In 2002, John Peel offered a heaving shelf’s worth of his epic record collection as a competition prize. But where are they now? And what records were in that pile?
When someone from Radio 1 called John Osborne, back in 2002, to tell him he’d won 4ft of vinyl from John Peel’s shed, they said, “John’ll be round with the van.” For one giddy moment, Osborne thought they meant The John, the man himself. Sadly, it was simply one of Peel’s Suffolk entourage who delivered the prize the DJ had offered to the reader who could complete his Sony radio award nominations for him. Osborne was the winner of the vinyl, but there was a catch: he had nothing to play the pile of records on.
He giggles when recalling the turntable his parents finally bought him. “It’s so middle class! They got me a pine veneer system they’d seen advertised in the Radio Times,” he says. “But I actually liked waiting to play them. Me and my friends stared at them like paintings, wondering what they sounded like.” Finally, though, he did get to hear the records – and now you can hear some of the haul, too, on an internet radio show for which Osborne has compiled a vinyl-only playlist from his winning haul. Playing a predictably diverse range of music from the 1960s Mexican rock of Los Sonámbulos to punk covers band Oizone, Osborne admits it was a huge endeavour to listen to all 4ft. “I felt like I was doing what Peel used to do, and I struggled to play them all. At times I got frustrated; you have to listen to a lot of rubbish – there was loads of German heavy metal.”
Does he think his winnings came from Peel’s reject pile? “I wondered about that. But I think he just had more vinyl than he could cope with, so getting rid of five boxes was probably a relief.” And is Osborne taking any Peel-style risks with his playlist? “I’m playing a song called Chelsea (Is a Horse), and I can’t work out if it’s deliberately shit or not,” he says. “But it’s in the spirit of John to play it. We assume he ‘got’ everything, but maybe there were times when even he wasn’t sure.”
Osborne’s also trying to trace the bands he will be playing, to let them know they will be on the radio again. Using the now-ancient contact stickers on the sleeves, he’s located one Frances Castle, a solo artist who recorded as Transistor Six, and whose 1998 debut single, Average Afternoons, was played by Peel. Does Castle remember sending it to him? “Oh yes,” she says. “It was the first thing I ever wrote. I couldn’t play instruments and I didn’t have much equipment; just an old synthesiser and a four-track. It was recorded in my bedroom.” Castle also remembers being in her bedroom with her boyfriend when she heard Peel play it: “I was over the moon. But I don’t know why he played that first single and not the later stuff I released.” She’s now an illustrator, but Castle has taken up music again (under the name the Hardy Tree), and is planning to release her electronica into a musical landscape that has changed beyond recognition.
Though she’s sure the conferred respect of a John Peel play helped sell the 1,000 copies of her debut, Castle is less sure how musicians like her will attract patronage now that Peel has gone and 6 Music is set to close. “There are still people playing really interesting stuff, but on a tiny radio station, like Resonance, or an internet station in New Zealand or Scotland,” she says. Castle’s new material won’t be sent to Radio 1, but is she pleased her first single will be reaching a new audience? “It’s great, I feel very affectionately towards that record, and I’ve only got one copy left.” But does she mind that Peel didn’t keep his copy? “As long as he wasn’t just giving away the records he didn’t like,” she says, gamely, “I don’t mind.”
As for Osborne, I ask if he’s ever considered selling the lot. But like a prim Antiques Roadshow value-seeker, he swears he never would.