Last Gherkin for Me! to SoundCloud themselves, and will hopefully be doing more of this going forward.)

(Also, and this is something that a premium account would alleviate, I know, but my morning listen to the 2002 Peel Session by glitchy-yet-organic Icelandic electronic band Múm was interrupted with an insanely annoying ad for Jason Mraz. So, their algorithm could be better targeted, to say the least.)

- Looking through a curated physical collection, even as a digital representation, is more fun and rewarding than scrolling down a list of digital files.

For now, and maybe forever.

One Comment

  • “It’s now only as good as the curiosity of its listener, or as good as another person’s recommendation to them.”

    Isn’t that frustrating? Spotify’s endless choices can be quite paralyzing. The apps they have now actually help significantly by bringing in branded curators, but yeah….