Radio: Two cheers for Madonna, three for Peel

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The Independent Culture
It is unusually satisfying to see a statistic which confirms your suspicions. This one said that Madonna's new single "Beautiful Stranger" is the most frequently played of all time. It was played something like 2,000 times last week, beating the previous record-holder, Cher's "Believe", by a factor of about 25 per cent.

Which is fine by me; Cher's song was particularly emetic, and its synthetic voice-wobble frankly gave me the creeps. "Beautiful Stranger" may be cursed by lyrics whose inanity, even in the keenly contested field of pop lyrics, is insultingly spectacular, to the point where you suspect the songwriter guilty of misanthropic cynicism ("I'm in love with a beautiful stranger," sings Madonna. "To know him," she adds, "is to love him." But, Madonna, you feel like asking, if he's a stranger, then you don't know him; and if you don't know him, then you don't love him, do you?), but it does have a very appealing tune, and is beautifully arranged.

But you do notice it being played all the bloody time. I could have sworn that Radio 1 played it twice on Thursday morning, once at the end of Zoe Ball's breakfast show and - I'm not exaggerating - three minutes later on Simon Mayo's post-breakfast show. Which is getting ridiculous. It's not even as good a song as "Ray of Light" and, besides, this decade has been soured irretrievably for me by the failure of Gay Dad's sublime single "Joy" to make any impression whatsoever on the charts. What we are seeing here is musical anti-socialism: the precious resource of airplay being granted to those who need it least. In his sublime 1994 Biographical Dictionary of Film, our very own David Thomson imagined a technology that could interrupt anything with an ad break: and that what would fill that interruption would, most fittingly, be "the insolent, in-your-face `attitude' of Ms Ciccone". I like Madonna rather more than Mr Thomson does, or did, but I begin to see what he means.

Which is why it is still so important to listen to John Peel, for he still plays music that you do not suspect has been played anywhere else at all. (I remember, incidentally, the first time I heard an older person say "John Peel? Is he still around?" It was in 1982.) This column has been rude about John Peel before, but only because he is responsible for Home Truths, the programme that ruins your weekend almost before it's started. But his Tuesday-to-Thursday slot on Radio 1 is as good as it ever was. For those of you who would prefer not to know how the latest single by the Secret Goldfish goes, this might mean "as unlistenable as it ever was" but at least we can agree on some kind of consistency. (Actually, the Secret Goldfish, who were in session last Wednesday, are extremely cute, listener-friendly in an Orange Juice, Beautiful South kind of way, and chart success for them would not be an aberration in the natural order of things.)

This is all the more remarkable given that the revolution always quietly implied by John Peel - that one day the insultingly unimaginative music of daytime Radio 1 will be binned, and the weird stuff we play in this barely tolerated musical ghetto will triumph - has, to a slight degree, happened. It certainly is the case that DJs other than Peel now play the kind of music he has on his show. (At least, that is the case on Radio 1. I cannot say the same of regional chart-music shows, where whole months can pass without your hearing an original piece of music, unless, by some fluke, one gets to number one.)

But what was always great about Peel was the way he recklessly exposed listeners to music it would never have occurred to them to hear. So while he played the Heaving Kidneys' latest speed-metal threnody, it would abut classic blues tracks by someone whose first or middle name was "Blind"; obscure chanteuses, ancient ska stompers, or the wilfully deranged poetry of Ivor Cutler. There was more crossover between Peel and Radio 3 than - well, Peel and Radio 1.

This continues. At present he is running through what he whimsically calls the "Peelennium", which means that every evening he's on air, he plays a song or two from olden days, running through them year by year. One year per evening: and last Wednesday he was on 1926. Which meant that Peel listeners got to hear "Come on Boys, Let's do that Messin' Around" by Blind Blake; "The Black-Bottomed Charleston Foxtrot" by Bert Ferman and his Orchestra; "Birdsong at Eventide" by Henry Hall and his Gleneagles Hotel Band; and, best of all, "She Knows her Onions" by The Happiness Boys, whose coyly lubricious lyrics celebrate the wiliness of one Sally Brown: "She's just a farmer's daughter/Brought up in Iowa/Her father never taught her/The things she knows today...." ("Iowa" is here pronounced "eye- oh-way", for the purposes of (a) rhyme and (b) comic effect.)

We also learnt that in 1926 the National Grid was set up, that Winnie the Pooh was first inflicted on the world, and that Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all became self-governing dominions within the Commonwealth. No one but John Peel could do this kind of thing half as well. (No one else tries, come to think of it.) So could we give Home Truths a rest now?

In other words: don't give up the night job.