Peel Legends: Calvin Party
Arguably no band embodies the spirit of John Peel more than Calvin Party. That’s a bold statement that I’m conscious requires some explanation. The spirit I speak of, after all, is difficult to pin down. Despite over the years undergoing some tinkering and updating, there remained a central ideal to John Peel that’s probably impossible to explicate. Few bands or artists over that period remained under its umbrella, most drifted by fleetingly but memorably. I suppose you’d name Beefheart, The Fall, David Gedge, Half Man Half Biscuit and one or two others that remained somehow central to the ever-mutating Peel universe.
But in the end, if there’s a band that springs to mind when I think of John Peel more than any of these artists, it’s Calvin Party.
This is odd, in a way, because, unlike the others mentioned above, they aren’t a band I found out about through Peel. In their case it was a chance discovery via a guy named Damian Liptrot, who was a vital source of information about new bands based in the north-west of England to me when I ran a humble but moderately successful band night in that vicinity in the late eighties. Damian managed an extremely good Wigan-based band called Volunteers who I featured regularly at the time (and who released a fine EP on Village Records) and his word was so good that any band he recommended were always worth putting on, and anticipated with some excitement by me. I recall Leigh’s Those Naughty Corinthians with particular affection, polarising opinion of regulars to such a pleasing extent, and Eskimos & Egypt, on the cusp of a neo-gothic/proto-acid transformation at the time, really pissed the pub manager off and played a set that led to a middle-aged guy yomping around the stage in yellow y-fronts in their wake. But then, he did that quite often.
But it was a band called The Levellers for whom I offer most gratitude to Damian. As became the way of these things, he told me about them and I didn’t ask for a demo or anything – Damian’s word was enough. So when I put them on and saw them dragging in what can only be described as a big fuck off drum that filled about half the back room of my small venue, inevitably my curiosity was excited and I detected a band whose promise exceeded even my Damian-instigated expectations.
This curiosity was further titillated when one John Donaldson, their evident leader, got up for the first track and wailed an astonishing version of ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ over the thumping beat generated by the aforementioned instrument. Those who were at the gig still talk, some twenty-odd years later, of how memorable the experience was.
Time passed. The Levellers became Levellers 5. I saw them again a few times, including a great, confrontational performance at Liverpool’s Planet X. It was then I began to hear John Peel had picked up on them, an emblematic rubber-stamp for a band I had long thought of as among the most interesting in the country.
They recorded three Peel sessions as Levellers 5 between 1990 and 1992, then morphed into Calvin Party and recorded four more between 1994 and 1997. It was, to me anyway, fitting that this most Peel of all bands put out a final Peel session in September 2004, in the month before John’s death.
During this period, Calvin Party troubled the Festive Fifty scorers only twice, with ‘Lies, Lies and Government’ making the list in 1996, and ‘Northern Town’ getting into the Da Bank-presented chart of 2004, again fittingly. Curiously, they’ve not appeared in one of our Dandelion festive fifties either, despite their album ‘Godard’s Girlfriend’ receiving considerably airplay from us last year.
I’m conscious I still haven’t justified the statement I made earlier that they embody the spirit of Peel more than any other. Perhaps it can’t be justified. Or perhaps it’s one of those things, like alien visitors according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, that you can only grasp out of the corner of your eye when not looking for it, and which is outside the comprehension of anyone who hasn’t experienced it.
I hope this is not the case, because everyone needs to hear Calvin Party and, if you’ve not done so yet, you must investigate their extraordinary back catalogue. They are by turns fascinatingly different and jarringly tuneful; like a comet, they make their own way through the galaxy occasionally, and memorably, coming into the sphere of other worlds which, when alert, behold them with wonder. They are a fucking great band.
Perhaps that’s it.
You can find out more about Calvin Party at www.calvinparty.com and www.myspace.com/calvinparty. And you can hear their Peel Legends session, streaming throughout the month on Dandelion Radio at www.dandelionradio.com: three tracks are in part one of my October show, and there’s a further exclusive track in Rocker’s show. Two of the tracks (Whimsy and Come Bleed) are re-workings of tracks that appeared in that final Peel session of 2004.