John Peel's Music Collection Of A Lifetime

The vast music collection of legendary DJ John Peel gets a new virtual life
  • Photo: Eamonn McCabe/Redferns
    John Peel
  • Photo: Andy Abbott
    John Peel browsing his album collection
  • Photo: David Gutteridge
    A shelf from John Peel's album collection
May 17, 2012 -- 5:31 pm PDT
By J. Poet / GRAMMY.com

The late Englishman John Peel is one of the most influential DJs in the history of music. He got his start spinning records on the pirate station Radio London in 1967 and his eclectic taste and antiestablishment ethos continued as his trademark even after he began working for the BBC's pop channel, Radio 1. Peel's shows were a mix of music, interviews, poetry readings, his own confessional banter, and legendary live in-studio performances — dubbed the Peel Sessions. His support of underground music made his radio shows immensely popular with young musicians, poets and artists alike. Billy Bragg, Marc Bolan, U2, Bridget St. John, and the Fall, among other artists, received early national exposure on Peel's programs. When he died suddenly of a heart attack on Oct. 25, 2004, at age 65, the music industry lost a great champion.

Peel lives on today through the immense collection of recorded music he left behind, estimated at 25,000 LPs, 40,000 singles, thousands of CDs, home movies, and an enormous archive of notes about the music he played. In an effort to preserve his impressive collection and ensure his legacy, Peel's wife, Sheila Ravenscroft, helped create the John Peel Centre for Creative Arts.

"The John Peel Centre is in an old Victorian corn exchange," says Tom Barker, director of the Peel Centre for Creative Arts. "It has a [live performance space with a] capacity of 220 people. The building was derelict when we took it over in 2010 and we have opened it in stages to allow events to take place and build momentum for the project."

The center sponsors concerts featuring the kind of eclectic acts Peel would have sanctioned. Its goal is to provide a lasting tribute to Peel's life and career and create a high-quality, community-owned arts center in the heart of Suffolk, England.

Part of the project is to ensure the preservation of Peel's collection and provide public access to its archived contents. To that end, the center has partnered with Eye Film & TV and software developers Klik to create an interactive online archive of Peel's music collection. This initiative is being funded by Arts Council England as part of a new Arts Council and BBC digital arts channel called the Space [link to www.thespace.org]. The Space features 53 arts projects, including the Peel archive. The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts is seeking funding to ensure that the entire collection can eventually be made public. Klik built, designed and now maintains Peel's virtual space. They are working with Ravenscroft to get the albums out of the collection, photographed and onto the virtual shelves.

"We want to make it as personal as possible, so we created two 'rooms,'" says Charlie Gauvain, managing director of Eye Film &TV. "The first is John's studio, photographed as it is today, although it is barely changed from when John actually produced his radio program there. You can look around and click on highlighted items. An old film canister will lead you to the video content and home movies. His desk leads to recordings of the Peel Sessions, through links on Spotify. The radio leads to radio clips of [his show] and weekly podcasts from Radio 1, which are being made available to us [by the BBC] and a link to his record collection."

The project is releasing some of the contents of Peel's vast collection for the first time (at a pace of 100 albums a week for 26 weeks), along with specially created videos of key artists, videos Peel filmed, Peel Sessions installments, a blog, and photos.

"Each week from May 1 to Oct. 31, we'll be putting up links to 100 albums, in alphabetical order," says Gauvain. "Each shelf you come to has a picture of John's actual records. You can use your mouse to browse over their spines and bring up details about the album. This includes every index card that John had typed out, pictures of the front and back cover, links to the music on Spotify or iTunes and to video content, if there is any. Each week, there is an artist to represent a letter, selected by John's wife and his son William. We then produce a short film about that artist, with new interview material.

"We're working with Spotify to make as many of the records available as possible. Due to copyright issues, we did not have the capacity or desire to digitalize the records ourselves and then make them available. However, long term, we are looking at different options. We do want people to be able to hear the collection."

The artwork of each album will be scanned and put online by Klik. There will also be access to the BBC Radio archive of the Peel Sessions. The center has possession of 200 Peel Sessions, but they believe that there are more than 2,000 Peel Sessions extant, including performances by artists such as 3 Mustaphas 3, AC/DC, Bonzo Dog Band, My Bloody Valentine, Márta Sebestyén, and XTC.

To help build suspense and entice visitors back to the website, the details of each week's installment will not be released until the albums appear online. Barker and Gauvain are hoping this will spark conversations on networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, and Pinterest. Peel's actual physical collection remains with his family, with the ultimate hope that it will end up somewhere like the British Museum.

"[John] really did want it to stay as a collection," Ravenscroft told The Guardian earlier this month. "I don't know what should happen, the whole logistics of it. But the one thing I do feel is that it shouldn't be gathering dust in our home."

(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)

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