Mark Whitby, long running DJ at the peerless Dandelion Radio, is also the author of the definitive book about the year ending listener voted for end of year jamboree on the “The John Peel Wing Ding”.
The book has just be updated and reissued to include details about the Dandelion Radio years – the station which endeavours to carry on the good work John Peel started by introducing listeners to bands they never knew they liked or, in most cases, even knew they existed at all!
Being as we’re both fans of John Peel and Dandelion Radio – and not to mention that Mark (in the name of full disclosure) actually writes for us – we thought it made sense to shoot a few questions over to him about the book, which can be picked up for the bargain price of £7.99 in paperback at Amazon.
Louder Than War: When did you write the first festive fifty book – and what was the original goal when you began writing it?
Mark Whitby: I began trying to put something together way back in the eighties, before shelving it and revisiting the project periodically without, I suppose, any serious intention of ever completing it. I finally started to focus properly on it after listening to the all-time chart Peel put together at the end of 1999 and worked regularly on it from that point. I’m not entirely sure why that was so significant but for some reason it gave me the kick I needed. I suppose the goal was simply to put an obsession on paper and I hoped some people might be interested in reading about it. I don’t tend to have fleeting interests in things – for me it’s either obsession or nothing and when I start one I tend to follow it as far as it will go.
Did that change at all while you were writing of it?
The details changed quite a bit during its long evolution, but the central goal remained the same. I suppose as it went on it became as much about the bands who’d appeared in it as the chart itself. Although there are many, many fine bands that never appeared in a festive fifty, there are also many who did appear and who have been largely airbrushed out of history. So I wanted to record their existence on paper as much as I wanted to document the history of the chart, I suppose.
The book would be pretty short if was just a list of the charts so how was it “padded out” (in the nicest sense of the words!)
Yes, there wouldn’t have seemed much point doing that, to be honest, as the charts themselves can be found very easily on the internet these days. That’s why I wanted to produce as many relevant statistics and records as I could as well as provide line-up information, comment on the content of the charts and so on. It was important to try to add something to what already existed.
Coming forward to the re-write, it now includes all the Dandelion Radio festive 50s, why did you feel it important to add them and is the book different in any other ways?
That was really the main reason for updating the book. Every year we put the festive fifty out I get people asking me if I’m going to update it and ten years after the first edition seemed an appropriate time to do it. Judging by the messages I get, the chart still means a lot to people. In terms of differences, I’ve actually taken some of the more peripheral statistics out of the second edition because I thought some of it was a bit ridiculous, to be honest. In this book I’ve also given more detailed commentary on each year, to give a bit of context and more information on the actual broadcasts. There were also some frankly embarrassing errors and oversights in the first edition that I’ve taken the opportunity to correct, although I’m sure, given the scale of the project, others will have sprung up and people will let me know about them.
I know there’s been a bit of friction across the Dandelion Radio team as to whether the station should maintain the tradition (much like there was in John Peel’s own head over the years of course) – you’re clearly in the pro-festive fifty camp, what are your arguments for that?
The Festive Fifty remains the most popular thing we do as a station. Certainly among those who originally started Dandelion (I joined as a DJ about a year after it started) there has never been any question that the station would carry on with the chart. Firstly, Dandelion was asked to do that by Peel’s former production team so there’s a certain responsibility to fulfill and, secondly and most importantly, a lot of listeners clearly want us to do it. One of the great things about the radio station is we can have our own attitudes and essentially do what the hell we like. If we do something collectively, no one is under any obligation to join in. For me and the majority of my colleagues doing what the hell we like includes putting out the Festive Fifty. I think, also, had I been a listener to Dandelion (as I was from the very first broadcasts), I’d have been pretty disappointed had they had the opportunity to continue the chart and not done so – I suspect many other former Peel listeners would have felt the same way.
I know Peel raised some periodic concerns about the charts and their content in certain years, but he praised quite a few of them too and I’ve tried to get some balanced comment about that into the revised edition. I mean, in 1978 he said that the top end of the chart pretty much reflected his own tastes and in 1995 he praised the chart pretty much all the way through. Reading between the lines, I felt he always liked the idea of the chart, but was inevitably disappointed when it didn’t meet his expectations in terms of diversity.
We like the “curious facts” and “surprising stats” we found in the book – what are some of your personal favourites?
If I don’t sound like a complete anorak already … I’ve got to admit I like checking every year to see whether any individuals have managed to enter the ‘most entries with different bands’ section. Currently, Mark E. Smith and Amelia Fletcher are tied at the top on six entries in that list, with Rob Pursey close behind on five. I also like ‘longest period of waiting for a festive fifty entry’: in the new edition the top two have entered that list in only the last few years. And of course seeing whether anything new can squeeze into the top twenty longest tracks is a particular passion of mine in the month of December.
Have you a favourite festive fifty? Assuming so can you chose your favourite from the Peel era and your favourite from the Dandelion Radio era?
My favourite from the Peel era was 1983. Although I’d started listening to Peel in 1978, it was the 1983 chart that really cemented my fascination with the festive fifty and it remains my favourite to this day. Easily the best top ten and there are so many highlights throughout the chart: Red Guitars, Xmal Deutschland, The Chameleons, Redskins – and that Strawberry Switchblade track that snuck in at the bottom end was a massive favourite at the time.
In the Dandelion years, I thought the 2009 chart was really good, although I wasn’t a big fan of the number one, but I think the 2013 chart trumped it, despite the blemish of that David Bowie entry, which was happily quickly dismissed by the appearances of Fuck Buttons and JD Meatyard in the top six.
Something I find a bit disappointing about the festive fifty is how a lot of people who never got to listen to the great man’s show live are being introduced to him / them via festive fifty’s which, generally speaking, are totally unrepresentative of his shows. Do you agree? And does the book help square that circle? By which I mean, does it go any way to pointing out that Peel’s shows were considerably more wide reaching music wise?
I agree and, no, it doesn’t really square the circle and I don’t think it can, to be honest. The Peel shows were of course wonderfully diverse and this was never represented by festive fifties. To get a sense of that, people need to get involved with the Peel Yahoo Group, the members of which do tremendous work preserving his legacy, doing far more collectively than a single person ever could. My book is about the festive fifty and I would never claim that it gives any more than a glimpse into that world. It scratches the surface and I do hope it encourages people, such as those too young to have caught the shows the first time round, to go deeper.
Was anyone else involved in the making of the book and how long did both editions take to write?
I asked a few of my Dandelion colleagues to fill in some gaps for me and, as usual, they did sterling work and there were many suggestions from readers of the first edition that I noted and took on board. Revising this edition took me about eighteen months. The other one, once I got cracking on it in the early part of 2000, took over four years of working on it on and off. It was completed long before it came out in 2005 but in October 2004, of course, John Peel passed away and I held off from putting the book out because I didn’t want people to think it was a cash-in. I’d actually sent him a copy of the book to make him aware of what I was doing and hopefully get his approval. I assume, sadly, that he never got a chance to see it.
How well was the first book received in general – had you expectations of how it’d sell beforehand and what the reactions to it would be? Did it outstrip them or the vice-versa?
It probably did about as well as I expected sales-wise, but I got far more out of it than that. It brought me into contact with a lot of people, bands or Peel listeners or both, who are among the most interesting and warm-hearted I’ve ever met. Reactions were very positive, although there were several people who sent me long e-mails about errors I’d made (not always correctly, I should add) and things I should have said in the book but didn’t. But I hope I took that in the right spirit: it just confirmed there were others in the world as obsessed about detail as me, and some even more so, which was a revelation.
Are there any conclusions you can draw about how festive fifty voters changed over the years and are there any differences you think in general between the voters during the Peel era and the voters during the Dandelion Radio era?
That’s very hard to answer succinctly because I think there have been changes going on throughout the chart’s existence. Obviously, the late seventies were dominated by punk tunes. Notoriously, the mid-to-late eighties were very indie-dominated, something which Peel found disquieting and I think there was a healthy change that brought more acceptance of diversity during the nineties.
It’s hard, without the benefit of much of a historical perspective, to comment much on the Dandelion years, but I think there’s a perhaps understandable nostalgic element to it, which has meant that much-loved ‘Peel bands’ like Beatnik Filmstars and The Nightingales, who strangely never appeared in the chart during the Peel years, have gained multiple entries in the Dandelion charts. Obviously given the changes that have happened in music in recent years, it’s perhaps inevitable that there are more self-released tracks in there nowadays too. I suspect that would have happened anyway.
Have you any other Peel or music related books in the pipeline?
Not Peel-related, but I’d like to put together a book on Christmas-themed tunes, an all too often overlooked area for great music. People think Bing Crosby and Cliff Richard, but every year some great Xmas tunes and compilations put out and I’d like to chronicle the history of off-the-wall, bizarre and just downright excellent seasonal tunes. However, it’s having the time to do it – I’m terrible for having far too many projects in my head that I’ll never be able to follow up on.
How long do you think the festive fifty will go on?
Well, for as long as I’m around, at least. It’s very unlikely that Dandelion will ever give up hosting the chart but, should something appalling happen and Dandelion cease to exist, I’d do whatever I could to keep it going.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just to say that I’ve had a lot of enquires about the book being available in other digital formats. You can get it on Kindle at the moment (damn cheaply, too), but it should be available elsewhere by the end of September and hopefully before that.
You can acquire a copy of Mark’s Festive 50 book for £7.99 (Paperback) and 99p (Kindle – he did say it was “damn cheap”!) Just point your browsers here.
Meanwhile, more writing by Mark on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.
Dandelion Radio – the current home of the Festive Fifty – can be found online here: dandelionradio.com.