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John Peel and Sheila - John Peel And Sheila: The Pig's Big 78s: A Beginner's Guide

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Artist: John Peel and Sheila

Album: John Peel And Sheila: The Pig's Big 78s: A Beginner's Guide

Label: Trikont

Review date: May. 25, 2007

John Peel was an enigma to contemporary music. A cultural icon, earth-shattering disc jockey, mover of the people, patron saint of unheard music, changing forever unassuming musicians’ pathways with his relentless weekly Peel Sessions BBC radio show; a pariah, on a plane of his own, not a recording artist nor purely a listener, but one who selflessly poured his being into the airwaves.

My friends have a knack for playing disc jockey while in the sanctuary of one another’s homes, kneeling at the alter of a stereo system, a stack of albums that made the transit across town specifically to emotively “move” those within range, sacrificing time for some galactic otherworldly experience. We all hope for transcendence on the part of our beloved listener. DJing is, for the music collector, a form of expression. John Peel was one a pioneer to music collectors. When Peel was attending an English boarding school, a foretelling note was sent home: “Perhaps it's possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records.”

Peel and his wife, Sheila, began collecting 78 RPM records early on when they stumbled upon several small empires of abandoned collections. The nostalgia and innocence of the 78s era drew out uncommon sounds, some of which are forever dated, some far enough in obscurity to surpass timeliness. The recordings, spanning from 1908 to 1955, obviously preceded what we currently regard commercial radio, conniving record labels and, to an extent, stardom – music recordings purely available to preserve talent, not yet with the potential of moneymaker. It was this purity that attracted Peel and Sheila. During the years leading up to the millennium, the Peels played a different 78 each week from each year of the 20th century. According to Sheila, they never previewed the material more than 15 minutes prior to the beginning of each radio show.

Much of the 78s found were bunk, comedy that no longer resonated for example (not only did it not resonate, but it was entirely baffling material). A fantastic showcase is Mr. Billy Williams performing “John, John, Put Your Trousers On,” which leads one to assume an intensely dated sense of humor permeating popular culture at the turn of the 20th century. Also, a dainty track by comedian Albert Whelan titled “Pass! Shoot! Goal!!!” was an obvious dedication, and in colorful communal abandon, to Peel’s second obsession: football. Peel often picked out records with striking band names or song titles (one featured on this compilation is The Seven ‘Hot’ Air Men). Also, Peel chose a few tracks that led the listener to believe she was part of a talent show’s audience, with the whistling and yodeling and impressionists. One song is a mesh of several tunes (one I classified as “My Old Kentucky Home”) that the English newspaper The Daily Mail would playfully release and title a Mystery Record, the track titled, “£ 1950 for naming the artists.” Obviously a gimmick, the material is far too experimental for widespread tabloids of our day to even consider.

Beyond the comedy and vocal impressionists, the musical numbers are mostly romantic, roots or upbeat (and a few combinations of the three). Peel’s musical preferences were indiscernible, his pulse buried deep in cosmic taste, reveling in discovery. His fascination with blues, Dixieland jazz, pre-war country, brass bands, and classical aided his ear, unclassifiable genius in scope and repertoire. Peel wore large shoes in the sway of music history, and, ironically, was never much of a musician. But I suppose it does not take a musician to necessarily know good music; rather all it requires is emotions and a good set of ears. Peel superseded this, though; he went beyond knowing good music. He searched every echo chamber and cavern, every dusty record store, every rustic flea market he could find. His mission: to deliver to others the newborn era of music. The Pig’s Big 78s: A Beginner’s Guide is a roadmap for the rest of us, guidelines to gleeful unearthing, that which is at the heart of mankind.

By Kate Hensley

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