The legendary BBC DJ John Peel is rightly recalled for championing new, obscure and overlooked musical artists. He is less well known for his quixotic attempt to reshape the music industry from within by starting his own record label. In its three years of existence (1969-72), Peel’s (and Clive Selwood’s) Dandelion Records did not release any big hits, but its catalog stands the test of time and has served as a model for indie labels like Factory and Rough Trade. Jim Allen tells Dandelion’s story for PKM.
Consider the razorblade-gargling, Captain Beefheart-on-steroids roar of Stack Waddy; the autumnal art-folk of Bridget St. John; and the cracked, street-corner-prophet rants of Kevin Coyne. What do they have in common? Along with a hunk of other, equally disparate acts, they were all introduced to the wider world by legendary BBC DJ John Peel’s short-lived Dandelion Records, the underdog enterprise that put commerciality last and idiosyncratic appeal first.
Long before he became the patron saint of punk, Peel tried to revolutionize the record industry from the inside by launching a label of his own. Though his label partner, Clive Selwood, called Dandelion “the first ‘hippie’ label,” its bloody-minded, maverick spirit would eventually serve as a model for post-punk indies like Factory and Rough Trade. Peel put out whatever the hell he wanted, commerciality be damned, and kept none of the profits for himself.
It all went down within the short, succulently strange window of 1969-’72, but the Dandelion story still stands out today as a golden moment in underground/DIY culture, paving the way for countless musical transgressions to come.
SEEDING THE PERFUMED GARDEN
By 1969 Peel had established himself as British radio’s premier countercultural tastemaker, first with his pirate radio show The Perfumed Garden, and then as the BBC’s resident enfant terrible. But while he was able to offer airtime to his favorite underdogs, he was dismayed by the fact that some of them were unable to land record deals.
Clive Selwood first crossed paths with Peel in the former’s capacity as Elektra Records’ U.K. sales manager. “When John was on Radio London with the Perfumed Garden show, he was the only DJ in the whole of Europe who was playing any Elektra records,” Selwood told Record Collector’s Jon “Mojo” Mills. Selwood eventually became Peel’s personal manager, and the pair decided to take the leap to starting a label, inspired by Elektra’s anti-establishment approach and propelled by Peel’s underground-bred, art-first agenda.
Dandelion and its sibling, music publishing company Biscuit, were both named after Peel’s hamsters. And while Peel’s pets worked their way around their wheels, their namesakes began an unrelentingly uphill music business journey. Clive and his wife, Shurley, handled the nuts and bolts, and Peel took responsibility for A&R and sometimes production.
Though Peel would brook no aesthetic intervention, Dandelion did seek major-label support from the start, which was attained in a decidedly against-the-odds fashion. A distribution/marketing agreement with CBS was secured in a meeting at Peel’s modest flat, where the lack of furniture forced CBS execs to sit on the floor and Peel nodded off and started snoring just minutes into the palaver. Such was the DJ’s cool cred that none of this sunk the deal.
JUST PLAIN FOLKS
The first artist signed to Dandelion was singer/songwriter Bridget St. John. With a moody, reflective chamber-folk sound that made her spiritual kin to Nick Drake, and a husky, smoldering vocal style that posited her as a more euphonious Surrey answer to Nico, she’d already been presented by Peel in a BBC session. Ask Me No Questions, which included guitar contributions from John Martyn, became the first Dandelion LP.
Bridget St. John-from Ask Me No Questions album (Dandelion Records):
St. John would cut two more Dandelion albums, Songs for the Gentle Man and Thank You For. Like Drake, she initially garnered exponentially more critical plaudits than sales, but her albums (she would only make one more post-Dandelion) were eventually revered by folk aficionados.
Dandelion’s first 45 may have created unrealistic expectations for the label by becoming one of their only two chart hits. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the chart was not England’s, but Lebanon’s. The song was “1917 Revolution,” an uncharacteristically dark, somewhat Leonard Cohen-esque ballad about the Russian revolution by Beau, a.k.a. Trevor Midgley, a generally sunny-sounding folksinger from Leeds whose self-titled LP became the second Dandelion album.
Another coffeehouse strummer introduced by Dandelion was Mike Hart, originally a member of the poetry-plus-music outfit The Liverpool Scene. Peel had championed them and produced their debut album for CBS. When Hart decided to have a go at becoming the British Bob Dylan, Peel was there to play midwife for Mike Hart Bleeds, a batch of wordy but worldly tunes that was much better than its title.
A WALK ON THE WIERDER SIDE
Peel being Peel, it didn’t take long for the Dandelion roster to start taking a weirder turn. Coming off like a cross between The Incredible String Band and early Genesis, Principal Edwards Magic Theater was a highly theatrical hippie collective whose first album, Soundtrack, featured fanciful suites that shifted between pastoral psych-folk and tricksy proto-prog. Besides Peel, their well-placed admirers included Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, who produced their second Dandelion LP, but Selwood never cottoned to them. He told Record Collector, “Every time I met them they did my head in so much that I had to take a walk round the park afterwards to get over it.”
Principal Edwards Magic Theatre-“Pinky”, from Soundtrack (Dandelion Records)
Anybody wondering what a collision between the absurdist comedy of The Goon Show and the homegrown hijinks of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band might sound like got their answer in The Year of the Great Leap Sideways, the lone album by The Occasional Word. Careening between surreal, spoken-word stoner humor and quirky musical pastiche, it manages the not inconsiderable feat of being one of the Dandelion catalog’s oddest denizens. In his memoir, Selwood said of the troupe, “I was once quoted in some journal or other as saying ‘one of them was institutionalized, but it could have been all of them,’ which, 25 years later, still seems a reasonable assessment.”
Among Peel’s most polarizing picks, though, were the alcohol-addled agents of chaos called Stackwaddy. “There are plenty of people who, if they were to hear the name Stackwaddy today, would have to reach for medication with a trembling hand,” wrote Peel’s widow, Sheila Ravenscroft, while helping to complete his memoir Margrave of the Marshes after his death.
Recalling his eureka moment regarding the band, Peel once related on his show, “they turned everything up very, very trebly so the sound was almost unbearable… they emptied quite a big hall, and I thought, ‘That’s my kind of a band.’” Stackwaddy’s thrillingly corrosive, self-titled 1971 debut album is a primal, bluesy stompfest that suggests Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band rehearsing in a meth lab. Their second album, Bugger Off, was even more unrelenting, prefiguring punk by several years, but with Stackwaddy’s antics it’s a wonder they even lasted that long.
In his book, Selwood recalled the band’s appearance at a Dandelion showcase for the Warner Bros. brass who had taken over the label’s distribution by that time. “They got completely tanked up on the free booze, ate the food and then got on stage blind drunk. There were all these classy executives from Warners in the audience, so that they could see what they were getting. And the first thing that [singer] John Knail did was to go and take a leak off the edge of the stage. All the executives huffed, took their wives by their arms, then fled off into the night.”
“Rosalyn”-Stack Waddy (Dandelion Records)
Probably the oddest item in the Dandelion discography comes, appropriately enough, from Bill Oddie. The British comedian wasn’t primarily known for music, but his 1970 single, “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”, surely answered the prayers of those rarefied few pining desperately for a traditional folk song sung entirely in impenetrable Yorkshire dialect (see the title for starters) arranged as a parody of Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” “It was another one of our jokes that nobody got,” Selwood would later tell Record Collector.
Bill Oddie, “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at” (Dandelion Records, single):
Peel would have little truck with hippie music by the time the post-punk era rolled around. But in the Dandelion days he was still the lank-haired flower child who made his bones hosting The Perfumed Garden, and he facilitated no shortage of head trips through his label.
Dandelion leaned fully into the avant garde with Lol Coxhill and David Bedford. The former was a prolific sax man who blew on records by a long list of British weirdos, from Kevin Ayers to free jazzers The Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Dandelion delivered Coxhill’s solo debut, Ear of Beholder, which shifted between saxophone freakouts and Monty Python-worthy piss-takes.
Composer/keyboardist David Bedford had something of a split musical personality. On one side he was Coxhill’s freaky partner in crime, working with him in Ayers’ band, on Ear of Beholder, and as the quirky Coxhill-Bedford Duo. But he was also a serious composer with academic cred, including a long run as Composer in Residence for Queen’s College, London. His works had already been featured on some modern classical records, but the 1972 Dandelion LP, Nurses Song With Elephants, was his first proper album of his own. The experimental odyssey incorporated everything from experimental ululations by the Queen’s College Girls choir to Ayers reading Kenneth Patchen’s poetry atop Cecil Taylor-esque piano madness.
The headier side of prog found its way onto Dandelion too. As heard on 1971’s To the Highest Bidder, Dutch band Supersister was basically The Hague’s answer to early Soft Machine. And amid the flute solos and organ fantasias, Denmark’s Burnin Red Ivanhoe came off as cousins of Saucerful of Secrets-era Pink Floyd on their trippy tour de force W.W.W.
Burnin Red Ivanhoe-“Avez-Vous Kaskelainen?” from W.W.W. (Dandelion Records):
Peel was famous for his uncompromisingly individual tastes, which the very existence of Dandelion bears out. His label was thus a natural fit for singular characters who — at least at the time — didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. Gene Vincent, for instance, was a legendary architect of rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, but by 1969 he was a ship without a harbor.
When a British confidante of the rock trailblazer got in touch about Vincent cutting a comeback record for Dandelion, Peel leaped at the prospect. The process, however, was the opposite of smooth. Though the band included The Byrds’ Skip Battin, hotshot pedal steel player Red Rhodes, and Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon, the sessions were overseen by the epically unhinged Kim Fowley. The producer and his client didn’t exactly see eye to eye, with Vincent repeatedly contacting Dandelion to declare Fowley a “maniac.”
The singer was a piece of work himself, with a propensity for waving firearms at people. When Doors drummer John Densmore and producer Paul Rothchild turned up as uninvited visitors to the sessions, Vincent allegedly informed them that the gun in his boot would soon be pointed at them if they didn’t make themselves scarce.
Insanity notwithstanding, the questionably titled I’m Back and I’m Proud gave Vincent’s sound a solid country-rock update. Never one to toot his own horn, Peel later commented, “although it wasn’t a great record, it was still a Gene Vincent record.”
“Scarlet Ribbons”-Gene Vincent from I’m Back and I’m Proud (Dandelion Records):
Kevin Coyne was eventually embraced in England as a cult hero, but his Robert Johnson-getting-electrocuted vocal style probably didn’t make him a hot prospect at first. Peel was a believer, though, releasing Coyne’s work in multiple settings: as part of the bands Clague and Siren and as a solo artist.
The songs on Coyne’s solo debut, 1972’s Case History, were inspired by his experiences working as a therapist at Wittingham Hospital, a psychiatric institution. The way the singer threw himself into his characterizations, it would have seemed entirely believable that his time at Whittingham had instead been spent on the receiving end of therapy.
“Mad Boy”-Kevin Coyne, from Case History (Dandelion Records):
DANDELION AGAINST THE WORLD
For Peel, pursuit of commercial success was probably somewhere below bathing in a tub of porcupines on his list of things to do. In the main, that outlook defined Dandelion’s fortunes. “We have made about 12 or 15 LPs and lost something to the order of 18,000 pounds,” Peel ventured. “Although this has proved to be economically disastrous, we have made some nice records.”
Nevertheless, the label did have a handful of brushes with the big time. They came within a hair’s breadth of signing Roxy Music, but before contracts could be drawn up, Melody Maker ran a big piece on the band, with the result being a bidding war Dandelion never had a hope of winning. Peel also tried to sign Black Sabbath in 1969, with an equal amount of success.
Besides the aforementioned Lebanese sensation “1917 Revolution,” Dandelion’s only chart hit was 1971’s “(And the) Pictures in the Sky” by Medicine Head, which hit No. 22 in the U.K. The rootsy rockers from the West Midlands were literally digging graves before they were discovered by Peel. But the event proved to be an anomaly.
“(And The) Pictures in the Sky”-Medicine Head (Dandelion Records single):
By the end of ‘72 the wheels were coming off. Selwood was getting sick of beating his head against a wall of mainstream indifference, while Peel simply felt like his mission had mostly been accomplished. For the latter the enterprise had only ever been about giving gifted unknowns a leg up.
Judging from the manifesto Peel including in an ad announcing his label’s launch, it’s hard to deny that Dandelion achieved its aims. “The half-witted, idealistic notion behind Dandelion and our other violent, capitalist enterprise, Biscuit Music, is that any profits, if such there be, should go to the artists, not to Clive nor myself. We want to record people whose songs and poems we like and whom we like as people. At the moment this means Bridget St. John, Beau, Principal Edward’s Magic Theatre and the Occasional Word Ensemble. If people like their records, and I honestly can’t think of any reason why they shouldn’t, then we’ll be able to record a host of other people you’ve probably never heard of either.”
Today the original pressings of some Dandelion albums change hands for amounts that probably could have funded their recording. Nearly all of them are currently in print in one format or another. In 2006 the box set Life Too, Has Surface Noise was released, compiling every single the label ever spat out.
A couple of years later, the lovingly lo-fi DVD tribute John Peel’s Dandelion Records appeared, containing footage of Medicine Head, Stack Waddy, Bridget St. John, and more. Peel, who died in 2004 at the age of 65, has long been lionized as the man who helped mount multiple musical revolutions in his three and a half decades at the BBC, from psychedelia to punk and beyond. Admirers look back in admiration at Dandelion as the house that their hero built.
Of course, the catalog isn’t occupied entirely by classics — far from it. And that was probably part of the point. Dandelion was an outlet for Peel to say, “Here are the things that tickle my fancy. Some of them are sublime and some of them are downright ridiculous. Each end of the spectrum bears its own appeal.”
In the end, even the comparatively buttoned-down businessman Selwood — who died in 2020 — looked back on the label as “a clean and tidy venture that has stood the test of time.” For his part, Peel — never one to let himself off the hook — observed, “I did quite like it, but it was terribly indulgent.”