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Flipping digitally through John Peel's record collection

May 3, 2012 |  2:21 pm

In the end, isn't this what everyone who's ever collected anything wants: to have the world see what they did with their lives, what great taste they had, and how responsibly they cared for their possessions? If so, English DJ John Peel, whose BBC program was one of the most important and innovative popular music shows on British radio for nearly four decades, is living the dream from the great beyond.

After he died in 2004, Peel's voluminous record collection was left intact, and it is now being cataloged and displayed online as part of a far-reaching archival project called the Space, funded by the BBC and the British Arts Council. As part of the John Peel Archive, a chunk of Peel's roughly 25,000-piece vinyl obsession is being gradually revealed one alphabetical letter at a time in a section called Peel's Record Shelf. The unveiling could bring a better understanding of not only the music that he liked but also how an old-school curator did his job and cataloged his tunes before the drag-and-drop world of MP3s miniaturized music into data crumbs. 

For geeks interested in music, the chance to compare notes on -- and judge -- another person's collection, to flip through each piece one by one and absorb the information, inspires a certain giddiness, especially when that person's aesthetic, knowledge and curatorial skills are as fascinating as Peel's.

The first hundred records in the A section were uploaded this week, and they proved to be a combination of classics, one-hit wonders, private press curios and some bafflers that, like any true obsessive, he probably hadn't listened to in years. So what's in there so far? 

Honestly, to peruse the first batch -- The A's through Adam and the Ants -- is to wonder about what's to come, because this isn't nearly a big enough sampling to make any sort of snobby judgments, note any glaring omissions or wonder what the hell Peel was thinking. After all, one of the world's most famous DJs is going to have ABBA records, and as an avowed reggae fan, he'd have held onto his Abyssinians albums. As someone who was down with the New York post-rock/no wave movement of the '80s, Peel's affection for the Action Swingers' underappreciated albums is pretty cool -- but he was playing those records when they were coming out, so of course he'd hold onto them.

As the weeks and months progress and the collection continues to be revealed -- the first 100 records from each letter of the alphabet -- more evidence of his passions and oversights will no doubt show (though everyone who ever caught his show knew that he never held back on his opinions). 

The suspense will no doubt build: Which Black Flag albums did he keep? Did he have any Clash acetates? How many albums by his favorite band, the Fall, did he have?

For some of us, a new ritual is going to be checking in weekly to see what's up. And for a select few others of us, we now have a new stipulation to add to our will: The collection is to remain intact, and to be published as an online archive within a year of death. How else will others know of our secret passion for early Boogie Down Productions 12-inches, and mad obsession with both the Flying Lizards and the Lounge Lizards?

Oh, and it's worth noting that Peel didn't have any Roy Acuff records. What kind of collector doesn't have any Acuff records!? Oh wait. Yes he does. Never mind. Nice one.


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-- Randall Roberts @liledit

 Photo: Screen shot of Peel's Record Shelf. Credit: thespace.org.