Arts Column: John Peel’s online archive might have baffled the DJ himself

A PIECE of music news this week that sums Britain up in a nutshell – John Peel’s record collection is being put online for all to enjoy.

There you have it, in a single headline, our national love of the unusual (Monty Python, Narnia and bands called crazy things like Walter Ghoul’s Lavender Brigade) and the familiar (breakfast tea, the Ford Focus and bearded DJs with recognisable accents).

Since Tuesday, Peel fans have been able to explore the contents of the Wirral-born DJ’s vast archive.

Details of 100 albums are being added each week until October as part of a digital arts project run by the BBC and the Arts Council. And in a vehemently structured fashion, they are being uploaded to the site in alphabetical order by artist. So this week we’ve got the letter A – starting with Mike Absalom, who once described Peel as “the musical Maypole around which we all danced”.

There on the virtual shelf is his second album, Save the Last Gerkin For Me, released by the Saydisc label in 1969, which contains the songs The Actress The Bishop and Me, Devonshire Mushrooms, On the Train to Huddersfield and Laura the Leg – a number I’m relieved never to have heard of until now, having already had to put up with countless, and usually deeply embarrassing, renditions of Tell Laura I Love her throughout my life.

Alongside the cover of Absalom’s LP (one of those typical 60s ones showing the singer looking beardy with an acoustic guitar) is a typewritten index card listing the tracks. Then you can flick the shelf past two more of his albums before landing on In Search of Ancient Gods by Absolute Elsewhere (“An experience in sound and music based on the books of Erich von Daniken”), The Abused’s Songs Of Sex And Not Of Wars (accompanied by an illustration that makes a chastity belt look welcoming) and finally Adam and the Ants’s Dirk Wears White Socks.

Currently, if you click on any letter other than A you are taken to an empty shelf, with a message saying when it will be filled.

The website (www.thespace.org) is nicely done – simple but fun – and, as well as the music, features personal notes, home movies, including footage from Peel’s 50th birthday, and archive performances.

Its very existence would probably have bewildered Peel, whose technophobic tendencies sometimes left his Radio 1 fans listening to dead air. But exploring the site is as much of an adventure as listening to his radio show was – you never quite know what you’ll stumble on.

It follows another BBC and Arts Council collaboration, Your Paintings, which was launched earlier this year to encourage the public to find our more about the national collection.

After all, these are works of art that, technically, belong to each of us. They are owned by the nation and our taxes go some way to paying for their storage, upkeep and the galleries that display them.

So far, more than 125,000 works have been added to the database, which you can search by artist or by the institution they belong to. There are 2,253 paintings from the Walker Art Gallery’s collection here in Liverpool – most of which are not on display so this is currently your only way to see them.

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