If you don’t know the history, Un-Peeled is Preston’s annual tribute to a much-missed Radio One broadcaster, lovingly curated by Tuff Life Boogie (aka Rico la Rocca) – this time marking the 12th anniversary of Peelie’s passing.
Don’t think for one minute this was just a blast of nostalgia though. Past, present and future were covered, much as you might hope for something linked to the legendary Mr Ravenscroft.
The venue itself fitted the bill perfectly, and it seemed apt that The Continental should host an event with a bill every bit as European as it was British. None of that ‘hard Brexit’ abomination here.
Some promoters would baulk at choosing a comparatively off-the-grid city for such an ambitious production, but sticking with Preston rather than a big player like Liverpool or Manchester makes sense to me – not least as a spiritual home for several indie success stories over the years, not least Action Records.
The walk through the main bar from the bands playing ‘the snug’ to those playing ‘the events space’ at the back was all part of the allure, with plenty of elbow room to catch up with like-minded souls between sets. A true festival touch.
Actually, you were as good as tripping over bandmates at times. I’m not sure what the ratio of those playing to those paying was, but I suspect Rico won’t be fine-dining in the South of France on the profits. That won’t worry him though, and he can be proud of creating a true celebration of the spirit of Peel.
The snug was packed out at times, a one-in one-out policy adding to the thrill when Dutch post-punk favourites Eton Crop as good as stole the show for this punter. And snug was the operative word, although sauna might also have worked.
There’s a review on this site from mid-August 2013 of a past Tuff Life Boogie event involving the mighty Wire at the same venue, mentioning the sweltering conditions (with a link here). And while the Conti’s new air-con system out back does its thing marvellously now, that balmy effect still applies in the snug in late October on this evidence. Forget the Mississippi, experience the Ribble Delta.
There was certainly no sneaking down the back when you got in, this 6ft 4ins scribe ultimately blocking the view of many. Sorry about that, but at least there was enough room to feel the beat surge through you.
By the time I made it in, I’d already missed fellow Netherlands visitors Minny Pops, those electro pioneers with past Factory links, and the first Dutch band to record for Peel. An outfit that lists its interests as snorkelling, snoring and sneezing (all possible within yards of the venue, incidentally) took 31 years to reform, yet I still missed them this time around. Apologies, Pops.
It was a similar tale in the events space, missing openers The Great Leap Forward, namely Alan Brown (Big Flame, A Witness, Inca Babies), Simon Williams (Sarandon, A Witness) and their drum machine’s first electric set in more than 25 years. I believe at least half of the songs are out there via YouTube though. Worth a gander.
Instead, my Un-Peeled started in style with cult Welsh outfit Datblygu. And although Rico told me and fellow late arrivals Spread Eagle – while affixing wristbands – that David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan were still sound-checking, that rather seamlessly morphed into the set. And ‘what a performance’, as Bob would say.
David and Patricia proved highly personable and charming between numbers and eminently entertaining throughout, the lure of the Welsh language in the songs adding to it all. And whether tackling a secular hymn about Cardiganshire or songs about politics; sex, pubs and taxis; Mental Health Act or unemployment issues; there was plenty of empathy out there for the music and sentiments.
Various obstacles over the years have ruled out any Datblygu appearances outside the principality for more than 20 years, and this was only their third performance during that period. So what an honour to be there. Yet the promise of their debut single led to five Peel sessions between 1987 and 1993, the start of his love affair with Welsh language post-punk, in turn influencing the likes of Super Furry Animals.
On first sight, you’d have been forgiven for thinking David didn’t want to be there, but this was a man with so much to share, and the Conti crowd truly warmed to him. At times there was genuine comedy, a string of electronic mishaps keeping Patricia on her toes – from unexpected dry ice to volume surges, adding almost Frank Sidebottom and Ted Chippington-like elements. Top entertainment.
From there, I sauntered off to the snug, Lancaster Blonde in hand – so to speak – for the aforementioned Eton Crop, caught in the headlights as a band that also recorded five Peel sessions (between ‘83 and ’88) belted out a memorable set.
There was no sax this time around, but three guitars to marvel at, this treasured Amsterdam five-piece neatly tempered by rumbling bass, powerhouse drums and Erwin Blom’s compelling vocal.
I dispensed with taking notes at that point. There was no room. But after a breather outside the front door I returned to the event space for much of The Stupids’ set. And Stupids did what Stupids does.
My own tastes may not stretch to hardcore, but who listened to Peel, digging every act? That was part of the joy of the show. Besides, you were kind of glad they were all there. And this East Anglian three-piece know how to enthral with their extreme noise terrorism, drummer/chief barker Tommy Stupid – who in his drum’n’bass guise as Klute was the last act played on-air by Peel, trivia fans – gamely overcoming his blisters.
At one point, they asked, ‘Are there any Malcolms in here?’ A chill ran over me and I kept schtum. Someone down the front suggested there was at least one in the house, so it was decided I was shy. Maybe, but I enjoyed Malcolm Bitch all the same, the opening track of 2009’s The Kids Don’t Like It followed by Root Beer Death, Hate Hate, Life’s a Drag and more. Every one a winner in its own feverish way.
Soon, I was back in the snug for one-off The Common Cold, Amsterdam-based Ajay Saggar (yes, the Venice of the North treated us well on the night, and I’m not suggesting we were flooded out by the riverside) joined by fellow Dandelion Adventurer Marcus Parnell and original Cornershop drummer Dave Chambers – three local legends who all recorded Peel sessions.
A two-song extended jam followed, deliciously under-rehearsed kraut-rock of sorts. I’m not sure if it was just nerves, but the artist formerly known as Fat Mark (TAFKAFM, maybe?) took a Stu Sutcliffe ‘back to the audience’ approach, dressed for the conditions in his shorts.
What with that and the fact that you couldn’t even see Ajay (The Bent Moustache, Donkey, King Champion Sounds) most of the time due to that unruly long hair, you had to rely on Dave to get a steer on the band’s reaction. But it worked well, despite the look of fear on Ajay’s face when the crowd shouted for more.
I only got to see part of the latest Conti visit by The Nightingales. Sacrilege, I know, with Rob Lloyd one of the most distinguished Peel veterans, notching up more sessions than anyone but Mark E. Smith and David Gedge – 16 between 1978-1991, eight with this band.
The events space was pretty packed, and I saw nothing to suggest anything less than a highly-qualified success, their most recent platter, Mind Over Matter, proving there’s still plenty in the tank. But I’d already promised myself Deutsche Ashram back in the snug, in what turned out to be a perfect finale for this early darter.
We were treated to five songs from brand new debut LP Deeper and Deeper, with at least a couple of false endings increasing the cheer count. And while we already knew what Ajay could do with his low-slung guitar from that previous cameo, what a voice Merinde Verbeek has. I’d left Robert Lloyd and Fliss Kitson in the event space, but had discovered another nightingale, for whom a bright future awaits.
I surreptitiously scribbled words from time to time, though not many made sense the next morning. But what a sound. Ethereal, dreamy, other-worldly. And although there were technical issues, nothing could dampen the experience, a project borne out of chance brought to life in the corner of a happening Lancashire pub. Special.
From brooding opener Slow Blow through to powerful closer Little Matter, this was a delightful short set. And after a sumptuous, swirling Ocean is You, Ajay summed up the evening with an inspirational speech about the event while praising its organiser.
He was spot on too – the spirit of Peel was all over this night, yet it was as much about moving forward as reflecting on a joyous past.
Having said my goodbyes, I sidled off into a damp autumn night, feeling slightly guilty at missing what was still to come, not least christ – Scottish electronica artist Christopher Horne – in the events space and Spread Eagle in the hub. Further apologies there.
But I’d seen enough to savour, and Rico did us proud, while the bands he assembled did John Peel proud. Now here’s to the next chapter.
With special thanks to Rico la Rocca, not only for arranging UnPeeled 2016, but also providing some of the background material here.
Ajay Saggar and Marcus Parnell appeared in a feature/interview on this site – Beyond the Dandelion Adventure – six weeks ago, with a link here.
To keep tabs on all the other bands who featured, and for details of The Continental’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party on December 3rd – starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds and The Folk Devils – head here.