Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thank You, John Peel

Many tributes and appreciations of the great British DJ John Peel are spread across the internet. Here's one more. Over his 30-year career at the BBC, he broke many new and unknown bands to a national audience. We were one of them. Our European tours and our succession of independent-label releases between 1987 and 1992 are largely due to the effect of this single individual. Without his advocacy of our first LP, probably none of those things would have come to pass, or certainly would have happened much differently. Here's the sequence of events:

In 1987, the CbJE had completed its first album, released on the Rochester label Earring Records. This came out a few months prior to my joining the group in the summer of '87. At that point, G. Elwyn Meixner and Bernie Heveron had left to pursue individual projects, so the band's sound was retooled to include horns—myself on clarinet and saxophone and John Ebert on trombone; Ken Frank came in on bass. The group had a thousand copies pressed (LP only), of which about a third were reserved for promos, to be sent to radio stations and record companies. Someone (maybe Phil or Ken remembers who, I don't) suggested to Chuck that an English DJ named John Peel might find our music attractive. So we plumped up the requisite international postage, and Chuck mailed a single copy of the LP to Britain, addressed to "John Peel, c/o the BBC."

A few weeks later, Chuck came home from work to find a fan letter from England in his mailbox, enthusing about the album. Peel had been playing several cuts from the album, including "The First Day of Spring," "A Different Bob," and (most importantly) "Considering a Move to Memphis." Over the next few weeks, more mail arrived, from all over Britain. Chuck had included his mailing address on the back of the album, but there was only the one copy in England at that time. So that meant that people were calling the BBC offices in London in order to get the address. Another Radio 1 DJ, Andy Kershaw, also began to play the album on his show, with strong audience response. Momentum gathered. Other radio hosts on the Beeb like Liz Kershaw began to play the album as well and the strong audience response continued. Peel never seemed to let up in his appreciation for the album, playing nearly every song that was on it. He didn't care that it was on a tiny private label, that it was unevenly recorded, or that there was no product in shops at the time. He just liked the record. Because of this, we had a national reputation in Great Britain before we even had American distribution.

Some time afterwards, we were contacted by Fundamental Records in Georgia about licensing the LP. This deal would also include English distribution through an outfit based in York called Red Rhino. Fundamental was a more or less known quantity in the States, then mainly notable for releasing Eugene Chadbourne onto an unsuspecting public. We went for it. Fundamental also issued the first LP on CD and cassette. As this was the beginning of the exciting new CD format, bonus tracks were a big deal. We added two songs that had just been recorded by the new group at Saxon Studios (see Phil's earlier posting on this Rochester institution), as it seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back now, those extra tracks don't seem to fit with the original set of songs.

In early 1988, my wife had to go to London on a business trip, and I tagged along. Mostly I knocked around London during the day and shopped for avant garde classical recordings, but I did take a train to York to contact the folks at Red Rhino about a tour. That adventure will require its own posting. The other thing I did was to call the BBC to ask to leave a message with Peel. I had no illusions about speaking to the great man myself, and I learned later that he generally tried to keep a bit of distance between himself and the artists he played. My call was transferred around the building for a bit and then a male voice suddenly came on the line; the most mellifluous "Hello" I'd ever heard. I explained that I was trying to reach John Peel's office in order to leave a message with him. The voice replied, "You've done even better, this is John Peel speaking!" We chatted briefly, and I ended the conversation by thanking him for all of the enthusiastic airplay that we'd received on his show. Ever gracious, he said, Well, thank YOU lads for making such a wonderful album."


Phillip Henry Marshall said...

As I remember it, Chuck had been pretty hip to John Peel for awhile. As with most things outside of my jurisdiction as guitar player, I had no idea who he was. Chuck used to love to relay how we had sent one copy to Peel on purely a whim.

Other Rochester bands who normally wouldn't have given us the time of day (that's another story) were calling him up asking him "How did you guys do that?" "Who do I send stuff to?" Chuck would graciously give them the information he had but inwardly he knew they had little chance of repeating our success.

The short and skinny of it is, the first Colorblind James Experience album is a classic; a masterpiece by misfits who didn't know any better; a collection of amateurly produced demos that somehow captured the very spirit Chuck tirelessly sought after live and in the studio.

As Robert Christgau put it, we were a band that wouldn't "change the world" who possessed a subtlety that "will piss some off and pass most by."

We were oddballs led by a viciously independent thinker/artist who captured the attention of England's sole viciously independent thinker/DJ. It had to be. We never got huge but we did the work that was put before us to do.

Tom said...

I went to see The Colorblind James Experience twice, on both occasions at the Adelphi in Hull in 1988 or 1989.
Those two gigs remain among the finest nights out I have ever had anywhere...I remember the band doing encore after encore (one of which was Hey Bernadette, which I had been bellowing for).
Fantastic times, and a terrific band which I remember very very fondly.

david d. mcintire said...

A couple responses to Phil's commments:

I completely agree that the first album does have an ineffable, classic quality that I don't think is matched by the later releases. I do think that 'Strange Sounds' comes close, as does 'The Rochester Sessions' disc that we recorded in 1991. 'Solid! Behind the Times' reaches some impressive heights as well, but it doesn't have that deft touch that makes the first one so pleasurable.

Our stance as independent thinkers was our great strength, but also a detriment to our career as recording artists. The first album made such a sharp impression, one that most listeners wanted to hear duplicated in subsequent releases. To really capture the breadth of Chuck's songwriting and the cinematic quality of the band, we probably should have made all our releases double albums or boxed sets.

Phillip Henry Marshall said...

As often as Chuck would sit in the dressing room before a show, relaxed with a beer in hand sighing "Let's cancel!", he would often ruminate about putting out a twelve CD box set and just "getting it over with".

There's no one out there with his sense of irony, wit and the absurd.

Anonymous said...

You still get plenty of radio airplay in the UK, fwiw. I've heard Considering a Move to Memphis on BBC Radio 6 more than once in the last couple of weeks.