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."