As we head into the time of year at which the Festive Fifty was unveiled, thoughts turn to our old Uncle John. Actually he’s never far from my thoughts – all sorts of associations trigger his memory. The thread of Peel’s influence is stitched throughout five decades of popular music’s development, after all. In all the emotion surrounding Terry Wogan’s semi-retirement this week – as far as I have heard or seen – no-one has thought to make the connection between two of the Corporation’s greatest broadcasters, especially in terms of the connection with listening publics. I imagine Terry spent a fair portion of time responding off-air to letters from listeners. John certainly did. The letter I received from him in about 1985 is a treasured possession. It’s the one I mention it in this piece, written shortly after his death in 2004.
The two groups whose contact details I was after were Sudden Sway and the Popticians. I was intending to interview them for my first fanzine. It never happened, because – possibly even before I received a reply from John – Creation Records had become the centre of my musical world. Having grown up in NHGs – National Health Glasses – I was a sucker for John Hegley’s poems and songs about spectacles and bullying. He would have been easy to interview. Heaven knows what I would have asked Sudden Sway, whose conceptual approach to music remains unique. I think I understood what they were up to, but I seriously doubt that at the time I could have elucidated it in the form of questions.
I never routinely voted for my three favourite tracks of the year, but here’s one I do remember voting for in 1985, alongside ‘What’s happening’ by the Jasmine Minks and a third now forgotten song. Big Flame’s ‘Debra’ remains a favourite, its conjunction of world and personal politics, wild abandon, tight structure and lo-fi hiss rarely if ever surpassed. Of course as a flipside it failed to make the Festive Fifty, though the lead song from the Rigour EP, ‘Man of few syllables’ was an unbroadcasted number 62 and the group’s subsequent A side ‘All the Irish (must go to heaven)’ pushed to 58. Minority tastes even then.