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Festive Fifty: An Introduction

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  • The Festive Fifty was a yearly chart voted for by listeners of John Peel. It initially included songs from any year, but later was changed to only include releases from the past year. It was a fan favourite and Peel, despite not always agreeing with his listener's choices, continued to compile the chart year after year.
Festive Fifty
1976 1977 1978 1979
1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
2000 2001 2002 2003 2004

History Edit

IMG 7795

Festive Fifty 1978 - 1981

(Adapted from an article on Teenage Kicks (blog) by Steve (TK).)

John Peel, the seminal DJ who gave exposure to types of music which might never have been heard and career boosts to bands who might never have been recorded, began a countdown every December of tracks voted for by his listeners: this annual trackfest began in 1976. Listeners were required to choose their three favourite tracks, initially of all time (1976, and 1978-1982), and from 1982 onwards drawn from that calendar year only (1982 had both an all time and a year-only countdown) . Peel generally awarded 3 points for each listener's first placed record, 2 for their 2nd, and 1 for their 3rd. The tracks could be either from recordings or Peel sessions. An All-Time Festive 50 vote was revived alongside the annual chart in 1999 for the turn of the millenium (although JP confessed to being unable to choose less than 250 when he tried the same exercise). Peel himself gave a concise account of the genesis of it in The Times:

The Festive 50 dates back to what was doubtless a crisp September morning in the early-to-mid Seventies, when John Walters and I were musing on life in his uniquely squalid office. In our waggish way, we decided to mock the enthusiasm of the Radio 1 management of the time for programmes with alliterative titles. Content, we felt, was of less importance than a snappy Radio Times billing. In the course of our historic meeting we had, I imagine, some fine reasons for dismissing the idea of a Festive 40 and going instead for a Festive 50, a decision that was to ruin my Decembers for years to come, condemning me to night after night at home with a ledger, when I could have been out and about having fun, fun, fun.

Peel's actual enjoyment of the chart is open to doubt. It is true that, for example, he admitted not enjoying the 2002 chart because he suspected that some of the entries had been rigged. In the same show, he stated that the Festive Fifty's influence on the music industry was 'bugger all'. However, this is by no means the whole picture. In 1983, for example, he said during the chart rundown that he genuinely enjoyed doing it: and the recently available tapes of the 1978 second listener's chart convey a genuine sense of excitement on his part. In addition, there are only two occasions when he actively ‘sabotaged’ the list. And in 1977 there was no voting, Peel openly and simply chose and broadcast his own favourite "Festive 61" records of that year.

In 1991, the so-called ‘Phantom Fifty’ was not broadcast at the time, since the listeners, according to John, had not voted in sufficient numbers. Moreover, as had been the case for many years, they did not vote for any of the dance tracks that Peel had been espousing and instead wanted ‘white boys with guitars’ (as Peel complained in 1988). However, he was still citing this lamentable fact in 2003, and had never put into practice another suggestion, made by several listeners in the 80s, of listing the numbers 1-50, but actually playing the entries from 51-100. (In this sense, he could not really expect any other outcome). He chose instead to play the tracks once a show two years later.

Then there was the 1997 ‘Pretty Festive Fifty’: only 31 tracks were broadcast. This in fact had nothing to do with the content but rather with the lack of airtime the BBC had given him (in the broadcast, Peel suggests that his family problems were in part responsible). The fact that there was a FF at all was due to listener demand, and was compiled from emails and letters. (See 1997 Festive Fifty for a possible alternative theory.)

Nevertheless, these two episodes of JP stamping his feet and bringing his listeners to heel are the exception rather than the rule. He dismissed accusations that the charts were fixed so that his favorite music gained prominence: he quoted his ‘workmanlike brain’ as proof that he could not fix the chart even if he wanted to, rather writing down each vote in a ledger and then destroying the original communication. The shows are peppered with quotes like, ‘if it had been up to me, this would have been number one’, and occasional vilification of stuff that he truly disliked. Moreover, most charts contained one or two tracks that he admitted never having played. In fact, the only recorded instance of JP choosing his own chart was in 1977: the complete list was put together and first saw the light of day in Ken Garner's book, The Peel Sessions.

The last chart that Peel had any influence over was in 2004: it included tracks that he had played before his death in the autumn of that year (and one session track by Half Man Half Biscuit that was recorded before he died, but first broadcast after). In the event, the presenter was Rob Da Bank, and, fittingly, his favourite band The Fall made the top spot with Theme From Sparta F.C. #2. Since then, the chart has been hosted once by Radio 1, and five times by Dandelion Radio.

So what do we have? ‘Your Festive Fifty’ (1990 show: his emphasis, not mine), which John frequently lamented as being ‘conservative and nostalgic…faintly ridiculous’ (JP's comments on the 1986 chart), but which comes over nonetheless as

a chart lovingly handcrafted from the votes of my Radio 1 listeners for their three favourite tracks of the year (Observer, 1987),

and which he continued to do without a break until his untimely end. Listings of all charts and links to their availability are in progress on this Wiki: and listener, self-declared F50 "obsessive" and Dandelion Radio DJ Mark Whitby's (here or here) celebratory book 'The Festive Fifty' includes much interesting commentary and analysis (Widnes: Nevin Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0-9548317-0-5).

Chart Years Edit

  • § denotes that complete recordings of all shows are available: for the other dates, check the date pages themselves for availability, since it is usually confined to chart rundowns alone.
  • Although Peel began by assembling the charts himself in the oft-quoted 'Dickensian manner', i.e. opening letters, noting the entries on a ledger and then destroying the communication in his fire, in later years he began to rely more frequently on others to compile the chart for him. Where other compilers are known (referenced by JP himself), these are added at the end of the line prefaced by a Pilcrow sign (¶).

Post PeelEdit

BBCEdit

Dandelion RadioEdit

Links Edit

Footnotes
  1. 30 December 1995 (BFBS).

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