The rebirth of John Peel's pioneering record label

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was a record company born out of the idealistic hippie values of the late 1960s that stumbled in an often chaotic fashion along for a few brief years before finally withering and dying in the 1970s. Determinedly anti-commercial and with a roster of often eccentric and very English acts, Dandelion Records, the label founded by the late John Peel and his one-time manager Clive Selwood, should have been consigned to a footnotes in the history of popular music as a noble failure.

But now Dandelion is flowering again. The label, named after one of the disc jockey's hamsters, has been reborn as part of a new website, Johnpeelmusic.com, backed by Universal Music and aimed at providing a platform for up and coming bands, who can upload their music on to the site for public vote by download. The most popular will be considered for commercial release by Universal.

Poignantly, as the Independent revealed last week, it is being supervised in a partnership between Selwood and Peel's younger son, Tom Ravenscoft, who has inherited his father's enthusiasm for nurturing new talent. It will, says Selwood, continue Peel's legacy.

Since Peel's death last year, there has been an surge of interest in long-forgotten Dandelion records and artists, with high prices being paid by collectors for original vinyl recordings. And, Selwood hopes, the label will get its long overdue acknowledgement for helping to pave the way for the thriving independent recording industry. "We weren't a total disaster,'' reflects Selwood, "we just never made any money.''

But back then it was possible to found a record label without any aim at world domination. It was also, as Selwood recounts in his often funny memoir, All the Moves (But None of the Licks, "a Sixties thing" to name the company after Peel's hamster. But it was also an ethos that was characteristic of Dandelion.

In 1967, Selwood, in addition to managing Peel, was a successful London-based executive with the Elektra label, while Peel, just installed at the newly created Radio One, had a growing reputation as a taste-maker in discovering new bands. The concept was a label for new talent, using Peel as chief scout and Selwood's business expertise.

Finding a major label as partner was, as Selwood recounts, problematic. "Though Peely had helped Decca and EMI earn millions from acts they never knew they had, he was still regarded as a dangerous hippie...''

At a meeting with CBS at Peel's flat, several smartly suited executives were forced to sit cross-legged on the floor, because of the absence of furniture, while Peel fell fast - and noisily - asleep. Proceedings were enlivened when what Selwood describes as "quite a famous young lady of the time, clad only in a very short string vest" appeared and proceeded to search for a lost earring. They got the deal.

Peel's first chosen act was the relatively conventional Bridget St John, a folk singer songwriter in the Joni Mitchell/Judy Collins mode, who made two well received albums for Dandelion, but never achieved the same success as her role models. Other acts were less classifiable. They included the extremely hairy rock and blues duo Medicine Head, who had a couple of hit singles; the equally hairy schoolteacher and singer Clifford T Ward, who enjoyed commercial success post-Dandelion; the proto-punk band Stackwaddy and the very hippie Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, a dance and mime troupe.

The latter, believed Selwood, were the most pretentious act he had ever come across while Stackwaddy were trouble, despite having the energy and dynamism Peel admired. Chosen to showcase the label in front of executives from WEA, with which the label was then partnered, Selwood describes what happened.

"Coming to the party from the building sites they worked on by day, still in work clothes, they set about the free food and drink with abandon... by the time they were due to play they were close to legless and after one number the singer stopped to take a pee on the side of the stage.

"Later that night, lost on their way to another gig, they stopped to ask a policeman the way and the driver threw up all over the copper's boots.'' They spent the night in jail.

One of the more eccentric signings was Lol Coxhill, a saxophonist busker, who persuaded Peel to release a self-produced double album. WEA were, says Selwood, "horrified". Selwood later persuaded Coxhill to record what he hoped would become the worst record ever, Coxhill singing his own composition, "Pretty Little Girl", on one side and a medley of "Sonny Boy" and "Oh Mein Papa" on the reverse.

"It was staggeringly awful and I was sure it would be recognised as the ultimate piece of kitsch and become a novelty hit.'' Alas, it was neither reviewed nor played.

There was also a tragic side to some Dandelion artists. Clifford T Ward, who did enjoy some commercial success, was a reclusive performer and ended up living on diminishing royalties; he died from multiple sclerosis in 2001, while Kevin Coyne, another idiosyncratic singer-songwriter in the Dandy stable suffered from depression and alcoholism. He died last December. Keith Relf, a former member of the Yardbirds who worked with Medicine Head, was accidentally electrocuted at his home.

Selwood and Peel also attempted to revive the career of Gene Vincent, the great Fifties rocker who, by the late 1960s was suffering from a drink problem and disabled by injuries suffered in the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran. Their efforts were thwarted by Vincent's drunken behaviour and unreliability.

But there were highlights. One was the recording session of an Australian group, whose lead singer distinguished himself by being too drunk to sing. While the rest of the band walked the singer around the block to sober him up and keep him out of earshot, an unknown but available singer by the name of Rod Stewart was summoned by cab to sing in his place. After faultlessly recording the vocals, he eschewed his £15 session fee in return for some spare parts for his car from the band's manager, also a used-car salesman.

Sometime later, one of those three songs, "In a Broken Dream", credited to the band Python Lee Jackson, would become a major hit. Stewart was eventually acknowledged as the singer, but it was 20 years before Selwood and Peel were able to recover their outlay.

Another opportunity that passed them by was Roxy Music. Selwood recalls: "John saw them when they were completely unknown and thought they were very, very good and we wanted to sign them. But before we could settle a deal, Melody Maker did this huge feature on them and Island stepped in with the kind of money that we could not match. We just had to wish them well.'' He adds: 'Of course it was probably no bad thing as far as they were concerned - they needed a label that could invest a lot of time and money on them.''

Dandelion's biggest success came with Medicine Head, consisting of John Fiddler and Peter Hope Evans, f multi-instrumentalists who produced a bluesy, but curiously poppy sound. They had three hits - "Pictures in the Sky", "Rising Sun" and "One and One is One" in the early 1970s, and three relatively successful albums. They have recently been re-released in Japan, alongside Bridget St John's albums.

Fiddler, now living in Arizona and still occasionally playing solo under the Medicine Head name, remembers the era fondly: "We owed it all to Peel, who took two reserved, working-class blokes from the Midlands under his wing, bringing us on to play at his gigs and sharing the fee. He even used to drive us around. And we got to meet all his friends, like Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart, it was a fantastic time.''

He added: "The great thing about Dandelion is that it wasn't a business venture as such - I don't think we saw a lot of royalties and we were the most commercial act they had. But it was about giving people like us a chance.''

And perhaps somewhere out there, eagerly planning on signing up to Johnpeelmusic.com, are the next Medicine Heads or even the next Stackwaddys. And let's hope that this time the label doesn't miss out on the Roxy Musics and Rod Stewarts.

Comments