- (related article Record Collection)
One of the tribute articles which appeared after John Peel's death in 2004 was entitled John Peel, The Ultimate Record Collector. His collection is fascinating for its diversity, which reflected the breadth of his tastes and the fact that he was, unlike many DJs, a keen record-buyer from an early age. Peel wrote an article for Punch magazine (in the issue dated 16 January 1980) on record shops, which was reprinted in The Olivetti Chronicles (pp. 251-254). In it he describes his record-buying "habit" and various kinds of record shops he had frequented. He mentions the first record shops he visited; as a schoolboy he would listen to records in the basement of Wildings of Shrewsbury (the "dear, dead days of the mid-1950s" being "the Golden Age of the listening booth"), while the first record he bought, Ray Martin and his Concert Orchestra's "Blue Tango", came from Crane's of Liverpool, which he describes as being a furniture and musical instrument shop with a record department - like many similar shops of the era.
During his National Service he got into debt by buying blues LPs imported from France, according to his remarks on his first appearance on WRR's Kat's Karavan show. In Margrave Of The Marshes he claims that he was invited to appear on the show because he owned the Lightnin' Hopkins LP The Rooster Crowed in England, released in 1959 on the 77 record label run by Doug Dobell of Dobell's Record Shop at 77 Charing Cross Road. It is not known whether Peel obtained the LP on a visit to the London shop or by mail order, but at that time, only a few specialist record shops stocked the blues (and traditional jazz) records he sought out.
After his move to the USA he continued to add to his collection, but information on his record-buying activity there is scarce. At one point he became a member of the mail-order Columbia Record Club, from whom, according to Sheila Ravenscroft in Margrave Of The Marshes (p.204), he ordered jazz LPs by the groups of Dave Brubeck and Shelly Manne, in a vain attempt at sophistication. More typical of his tastes were the rare blues and R&B singles he bought from a second-hand shop in the celebrated "Deep Ellum" (Deep Elm) district of Dallas, but he reports (Margrave Of The Marshes, p.150) that these vanished after he had left behind his record collection to return to England in early 1967; they were presumably not included in the collection he eventually managed to have shipped from California in 1969 (on the show of 27 July 1969, he mentioned that his collection had been held in Customs for a month).
The late 1960s
When Peel returned to Britain in 1967, record shops in Britain were beginning to change, reflecting not only the dominance of the teenage market but the growing interest is specialist genres of music. Some shops had begun to import records from the USA, initially blues and soul releases, but as "West Coast" psychedelic music began to arouse interest, a few became known as outlets for LPs not yet released in the UK - and as record companies were slow to respond to the new trend, were able to increase their business by branching out into mail order sales. The two most important shops of this kind were both in London; Musicland in Berwick Street and One Stop in South Molton Street, and Peel became a regular customer of both. Peel mentioned them in his columns in International Times and occasionally on-air, including hidden plugs for One Stop Records on the Top Gears of 31 December 1967 and 11 August 1968. At the same time he continued to visit specialist blues and jazz shops, including Chris Wellard's Jazz and Blues Shop of New Cross, where, as he tells us in International Times, he found LPs by his lifetime favourite John Fahey, and Collet's folk and jazz record shop in New Oxford Street - one of the first shops to stock a broad selection of world music. Not that he restricted his record hunting to fashionable or specialist shops, taking the chance to visit The Diskery while visiting Birmingham, as he points out on the Top Gear of 27 July 1969.
The 1970s; from Virgin to Rough Trade
The LP market grew dramatically in the late '60s, taking mainstream record shops by surprise. London import shops were out of reach to most record buyers, so mail order outlets were often the only way those living far from the capital could obtain the albums they wanted. The most successful of these was Virgin Records, whose full-page ads in Melody Maker at the start of the 1970s offered both imported LPs and British releases, concentrating on the records readers of the MM and listeners to Peel's shows would be interested in and selling them more cheaply than the competition. Soon afterwards Virgin record shops opened in most major British cities, with founder Richard Branson cultivating the image of a "hippy capitalist" and releasing material by artists Peel favoured, such as Henry Cow, Tangerine Dream, Ivor Cutler, Robert Wyatt - and Mike Oldfield, with his hugely successful Tubular Bells.
Not surprisingly, Peel developed a friendly relationship with Virgin that continued when the label switched its focus from post-hippy experimentalism to punk - even recording a series of special shows for playing in Virgin stores - but he still did not limit his record searches to one kind of shop. In a 1975 Sounds column, reprinted in The Olivetti Chronicles, Peel describes how he paid a weekly visit to Intone Records of Peckham Rye, "where I spend far too much money on reggae records" (p. 212). He also mentions Black Wax of Streatham, a source of "exotic American soul singles" (p.213) - and gives the full postal addresses of both shops to encourage his readers to order from them.
The success of Virgin in the 1970s led to competition from other record shop chains, notably HMV, who had been heavily criticised for being behjind the times in a 1969 survey of London record shops in International Times but modernised their business, opening stores in many British towns and cities. As a result of the success of Virgin and HMV, some traditional local record retailers went out of business, but many specialist shops opened due to the continuing boom in album sales and the easy availability of second-hand LPs and deleted stock - commercially unsuccessful LPs not remaining in record company catalogues for very long.
The latter kind of store represented a move away from an increasingly corporate record business, and it was one Peel welcomed, yet when he obtained a copy of the first Ramones LP, a key moment in his move towards punk and short, snappy singles rather than long LP tracks, it was the Virgin shop at Marble Arch, rather than a small specialist retailer, which supplied him with the album. Although Virgin was later to sign the Sex Pistols, Magazine and The Ruts, among others, the punk ethos included a mistrust of mainstream labels, with many artists preferring to record, press and sell their own singles, rather than waiting for a call from a big record company. Because plays on Peel's shows could lead to listener enquiries and healthy sales, these do-it-yourself productions sometimes found it difficult to cope with demand and so record outlets emerged, notably those of Rough Trade, which begun as a community-based record shop, moved into a distribution network for punk fanzines and small independent labels, and eventually became a record company in its own right. Rough Trade-supported "product" featured heavily in Peel's playlists of the punk and post-punk eras.
"Sordid basements" and record shop trawls
Like many collectors, Peel looked for records wherever they could be found, mentioning in his tribute to Marc Bolan in Sounds (September 1977; extract reprinted in Margrave Of The Marshes, p.239) that "Marc and I spent too much time and too much money searching for old rock'n'roll singles in junk shops in South London" and in his Punch article of 1980 describes the atmosphere and clientele of the "minuscule specialist shops" he then frequented - "the sordid basement, stalls and tiny shops...where a savage delight is taken in not stocking any record which may be had of W.H. Smith's" (The Olivetti Chronicles, p. 253). In that same year he informed his listeners (on 31 October) that he had obtained a rare LP issued during his time in the USA, "I See The Light", by the Five Americans, from the long-lasting mail order specialists, Cob Records of Porthmadog, North Wales.
On his overseas trips he also visited whatever record shops were in the vicinity; he was a regular customer of some shops in the Netherlands and Germany and even came back from a family holiday in Egypt with a selection of records from shops in Cairo, as Sheila Ravenscroft recounts in Margrave Of The Marshes (p.289). When he was in London to host his later shows, she tells us (p.324) he would "trawl the Soho record shops" during his free afternoons - including Black Market Records, who supplied him with grime records and showed respect for his reputation (p.374). With his colleague Andy Kershaw he would visit Sterns Record Shop to obtain new recordings of African music, which later appeared in his playlists.
In a discussion between Mark Ellen, Sheila Ravenscroft, Andy Kershaw and Clive Selwood, published in the November 2005 issue of Word magazine to commemorate the first anniversary of Peel's death, Selwood commented that, as Peel's manager, he felt he had to keep the DJ busy - if not, then Peel would damage his finances by spending his money liberally in record shops. But Peel's death was also commemorated by the record shops whose sales he had boosted by enthusing over so many artists during his long career. After his passing had been made public, HMV held a minute's silence in their stores, while Virgin, perhaps more appropriately, played his all-time favourite, The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks".