When I first heard David peel and the Lower East Side’s Electra recordings in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I didn’t think of them as a musical group. Have a Marijuana (1968) and American Revolution (1970) seemed more hippie comedy to me, street theatre akin to some of the projects Frank Zappa was producing on the other side of the country. Peel didn’t so much sing as scream and shout about his love of pot, his disdain of “pigs,” and his feelings about living in the tough streets of New York. Then John Lennon discovered him, famously proclaimed him a genius, and signed Peel to Apple Records for which Peel recorded the controversial The Pope Smokes Dope (1972).
After that, I wasn’t alone in forgetting all about David Peel. However, as Anthology, a new compilation of his post-Electra work, demonstrates, Peel has continued doing his marijuana-loving thing to the present day. Along the way, some would label him “protopunk,” although this new collection showcases a body of work that wasn’t really “proto” anything. After Peel started going electric for Orange Records in the mid-’70s, he was straight-up raw, ragged, raucous punk. After all, the title of his 1978 album was King of Punk. And he stayed that way long after the Sex Pistols and their like went out of fashion.
For example, Anthology opens with two electric rockers, appropriately named “Rock ‘n’ Roll Outlaw” from 2002 and “Riot Rock,” about the Tompkins Square and Los Angeles riots in the late 1980s. Then we get echoes of the old Lower East Side’s playful sing-alongs with acoustic guitars and handheld percussion on “Hippie From New York City” and “I Like Marijuana.” Expressing the same sentiment with a more polished reggae groove, “Can You Smoke It” is all about the joys of Mary Jane—“Hemp, hemp, hurray!”
While pot is Peel’s number one interest, Anthology presents a good selection of songs showcasing his much vaunted Beatle connections. After a short audio clip from Lennon, we hear 1977’s title track from Bring Back the Beatles. Similarly, after we hear an interview with Lennon about how he met Peel, we get perhaps the most commercially accessible track on the collection, 1987’s “John Lennon Forever.” Peel’s version of “Imagine” is Lennon’s lyrics set to a chanting punk rhythm. On the other side of the musical coin, “Hemp Hop Smoker” is Peel’s lines about his usual topic “sung” over a note-perfect take of “Helter Skelter.”
But pot wasn’t Peel’s sole interest over the years. His commentary during the 1980s includes “”The Yuppie Ghetto,” “All The Homeless People” (with lyrical nods to “Eleanor Rigby”), and “Stop Aids Forever.” But through it all, pot is Peel’s muse, and he has clearly gained a healthy dose of humor from all those highs. The prime example remains “The Pope Smokes Dope,” presented here in two musical settings.
Even if you have the full Peel catalogue or perhaps own one of the earlier compilations, there are rarities on Anthology like 1979’s “Junk Rock,” first released as a single under the name of David Peel and Death. More likely, the vast majority of potential listeners will find this collection an assortment of obscure oddities that are sometimes recorded quite professionally, often not. Without question, mainstream music lovers won’t cotton to all this often-deliberately-offensive material. Much of it isn’t edgy, it’s way over the edge.
Still, I can’t help but think Beatle collectors would enjoy hearing Peel’s take on Lennon songs, especially those who liked the Lennon/Ono walks into the avant-garde.
As of 2011, Peel has apparently started finding new fans as well at Occupy Wall Street protests. He’s composed new songs like “Up Against the Wall Street” and “Mic Check, No Check.” Sure, there’s still an audience for this stuff. Most likely, they’re cleaning their sticks and stems as they read this.